InDepth InterView: Sharon Leal Talks Upcoming Films, TV Series, Broadway, Hollywood, DREAMGIRLS & More
Today we are talking to a tremendously talented triple-threat performer all about her many recent and upcoming endeavors, including the forthcoming feature films ADDICTED, 1982 and THE LAST LETTER, as well as the pilot for a new TV series, GUILTY, as well as her new debut solo album project - the magnetic and entrancing Sharon Leal. In addition to discussing many aspects of her films to date and her starry assortment of co-stars and collaborators on them - Jennifer Hudson, Bill Condon, Bernie Mac, Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier, Chris Brown, McG and Cuba Gooding, Jr. included - Leal and I also discuss her theatrically-attuned work thus far, having appeared on Broadway in RENT, as well as starring in BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, regional work and in a prominent featured role as part of the big screen film adaptation of DREAMGIRLS. Plus, Leal recounts her fruitful artistic and romantic relationship with recent fellow InDepth InterView participant, choreographer and director Paul Becker, and also outlines her plans for the future as she anticipates continuing work on her new solo album and promoting her many current projects while taking a temporary holiday break prior to the heady pilot season approaching. All of that and much, much more awaits!
More information on Sharon Leal is available at her official site here.
All You Have To Do Is Dream
PC: You have been up to a lot of TV guest starring work lately, in addition to all of your forthcoming feature films. SUITS, PERSON OF INTEREST...
SL: I have. That's right, I did a SUITS a while ago, which was a lot of fun to do, and, I also did PERSON OF INTEREST, too - I just did that, actually, and that was also a lot of fun to shoot.
PC: What can you tell me about your TV series pilot, GUILTY? What is it about?
SL: Well, GUILTY is about this unorthodox lawyer who is disbarred and I play the character of his wife. On the show, he is kind of going about his law business in this wild, crazy kind of way, but, obviously, at the same time, he is really talented - so, basically, it is about this struggle between the lawyer character with these other lawyers and other people in his life and finding the balance between them. It's funny, too; it's not all serious.
PC: And a great cast headlined by Cuba Gooding, Jr..
SL: Yes! And, Greg Berlanti is producing, who is so great and who is really hot right now, of course. To be honest, we kind of thought it would go [to series] right away, last year, but FOX only picked up two episodes so far, so we are kind of on hold with it still. So, you know, in situations like that, you kind of move on to other things and wait to see what happens with it - you can't hold your breath. Hopefully, it still has legs, though - it's been a while now; we did it last pilot season, so we'll see.
PC: What was it like working with McG as the director?
SL: McG is great. I did a pilot for him awhile back, too, before GUILTY. He is just great to work with - he's really funny. And, I have to say, his mouth can't always keep up with his brain - he's always going, going, going. [Laughs.] He has a lot of energy and great vision and a great sense of humor. He's one of those guys who can just get everybody all pumped up on a set and that is really valuable.
PC: He supposedly will be behind the new SPRING AWAKENING movie, as well...
SL: I've heard that, too! That will be so exciting to see! I can't wait.
PC: Having appeared on Broadway in RENT, what are your thoughts on the new era of rock musicals such as that and NEXT TO NORMAL?
SL: Oh, I loved it! What I think is the best part is that people are thinking outside the box and shows are getting edgier. I mean, you still have the revivals of things that people still respond to, but, then, you have these other things that are so far out in left field and people are writing things just for fun and you have bands and rock people like Green Day and Duncan Sheik - people with great musical ability - who are kind of bridging that gap between traditional Broadway-goers and then bringing in a new audience, too. I think that's what we all really need - for the things that divide us used to bring us all together. I think there are people out there trying to do that - to broaden the audience a little bit more. So, yeah - all of that is a good thing.
PC: GLEE and SMASH have also changed people's expectations and general idea of theatre, too, don't you think?
SL: Absolutely. Everything has sort of just been totally flipped compared to how it was not too long ago, I think!
PC: It's not like the 90s anymore, right?
SL: Definitely not! I think it's just a sign of the times. I think it's so exciting in terms of shows like GLEE being out there for theatre people - and also in terms of the competition shows like THE VOICE and X FACTOR, too, and just how receptive the audience is to that is so great to see. Obviously, dating Paul Becker, I am being exposed to this whole other world that I wasn't aware of just because he works so much and with so many different types of people and things.
PC: TWILIGHT and far beyond! He is a very talented guy.
SL: I mean, his vision is just to embrace all things involving music and dance as much as he can - and, I think that's what he is doing and it is incredible. And, for me, because I am a Broadway baby at heart, I think that there are more projects in TV and film these days that incorporate all of that. So, I never feel like I have totally abandoned that whole part of what I do.
PC: You can bring your triple-threat talent to the table.
SL: Yeah, I can! In everything I try to do, there's an element from the other spectrum involved - so, that's always really exciting for me to explore. You know, as an actor, it's really all about diversity, anyway - it's about: "How versatile are you, really? How much do you bring to the table?" So, it used to be about being a straight actor or a musical actor or whatever, but now, you know, it's like, with casting directors and people, "Oh, you sing? Oh, you dance? Oh, that's so great! We have a perfect project for you, actually, then."
PC: All sides of your craft can be embraced, in a sense?
SL: Yeah! And, because of that, it makes everybody else be a little bit more well-rounded and work a little harder, too - and that makes it all even more exciting for everyone, I think. I don't know - there's so much going on now that incorporates all the other stuff;the singing and dancing and the theatrics of it all.
PC: There's no longer a stigma attached to theatre actors, either.
SL: Exactly. There isn't. Not at all.
PC: So, what exactly was your musical theatre background, pre-RENT tour?
SL: Well, I started out doing musical theatre, actually. I went to a performing arts high school, so I went to school with, like, Audra McDonald and Heidi Blickenstaff; and RoBert Westenberg was from my home town, too. It was in this little town in Fresno, California where we all were sort of primed - they churned out all these Broadway hopefuls and we all made it to New York one way or the other. So, after school, I moved to the San Francisco area and I did a lot of shows there and at LA Theatreworks and around that area.
PC: What were some of your favorite roles in the shows that you did back then?
SL: Well, I think my favorite was probably INTO THE WOODS - I played the Witch when I was just, God, like, 17! [Laughs.]
PC: A little short in the tooth, but great for the character's Act Two transformation!
SL: That's true! Ugh, I just love that show - and I just love Sondheim. You know, I was just that kid who was in my car bumping all the Broadway tunes - I had all the soundtracks to everything. [Big Laugh.]
PC: A proto-gleek!
SL: I so was! I was so immersed in that whole world. Actually, I remember getting a phonecall when I was in San Francisco for MISS SAIGON, but I was afraid I'd be turned away because it was an Asian-American call only and just feeling like, "Oh, God, I love this show so much."
PC: Gigi is often cast non-traditionally.
SL: That's who I played! I was Gigi. Needless to say, then, that I got it. [Laughs.]
PC: I bet your "Movie In My Mind" was tremendous.
SL: Oh, that's so sweet! [Laughs.] Yeah, I love that song, too.
PC: You would be great for the film, as well, if it happens.
SL: Oh, that's so funny you mention that - I have heard people talking about that recently, actually.
PC: Haven't you worked with Lee Daniels, the purported director being considered for the film?
SL: That's who I heard about it from, actually - we were having dinner together and he was talking about it. Unfortunately, the project I had met with him about fell through, so I never got to work with him, technically, on that, but I see him at various events and obviously I am a big fan of his. I wasn't aware he had such a gigantic theatre love like he does. I have to say, I can't wait to see LES MIZ, though - it looks so impressive. I think how they are doing it will be so interesting to see.
PC: DREAMGIRLS utilized a live singing technique, as well, as Anika Noni Rose and Henry Krieger discussed with me when they did this column. What are your memories of that aspect of the filming?
SL: Yeah, that's true. I do remember that some of Anika's stuff was recorded live and we did some stuff live, too.
PC: Is it true that you recorded the full score, more or less - recitative included - despite the finished film's pretty significant cuts?
SL: Yes, we did. They definitely did everything and got it all. But, you know, I think that when you have that big of a movie with that kind of cast and that big of a budget, you want to make sure you have all of your bases covered once you get into the editing room with it, you know? [Laughs.]
PC: That, too!
SL: But, yeah, we were in the studio recording a lot of it, but, also, we did a lot of singing live onset, too. Fatima [Robinson] was constantly changing choreography - even on the day of the shoot - and everything was kind of constantly creative all the time. So, onset, it was always like, "Oh, let's try this! Let's do this," and there was no pressure, ever, really - it was this huge Dreamworks production and they really took the time to do it right.
PC: Every detail was attended to with care and due diligence.
SL: It really was. I mean, this was no twenty-day shoot! We shot this over three months. They really let us take a lot of liberties and let us get the best results possible.
PC: You would participate in a reunion someday, then?
SL: Oh, of course! Absolutely. Actully, DREAMGIRLS was my first feature film.
PC: What a debut!
SL: Yeah, I don't even know how that happens, Pat! I am just so lucky. I mean, I wasn't even going to go in to audition. I thought, "DREAMGIRLS? That's never gonna happen! They're never gonna cast me. I've never even done a film before." So, to get in and be involved and witness that type of production and see Jennifer [Hudson]... like, a star is born!
PC: You can say that again!
SL: She just soared from that point on. The whole thing was just an incredible experience, needless to say, though. And, that film will always be close to my heart just because it was my first film project, too. So, it's special to me for many reasons.
PC: Hopefully there will be a deluxe edition of the DVD someday with the full score as you filmed it.
SL: I hope so, too! It's all there, somewhere. There are some sections that are so fabulous and so great that didn't make the final cut for the movie, too - they would be so great to see as part of the whole thing.
PC: Considering Jamie Foxx has also shared the silver screen with your seeming-to-be doppelganger Kerry Washington, I was curious...
SL: Oh, my gosh. Do you know how many people have said that to me?! [Laughs.]
PC: You two should play sisters.
SL: I get that all the time! You know what's funny, too, about the Kerry Washington thing, is that when SCANDAL was coming on there were posters up all over with her on them and my mother - my own mother - called me and said, "You're doing SCANDAL?!" And I said, "No, mom!" [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious.
SL: It's like people see us as twins or something! I get stopped in the street and people are like, "Kerry! Kerry!" But, yeah, she's a gorgeous girl and she's really talented and I'm flattered people think we look alike.
PC: Going back to your early music video days: is it true you are in D'Angelo's "Cruisin'"?
SL: [Big Laugh.] Yes! That's me. I'm in "Cruisin'". I did a Deborah Cox video and a Heavy D video, too - back then, I was kind of in with Brett Ratner's company who was producing lots of music videos at the time.
PC: Tell me about working on BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY - a personal favorite of mine.
SL: Oh, well, first of all, let me tell you: that show is so special, I don't know how it didn't go beyond that workshop straight to Broadway. I just don't know what went wrong with it.
PC: It wasn't meant to be, apparently.
SL: Ugh, that music - Paul Scott Goodman is so, so talented. And, at the time, that show was groundbreaking and different and the music - that music - was just so great.
PC: Patrick Wilson remembered it fondly when he recently did this column, as well.
SL: Oh, Patrick was just amazing in that show! Amazing. [Pause. Sighs.] Ugh, it's so sad that it never really went anywhere. But, it's funny you bring that up because my birthday was just recently and Paul Scott Goodman Facebooked me and he wrote, "Happy Birthday, darling," and I just thought, "Aww!" and I couldn't get that song out of my head the whole rest of the day.
PC: You had some great material in that show.
SL: I kept singing it all day long! Yeah, it's just such a special show and I am so grateful we got to do the cast album of it eventually, too. But, it was a great time back then doing the workshop - you know, we really, really all thought that the show was going to go! [Laughs.]
PC: What a shame.
SL: I know! But, hey, it lives on through people like you and there is a following for it and people who love it and talk about it still. I will always remember the great performance that Patrick gave in it - at the first workshop we did and then later on when they did it again. He was amazing - as I said; just amazing.
PC: That would make a great movie musical someday.
SL: Oh, it would! Pat, we really need to make that happen! [Laughs.]
PC: What can you tell me about your upcoming film set in the same era, 1982?
SL: 1982 is this indie that I did with Wayne Brady and Hill Harper and Ruby Dee - and I think La La Anthony has a part in it, too. It was this big cast and it's a period piece - I guess the 80s is a period piece now, which is crazy to think about, at least for me; but, anyway... [Laughs.]
PC: Time flies!
SL: It does. But, yeah, it's a tough movie - I play this crackhead mother who is disenchanted at home even though I have this great little daughter this great husband who love me. So, she ends up falling into the drug world and becomes a crackhead and gives up her family... [Deadpan.] So, yeah, it's a comedy. [Laughs.]
PC: It sounds pretty serious!
SL: It's pretty intense - it's definitely intense.
PC: What can you tell me about THE LAST LETTER?
SL: THE LAST LETTER is a psychological thriller that I just shot. I play this demented woman who has this sleep disorder in that. So, you know, she doesn't know the difference between reality and dreams - it is very eerie and tense. We have a great cast for that, too - Omari Hardwick and Lynn Whitfield and lots of people.
PC: You have been busy!
SL: My head is still swimming, let me tell you! I literally just got back from shooting three indies back-to-back-to-back - they were all these guerilla-style, get-it-in, no sleep, six-day-week shoots. Those two were like twenty-day shoots and I just did one more that I just got back from doing that was a thirty-day shoot.
PC: That must have been hard work.
SL: It was, but, you know, we just got in there and did them and just cranked them out.
PC: And ADDICTED makes three, then, I presume?
SL: Right. ADDICTED was the last one that I did - I just shot that in Atlanta last month and that was a really great shoot so I am looking forward to the finished product. It's been a busy couple of months and I am looking forward to taking it easy for a little while now.
PC: You have evidently earned it - and then some!
SL: Yeah, I guess so! Hopefully, I will stay put here in LA for a little bit - until pilot season hits, at least.
PC: What is that like as a popular guest starring actor such as yourself?
SL: Well, you learn to just kind of gear up for it. It's like, you know, three auditions a week sometimes, or, sometimes, a few meetings in one day - it can get a little bit hairy sometimes. It can be pretty hectic, so, that's why this period of time is nice to just sort of decompress and wait for it all to hit... [Laughs.] all at once.
PC: Do you see stage roles in your future?
SL: Oh, I would love to! Obviously, living in LA, my agents and managers are always looking for that "perfect thing" - they are always trying to get you on a TV show or something that will make you a brand or whatever. So, it becomes a little bit of a coaxing issue with the theatre stuff sometimes when it comes to convincing everyone else that it is the right move. It's hard to take yourself out of the game for a year to do a show - it's a big commitment. So, I am always searching out the perfect project and I definitely want to go back and do Broadway again in the future - it's definitely something I will always want to do. I hope there will be something down the line soon, though. I always try to get back and see as much as I can in New York, too.
PC: You once worked with Telly Leung on a theatre-related TV pilot that he told me about that sounded quite provocative called LIMELIGHT...
SL: Aww, Telly is such a sweetheart! Yes, LIMELIGHT. Actually, I just saw Telly recently at the MEMPHIS celebration for the 1000-show anniversary - Sergio Trujillo and some RENT people I knew were there, too, so that was really great. But, yeah, back to your question: LIMELIGHT was interesting - it was this FAME-type of show. This was done before GLEE, though - it's just another example of that, you know, timing is everything; it was just three or four years before GLEE; and, then, everyone wanted singing and dancing.
PC: It takes one big hit to shatter the mold.
SL: Yeah, actually, I've heard stories about how hard GLEE was to pitch originally, so I don't know. With LIMELIGHT, Telly was in it, too, and he is just a remarkable human being and I was so happy to get to work with him and I hope to again in the future.
PC: As a DREAMGIRLS diva yourself, what was it like working with the divine Pam Grier in WOMAN THOU ART LOOSED for you? Are you a fan?
SL: Are you kidding?! Yes! And, oh, Pam Grier is just the baddest chick I have ever met! It's like this great thing where she is so fierce and fabulous, but, at the same time, she is the kind of person where you could also see her on the prairie somewhere with her dogs in a tent. And, she could totally survive! [Laughs.]
PC: A real one-of-a-kind.
SL: She has a real Mother Earth vibe, too. She has been through so much and she is so socially aware. She is very involved in the stuff Michelle Obama is doing with obesity - she is planting things in Washington and she is out there being an activist. She is this amazing, dynamic woman and I respect her so much.
PC: What was it like working with her onset, one on one?
SL: Oh, well, we shot for like two weeks, and, the day she got to set, everyone was like, you know, [Whispers.] "Oh, Pam Grier is coming!" And, when she got there, she was just great. It was so exciting and I loved meeting her and talking to her. She is just incredible.
PC: Would you want to possibly portray her on film some day? It could work.
SL: Oh, I definitely would. She is just one of those iconic women - somebody that really paved the way for the strong, sexy, all-encompassing African American woman. She broke ground doing her thing.
PC: Another legend you shared the screen with was Bernie Mac, in his last film, SOUL MEN. What was that experience like for you? He passed away so tragically and unexpectedly.
SL: [Sighs.] Oh, Bernie - I know! He passed away right after we did that film, actually. It was so devastating. [Pause.] To be honest, I still get sad just thinking about Bernie and about my experience working on that with him. You see, the thing about Bernie was that he was just full of so much love for his fans and he was so grounded - and he would preach that, too; especially with us younger actors. He'd say, "Don't forget where you came from!" The way that he would work would be so different from Sam Jackson - you know, Sam Jackson liked to rehearse and had more of a thespian streak to the way he worked, whereas Bernie was totally off-the-cuff and wanted to just adlib and have fun. Bernie was just the coolest guy - he had that infectious smile and presence and spirit.
PC: He had a very special aura about him, even from afar.
SL: He did - he really did. You know, when we were out in Memphis and in Louisiana - those were the two places where we shot that film - there were fans standing by and watching us shoot and he would always go over and sign autographs and talk to them. Always. He was just such a nice guy. It was such a shock to hear of his passing, especially right after we finished shooting that - it really floored us all.
PC: What a blow that must have been to the company.
SL: Yeah - and it was his last film. I learned so much from him and he had such an impact on so many people's lives - I still remember things I learned from watching him work on that. It's so sad, though - there are days when I think of him and it just makes me so sad. You know, you meet certain people and you feel like you will know them for the next twenty years and you will always be able to call them if you want advice about something... and, so, his untimely death is still a lot to take in and I still miss him to this day.
PC: Lastly: 'Tis the season for THIS CHRISTMAS!
SL: [Laughs.] Yes! Yes. THIS CHRISTMAS is one of those projects that I am so happy to have been apart of because it seems to come up every year around this time - that's the thing when you do a Christmas movie, I guess!
PC: Was Chris Brown anything like his wild stage persona onset in your experience of him?
SL: [Laughs.] No! I don't have any bad Chris Brown stories! Chris was actually amazing onset, if I'm being honest! So, my stories with Chris are basically just him being with this posse of his dancer friends all the time and they were all always off working on something - he was always trying out some new move or some new routine with them. He is somebody who just loves what he does and that is all I can say about him from what I saw on that film. So, no - I don't have anything crazy to tell you! I'm sorry. I kind of wish I had some stories, though... [Laughs.]
PC: What are the craziest onset antics you have seen in your career?
SL: Oh, I'm not a rat, Pat! I can't tell you anything! [Laughs.] I mean, I will say that I have been on some sets where the particular stars will come in according to their level or whatever - if they are first-billed they will be last on set and make people wait and stuff like that - but nothing too crazy or anything, really.
PC: DREAMGIRLS must have been diva central!
SL: [Big Laugh.] Oh, no - thankfully, that was a great set, but there have been a few times on some things where I was like, "Hmm."
PC: Finally, you are currently working on your debut solo album at long last, so hopefully by this time next year we will all have a copy of your album, yes?
SL: Yes! I hope so, too. I am really, really excited about it, so we'll see what happens with it!
PC: Thank you so much for this today, Sharon. We all can't wait for all of your upcoming projects and everything else.
SL: Thank you so much, Pat. I loved this and I love Broadway World so much - it is a great, great, great, great venue and I am on it all the time. Happy Holidays! Bye bye.