For months we've been hearing Oscar buzz surrounding Jamie Foxx and his work in Ray, the film biography of the late musician Ray Charles. Not to take anything away from the stellar Foxx, but those who have caught Taylor Hackford's biopic are also leaving the theatre with another performance on their minds—that of the proud, determined Aretha Robinson, the underprivileged single mother of Charles who refuses to let him be a victim of his blindness. The role is not so much played as it is embodied by the gifted Sharon Warren, who makes her film debut with a story that could rival Ray for drama and inspiration.
A self-proclaimed "Southern girl at heart," Warren was born in Tuskegee, Ala., and had no intention of pursuing acting as a career. She was majoring in business administration at Auburn University when a professor noticed her and urged her to audition for a role in A Raisin in the Sun. She was cast as Beneatha, and the acting bug bit hard. "When I stepped on the stage, I knew that's where I was supposed to be," Warren recalls. Audiences agreed; her debut performance earned her a nomination for the Irene Ryan Award (for outstanding student performers). Her parents weren't so sure; when she announced she was going to pursue acting, they disowned her financially. "I was living from pillow to post," Warren says. "At one point I was homeless, then I was living in a hotel, then I was living in a hostel with, like, eight people from around the country. I was working every kind of job imaginable."
After moving to Atlanta, Warren was cast in the Alliance Theatre's production of The Music Lesson, by Tammy Ryan, when she heard about the casting call for Ray. She was waiting in a hotel next to the theatre when she struck up a conversation with a banjo player waiting for his audition. She recalls, "We started singing and playing and talking, and this woman who had approached me about representation came up and said, 'Don't ask me any questions, go up on the second floor.'" Warren met location casting director Mark Fincannon, who asked her who sent her on the audition. Says Warren, "I was so scared, I just said, 'Somebody told me I could come up here.' He said, 'I like your nerve. Get me a headshot.' I had to go across the street, and I begged the casting director at Alliance for my headshot."
At her first audition, she met director Hackford and was given 12 sides to read from. Thinking they were only going to do a few, she was surprised when they had her read all of them. Two weeks later, while working one of three jobs at a theatre and struggling to figure out a ticket machine, Warren received a call from Hackford. "He said, 'I've never done this before in 30 years, but you've got this role. This film is not financed, we don't even know if it's going to happen, but that's it. I'm not auditioning anybody else,'" Warren says. "I was, like, 'OK. Can I call you back? I have other people on the line.'" She laughs now about her cool response. "It just wasn't real to me. I took his number and said I would call him back," she adds. "This was August. I didn't call him back until November."
Warren claims she was caught up with work and the play, and it wasn't until she discovered his number on a notepad that she remembered to call Hackford. Despite waiting so long and calling him by the wrong name—for some reason, she kept referring to him as "Taylor Dayne"—Warren got the part. She soon found herself in New Orleans, starring in her first motion picture.
To play Aretha, she drew great inspiration from her grandmother, who passed away shortly before filming began. "My grandmother was 87 when she died, and she could have easily been Aretha Robinson," Warren says. "My grandmother told me everything I needed to know for this role. She really broke it down. I may not have been able to bring to life everything that she told me, but it really fueled my performance and made it real to me."
Having recently relocated to Los Angeles, Warren has no specific projects lined up, but that's likely to change once people get a look at her fierce, emotional performance in Ray. Still, she remains modest.
"There is no way I can take credit for what you see on that screen," she says, raving about everyone from the cinematographer to the editor. "Everybody is significant on a film set, down to the person who brushes the shoe prints out of the dust. When you're a part of that kind of process, you walk away looking at life in a different way." She also took away an important message from the movie, one that she is living proof of. "There is nothing that you cannot do," she says. "I firmly believe this film conveys this in an effective way."