Every actor has an audition horror story—but does it really count when it ultimately leads to your Broadway debut? Ariana DeBose recalls her nightmare “Bring It On” tryout, which maybe wasn’t such a nightmare after all. Plus, she shares being inspired by Meryl Streep (whom she worked with in “The Prom”) and why she’s never been afraid of her own ambition.
What is a performance every actor should see and why?
I have two: Jan Maxwell in “Follies,” RIP. That performance kept me from quitting the industry before my career had even begun. I literally almost did not get on the bus to go on tour with “Bring It On.” I was about to leave New York and go home and bag groceries and work at the dance studio. And I went and I saw her in that show and I was like, I’ve got to keep going.
As cliché as it is, every time I watch Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” I find something new. She’s scary, she’s maniacal. There’s a little something going on behind the eyes. And then further down, the vulnerability is so palpable.
Do you have an audition horror story you wouldn’t mind sharing?
The first thing that comes to my mind is “Bring It On.” I went in and I was auditioning for Alex Lacamoire. I worked so hard on [getting my character] Nautica’s rap, that I forgot there was another song. It was Nautica’s solo part in “Ain’t No Thing,” which, not for nothing, for someone who didn’t sing all the time, was a very hard song! I knew, like, the first two lyrics and so I started humming what I thought the notes were. They all just stared at me. And Alex said, “OK, so, we want you to come back, but I think maybe learn this song.” And I was like, “Yes, sir. Thank you for your time.” I think they probably were like, Well, there’s Nautica. I was accidentally funny, and that was a quality she needed.
When you’ve signed onto a project, how do you start to build that character and make them real?
There’s always some small thing within the script that I’m like, “There it is.” I don’t actually look for it, it jumps out at me—and if it doesn’t jump out at me, then half the time I’m like, this character isn’t my character. Sometimes it’s just a small line or something in the stage directions like, “she’s walking around her house, and all she can do is do the dishes right now.” And I’m like, Oh, I know what that moment is. Then from there, I build. A lot of my work is energy-based. I build what I call an “energetic forcefield” of a character, and each one’s different. And I literally use the shoe analogy: walking in another person’s shoes. Sometimes I literally will start with their shoes, and I’m like, I need this costume fitting because I need to figure out what her shoes feel like.
How did you get your Equity and SAG memberships?
“Bring It On” gave me my Equity card. I actually got my AFTRA card before SAG because they had not merged yet. I got my AFTRA card because I booked a job on “One Life to Live.”
What is the advice you’d tell your younger self?
I would tell my younger self, “Just trust me, you’re not crazy.” Even when I was young, I was like, “I know I can do this. I know I’m going to be an entertainer.” I was never afraid of my ambition—other people have been. I feel like it’s been received at different times as if I’m a threat to their ambition. And I was always like, I don’t see it that way, I’m sorry that you do. When I was younger, I used to think I was crazy for wanting to try for more. It didn’t keep me from trying.
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