Watching Regina Marie Williams will make you believe in the power of acting and performance. Her ability to bring truth and life to each and every character she portrays shows us her maturity, work ethic and understanding of the importance of building a solid career. She is sophisticated, warm, welcoming, and inviting, not to mention curious, well-versed and fierce.
I recently sat down to interview the award-winning actor. We agreed to meet at the renowned Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. As I sat watching her photo shoot and waiting for our interview, I melted in the red velvet seats of the McGuire Proscenium Stage. Surrounded by the quiet of the deep rich red walls, I could not help but feel excitement knowing that I would also watch Regina perform the following week as Emilia in Guthrie’s production of Othello.
Then suddenly, there she was reappearing after a wardrobe change, breaking the silence with her stunning plum-colored evening gown; the picture of studied grace, energized and ready for her photo shoot.
As Regina stood amongst the seats waiting for the shoot, I got a sense that she is the model of a prepared actor always ready for her moment. During her next wardrobe change, I heard Regina singing from the dressing area — vocal warm ups, perhaps preparing for her rehearsal taking place later in the day. She has a gorgeous and dazzling voice that illuminates any space.
Using that amazing voice, she recalls during our interview, “Olive, my mother, believed that an idle mind was the devil’s workshop.” We talk about her mother, her childhood and early love for acting as a soap opera watching four year old. “She constantly had us reading. She constantly had us performing and performing in church. I was that little and she just allowed me to find places to do it.”
“I performed (in) school, church... (In) fourth grade I did the lesson on Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry when it was being introduced. “‘Granny’s gone a-visitin’, seen huh git huh shawl’ so I still remember that from fourth grade ‘W’en I was a-hidin’ down hime de gyahden wall. Seen huh put her bonnet on’ and this was written in dialect. So my mother was teaching us how to read in dialect. That is almost a different language, like Shakespeare. So quite cool.”
Regina went on to tell me about being in commercial acting school in Los Angeles. At the young age of eight, she was eligible for a Screen Actors Guild card. “It was $47 to get my SAG card, and I was going to Tami Lynn School of drama and a lot of those kids were in the shows and movies and I decided, I said ‘No, I don’t want to do that, we can’t afford it’ and I look back on it now and I see that card that says $47. (My mom)...could’ve found the money to pay for it, but I was concerned. Well many of those actors are not around now...so I wonder where I might be had I not made that choice. I don’t know. So this became my road. I did theatre in high school and I am still forging my way;--I am still, every single day...because you get to decide.”
Regina then tells me about the time while she was in high school. “I remember being taken to something...it was Evita...it might have been the big Broadway production that came to Los Angeles.” The piece sparked her interest enough that she began in earnest to take classes in the Watts neighborhood. She remembers taking a class with Eartha Kitt. “It is so delicious,” drip from her lips as she recalls acting and doing different types of roles.
Weaving in and out of the present during our conversation, Regina shifts to tell me more about how she views her ability to do Shakespeare and her current role as Emilia. “Somebody asked me recently, ‘What made you think you could do Shakespeare?’ What I realized was that my mother never asked me, ‘do you think you can do that?’ She said, ‘Is this something you want to do?’ I had no idea how powerful that was. So I never thought I couldn’t do anything. If I wanted to do it, then I could do it.”
“I put that Shakespeare thing in my mind last year. I said, ‘It is time for me to do Shakespeare.’ Oh my gosh, I didn’t audition for this part. I was told I had the part. The Guthrie called me and said Marion McClinton wants you to be Emilia and I went ‘Oh really!’...At the end of this year I am going to play Lady Capulet at Ten Thousand Things. So what is that about? Is it putting it into the Universe or have I begun to prepare for it so I was ready for the opportunity. What is it? I am not really sure, except to take all those opportunities.”
Regina has always been a doer; following through on her passions and goals in life. Moving on from classes in Watts, Regina became involved in the Thespian Society and was blessed with the opportunity to “traipse” around the world, visiting Europe and the Globe Theatre. She performed her first monologue for the Thespian Society while in high school and booked her first professional job as a performer in Sesame Street Live at the age of 18 while studying at Los Angeles Community College.
Auditioning for a dance role in Sesame Street Live, she felt she could not keep up, but she still made a huge impression on the choreographer and the producers by doing something that came naturally to her, helping. Regina offered to fold programs before her audition.
“I am sitting there chatting with someone. I don’t know who it is and while I am waiting (to go into the audition) I go, ‘I can help you with that.’ I am folding little programs or information for people who are going to come in and audition...I didn’t know that the person who could hire me was right in my presence before the audition.”
Regina did not get a call back right away, but a year later, after one of the Sesame Street Live actors dropped out, Regina received a call from the choreographer. “She said, ‘You know, I know that you struggled at the audition, but what I noticed about you when we were sitting there folding those programs, what I liked was that I could see that you were adaptable and you didn’t give up and you could get along with everyone and you seem so personable. There are some things you don’t know that you will be needing to do in this show’ and I said ‘Okay, I am willing to do what I need to do to get there. I will train before we get on the road in August’ and she said ‘I’m willing to teach you.’”
Regina secured her actor’s equity card and performed in the show for six years. “What I did learn was how to tap dance by a professional who was paying me. I made $470 a week in 1981...to come to that so early was a bit of a shock and a blessing.”
Regina later learned that the choreographer and producers were the people out in the lobby folding programs while their assistants were running the auditions. The lesson she says is, “Be careful how you behave where ever you walk through the world because you do not know who is watching.”
When describing her audition for her highly acclaimed role as Dinah Washington in Dinah Was she says, “You have to use every tool or opportunity. When mechanics go out to work, they do not have one tool, they have every tool in their tool bag.” She feels that actors need to have the same mindset. Actors need to have different tools in preparing and performing for a role.
Regina knows about using every tool at her disposal. “I wanted to be Dinah, so I did the research. I listened to her music…I found books on Amazon...I had a music chart done and I rehearsed it three times.” She even had one of her close friends and fellow talented performer, Jevetta Steele, help her prepare.
Regina leaned forward in her seat recalling her conversation with Steele, “‘Jevetta, I need a wig that looks like this for Dinah Washington.’” She held her hands out to me, evoking the image of Washington’s famous hair style. “Do you have something like that?” Soon after, courtesy of Steele, Regina walked into her audition wearing the Dinah wig, full make-up, an evening gown and a fur coat.
“I went way far because I wanted the job.”
Unfortunately the director was not in the audition room when she got there. “It broke my heart,” recounted Regina. She ended up auditioning for the company manager and music director. After the audition, “I got in the car. I wept. I ripped my wig off. I threw it into the back of the minivan. I had to pull over just to cry because...just thinking about how much time and energy I put into that moment and it didn’t work out the way that I wanted.” Regina then remembers thinking, “Whatever happens you are not going to go home and lie down and die. Take this moment and be pissed; pull your hair and whatever, but you still got to go home and feed your kids...so pull yourself together and go put your wig away and say that was tough, but did you do everything in your power to get that job? I did. Is there anything else I can do? There is not. I did a really good job. I did a really fine job.”
She went home, took care of her family and waited. “I waited and waited, and you know...usually you find out in a couple of days.”
It took the director, Lou Bellamy, a week to call and offer her the job. When she asked him why he was not at the audition he told her, ‘Honey, I know what you can do. I just needed to make sure that you were right musically for the part.’
Her advice on this lesson learned: “If you do everything in your power sometimes the rest isn’t up to you.” Booking this role led Regina to being able to create a body of work that has continued to bring opportunities into her life.
“So people would ask, ‘Is there a companion CD?’” added Regina referring to performing in Dinah Was. “There wasn’t and I thought... ‘if I ever do this show again, I am going to make a CD,’” she declared. Regina admitted that she did not know how to make a CD as she had never recorded one before. Soon after performing in Penumbra’s production of Dinah Was, the Ordway called and told her they wanted to do Dinah Was with her performing the role again. “I said I want to do the show, but this is what I need...I was in a position, so what happened was I was able to make the CD. I figured out how to make the CD, I did all the research, I called people I knew who had made music. I got a mechanical license for all of the songs. It was really cool. I produced my own music and I still have this CD… and I sold a thousand of them. I figured out how to get my people (neighbors) to put in the money and I had to show them a plan.” Regina continued, “Take advantage of the moment and while you are hot ride that puppy until...you know what I mean... When you are working you get more work; so that is how that goes.”
When asked what else has helped her set the stage for her career, Regina responded by saying, “Wow! I think being open to possibilities.”
Regina also shared her sentiments on the business of acting. She suggested actors research theatres’ seasons and study them and decide where they fit into that season. “Then call the director or producer and let them know you are interested in auditioning for that role...it is extremely key for actors to build relationships. You have to be proactive and that...is brilliant. You never know what a theatre is going to do. You have to start thinking that maybe the script could be done a different way. If they do not think of it, maybe you should think of it and make that phone call anyway.” She emphasizes how being bold about asking to be considered for a particular role will help you get in front of more people. “You won’t know when the opportunity will come, but being proactive will get you more results. Don’t walk around quietly; I am not saying make a big noise, but make yourself known."
Making herself known has led Regina to many opportunities. In 2005, as she prepared for another Guthrie production, she was asked by John Miller-Stephany, Associate Artistic Director, to understudy the role of Hildy Johnson played by Angela Bassett in Guthrie Theater’s His Girl Friday. When taking Bassett on a tour of the Cities, Regina was able to share her favorite places in Minneapolis with Angela Bassett. Regina connected with Bassett and invited her over to her house for a home cooked meal. This connection led to Regina’s interview with Entertainment Weekly. During Bassett’s own interview, she told Entertainment Weekly what music she had in her CD changer and it was Regina is...the songs of Dinah Washington by Regina Marie Williams.
When asked what was the most profound experience she has had as an actor, this is what Regina had to say:
“As an actor you will continually have profound moments. Not that every show you do or character you play will be deep or angst ridden, but what we do is not frivolous. We have to dig, soul search, and go places that are not always pleasant. Discoveries of self are bound to be made, as well as just acknowledging the human condition.”
One of my most profound experiences as an actor was working with Aditi Kapil on Ruined at Mixed Blood. She chiseled away my niceties. Those things we don’t know we do, but they end up in all of our characters because it is part of who we are. Some parts of us simply can’t be left behind. Oft times I take on a character; characteristics of an aunt or someone I have seen on the street etc. This work was not the cloaking kind. Aditi worked me until I – Regina – fell away completely and the character emerged. It was an incredible experience and very painful. The experience has certainly informed my character work. Throughout the interview, Regina Marie Williams had so many golden words of advice to share with us. There were a few that particularly stood out. Here are her suggestions for setting the stage for an acting career:
I had to ask Regina what it meant to her to be a paid actor, a working actor. “Actors loveapplause/recognition, but applause does not pay the bills. Being paid is confirmation that my work has value.”
What’s next for Williams? “It is time for me to go to a different place or start to begin thinking about going to a different place,” she says. “I am going to do something different. My children will be out of the house so I can do something different.”
Being present, making choices and continuing to move and take advantage of her moments is what has helped Regina build a fabulous career as an actor. Her career lessons are universal and necessary for any actor wanting to set the stage for their career.
Oh, and what did I think about Regina Marie Williams’ performance as Emilia? It gave me chills!