Tony winner Patina Miller is terrified, and that’s just how she likes it.
When we speak for our interview, the stage and screen actress is days away from her grand return to Broadway, for the first time in almost 10 years, in Stephen Sondheim’s third revival of Into the Woods. In the famous musical—which dissects the morality and uncertainty of fairy tale classics like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood—she plays The Witch, a role based on Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel and previously made famous by Vanessa Williams and Bernadette Peters. Even if she is playing a so-called “villain,” Miller asks audiences to resist the desire to immediately judge her character. Perhaps it’s a reminder that leaning into the discomfort of the unknown can be freeing, especially right now. The same is true for Raquel “Raq” Thomas, the resilient matriarch and drug dealer she plays in STARZ’s Power Book III: Raising Kanan.
Miller accepts fright with aplomb, letting it invigorate her work. Her ability to teeter between fearlessness and fear has made her a compelling entertainer on-screen with roles in Madam Secretary, The Many Saints of Newark, and The Hunger Games. It’s also what helped her win a Tony for her performance in the 2013 revival of Pippin. To that end, she plays into The Witch and Raq’s fallibility knowing very well that such nuanced roles still aren’t the norm for non-white female actors.
During a break from rehearsals, Miller spoke with ELLE.com about returning to Broadway after nearly a decade, the beauty and uncertainty of motherhood, Sondheim’s legacy, and embracing projects that scare her.
I first learned about you through Pippin, and you’ve found great success in TV and film, but what drew your attention to the theater first?
The theater has always been a holy space for me. My training is in the theater, where I learned to be the artist I am. Having my start in Sister Act [on Broadway and the West End] and then Pippin, I’ve always enjoyed creating a show and the camaraderie in the community. You work with artists on a piece, rehearse it, and finally put it up for people to come in fellowship and see your work.
There are many things that I’ve learned by being in the theater, whether it’s instincts or being with an audience or the listening aspect of it. It has made me a better actor in the TV and film realm, and you never want to stop learning. You’re doing something that’s a holy experience and audience feedback, and it’s so special because the audience tomorrow will be very different.
How has that informed the projects you take on?
I love taking chances, and even early in my career, I always wanted to do things that scared me. If I wasn’t scared, I knew that it wasn’t the right thing for me. I try to see how I can connect my life to the material. The collaborative process of theater requires so much of you. It is not just memorizing lines. You’re hypersensitive to everything while being focused on telling the story, and that’s exciting. Jumping into Whoopi Goldberg’s shoes in Sister Act was a big deal, then tackling the Leading Player [in Pippin] from a woman’s point of view. It scared and excited me, and that was something I needed.
Who can forget the Pippin trapeze where you were 20 feet in the air!
Yes! Now I’m having that moment again. I feel so lucky.
What scares you about Into the Woods?
Sondheim is, to me, the best composer and lyricist, and we’re also talking about some intense topics. When you take on this highly-regarded material, first with Bernadette Peters, then with Vanessa Williams, and now the New York City Center Encores version [which is where this revival took off before heading to Broadway], and consider the current climate, it’ll touch more people. Having the responsibility to ensure you get the message across the way Stephen intended while doing this interpretation scares me.
You played The Witch in 2019 at the Hollywood Bowl. How is your approach to the character in conversation with Sondheim’s legacy?
When I graduated from college, my mentor Billy Porter hired me for Being Alive, a Sondheim revue show infused with Neo Soul and R&B. Sondheim is someone you want to live up to. One of the glorious things about his material and why it lives on is that it can be interpreted time and time again. To have met him at 21 and have him be proud of the work we’d done and to then now be in this place just makes me want to do a good job.
The Witch and Raq are both mothers longing for something and dealing with immense grief in their own ways. How do you work on these two shows and then go home to your family and protect yourself from the emotional weight the characters can leave behind?
It’s hard because Raq is a heavyweight and so full, so I just try to find joy where I can and within the character. I know what it’s like as a mother and want to protect my child more than anything in this world. It allows me to understand both of these characters’ headspace but doesn’t send me down a dark path. I like to put everything I’m feeling in my life, all of the trauma, into my performance because I can let go when the show is done so that I don’t take it home.
Raq is a protector at her core but often goes in violent directions. Has your stance on her changed now that a second season of Raising Kanan has granted you a fuller scope of her character development?
My stance remains the same. Raq is calculating but impulsive when it comes to her child. You see this woman in a man’s world not standing down but also trying to mother a 15-year-old boy who thinks he knows everything. He puts himself in this position to influence her work, and everything gets thrown out of whack, and she can’t just focus on the price. She has to focus on her son, which is the most important thing at the end of the day. I just understand her, however questionable her actions may be. While there are violent moments, it’s lovely to see an ambitious woman in all her glory and bad things too. It makes her a well-rounded individual who’s heavily flawed and human, and that’s hard to come by.
How can the theatrical industry make things easier for working mothers?
My God! We do eight shows a week, and we have two-show days twice a week. Not everybody can handle it all, so uplift mothers and give them resources, whether that’s childcare or having someone there to help when things fall apart, to be better performers and be fantastic mothers at the same time.
Do you have a story or anecdote that encapsulates what the theater community means to you?
So many people were represented at this year’s Tony Awards! To look around the room and see the world reflected there and see all of us celebrating our love for the theater and seeing myself reflected on the stage was extraordinary. To have Ariana DeBose host, who did a fantastic job speaking out [DeBose discussed race, the LGBTQ+ community, and the understudies and swings who keep shows running in the face of COVID]! I’ve never witnessed that in this space. I was overcome with emotion because you want everyone to belong; they accomplished that this year. I hope we keep moving forward after the past two years. It made me so excited to be back in this community!
Into the Woods is playing a limited engagement at Broadway’s St James Theatre. Season 2 of Power Book III: Raising Kanan premieres on Aug. 14 at 9 p.m.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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