A few hours after Condola Rashad goes to the stake for the final time in Broadway’s Saint Joan, the Billions actress gets an altogether different toast at Radio City Music Hall: She’ll join Glenda Jackson, Lauren Ridloff and Amy Schumer as Tony Award nominees for Best Leading Actress in a Play.
It’s Rashad’s fourth Tony nomination, her first for a leading role (she was up for Best Featured Actress in 2012’s Stick Fly, 2013’s The Trip to Bountiful and last year’s A Doll’s House, Part 2). And despite her string of critically acclaimed performances, her hiring as Joan didn’t escape the depressingly expected idiocy of internet trolls still dumbstruck over the concept of nontraditional casting.
“Nobody’s trying to pretend that Joan of Arc was a black woman,” says Rashad, the daughter of actress Phylicia Rashad and sportscaster Ahmad Rashād. “I’m a storyteller.”
And what stories she tells. After Shaw’s Saint Joan (directed by Daniel Sullivan for the Manhattan Theatre Club), Rashad returns to shooting Billions in the fall, the fourth season of Showtime’s hit series co-starring Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: So Joan came into your life…
Condola Rashad: And I’m so happy she did. I was at the end of my run with A Doll’s House, Part 2 last summer and I got a call from Lynne Meadow over at MTC who I consider family because I started my career with Ruined, a play that I did with MTC about 10 years ago. She said [director] Dan Sullivan was doing Saint Joan in the next year and that he and MTC wanted me to do it.
Deadline: What was it about his approach to Saint Joan that attracted you?
Rashad: I think there can be two extremes in telling the story of Joan: Somebody who, based on their own faith, is just very proud to tell a story that reflects that faith, but it might become a little heavy handed, and then somebody who’s cynical and made up their mind that this was a crazy woman and that’s the way that they walk into the story, which leaves no room for the story to actually grow and be told. The beauty of the way that Dan went into the story was he was curious. He was curious for us to discover this room where anything was possible. That was a really hopeful, optimistic, and beautiful way to take on this play, and it allowed everybody, no matter your faith, to have an in. You know what I mean?
Deadline: But I’m an atheist. Tell me why Joan isn’t crazy.
Rashad: For the first two months of my time with Joan I actually put the play aside. I researched Joan as if I were writing a thesis on her.
Shaw wrote Saint Joan as a fiction, but for me as an actor I thought, What an opportunity to be playing a person who actually existed, so why not actually research the person? What I learned was nothing less than heartbreaking. Incredibly moving, incredibly inspiring. The actual story is not something that most people know. Like, she wasn’t actually burned at the stake for witchcraft. They couldn’t try her on that because they didn’t have enough evidence. What they burned her for was wearing men’s clothing.
I think that often when people think of Joan of Arc they just think of this mercenary, this soldier, hardcore. But the way people [of her time] described her – and this is not folklore, this is in the historic documents – people described her as someone who, when she was speaking about her purpose, when she was leading the army, there was a certain fire that came through her. But then when she wasn’t speaking about her purpose, when she just was in her life, she was described as quite graceful and quite simple. I think because of what she’s come to represent it’s easy to put her in one place, but she was a whole human being. And she was 17 years old. Her mother and father were alive when this happened. This was a whole human being, and that’s the story that I wanted to tell. The story of a human being, you know?
Deadline: Today when we hear of people listening to voices that lead to war and violence, well, that’s not exactly a good thing. How do you avoid presenting Joan as a zealot, even a terrorist?
Rashad: That’s not the context of the story. She didn’t wage a war. The war was already happening. The French were on the down and out – almost completely out. So it wasn’t as if Joan just said, Oh, let’s go into England and ravage these people. That’s not the story. It was almost over for the French, and she was the last hope for her people who were trying to reclaim their land.
And if you go back and look at the history, she actually did not promote violence. I think this is what makes the story so beautifully complicated. What she did provoked in a lot of people, she wasn’t in control of.
Deadline: Playing Joan has brought you a fourth Tony Award nomination. Is there anything different about being recognized for this role?
Rashad: I’m so filled with gratitude to have been recognized in this way, and it’s a very interesting emotion because taking on the role is a huge reward in itself. It’s been so interesting, this experience. After the show there often will be girls outside [the stage door] who are, like, 17, 18, and they always say that since they were young, Joan of Arc has been a part of their life, and they are so moved by our story. That, to me, is the biggest gift, to be able to tell this story. To have people of all genders and backgrounds see it and receive it in whatever way they want is really so big. The most gratifying part of being nominated for this role is that it feels larger than myself.
Deadline: What sort of reaction did you get as a black actress playing Joan?
Rashad: Both positive and negative. When we first announced it, I got a huge attack on Twitter. A really, really large backlash. I don’t know whether people thought I was going to, like, react strongly to that, but I didn’t because I don’t think I need to. I’m not going to get into a Twitter battle with these people I don’t know. These are people who, for some reason, are afraid. I’m not going to feed that.
Nobody’s trying to pretend that Joan of Arc was a black woman. I’m a storyteller, and I was chosen to tell this story because of the work that I do. I’m not stealing or taking anything from anyone. In fact, my goal is to give you something, to give you a story, something that I’ve prepared. At the end of the day, what I think is really great is young women of color have seen this production and are inspired because the sky is the limit. And young white women come to it and they’re inspired because the sky is the limit. Stories are for everybody, and I’m just here to tell them.
Deadline: What’s coming up for you?
Rashad: Joan goes until June 10 [Tony Awards day], which is going to be an incredible way to go out. It’s quite the bang. Then season four of Billions will start filming in the fall. So I’m taking my summer. I’m going to be out in the world. Something I’m excited about is that I’m going to be returning to my music in the fall. It’s been about four years, and I’m going to be returning into my original home, which is music.
Deadline: An album? Performances?
Rashad: I’ll put it this way: There’s a lot of activity in that department right now.
Deadline: What can you tell us about the upcoming season of Billions?
Rashad: Oh my God, I have no idea. The writers are in the writer’s room. The cast has no idea. We are just as excited to learn about it as you are, trust me, because we have no idea.