Beloved by millions for her role as Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show, Phylicia Rashad discussed her stellar four decade career on screen and stage in “Conversations With Phylicia Rashad—A Woman of Distinction: Her Story,” a presentation of the Screen Actors Guild’s National Women’s Committee and the SAG Foundation.
Answering questions from moderator Hattie Winston and some submitted by the audience, Rashad reminisced about her most memorable roles, her struggling actor days, and the famous folks she’s gotten to meet, on and off set, including Nelson Mandela. “He thanked me and said, “When I was on Robben Island, I watched [The Cosby Show] with my guard and it softened him.’”
Rashad recalled the highs and lows of her early days in New York, when she got fired from a job in a musical because she hadn’t had the necessary voice training. “My voice was so little and tight. I lasted about a week. They were going to let me go without paying me but I stood up for myself,” she said, but the experience rocked her. “I felt that the earth had been snatched from under me. My mother was so concerned, she said, ‘Come home, you can work at the museum with me,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m going to stay right here.’” The roles started coming her way soon after. “I realized that when things look bleak and all looks lost, it isn’t really lost especially if you’re holding onto the truth inside yourself.”
Chatting about her most recent roles, she said she took away “gratitude for my mother beyond what I already understood” from For Colored Girls, found Just Wright “just fun,” and praised Frankie & Alice co-star, Halle Berry, as “the most exquisite human being.” Now directing the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Culver City, California, Rashad compared directing to acting. “As an actor you think about the role and nothing else. As a director you have to develop and hold a vision of the entire work and galvanize all of the creative energies involved. It’s not an easy task.”
The most important thing she learned about show business is “not to take it too seriously,” said Rashad, who felt unworthy of being called an icon. “When I’m cleaning the litter box I don’t feel it,” she laughed. “I don’t see myself as an icon. I see myself as someone who wants to continue to grow and learn, and meet and know new people.”