“I think audiences want to watch characters go through something, so it’s kind of okay to leave things a little messy, a little undone, if we can be truthful to that.” – Susan Heyward on rehearsing
Susan Heyward’s career is on a big roll. She’s currently filming season two of Sony/Playstation’s super-hero series, Powers, and also stars in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming series, Vinyl, premiering on HBO this coming February.
Susan went to school at Carnegie Mellon University and soon after moved to Virginia to work at the American Shakespeare Center. Two years later, she moved to New York City and started working off-Broadway. Eventually, she made her Broadway debut in A Trip to Bountiful and then TV and film started calling.
I love talking to actors like Susan. She’s fun, smart and full of energy that just radiated over the phone. I recently talked with her about Powers, working with Martin Scorsese on Vinyl, how she gets out of her own way on auditions and more!
Follow Susan on Twitter. Check out ‘Vinyl’ this February and Season 2 of ‘Powers’ coming in March!
Where are you calling from right now?
Susan Heyward: I’m in Atlanta. Luckily, I have the day off from filming Powers.
How is Atlanta? I don’t think I’ve ever been there.
Susan Heyward: Man, it’s crazy. It’s blowing up here. It’s like a little Los Angeles right now. Like, on the way from my house to set, I’ll pass at least one other set that’s filming, if not two. Every day, yeah.
It’s like, “Oh, traffic is bad because there’s another set filming here.” It’s incredible. I talked to the crew and people have moved. People have moved from like North Carolina or Virginia, migrated here for the work.
I used to live in Maryland and I almost didn’t need to have another job, I worked so much. I did industrials and commercials. At that time, Homicide and then The Wire was filming. It was just a ton of stuff. And I picked up and move out here and I’m not working nearly as much as I did back then. So, maybe I should have just stayed out there.
Susan Heyward: Dude, it shocked us all. Everyone is looking at each other like, “How did we get here? How did this happen?
So, how is Powers going?
Susan Heyward: It’s going really well, really well. We learned a lot of lessons from last year and I think we’re able to take those lessons and put them in action. It looks great and it’s more noir-y than last year. Its got shadows and colors, so I’m really excited. It’s bigger, there’s more passion. We’re trying to put a lot into each episode. It’s a really exciting time.
When you first auditioned for the show, we’re you like, “PlayStation? Huh?”
Susan Heyward: You know I was like, “PlayStation? Of course.” That’s kind of the trend right now. Everyone who has a platform is interested in creating their own content and so it makes sense to me.
I’m kind of excited to see how far they can push it because they have a certain technical capability that say Netflix or Hulu doesn’t have. So, even though right now we’re just creating a series just like those platforms, I’m hoping – keeping my fingers crossed – that technically they can push the boundaries.
How long is the shoot for? When did you get there and when you scheduled finished filming?
Susan Heyward: We got down here in September and were scheduled to finish the first week of February. A good chunk of the year.
Where do you live normally?
Susan Heyward: I’m based in New York. Brooklyn. I’ve lived in New York on and off because I was doing regional theater when I first moved there. So I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve lived in Harlem and now I’ve moved to another part of Brooklyn. So I’ve kind of moved all over.
Do you keep your place when you go off and film Powers?
Susan Heyward: Yeah, yeah. I’ve got a subletter in there. Actually a younger friend of mine who I am kind of hopefully helping out. I hope I’m being helpful. She’s a singer and she’s a musician and she just got to the city this year. And I was like, you know what, I wish when I had gotten to the city, I had someone to just be like, “Hey, stay here. Do what you gotta do. Get on your feet.” So she’s kind of watching my place for me.
Let’s talk about Vinyl. I’m super excited to see the show. Have you seen any of it yet?
Susan Heyward: I’ve seen the trailers that have been released, which are just stunning. And then I’ve also seen a few of my scenes in ADR. And I’m just bowled over by how beautiful it is and how technically precise the period is. Like the costumes and the makeup people and set people just went above and beyond to re-create 1973.
If I were cast on that show, I think my head would explode when I walked on set. Martin Scorsese, the cast. Holy crap.
Susan Heyward: That’s about right. That’s about what happened. [laughs] But it’s like, you have to try and actually do your job, so it’s more like an implosion. You’re just kind of going, “Okay, my heart is exploding. My brain can barely function but I gotta to do it. I gotta push through.”
And then when you’re back in your dressing room, it’s another version of like looking around at your surroundings and going, “How did I get here? I don’t know quite how but I’m very, very grateful.” It’s crazy.
You did the pilot and Martin Scorsese directed it, right?
Susan Heyward: He did. He did. He’s so sweet. I tell my friends, he makes filming feel like the best part of summer camp. He just makes it so fun. There’s so much respect for him and his craft that everyone’s quiet but that gives room to be really specific about the work, you know?
He’ll go away and watch some video village in another room and then you’ve got the freedom because he’s created this whole world for you to play. So it’s like the camera is kind of far away. He’s in a different place and you just inhabit the world. And then after that, he kinda comes out from video village and is all jaunty and happy. “Okay, so what I had a mind was the scenes gonna work like this. Instead it worked like that. So, how can we get it to where I wanted?” And he just trusts everyone to do their job and do their part. He’s just this great leader that makes everyone to do their best. He goes, “Okay, great. Alright, we’ll try again.” And he goes away and we play again. It was like a dream, an absolute dream.
I’ve had auditions for certain movies and TV shows where I would just love to be a part of them. What I do the actual audition, I’m so super excited and nervous, that I get in the way of things, you know what I mean?
Susan Heyward: Yeah, I do.
How do you get out of your head?
Susan Heyward: Well, it’s funny. I was thinking about what Bryan Cranston said about just doing your work. Focusing on your work and not be attached to the result. And that’s been really powerful for me.
For Vinyl and Powers both, they were such extraordinary opportunities that in my brain, I thought, “Of course I’m not gonna book it.” [laughs] I literally went into both auditions with the mindset of, “Oh, what a cool opportunity.” I had ever met Ellen Lewis when I went into audition for Vinyl and I’m such a fan of her work. I went in going, “Oh my gosh, I get to audition for Ellen Lewis. I’ll get to meet her, we’ll chat a little bit. I’ll dress up as someone from the 70s and then I’ll leave.”
And I was totally okay with the idea that it would be fun to work on this part for a while, fun to get on camera, fun to meet some new people and then go to Starbucks afterwards and get an iced chai. [laughs] And there’s something about that freedom to be able to play. I think that translated into me being able to get out of my own way. At least that’s what I think happened. Because really, I walked in, thinking there’s no way that I can get this and then I was surprised.
Nice advice. I think I’ll steal that from you.
Susan Heyward: Take it, take it!
You know what’s really great is like literally planning something else right after the audition. Having that other thing to put in perspective. To know that this isn’t the end all, this isn’t going to make or destroy my life. I’m gonna leave here and go see that movie.
After my Powers audition, the first time I put myself on tape, I had a trip to Mexico scheduled. I was like, “Great. That was fun. There’s no way I’m going to get it anyway. Woo hoo, Cancun!” And then I came back from Cancun and my managers were like, “Where have you been? You got a callback!”
You know that’s so true. One of the biggest parts I got, I auditioned and then I rushed to the airport because I was flying to like North Carolina or something. I had other things to think about. Yeah, you’re totally right.
Susan Heyward: It’s crazy. I remember hearing about Javier Bardem when he was doing No Country For Old Men. The way he got into the zone of the killer is that he would play a song in his head. He’d play this totally other song so that there was this other thing happening, other than the actual thing. So that when you see it, it’s like, yeah, you see someone, but there is this other mysterious thing happening that you don’t quite know about and you can’t quite grasp onto.
I think mystery is so important in what we do. It’s so important for us to take the audience on a journey, so if you’re not quite sure what’s gonna happen, if you’re not quite gripping onto the results of your work like you did in your living room, there’s room for mystery to come in and you can surprise yourself and you can surprise the audience and it’s fun again.
I know you’ve done a ton of theater. What do you prefer nowadays? A long rehearsal process like when you’re doing a play or show up on set and go through it once and then you’re shooting?
Susan Heyward: Definitely don’t like that. Definitely don’t like going through it once.
When we’re on the set of Powers, after the actors rehearse with the crew and they are setting up the lights, we’ll often try to go to our trailers and squirrel some time away just for us so that we can say, “Okay, so what’s this beat about? Where is this character? You know what would help me a ton is if this timing happened here.”
I love rehearsal. I love playing, I love exploring. And so after coming from the theater to spending more time on set, I’m in the middle ground. But in between that, to be really fluid and leave space to surprise. I really like a middle ground between the two. Because you can rehearse something to death and that’s no fun.
Like yesterday, I shot something with an actor named Gregory Alan Williams who plays my dad on Powers, and we went over the text a couple times and our relationship was really clear and I felt like, “You know what, let’s not mess with this thing.” I think audiences want to watch characters go through something, so it’s kind of okay to leave things a little messy, a little undone, if we can be truthful to that.
Speaking of theater, how was your Broadway debut?
Susan Heyward: Oh my goodness, Lance! [laughs] . It was a dream come true!
And I’ll be honest with you, it didn’t come to me that way. It didn’t start out that way because I had understudied Condola Rashad, the beautiful, amazing, luminous Condola Rashad before and I was afraid of being pigeonholed. Because people kind of feel like, “Oh, if you’re an understudy, that’s all you do.” I was like, “Oh, I want to avoid that.”
I had heard that A Trip to Bountiful was happening. I heard that they were looking for an understudy and there was a part of me that was like, “Maybe it will be a trap? Maybe it’ll be a place that if I went there, I’d stay in I’d never get to explore other things.” And at the end of the day, it’s like, well, you’re a performer, you perform. You do your work.
And all of my misconceptions about what it could’ve been and all of my fears about what it could turn into totally disappeared and it was this amazing opportunity to watch other people work. People who’ve been in the business for decades and to watch Cicely Tyson work. To watch Vanessa Williams, how she juggled so much. When we were rehearsing, she was juggling a singing tour, she would get up in the morning for morning shows and promote the show. It was such an amazing experience to see how people live, the lifestyle we can cultivate to create good work. And I’m so grateful I didn’t let fear steal that opportunity from me.
It was a dream an absolute dream. And then I had to go on!
I’m looking at Cicely Tyson and playing with her on stage and it’s just me and her and the audience and it’s like… this is why we do it. This is why we go through terrible auditions and callbacks and no money, to get a chance to create great moments with great people like that.
I would think living in New York and getting on the train or walking the theater around five would be such an amazing feeling.
Susan Heyward: Oh yeah, definitely some Hairspray. You know that opening song, “Good morning, Baltimore.” It definitely takes over into the realm of musical theater.
How was Carnegie Mellon? Did you want to go to school to get a degree?
Susan Heyward: I did, I did. I grew up in a family where education is really, really important. Both of my parents are the person first people to go to college in their family, so it was really important for me to continue that tradition to study and to study the craft.
And I grew up with Carnegie Mellon’s reputation and I always knew that it was an amazing place to study. And I had been studying drama and theater ever since I was a kid. I always did after school programs and I went to an arts high school and while some friends were like, “I want to be famous. I want to go to LA and get big.” I was always like, “I can’t wait till I get to a place where the people are serious ” I don’t know who I thought I was. [laughs] But I grew up with Carnegie Mellon being like Juilliard and NYU. One of the places where you can go to study all kinds of different traditions.
I had a teacher kind of say, “You should try out.” And I was so damn scared. “There’s no way. I can’t get in there.” And he’s like, “Just try.” And it ended up happening and that was kind another dream come true.
What’s the worst audition you’ve ever been on?
Susan Heyward: Oh, it would have to be Dreamgirls. Oh yeah, it was Dreamgirls. They were auditioning everyone. It was like every black girl ever, they were auditioning. And the first time they called I was like, “Guys, I’m not your girl. Thanks for calling.” And there like, “Okay, cool.” I totally turned down the audition.
And all my cousins were like, “Are you crazy? Girl, you go in and audition and let them tell you no.” And then a few months later they called again and were like, “We’re still searching for Effie. Are you sure you don’t want to come in and put yourself on tape?” I was like, “Okay, fine. Now I’ll prove to you that I’m not your girl.”
I got a vocal coach, worked on the music and thought I sounded okay and I got in there, Lance, and I’ll tell you, I choked. Like, I didn’t even do what had I prepared. My heart was going crazy, I couldn’t breathe. Somewhere there is a video audition of me murdering the song. Murdering it!
And I was the last audition for the day. So, I leave and I end up in the elevator with the accompanist and I’m like about to cry, I’m just trying to preserve any dignity that I have. And the accompanist looks at me and goes, “You know it’s okay. I’m sure Beyoncé was nervous when she auditioned to.” I’m not on the same level as Beyoncé. But thanks for reminding me. Thanks a lot.
That is by far the worst and most public and the one that I’m pretty sure there’s some evidence sitting around somewhere. But you know what? We can bounce back!