It could have happened in her early 20s, fresh from college, with a face like a cherub and lungs like a hurricane, when she booked an understudy role in a Broadway-bound show that never arrived. Or 10 years later, when she moved to Los Angeles and sang with a jazz ensemble. Or five years after that, back in New York for a run on “One Life to Live,” or in the decade following, spent bounding between plays and short TV stints.
But Renée Elise Goldsberry had her first decisive success later, at 44. In 2015 she astonished as Angelica, the eldest Schuyler sister, in the musical “Hamilton,” earning a Tony Award and a share in a Grammy for her work. Independent movies followed, plus a series regular role on the Netflix sci-fi show “Altered Carbon.”
And now, at 50, Goldsberry is a breakout star of the Peacock comedy “Girls5eva” as Wickie, a member of a Spice Girls clone 20 years defunct who reunite after a young rapper named Lil Stinker samples their one hit. As Wickie, “the fierce one,” Goldsberry gets to sing, dance and display a knack for lunatic comedy. She fakes a fempire, crab walks into a Duane Reade, pilots a motorized bed, seduces a young influencer and shoots geese off an airport runway. Her catchphrase? “Cease and desist, bitch!”
In the Peacock series ‘Girls5eva,” from left, Paula Pell, Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Busy Philipps play members of a girl group that reunites after two decades.Credit…Heidi Gutman/Peacock
“I feel like God has a bit of a sense of humor with me,” she said. “There’s something beautiful about things happening in a different way than we expected, later than we thought.”
Wonky timing is a central theme of “Girls5eva.” Created by Meredith Scardino, with Tina Fey as an executive producer, it centers on women in their 40s, chasing fame in, as one lyric has it, “comfortable shoes.” Their pursuit seems both go-girl inspirational and seriously deluded. “It’s an uphill climb and they’re going for it,” Scardino said.
The show reckons with the misbegotten sexism of the ’90s and early 2000s music scene — Girls5eva recorded a single called “Dream Girlfriend”: “Got big doe eyes that you can swim in/Love watching stand-up but not by women.” And it wonders how much has really changed. Jim Poniewozik, the chief television critic of The Times, wrote that the series has “a laser focus on media, a breakneck joke pace and a jagged-edged feminist wit.”
Goldsberry also finds it strangely moving. “I can’t imagine having actually had a shot and blowing it and having to live with that,” she said.
This was over a weekday lunch — rosé, guacamole — at a rooftop restaurant just off Times Square. From its vantage you could almost see the gleaming windows of the Viacom building, the home of MTV’s “Total Request Live,” where Girls5eva appeared. (In the flashback scene, Goldsberry, in a low-cut spangled halter top, looses a terrifying melisma.)
In person, Goldsberry is incisive, unguarded, an absolute hoot and youthful in the way that suggests sorcery and midnight bargains. “I want to follow her for a day and just see what weird powders she’s drinking,” Scardino said.
I had worried that this rooftop spot, just a few blocks from the theater where “Hamilton” will reopen in September, would be too public, that Angelica fans would mob her for selfies. But Goldsberry, in from Weston, Conn., where she lives with her husband, Alexis Johnson, and their two children, wears her fame lightly, having lived without it so long. Here’s how Sterling K. Brown, her co-star in the 2019 movie “Waves” put it: “She is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met and she could not be less self-aggrandizing.”
Goldsberry put it a little more dryly. “Don’t underestimate how invisible a middle-aged Black woman is,” she said.
Goldsberry grew up in Houston, in a family of scientists and engineers. When she was 6 or 7, a cousin told her she could sing, really sing, and she was on her way. After earning her B.F.A., she worked in regional theater and booked a tour or two. “But I felt unfinished,” she said. So she moved to Los Angeles and earned a master’s degree in vocal jazz performance at the University of Southern California.
She tried the singer-songwriter route for a while, modeling herself on Natalie Merchant and Erykah Badu. She also briefly joined a girl group, Fe-Male. “We were exactly what Girls5eva was,” she said, “except they actually got signed.” Would she have taken girl group glitter over Lilith Fair integrity? “I absolutely would have been anything,” she said.
She found work as a backup singer on the ’90s meşru dramedy “Ally McBeal,” until an independent sinema brought her back to New York, where she met her husband. She made it to Broadway, then, as replacements for Nala in “The Lion King” and Mimi in “Rent.”
In 2005, she appeared in Shakespeare in the Park’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” where Ben Brantley, writing in The Times, called her, “the production’s true find, a sparkplug of musical wit and vitality.” In the audience one night were the director Thomas Kail and the writer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda. “It was like watching this meteor shower,” Kail recalled. “It was indelible.”
So a decade on, after a recurring role on “The Good Wife,” she got the call to audition for Miranda’s “Hamilton.” Goldsberry had lost out on plenty of parts before and gone on to cheer the women who originated those roles. “With ‘Hamilton,’ I didn’t think I could have survived that,” she said. She didn’t have to.
Goldsberry doesn’t know why she didn’t make it earlier. Maybe she wasn’t good enough back then. Maybe she wasn’t ready. A reason she didn’t offer, but one which Robert King, the co-creator of “The Good Wife,” suggested to me: “It’s harder for Black actresses.”
Goldsberry agreed that there were fewer roles for actors of color. “There’s less opportunity,” she said. But she doesn’t feel that those limits have ever held her back. “I just believe very strongly in a divine orchestration of my path and purpose,” she said.
And she appreciates the cosmic comedy of midcareer triumph. (An example: She used to have a strict no-nudity clause in her contract. She relaxed it. “I can’t believe somebody still wants to see some sideboob,” she said with a laugh.) “I walk through my life now just appreciating the joke,” she said.
When she was sent the “Girls5eva” script she laughed hysterically, she said. “And I was also slightly hurt. Because I was 100 percent this woman.”
Not quite. Wickie describes how a hair and makeup union evvel put an inflatable rat outside her house for human rights abuses, while Goldsberry radiates deep kindness. But she was, in her 40s, still trying to land a record deal. (She’s now finishing an album of adult contemporary originals.) “And I was like, Oh my gosh, am I ridiculous?” she said. Which explains how she took a preposterous character like Wickie and gave her a real, recognizable emotional life.
“They say you have to hire a smart actor to play a dumb person,” Fey said. “You also have to hire a big-hearted, empathic person to play a cold person, because they get behind the reasons why that person is behaving the way they do.”
Goldsberry captured Wickie’s diva absurdity, too, bringing a kinetic physicality and some bananas vocal stylings to the part. “Oh my God, I would get the worst giggles,” Paula Pell, a co-star, said of watching her on set.
The ridiculousness, Goldsberry said, wasn’t a reach. “The silliness, the humor, the uncensored part that I tap into, it’s just me,” she said. “I just feel really free doing it.”
A lot of the “Girls5eva” comedy revolves around whether or not the world wants to see four middle-aged women get back into spandex. It seems like many people really do. A headline on the website Jezebel read: “a surprisingly hilarious show about the messed up girlhoods of older millennials.” Fans on Twitter hyped the third episode’s “New York Lonely Boy” as the song of the summer. Fey hopes a season renewal will come soon. “We’ve got to lock these stars down,” she said.
In the meantime, Goldsberry is busy with her album and a rumored role in Marvel’s “She-Hulk.” She is clearly enjoying the moment, even when the moment includes some Gray Line guy clocking her as a tourist and shoving a brochure into her hands. (“I told you!” she cackled.).
But she hopes she is just visible enough to inspire others. “I feel like you should look at my career and be like, Dream. Dream big. Because it can happen to you,” she said. “Just look at Renée. And you know what? It’s never too late. Look at Renée.”