Ariana DeBose on Hosting the Tonys:’Whatever We Do Is Going to Be Fun’

A decade ago, Ariana DeBose made her Broadway debut as an understudy in the musical adaptation of “Bring It On.”

This weekend she’s hosting the Tony Awards.

DeBose’s rise to prominence, due in large part to her Oscar-winning performance in Steven Spielberg’s movie remake of “West Side Story,” has been hard-won. She was an understudy, an ensemble member, and struggled before breaking through; in 2018 she was nominated for a Tony Award as one of three actresses playing Donna Summer in “Summer,” and since then she had had multiple film and television projects, including “The Prom” and “Schmigadoon!”

This year she became the first Afro Latina and first openly queer woman of color to win an Academy Award. Next, she will be featured in the action film “Argylle,” the superhero film “Kraven the Hunter” and the space thriller “ISS”

DeBose, 31, is now rehearsing the three-hour broadcast portion of the Tony Awards ceremony, which starts on Sunday night at 8 pm Eastern on CBS. (An earlier hour, starting at 7 pm, will be streamed on Paramount +.)

In an interview this week, DeBose talked about her determination to honor Broadway’s unsung heroes and her desire to return to the stage. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What are your goals for Sunday night?

This is the first time we’re back at Radio City. The community is still coming out of what has been an extremely challenging time. I do look at this as an opportunity to try and provide a real moment of celebration, because I think it’s a gosh-darn feat and a triumph to have been able to make work at all and get to this moment in time.

You’re new to this. Are you nervous?

I would like to throw up, if I’m honest. But I love a challenge. And I just feel like whatever we do is going to be fun.

You’ve talked a lot about your identity. Tell me what you hope that prompts for people watching you?

If I do my job right, it will be a reminder to young people out there watching that there is a place for us. And, to be perfectly frank, Broadway was the place that gave me freedom to explore my identity, freedom to explore my artistry. It was the place of love and acceptance that helped create the woman that you see now.

There’s been a lot of discussion this season about the role of understudies and standbys, who kept many shows going when other performers tested positive for the coronavirus. Can you talk about what your intention is for Sunday on that front?

In three of my six Broadway shows, I was an understudy. And I began in this industry in the ensemble. There’s no way in the world that a host like me is going to let this moment go by without acknowledging swings and understudies, but also There’s not a version of the world where I don’t have something up my sleeve. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but what I am going to tell you is if it doesn’t happen, you can hold me accountable.

One of the other important developments this season was the death of Stephen Sondheim. Should we expect to see that acknowledged?

Well, we wouldn’t have the American theater as we know it without him. So while I will not tell you what we are doing, there will be a beautiful moment for the man that is Stephen Sondheim.

How has the pandemic affected you?

I’m one of the few actors who actually had opportunities — I’m painfully aware of that, and I have a bit of survivor’s guilt. But my eyes are very open, and I’ve seen all the challenges that my colleagues have faced . It’s part of why I was really passionate about coming back to host the Tonys.

What’s your sense of how Broadway is doing?

We’re taking steps in the right direction. There is work to be done, though. If you look at this crop of nominees, you look at the shows that were on Broadway this season, there were steps taken toward equity and inclusion. ‘m happy to see more faces that look like mine. I’m happy to see that the honorees are more diverse.

What’s the impact of the Academy Award? Have jobs offers been pouring in?

I have had more opportunity, yes, and I am very grateful. I remember very clearly when I didn’t have this kind of opportunity. I remember very clearly when I had to work very hard to change people’s minds about my talent or my capabilities Now I feel like it’s my job to become more discerning. I want to make work that has the capacity to make people feel, and hopefully opens their minds.

You were a dancer in the “Hamilton” ensemble. What was that like for you?

There were times where it was challenging. I made the decision after “Hamilton” to strive for more speaking parts because I felt I could no longer move my body the way that I wanted to — I sustained several injuries on that show. And I think But I’m grateful for my time in that show because it taught me my worth.

Last question: Do you want to come back to Broadway? And, if so, in what capacity?

Of course I want to come back to Broadway. I’m waiting for the right thing. I don’t want to necessarily come back and do something that people know me for. I want to try something new. I believe in being a versatile actor, dancer, storyteller. So maybe I’ll do a play, or maybe I’ll do a revival that seems really off the wall. But I will do something that I feel is different.

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