Award-winning American actress Tonya Pinkins grew up in Chicago and studied musical theatre before moving to New York when she landed a role in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, aged just 19.

She received the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Derwent Awards for Jelly’s Last Jam, and also appeared in The Wild Party, Play On, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold on Broadway, as well as Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2004 Broadway musical Caroline, or Change, for which she received the Obie, Lortel and LA Drama Critics Awards and was nominated for a Tony Award.

She is now reprising her title performance in Caroline, or Change in the UK premiere production at the National Theatre, for which she has just been nominated for Best Actress in a Musical in this year’s Theatregoers’ Choice Awards (click here to vote now!). The musical has been nominated for four other Theatregoers’ Choice Awards, including Best New Musical, and last month won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.

On television, Pinkins plays Livia Frye on long-running US soap All My Children. Her other screen work includes Sleeper Cell, Criminal Minds and Law and Order. She is the author of Get Over Yourself: How to Drop the Drama and Claim the Life You Deserve, and the founder of The Actorpreneur Attitude workshops.

Date & place of birth
Born 30 May 1963 in Chicago, Illinois.

Lives now in
While I’m in London I’m staying in the South Bank area, so I don’t have far to go to get to the National.

Training? What made you want to become an actress?
I trained at St Nicholas Theater Company and William Esper Studio. I guess I’ve always had a very great imagination. My mother used to say she couldn’t punish me if I’d been bad by not allowing me to go outside because I had more fun alone in my room making up stories, so that’s probably how I got into acting.

First big break
At 19 years of age during my Christmas break from college I was cast in Merrily We Roll Along, and that was a really big break for me.

Career highlights to date
Jelly’s Last Jam was a highlight, and I loved doing Caroline or Change on Broadway, and here, too! And I love All My Children, the soap opera I’m in over in America, because I have been watching it all my life. I grew up with those characters and sets. To actually now be in it is such a blast.

Favourite productions
Play On was fantastic because I don’t get to do funny stuff very often, so that was very dear to me. And I was working with some extraordinary performers. I also birthed my daughter during that and was back three days later because I loved it so much I didn’t want to miss any performances!

Favourite directors
George C Wolfe (who directed Caroline, or Change in the US and UK) and Gloria Muzio.

Favourite playwrights or musical writers
I love the musicals of Michael John LaChiusa and Larry Kramer; and of course I love Stephen Sondheim and William Finn. I guess Jeanine Tesori as well. I like people whose work is idiosyncratic, it is so specifically them that it’s unmistakable. I love Stephen Schwartz too and quirky music.

What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
I have seen so many shows over here. I really loved Billy Elliot and I got to see two Billys during the course of the show. I think the first show I saw when I got here was Mary Poppins. The first show I ever saw might have been The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, but I saw so much theatre when I was growing up. I just loved theatre when I was a kid and I got to see extraordinary work because I grew up in Chicago and had the opportunity to work with people like David Mamet in high school.

What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become involved with theatre?
I probably would have been a lawyer, which I may still be before it’s over! My first love was to be an author and I will do that as well as acting. My first book came out this year. It’s called Get Over Yourself, and it’s part memoir and part motivational with lots of confidence techniques.

What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of theatre?
Everything has become so commercial I don’t think advising them what to do matters. My advice would be to creatives not to sell out. They should create a commercial vehicle that still inspires people to get on the stage and not just to be the next American Idol.

What do awards mean to you?
I think losing the Tony for Caroline, or Change was an incredibly powerful experience for me. It makes you realise you’re at a certain point in your career and you are in this club of performers and just getting into the club is really an accomplishment, it’s not the actual winning that matters. There is also a great level of responsibility that goes with winning awards at that level and realising how many people were working for me to win and taking care of their sadness when I didn’t win was surreal. It almost feels like a presidential election!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Geraldine Fitzgerald gave me the best advice, when I was in the midst of doing Merrily and everything was going wrong and it was so stressful. I wrote to her and said “how do you do it all the time?”, and she said “we do it because we love it and it’s the only thing we do, and the only thing we really get out of it is doing a job we love.” That really helped me.

Do you prefer working on stage or screen?
I prefer getting to do it all. I’m going home this weekend to do a movie, a soap opera and a commercial, and then coming back to the National at the start of the week. I like being creative and doing lots of different projects.

Favourite books
Oh gosh, so so many. I love to read, I get through about 100 books a year. One of my favourites is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Reading has always been a sanctuary for me. I read a lot of non-fiction, as well as some novels.

Favourite holiday destinations
I love Mexico and Brazil; I like to travel but there’s so much of the world I haven’t seen yet.

Why did you want to accept your role in Caroline, or Change?
It was an opportunity to work with George C Wolfe again and Tony Kushner, who is wonderful. My ten-year-old and seven-year-old have probably seen it 20 or 30 times now. Although I’m still loving it, on my day off I have to say “I’m not at work!” because they keep singing it all the time, they love it.

What does change mean in relation to the musical?
It has so much symbolism; the change in the moon, the change in the household, the changes that have already happened and the changes that are yet to come, and the change in Caroline. The changes in the wider world are huge, such as the assassination of JFK. That was the death of innocence because it was the first time anyone saw someone get killed live on TV. There’s a lot of change in there, which is portrayed in many different ways. The small changes in Caroline are reflected in the world around her.

How do you think Caroline, or Change compares to the many musicals currently in the West End?
I think a lot of what musical theatre has become is sort of brand shows, like McDonalds is a brand and you know that everywhere in the world you’re going to get the same thing. Some of the shows have become brands and it’s taken away the originality of musical theatre. What makes Caroline, or Change stand out is that the spectacle is not a chandelier falling or a helicopter, but the fragility of the human heart. The average show is not so personal and quietly moving as this one is.

How did you research the role of Caroline? In what ways do you identify with the character?
At the exact time I was asked to do it I was 39 and had four kids - three boys and a girl - and all these external connections with Caroline. Also I had gone through some really hard things so, when I first did it, I felt it was really easy for me because I was Caroline! The process has been very cathartic and healing because it gave me the chance to put all of those issues I wanted to confront in my own life into perspective. To be honest I didn’t really have to research the role itself at all, but I did have to do a lot of research about the history of the piece because I was only a baby when all that was going on!

How does it feel to be reprising your turn as Caroline at the National?
It’s fantastic. It’s a happiness I’ve never known. I’ve really had the happiest time of my life here.

What do you think audiences enjoy most about the musical?
It feels like a very holy experience. It’s like a ministry, people will be telling you about things that didn’t happen in the show but it took them somewhere in their minds that they wanted to see. Everyone who comes to it goes away with something else. The story has such universal ramifications as well as that very, deeply personal side to it.

And what do you enjoy most?
It’s just wonderful to get an opportunity to play a part that calls on every single thing I have. This really takes all my capacity and it is a wonderful challenge.

What are your future plans?
I have a platform at the National on 3 January just before the end of the run, and a book-signing also at the NT. And it looks like I’m going to be coming back here and doing some concerts and some book-signings again in the near future. And of course I continue to work in the US both acting and lecturing - I’m as passionate about teaching as I am about acting.

- Tonya Pinkins was speaking to Caroline Ansdell

Caroline, or Change opened on 19 October 2006 (following previews from 10 October) at the National Theatre where it continues until 4 January 2007.