Article By: Piera Van de Wiel
In 2016, I was working as Co-Director of the Fusion Film Festival in NYC. I met Gloria Reuben at a screening for the film Jean of the Joneses, where we instantly bonded over our shared affinity for music. I went on to attend some of her concerts and speaking engagements, and I have been a huge supporter of her work ever since.
Gloria Reuben is a Canadian-born quadruple threat with an impressive resumé in television, film, theater and music. Her acting abilities have flourished across multiple genres, with roles on TV shows including ER, Mr. Robot, The Blacklist, and Law & Order: SVU and in movies like The Longest Ride, Reasonable Doubt and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Reuben has also excelled as a stage actress. Her portrayal of Condi Rice in Stuff Happens at New York City’s Public Theater earned her a Lucille Lortel Best Actress Award. Acting chops aside, Reuben has held an incredible music career, working both as a backup singer for Tina Turner and as a solo artist. She recorded her first solo album, Just For You, in 2004, followed by a second album, Perchance to Dream, in 2015.
I became an even bigger fan of Gloria Reuben when I learned of the work that she does outside of the arts community. She is a dedicated advocate for The Climate Reality Project — a nonprofit organization working on education and solutions for the global climate change crisis. She also supports the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating pediatric AIDS through research, advocacy, and prevention/treatment programs.
I recently caught up with Gloria Reuben to get an inside look at her life, projects and perspective as she continues to make history in the arts, inspiring others through her acting, music and activism.
GR: My tenderness towards people. My sensitivity is my superpower.
Name a woman in history that you admire & why:
GR: Lena Horne. I am impressed by her longevity and how she dealt with the immense challenges of her time — as a woman and as a woman of color working as an actress and singer. She had a fierceness and strength about her, but had a beautiful vulnerability as well. I really admire her strength of character and how she excelled in the arts when the odds were against her. I love her smile, strength and fierceness, and the beauty that was always shining in her eyes.
What are you doing to make history today?
GR: We cannot measure the potential impact that the arts can have on an individual, shaping the path that will become their own history. I believe that a live performance can have the power to make an impact on the world. If you are lucky enough to be part of a performance like that, it is such a special experience. I hope that someone will hear a song at one of my shows that will make an impact on them, and maybe it will help to shape what their history will be.
What are you currently working on?
GR: I’m currently working on a new Marvel TV series called Cloak and Dagger (premiere: June 2018/Freeform TV). The lead characters are played by actresses Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph. They play teenagers who acquire superpowers and form a romantic relationship.
I’m also working on a multiple-episode arc for the NBC show, Blindspot.
Which roles have been the most inspirational for you to play?
GR: The trifecta of acting roles that I’m most proud of are Jeanie Boulet (ER), Elizabeth Keckley (Lincoln) and Condi Rice (Stuff Happens). Outside of Condi and Elizabeth, a lot of the roles I’ve gotten have not specifically been written for a woman of color. That is exciting to me — particularly in times like these, when the issue of race is at the forefront, as is the Me Too movement. Both gender and race are longstanding issues that I believe need to be addressed and changed.
Garnering roles that are not race-specific has been one of the highlights of my career. I’m excited about that because I’m mixed race. I’m black and white (Jamaican-Canadian) and I’m also American. I became an American citizen so that I could vote in the U.S.
When did you move to the U.S.?
GR: I’m originally from Toronto. I moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s; then moved to New York in 2000.
When did music first come into your life?
GR: I’ve played piano at five years old, starting with classical music. I put music on the back burner for many years after my acting career began. I always been a singer, but I didn’t begin singing professionally until fairly recently, when I started doing shows and making records. I’m glad that I’ve been able to incorporate singing into the fabric of my career and make it part of my creative process.
What does music and performing mean to you?
GR: To me, music is the most primal of creative expressions, as well as the most natural. I love spending time in nature because of the music it offers. For me, that is a healing balm. When I start venturing down a negative path in my thoughts, I always take that as a sign that I need to sit at the piano or sing a song.
I see music as having the same intensity as downhill skiing or another high-adrenaline sport. When you’re skiing, you have to be fully present in the moment or you could slam into a tree or break a bone. That is parallel to my thinking toward music. I will hurt myself mentally, rather than physically, if I get off track. I have to be fully present when I’m performing a song or making music. Music is able to take my mind off of anything that might be distressing me. Even if my heart is broken, singing a sad song is able to heal it. I believe that music is a tool for the mind and for the soul.
What was it like being a backup singer for Tina Turner?
GR: Right after I finished my role on ER, I ended up going on tour with Tina. Initially, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing after ER, but I knew I was leaving the show and that I wanted to have more music in my life.
Then I met Tina. I auditioned for Tina Turner and her manager in her hotel room and I got the gig. That was a testament to daring to walk the line between bravery and craziness. I just knew that I needed to do something new and different. It was a lot of fun!! It was great because it’s one of those things…not many people can say they went on tour with Tina Turner!
You have two albums of your own music [Just For You (2004); Perchance to Dream (2015)]. Do you have plans to make more?
GR: I’m currently working on a new record with Marty Ashby, the Executive Director of MCT Jazz and the same producer I worked with on Perchance to Dream. We will be doing covers of jazz standards and pop songs, with only guitar and vocals. It will tell a narrative through music.
What is one thing you have accomplished that you are most proud of?
GR: I am proud of being in the film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field. We filmed the movie 150 years after the beginning of the Civil War in Richmond, Virginia. There is a scene in the movie of the Thirteenth Amendment being passed that we filmed at the Virginia State Capitol building, that once housed the leaders of the Confederacy. It was an extremely powerful experience. Working with people at the caliber of Daniel, Sally and Steven made that film my jewel.
What, in your opinion, is one of the biggest challenges impacting your industry today?
GR: The Me Too movement is a global issue and we all know how entrenched that experience is in Hollywood. But for me, racial inequality is the thing that stands out the most. I hope that one day, we can move beyond black and white — not only in the movie business, but in our homes, our schools, our churches and our communities. It’s exhausting; I want to move forward already.
I believe that we all need to lay down our swords and listen to each other. History is over and it’s impossible to change it. Once we begin to really listen to each other, then we can start the healing process and take steps to make changes.
What is a trend in your industry that you foresee becoming popular in the future?
GR: The thing that I’ve seen coming on full-force is more women taking leadership roles in front of and behind the camera! It’s fantastic! Many the best shows on television and in film right now are about women’s stories. It’s time, and we are embracing it! It’s so great to be in this business at a time when things are shifting in the most positive way.
What advice would you would give to actors and performers who are just starting out?
GR: I believe that in order to be a good actor, you need to be vulnerable. You have to be willing and able to tap into your reservoirs of emotions and go to the places you may not want to go. You also have to be continue to be strong. You need to keep walking through those doors and be willing to face possible rejection. Remember to keep your chin up and focus on working on your craft. You need to be able to portray the depths of humanity — the dark and the light, the good and the bad — this is vital to your success.