Did your life as a working mom mirror the life of Clair Huxtable, who was a lawyer?
Well, she was a working mom, but the work of an actress is different. The hours can differ. Although lawyers work a lot, too. Being an actual mother was a big help for me. I had been working with Mr. Cosby for awhile and I asked him, 'Why did you cast me?' He said 'it was the look in your eye when you were telling Theo to shut up. That was the look of a mother.' The thing is, everything you do as an actor is coming from your own understanding. That's true for everyone.
So being a mom helped you be Clair Huxtable, but did it work the other way around, too? Did acting help you be a better mom?
It helped me understand that the messy room of a pubescent boy is not an aberration of behavior. As a young mother, my take was to have things right. Clothes had to be washed and ironed. Food had to be fresh. The house had to be clean and maintained. I had certain expectations of my children.
But the show dealt with difficult circumstances with humor. I started to laugh at life and understand things like incomplete homework in a new way, to look at everything with a sense of humor. Lots of people learned that. I would be at the airport and people would come up to me and say 'You helped us learn to laugh at ourselves and see the humor in human behavior. You can laugh and take things not so seriously.'
It's been said that The Cosby Show was catalyst for other shows based on African Americans, like In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Did you realize when you were making it that you were part of something great?
I knew I was part of something good. I didn't know it would become what it became.
Why do you think it was so wildly popular?
People could see themselves. In its essence, it really does embrace humanity. People could see themselves, no matter where they came from.
What did you learn from The Cosby Show?
As an actor, I learned to take time to look someone in the eye. I learned to trust that your audience will be with you. In theater, we have the term 'pick up your cues.' As soon as one line ends, another begins. When we were taping the pilot, Mr. Cosby said 'you're involved in theater, right? I can tell because you're always on cue. I want you to try something different. Take time and trust that your audience is with you.' That's where the famous Clair Huxtable stare came from, taking the time to look at somebody.
Before the pilot, I was playing Ruth in Raisin in the Sun. When I returned, Ruth suddenly had humor. I wasn't playing her differently, she was just looking at people. The audience found that likeable.
Do you think that the show was realistic? Was it portraying an authentic, American family?
It was rooted in reality. The intent was to tell a story of a man and woman rearing children and how they needed to survive them. Within each story, you saw human behavior. Mr. Cosby gave us one directive: do not try to be funny, tell a story. When you look at the episodes, there is a story. It's not foolish or frivolous- it's funny because human behavior is funny. Denise gets a car, Rudy gets into a box, lamenting the fact that she's five -- there's always a story.
So it was always modeled after something real. It was about things young people do - covering for a friend, becoming engaged in some intrigue that they consider harmless, where they aren't thinking of the consequences.
You're a stepmom. Is being a stepmom extra challenging?
The way I grew up, I'd say I'm predisposed to be a step-parent. I didn't find it challenging. When you're engaging with young people you haven't given birth to or fathered, who have attachments to their natural parents, you must know how to give room to their feelings as you establish your own relationship with that person. It amounts to respect -- not demanding it, but giving it as well.
What was the most surprising thing about parenting?
I was surprised about the natural instincts that kick in. Nobody tells you that. With parenting, every day is a surprise. You're not scripted. The biggest surprise comes when you have to step aside, let go, make room for that person to step into their own. You have to become hands-off and keep your opinion to yourself. You have to support someone even when their manner isn't in accordance with what you'd do. You have to allow that person space and know they're going to be fine, just like you were. It's all beautiful, though. Parenting has been the richest experience for me.
With everything you've done?
Yes. When my son was born, I was fretful about my career because I wasn't established, and my mom was holding my son and she was looking at him, and she said, 'I know how you're feeling about your career, but believe me, you will never do anything more important than this.' And I knew she was right.