Renée Elise Goldsberry knows all about the intricacies of trying to form a girl group. After all, she almost came close to pop fame herself in the 1990s.
“I had a very good friend who was an amazing singer [who] asked me if I wanted to be part of a girl group with her and I said yes,” she recalls. “We had two male producers who put us in some pretty cute, skimpy clothes and gave us a song called ‘Yes, You Can Find You a Good Man’ and we worked really hard. We sang that song really well. Unfortunately, we never got signed so it didn’t happen, but I did get a chance to sing and dream with these really wonderful, beautiful women.”
She once wanted to be a pop star and now she plays one of TV: the powerhouse performer who took Broadway by storm with her Tony-winning performance in Hamilton, is set to revisit that early dream as a faded, 40-something pop star looking for a comeback with her former gal pals in the new series Girls5Eva. The half-hour comedy is executive produced by Tina Fey and created by Meredith Scardino (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and co-stars Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps and Paula Pell. Goldsberry plays Wickie Roy, the self-absorbed wannabe influencer with a set of pipes that could easily rival that of Mariah Carey.
Let’s talk about knocking down that diva trope
Since Girls5Eva draws from multiple influences and personality types, it was important to Goldsberry (and the shows writers) that Wickie be imbued with vulnerability to balance out her more self-absorbed ways, especially given the often sexist connotations that can be associated with a term such as “diva” — after all, it’s only famous women who get saddled with anecdotes about being high-maintenance, cold and demanding.
For Goldsberry, though, it was more about creating a flawed, yet powerful, woman who knew her worth. “You get to see her vulnerable,” she says. “I think she’s aware, actually, that she had the greatest shot [for post-Girls5Eva success], yet she fell furthest and probably needs this [reunion] more than the rest of them.”
In the past, the star has drawn her creative influences from strong women in her life. “I have definitely played a lot of roles where I felt I needed to focus on women that I knew to really empower that [character],” she says. “I was in [HBO’s] The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I was thinking about my grandmother, because she was a woman in that time. When I played Angelica Schuyler [in Hamilton] I drew from everyone from my mother to Michelle Obama.”
But Wickie was different. For inspiration, she decided to look within herself. “I drew from the real-life ‘diva’ of Renée Elise Goldberry,” she says with a laugh. “There are definitely a lot of [pop stars] around that I could draw on, but I feel that I have a lot of tendencies that I’ve been suppressing for a really long time. I just realized one day that I could actually let that go because Wickie didn’t suppress any of that. She’s pretty self-absorbed and very much attention-seeking, but all of those things that might make someone not popular are often leftover things we never figured out in life, so it was kind of fun to let it fly.”
I love the fact that you’re watching these women not only be really honest about what they’re going through in their 40s, but also playing themselves at 20 years old.
We stan women empowering women
There’s a well-documented history of television sidelining women of a certain age, relegating them to smaller roles in TV sitcoms in favour of their male counterparts. Which makes the cast of Girls5Eva such a breath of fresh air: here we’ve got four 40-somethings looking to regain their clout in the music industry, and excelling at it.
“I love the fact that you’re watching these women not only be really honest about what they’re going through in their 40s, but also playing themselves at 20 years old,” Goldsberry laughs, referring to the numerous flashback sequences the series utilizes. “I think there are some lessons we need to take in our middle age from being 20 years old – there’s an optimism and sense of entitlement and a feeling of physical power that we once took for granted, but I think we still deserve to have that in our middle age.”
For the cast and crew of Girls5Eva, it was also about sending an empowering message. “I think there’s also some [moments] that had us thinking twice about some of the things we once accepted as OK,” she continues. “We’re in our 20s in the ‘90s and starting to realize, ‘no, we’re not OK with that. We’re not just going to sing whatever. We actually have a perspective and a point of view and it’s worth hearing.’ So it’s a wonderful conflation of the beauty of being in your 20s and the beauty of being in middle age that I think is a really powerful narrative right now.”
It’s all about embracing those second chances
Production started last year on Girls5Eva amidst global turmoil. “I think we were aware of how desperately we needed to laugh,” Goldsberry says. “There was a lot going on, with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, and we also had an election going on. It felt really healing to be able to come together and laugh.”
And, much like the theme of second chances that pervades the series, Goldsberry relates it back to our current situation. “I know we felt very strongly at that time, globally, that we desperately needed a second chance to try to get things right,” she said. “I think the quarantine felt a bit like a kid being grounded with a lot of time to think about what we could do differently if we could come back together and create. Girls5Eva gave us a chance to do that in a way that was fun and really inspiring for the times we live in.”