“Life is an awful lot of colors and situations to be handled…”
Neither ashamed nor embarrassed to admit that I was giddy and nervous at the thought of a one-on-one conversation with the one-and-only Diahann Carroll, she made the few minutes spent, worth the years of anticipation.
This interview was an honor, a privilege, a rare opportunity to be in the same professional space with a woman whose name alone connotes a multiplatform of accomplishment: actor, advocate, dancer, model, singer, legend, and extraordinary human being.
Ms. Carroll –born Carol Diane Johnson, July 17, 1935, stunning and spirited as ever — is too a born diva.Together in Los Angeles to discuss her role in the Tyler Perry family comedy, WE THE PEEPLES, an excerpt from our conversation follows–
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Sitting here is somewhat overwhelming realizing the level of your celebrity and the long held admiration that I and countless others have. The challenge to condense our brief conversation is a great task; perhaps we can maximize the time with dialogue that speaks to the whole of your luminous identity.
Diahann Carroll: Well, go where you want to go (with your questions) and I will say yes I can or no I can’t.
Talk2SV: All of your costars in this film have talked about the time you spent with them; the words of encouragement you shared. Does the advice you offer to young actors outweigh the advice you received when your career first began; is there an echo of what you once heard?
Carroll: There has to be….yes. Are you referring to any particular type of advice?
Talk2SV: The normal follow up would be career advice. But as a woman who has been out front for the span of time in your career, broken down barriers, penetrated obstacles, is it now fitting that you give that same advice to someone else?
Carroll: Very much so although a lot of it is changed, not all of it is applicable now. I think that my greatest lessons came through observation and, if necessary, a follow up phone call or whatever. I’m not good with the new machines, I’m terrible. I’ve bought every damn one of them and they’re all in my office. I like to speak to people, to hear the voice. I know it drives Cheryl (my assistant) crazy and everybody else but I always want to hear the tone of voice that’s saying or asking whatever it is. There’s more information in that first moment of, ‘hi, how are you?’ If you listen there’s something in there and you can use it. I loathe it when email is sent on my behalf.
Talk2SV: PEEPLES creates a unique opportunity for you and Kerry Washington to be in the same film; history makers as two African American women in leading roles with successful TV shows (TV’s Julia aired 1968 to 1971 and ABC’s Scandal in 2013). Would you speak to Kerry’s parallel trajectory to your own? Does it feel like a full circle moment?
Carroll: I would say, yes, there’s much about Kerry to be admired, not everyone is going to admire it and I know that from experience. I was very ambitious and very anxious to have my name everywhere and I think that’s a part of what Kerry is building. I think she’s wise to do so because in her period, which is now, we have more television than we’ve ever had in the history of TV. We also have an awful lot of movies, most of our movies are for children but it does to take your name into the next level. If you’ve got the babies you’ve got quite a number of years; she’s doing very smart campaign on herself, just wonderful. Talk2SV: Let’s talk about boundaries, ones that you’ve established, ones that perhaps you wish you had in place early on.Carroll: Ones that I established…my own boundaries…they are pretty much the same as almost everyone else. If I’m asked to do something that is really not in my frame of mind and I have to skip over to someone else’s frame of mind to see that this is something that could be helpful to whatever that person wants to do, that’s very hard for me.
This thing that I call Diahann Carroll, which I started doing in my teens, was given to me by a high school friend. I’m quite old fashioned. I know I’ve been involved in several relationships and most people associate that with a kind of freedom, not just pal to pal, but sexually and so on. I’m pretty mundane; I guess old fashioned is the word.
Talk2SV: I ask about boundaries because as you well know, when you become a public figure and people are exposed to you, to your talent, somehow they take ownership of you, if you allow it. At the same time it is that adoring fan base that propels a career. The lines of separation can sometimes be blurry. Did you struggle with separating the two at any point and how did you navigate the course?
Carroll: Yes. It’s today too. Once you recognize that this is the atmosphere, the scenario in which you are operating, it is my responsibility and it is your responsibility to say, ‘is this working for me?’ I say that because very often we forget to say that to ourselves. I’m the one who knows how much rest I need. I’m the one who knows that I can’t do that and there’s no point in my trying to do it. But I can try this if that will work but there are times when I can see that the personalities are all about control and it’s very important to control this thing that I created called Diahann Carroll.There are times when Diahann Carroll is tired and I want that to be respected. I appreciate admiration for what I have tried to do through my work but you have to let me handle me. I will never step outside the group to the extent that I can’t be brought back into it but let me decide what I can and cannot do. Talk2SV: It leads to another area that I hope we can discuss. How do you self-identify? Clearly you let us know that Diahann Carroll has been created as a vehicle to do your work. But how do “you” self-identify and is it important for you to do so?Carroll: Self-identification was pretty well established with me at an early age. I don’t separate Diahann Carroll from Carol Johnson, it’s all one package. Carol Johnson decided to come up with Diahann Carroll and that’s OK. As a matter of fact, it’s exciting. I like it.
Growing up and coming into this world, we were never poor but we didn’t have a lot of money. Our choices were limited; Radio City Music Hall was the big thing to do. For us to travel was not good with my father because of the segregation and prejudice and so on which they handled very well until my father was taken out of a car in the middle of the night by the policeman and they led him away.
I can always see him walking away. I said to my mother, ‘what shall we do?’ She said, “We’re going to do just as they told us to do; we’re going to stay in this car.” So at that time, I don’t think Diahann Carroll was born yet because I was a little girl. It was Carol Diane Johnson who had that experience of not knowing whether I was ever going to see my father again but they had to fit into one. There’s only one body and one mind and whatever it is that helped me get through that moment was all my parents. Little Carol Diane Johnson was shivering and frightened and I think that part of me helped Diahann Carroll with her humility, her fears …
Talk2SV: I grew up in the South in the scenario you’ve described. Watching you on TV was a totally different experience for someone like me.
Carroll: Absolutely, I know that.
Talk2SV: To meet Diahann Carroll today years from the little girl I was still factors greatly in my own life. I’m curious to know who you were because you were out front doing things that I only dreamed of doing. Carroll: And I was curious about those who went before me or were older; some of them had information to impart and some were just too frightened to ever say anything. Some were very good but there are things to take into consideration. I was a young girl and some of them were getting older so maybe it’s not quite so nice and informative—a go get it for yourself kind of attitude. Life is an awful lot of colors and situations to be handled.Talk2SV: Let’s talk about getting older. I just love the way you present yourself and what you’ve said about the discipline it takes to maintain your health and your beauty. Along with, there are other things that impact us as we get older including people’s interpretations about what we can and cannot do. How do you process the journey of getting older?
Carroll: One of the most important things we can do is to learn to trust ourselves, our opinions, whatever it is that goes on up here (pointing toward her head). Never put that away, always find out if how I feel about getting older is being complimented or not made light of because we can’t make light of it. I know people like to because it makes them nervous. I notice that’s very much in the community today. Young people are saying things like, “come on old lady,” because they think it’s cute. Actually, I feel we’ve gone too fast from here to there, the 1950’s and 60’s to here and there’s not really that kind of real connectedness. Not very much of that is serious for young people of today.
Talk2SV: When I hear you are performing at venues in Manhattan and other places I have a sense of delight. Since I’ve not had that experience yet, describe your show.
Carroll: Well, I’m on for an hour and a half and I go through all kinds of things about my life that includes family, romance, work…you find what lyric is representative of whatever it is you want to say at this moment. I don’t dance; I stand there, usually in a beaded dress because a beaded dress won’t wrinkle, and it’s good for going into a suitcase going to the next job so we have a few beaded dresses. It’s the same as being an actress it just has music connected to it. It’s a connection between you and the audience. Talk2SV: Lastly, since our time is almost up, would you comment on a few sweeping generalities: love, security, faith. Which one would you chose to respond to? Carroll: How do I? I like them all.
Talk2SV: Does romantic love have a different meaning for you today?
Carroll: No, I’m just as baffled by it as I was when I was 22. It is a very difficult place for most of us to go in our hearts, love. We can admire, we can whatever, but love, that’s a big one. We think we’ve done it, ‘oh, I found him and he’s this and he’s that; there are certain needs that we all have. But once we see this lovely thing stemming in front of us, the man, we very often forget that we have to be serviced too. We can’t just live our lives so I can’t say that I’ve conquered anything having to do with love.