It’s a thick, steamy morning in Brooklyn, but Condola Rashad still looks cool after walking to Café Ghia, a tiny neighborhood spot near her Bushwick apartment. Clad in a navy maxi dress, metallic sandals and a woven Michael Kors belt, she cheerfully orders the daily special – vegan tomato soup – even though it’s really too early (and humid) for such a warm dish. The wide-eyed actress explains that she has to eat lightly, because she’s just finished The Master Cleanse, a liquid-only diet favored by celebrities such as Beyoncé to shed unwanted pounds quickly.
“Anyone who tells you, ‘Oh, you’re not hungry after a few days,’ is lying,” she says, with a grin.
Rashad isn’t a fan of crash diets, though, and she’s not looking to trim an already slender frame. Instead, the rising star, whose parents are actress Phylicia Rashad and former football player turned NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, is using the cleanse as a way to recharge after an exhilarating, but exhausting, period of career highs and personal lows.
For most of last year, the 27-year-old performed in eight shows a week on Broadway. She began with a revival of “The Trip to Bountiful,” which earned her a second Tony nomination, and finished with her first leading theatrical role, opposite Hollywood heartthrob Orlando Bloom in “Romeo and Juliet.” Taking on that iconic character raised Rashad’s profile, but it also made her a tabloid target when rumors flew that she was having an affair with Bloom, who separated from his wife, model Miranda Kerr, during the show’s run. (Absolutely not true, says Rashad, just to set the record straight again.) Indeed, at the time, she was ending what she calls an emotionally abusive relationship with her then-boyfriend.
Says the actress: “2013 was very extreme. The greats were great and the terribles were terrible.”
So at the beginning of this year, Rashad made some major New Year’s resolutions. She quit smoking. She took up yoga and meditation. She began to eat better. She set a new professional goal, too – score a breakthrough TV gig.
Almost instantly, she was tapped for “Hieroglyph,” a Fox action-adventure series set in ancient Egypt. Cast as the pharaoh’s power-hungry half-sister, Rashad was thrilled to shift away from sweet-faced ingénues: “I’ve really wanted to play someone with an edge.” And while shooting the show’s pilot earlier this year in Morocco and Albuquerque was a blast, the demands of an hour-long drama series were also apparent. So she hoped the cleanse would help ready both mind and body for the challenges ahead.
“It’s been all about getting rid of bad habits and getting ready for this next big thing,” she says. “Another reason I wanted to do it was because I kind of wanted to test my will power. Just to see if I could do it. Now I feel very empowered by it.”
Yet three weeks after this breakfast interview, Rashad received upsetting news: Fox decided to shut down production of “Hieroglyph,” even though the show had already gotten the green light for 13 episodes scheduled to air mid-season. There were many reported reasons – budget concerns, creative problems, the departure of the network’s programming chief (who approved the series). But there’s one thing a confident Rashad knows for sure: This setback won’t get her down.
“When you know you have a purpose and work to do, you can’t cry over spilled milk for too long,” she says during a phone conversation a few days after the announcement. “This business is not for the weak-hearted. It’s guaranteed you’re going to be disappointed. You have to just keep going. Or you can stop – that’s an option, too. A lot of people can’t handle it. But I’m not that person.”
So now that “Hieroglyph” has been canceled, does Rashad feel the cleanse – and all that mental preparation – was a waste of time?
“Not at all,” she says. “Now I’m prepared for whatever comes next. That’s a lesson learned: You always have to be ready.”
If anything, this stumbling block has made Rashad even more determined. She wants to look at other TV offers right away, and she’d love to join another fantasy project. Being cast in “Hieroglyph” was particularly exciting, because she’s a longtime secret “sci-fi geek” whose favorite films are the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. She even confesses that she had a poster of Bloom as warrior elf Legolas in her college dorm room, something she didn’t mention when the two first met on “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I didn’t want to freak him out,” she says with a laugh.
Rashad is happy, too, that the fantasy genre, which doesn’t often feature actors of color, seems to be showing more diversity these days.
“As a little girl, I would have loved to have seen that. I think it would have changed my view of myself,” she says. “That we can have imaginations and believe in fairies, too.”
Rashad knows about the power of nontraditional casting firsthand, as one of the few African-American women who have played Juliet onstage. The numerous letters she received from children and their mothers, who thanked her for being a role model, humbled Rashad. But the interracial take on Shakespeare’s tragic romance sparked hate mail as well, with vicious Twitter posts that called Rashad a “black monkey” who should “go back to the zoo.”
Such vitriol shocked Rashad at first, mostly because she’d been largely sheltered from that kind of bigotry, having been raised in a multicultural area of Mount Vernon and attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private academy in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
“Not that I didn’t know (racism) existed, but I wasn’t really exposed to it. That was the first time where I was like, ‘Wow,’” she says. “But instead of getting angry, I realized that when people say things like that, it’s because they’re threatened for some reason. …I learned not to take it too personally.”
Rashad acknowledges her privileged upbringing, while pointing out that she’s never taken advantage of her celebrity lineage. Growing up, she was well aware of her parents’ fame. Her mother, especially, was at the height of success in “The Cosby Show” when Rashad was born. But to her, they were just mom and dad.
“She’d come home, put on her apron and make some cookies. She cooked dinner for us and my dad watched the game,” remembers Rashad. “It was a very normal household.”
She credits her parents with providing a solid grounding in the entertainment business. They wouldn’t allow her to perform as a girl but were supportive when she wanted to study at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Her first professional role wasn’t until 2009, when she made a well-reviewed off-Broadway debut as a Congolese rape victim in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined.” She followed that with 2012’s “Stick Fly,” snagging her first Tony nod.
It’s not surprising that Rashad would feel comfortable treading the boards: Her most vivid childhood memories are of being backstage as her mother rehearsed for numerous off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Rashad was there at read-throughs, costume fittings and preview performances, seeing the labor that goes on behind the scenes, not just the glitz and glamour of opening night.
“I think that’s where I got my work ethic from,” she says.
And her father – a wide receiver for the St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings before becoming a sportscaster – couldn’t be more of a superfan. Despite a hectic schedule of his own, he’s never missed one of Rashad’s shows – once traveling around the world to see a college production. “I’ll never forget it. It was such a little show, in a little black box theater. But he flew all the way from South Africa to see it.”
Her parents divorced in 2001, when Rashad was a teenager, but it was a friendly split. They also made sure to instill a healthy sense of self-worth in their daughter. So she never expected to get involved in a toxic relationship, teaching her that it can happen to anyone. It was ironic, she says, that she would portray “the purest love ever” onstage in “Romeo and Juliet,” and then go home to “something that’s very dark.”
Rashad says, “I had a lot of friends that this happened to, and I was always like, ‘Well, get out.’ I thought it was so easy, and it took being in it to realize that it can really shake your outlook. All of a sudden you start to view yourself differently and it makes you stay. You have to find a way to get back to your sense of, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t going to fly.’ It’s tricky.”
Bringing Juliet to life helped her to break free, as did working with her band, Condola and the Stoop Kids. A classically trained pianist, Rashad is the lead singer of the group, which released its first album, “The Letter 9,” in January. The tracks have elements of Tina Turner and Lauryn Hill, with a more rock ’n’ roll vibe.
“The acting thing for me is on a roll, I’d say, so I’ll never stop doing that. But in my heart, I think I’m a musician who acts.”
For now, until the next acting job comes along, Rashad is living quietly. That is, until she decides to check another item off her ever-evolving bucket list. A travel junkie, she’s planning a trip to Greece for next year. Fiji is a dream destination. She wants to go skydiving one day.
Not to mention, she’s determined to work with the main members of the sprawling “Lord of the Rings” cast. So far, she’s worked with two – Bloom, of course, and “Hieroglyph” castmate John Rhys-Davies (a.k.a. Gimli the dwarf). That means a certain Oscar winner might just be next.
“Cate Blanchett,” Rashad says, giggling, “I’m coming for you.”