You might remember actress Carla Brothers as Tanya, the girlfriend of Robert Townsend’s character Duke in the 1991 film classic, The Five Heartbeats, who dealt with the triumphs and hardships of a soul-stirring R&B vocal group. The Canadian born actress who is also an accomplished violinist has appeared in numerous commercials, off-Broadway plays and in the memorable Showtime TV movie, 10,000 Black Men Named George, about the life of labor organizer, A. Philip Randolph. Carla’s television work included such iconic series as The Cosby Show, Miami Vice, One Life to Live, Third Watch and The Guiding Light. She also starred in the Broadway a cappella musical, Sheila’s Day, a play that snagged accolades globally.
After appearing in The Five Heartbeats, Carla continued to act but mostly on the new York stage so that she could focus on raising a family. Now that her two sons have reached adulthood, she is ready to not only jump back into acting but is excited about writing and producing a few innovative works as well. Carla’s current projects include writing both the book and score for an original musical. She is also developing a television series for children.
Carla chatted with 50BOLD about what it was like to work with the legendary actor, writer and film director, Robert Townsend. Carla also opens up about why it’s her time to step boldly into the next exciting stage of her career.
50BOLD: How did you get the role of Tanya Sawyer in the film The Five Heartbeats, and what was it like working with Robert Townsend?
Carla: I met Robert for the first time in New York City when I auditioned for him. I was doing a show in the city at the time and he, and a mutual friend, came to see it. He liked my work. One day, I received a call from my agent who stated Robert wanted to audition me for a role in his movie. When I went to the audition, it was so low key—more like an interview. Robert asked me a couple of questions, and instead of handing me a script, we did some improvisations to explore different aspects of my character and her relationship to his character, Duck. It was a real blast; so spontaneous and fun. Robert is a creative genius, so the entire auditioning process was absolutely delightful. I was thrilled when I landed the part.
50BOLD: It must have been a nice experience being on the Heartbeats set.
Carla: Yes, being on the film’s set was a great experience! First of all, I’m really into retro; I love the 60s and early 70s. It was fascinating being transported back; everyone on the set dressed in costumes from the era. I enjoy performing pieces from other periods because I get to handle the real artifacts from that time.
On the first day of filming, I had a pleasant surprise: I already knew three of the Heartbeats. Tico Wells who played Choirboy in the film, John Canada Terrell who played Flash, and Michael Wright who played Eddie were all my New York theater buddies. I had worked with each of them on different theater projects and knew them to be outstanding talents. Robert was so welcoming and engaging. He made us all feel like one big happy family.
With a talented cast and Robert at the helm, I quickly sensed that this film was special. The Five Heartbeats was destined to become a classic—a film that folks would enjoy for many years to come.
50BOLD: What is it about the Heartbeats film that still resonates with people?
Carla: What makes Heartbeats so endearing is that it’s a timeless human story of success, failure, the power of forgiveness. The film also has a rousing promise of redemption at the end and this makes it so relatable.
50BOLD: Have you seen Robert’s Heartbeats documentary?
Carla: Yes, I did see the documentary and it was absolutely wonderful. Robert did a fine job, there were great narratives. The documentary tells the story that Robert wanted to reveal regarding the trials and tribulations of making the film. The documentary is great on so many different levels particularly with regards to film history. In 1991, Robert dealt with quite a few obstacles in the making of the film. There was this “whole thing” surrounding Heartbeats where the industry’s powers-that-be didn’t want the movie to be too controversial.
What was most fascinating to me was that despite all the intense pressures I knew Robert was facing from the studio, he never lost his composure. He never complained on the set and never had a bad word for anyone. He was upbeat and always maintained a positive disposition.
50BOLD: Do you think things have changed enough whereas the public is more open to Black films?
Carla: Well, since the film, Moonlight’s, ‘Best Picture’ win at the Academy Award two years ago, things have changed a bit with regards to roles for African American actors. I think, eventually, we will get to a point where all great movies will be recognized for their greatness and not be defined by ethnicity. Look at the Black Panther hit film, great direction, superb acting and so very well-received. It’s not “a great Black movie”, it’s a “great movie,” period.
50BOLD: The Heartbeats did have a positive message.
Carla: Robert’s documentary touches on the positive messages within the film. In fact, it was a film about showing positives. The singer who is on drugs redeems himself and changes his life around. It was a film about five Black men who really just supported each other. Even though there was a riff at one point between the two brothers, in the end, they come back together. Even after the group had retired from singing, there was still healing and redemption. Robert created a good documentary where folks can learn more about what went on behind-the-scenes of the making of the film. The audience will enjoy the chance to hear from all the heartbeats as they share commentary throughout the film.
50BOLD: What would you say has been your greatest challenge as an actress?
Carla: I think one of the greatest challenges as an actor is how to keep one’s career active especially as you age. It’s encouraging to see all the female led projects getting off the ground so I can’t help but believe there is opportunity in there for me to act, write, and produce.
50BOLD: You want to write plays or film scripts?
Carla: Well, I’m writing a musical right now because I compose music and have this great story I’m working on. I’m also developing a TV series for children. I would like to see my current two projects come to fruition in 2019. Of course, I want to continue acting too. As an actor, you get tired of having to keep proving yourself through auditions. You could have acted in 50 movies, and still have to audition for roles. I mean, if you have a body of work, people can get a sense of what you can and can’t do. I respect Robert because he didn’t take his actors through the paces of an audition. He came from a place of…”I’ve seen their work, I like their work, and this is what I am going with!”
50BOLD: You also have a real affinity for music.
Carla: I used to play the violin and I was in the New Jersey Prep Symphony Orchestra. I have an incredible ear, and it worked for me as a young person. My ear was so in-tune that if I heard the symphony’s music a couple of times, I would memorize it. At the time, memorizing music was a curse in a way because I didn’t learn how to read music properly. My goal now is to learn music theory but not reading music properly hasn’t stopped me from composing. I’ve been composing music for 30 years. I’m writing the book for my musical and most of the music will be original compositions.
50BOLD: You took time out from your acting career to have children.
Carla: Yes, I took time out from acting to have kids and raise a family. Children must be a top priority! Now that my sons are grown, I’m rethinking projects and things that I now want to work on. I think that working consistently, being a working actor and really thriving in your career is a big challenge.
50BOLD: Have there been obstacles for you with regards to securing certain acting roles?
Carla: So sometimes I was told I wasn’t Black enough or white enough. I remember being on the set about to film a fast food commercial when the fast food executives ordered the director to get the make-up artist to “darken me up”. In their opinion, I didn’t look “Black enough.” The make-up artist was so angry because she, as an African American, knew that Black folks come in all shades: light, dark, and everything in between.
I refused to let people’s opinions and racial perceptions deter me. I decided I would have a successful career despite not fitting into some cookie cutter racial profile. Thereafter, I was fortunate to be cast in plays, TV and in movies, playing characters that looked just like me. I was “enough” just the way I was. Today just about every commercial or TV show features interracial couples or folks of mixed race. A lot has changed.
50BOLD: Regarding your acting career which was your most interesting role?
Carla: The last film I did was a 2002 Showtime TV movie called, 10,000 Black Men Named George. Andre Braugher had the lead role as the union activist, A. Philip Randolph and I played his wife. It was really a wonderful film with Mario Van Peebles and Charles Dutton who also costarred. Robert did a great job directing the film as well and it was an important story. The 10,000 Black Men story was about how the Pullman porters were not allowed to be called by their actual names on the job. They would just be addressed as “George.” They were working for poor wages and had no benefits which was why they needed a union. I loved that it was retro and took place in the 1920’s. And my character also owned a beauty salon. It was such an inspiring story about the power of fortitude and determination that needed to be told.
50BOLD: You also teach drama to children.
Carla: Well, I love kids, and I love teaching. I am an artist first—one who teaches her art, this is the way I approach it. I didn’t go to school to be an educator, and I have the greatest respect for people who do so. My heart has always been in the arts. I don’t think I can teach something that I’m not passionate about. Everyone has a mission, and giving back is wonderful. I love seeing that creative spark in others. I also teach drama and public speaking to adults. I have to honor my need to be creative. I’m like a flower that has to be watered. I’m not acting right now but I enjoy working on developing my creative projects.
Self-empowerment is a common theme in my student productions. One of the plays I wrote chronicles the Children’s March of 1963. I wanted my students to understand that children their age played an integral role alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to bring the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into fruition. The play ends asking the question, “What will you do today to make a difference in your community, your nation, your world?”
50BOLD: You have a very theatrical background. Is there a particular production that is most memorable for you?
Carla: You know, I got my acting start in theater on the New York stage. When I look back, I realize how very fortunate I was as an actor because I was able to do groundbreaking work in terms of subject matter. I did a piece called Sheila’s Day that was a parallel story about the struggle of domestic workers in South Africa during Apartheid and this was juxtaposed with the Civil Rights Movement in this country. It was a powerful piece and I’m very proud of my involvement in it. The play premiered in 1988 and ran on and off for about 10 years. The last time we performed the play was in 2010. The cast was half South African and half African Americans. The show had a wonderful mix. And I’m Canadian, you know.
50BOLD: You are Canadian?
Carla: Yes, I was born in Nova Scotia and I’m biracial. My mom is white from Prince Edward Island and my dad is Black from Nova Scotia; they’re both deceased now. People always assumed that my father was American because they didn’t know anything about the history of African Canadians. Historically, Nova Scotia possessed a very large African Canadian population, so much so that at one time in the early 1800’s, it was said that it had the largest population of African descent people in North America. There was even a town named Africville which existed from the early 1800’s to the 1960’s. Today there’s a large African Canadian museum that is a great historical resource. In addition, the television series, The Book of Negroes, aptly chronicles the history of African Canadians in Nova Scotia.
50BOLD: What would you like our readers to know about you?
Carla: I’d like your readers to know that my best is yet to come! I’m a little older and a whole lot wiser (laughs). The projects I’m working on now reflect a more complete picture of who I am, and what I want to express as a woman, and as an artist. The musical I am writing is about a woman’s coming age story; it’s about the power of love and healing. I am prepared for liftoff and ready to soar!