After years of auditions, Baltimore-born actress Tracie Thoms finally gets her dream job.

'Rent' check

November 24, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

New York -- Tracie Thoms is a self-confessed "Renthead," as diehard fans of the Broadway musical Rent call themselves.

But the day the movie version of Rent premiered in New York, Thoms wasn't one of the fans across from the red carpet, she was on the red carpet.

The 30-year-old Baltimore native is one of two newcomers playing a lead role in the just-released movie, which also stars six original Broadway cast members and fellow Rent newcomer Rosario Dawson (who happens to be a Hollywood star). Compared with this esteemed company, Thoms dubs herself "this completely unknown chick." It's a phrase she probably won't be able to use much longer.

For one thing, Thoms' photo is all over town. On the way to a rehearsal for an appearance on ABC's The View, she glances out the limo window and with restrained delight exclaims: "There's my picture!" Recently, her picture has also been in Elle and Essence magazines. The day before the movie's New York premiere, Los Angeles' Venice magazine photographed her for its Oscar issue. She and the cast have appeared on Live With Regis and Kelly, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and twice on the Today show.

Months before the movie opened, Thoms started attracting her own fans -- a Renthead subset called "Thomcats." A group screamed out her name when she stepped out of the car at 5 a.m. Aug. 4 for the first Today show appearance, and one especially devoted fan has set up an unofficial Web site.

Rent -- Jonathan Larson's megahit updating of Puccini's La Boheme -- is about young artists hoping for their big breaks, and the movie could easily be Thoms'. "The propellant in terms of celebrity is remarkable," acknowledges Donald Hicken, head of the drama department at Thoms' alma mater, Baltimore School for the Arts.

"If anybody can handle this trajectory, [Thoms] can," Hicken says. "I'm really very comfortable with her ability to withstand all the craziness that is associated with fame."

Indeed, wearing jeans, a fisherman's knit sweater, a quilted black parka and no makeup, Thoms is dressed in a manner as modest as her unassuming attitude. If anything, she still seems a bit surprised she got hired for Rent. After all, she auditioned for it nine times.

The drawn-out process began eight years ago, not long after she saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical on Broadway, back when it starred the same actors who would later be her co-stars. At the time, she was an undergraduate at Washington's Howard University, and she had done her share of school, community theater and dinner theater musicals. "I was beginning to think maybe musicals weren't feeding me, weren't giving me everything I want because so many of them are kind of fluffy," she says between bites of a smoked salmon omelette at a favorite Chelsea diner. "When I saw Rent, I thought, `That's the kind of musical I want to do.'"

Thoms was about to enter graduate school at Juilliard when she auditioned the first time. She tried out for two parts -- Joanne (the lawyer girlfriend of performance artist Maureen) and the ensemble member who sings the solo in the song "Seasons of Love." If she'd been hired, she would have skipped Juilliard. Instead, this turned out to be the first of a half-dozen auditions for the Broadway show. Then came two auditions for director Spike Lee, when he was attached to the movie. A year ago, she learned that Chris Columbus (the first two Home Alone and Harry Potter movies) was going to direct the film, and she made an audition tape.

Columbus not only hired her on the basis of the tape alone, he combined the two roles she originally set out for, casting her as Joanne and then giving Joanne the "Seasons of Love" solo, complete with its rafter-raising high-C final note. "Tracie's the first person who was able to do the work of two women," the director says.

When one of Columbus' fellow producers insisted he meet Thoms before finalizing the deal, the actress flew out to the West Coast. "I knew I made the right decision as soon as she walked in the door," Columbus says. "She's incredibly charming. Her comic timing is super. Add to that the fact that she can sing and dance, and it's very difficult to resist casting her."

Although anyone who hears the soundtrack of Rent may find it difficult to believe, Thoms has never studied singing. Furthermore, when she was a child, singing professionally was the last thing her family ever thought she'd do. "I remember her singing in her bedroom, and I said, `Where did she get that voice? It's terrible,'" recalls her father, Donald Thoms, a vice president of production for the Discovery networks.

But Tracie emphasizes that her father and mother -- Mariana, a social worker -- never told her she couldn't sing. Instead, they channeled her energies into dance lessons with Wally Saunders and acting lessons at the Baltimore Actors' Theatre and Arena Players Youtheatre.

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