Interviews

In a New Documentary, Renée Elise Goldsberry Recounts Her Journeys to Motherhood and Hamilton

Goldsberry and codirector Chris Bolan share the secrets of Satisfied.

You think you know someone, but you never really know their struggles. As Renée Elise Goldsberry rode high over the course of her career, she was dealt a series of crushing personal disappointments, which, in retrospect, serve to highlight her strength of character. Goldsberry and her husband, Alexis Johnson, experienced multiple pregnancy losses, both early and late, experiences that she discusses in great detail in her new documentary, Satisfied, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Directed by Chris Bolan and Melissa Haizlip, Satisfied blends new footage with vlogs Goldsberry shot in the years leading up to her Tony-winning triumph in Hamilton. We watch her two kids, Benjamin and Brielle, grow up before our eyes. And we see Goldsberry’s strength play out right in front of us as she creates the role of Angelica Schuyler, she recounts how the struggles along her path shaped her life.

Here, Goldsberry and Bolan discuss the journey itself, and what’s important to remember while you watch.

2024 06 16 TheaterMania Tony Awards Arrivals 307
Renée Elise Goldsberry
(© Tricia Baron)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you Renée and Chris find each other?
Renée Elise Goldsberry: We met through the magical, luminous Kelli O’Hara. I’ve been aware of Kelli peripherally since I’ve been on my motherhood journey. [Director] Kathleen Marshall put me on the map in the world of theater in Shakespeare in the Park’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, which was the biggest moment of my career to that date. Kathleen’s next show was The Pajama Game, which also had this “Where has she been our whole lives?” leading lady [O’Hara]. While I was doing Two Gents, I was pregnant and nobody knew, and when I went to see Pajama Game, I remember thinking “Kelli’s going to get to have the moment that I’m not going to have.”

Unfortunately, I lost that baby, and the next time, my Benjamin pregnancy, Kelli was also pregnant. I digress…the point is, Kelli O’Hara also lives near me, and it was Covid, and she invited my daughter Brielle to an outdoor, socially distanced tap class at Chris Bolan’s house. I’d been up the whole night before trying to pull all the vlogs I’d ever done out of the cloud, and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. And Kelli said, “You need to give them to that guy.” Chris walked out of the house in a robe and slippers, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a video camera in the other.

Chris Bolan: And a nice, big Covid beard. The Big Lebowski comes out.

Renée: He and I just clicked. At this point, I knew enough about the quicksand of development,t and I said to everybody around me “I want to do this documentary with him. We’re not vetting anything. We’re just going to do it.” And that’s why it’s coming out four years later. If we had done it through the proper channels, it would be 2037.

Chris: I felt bad, because if I had told her this was going to take four years, she probably would have been like “No way.”

Renée: I wouldn’t have. That’s the beauty of it. I didn’t see it coming that we would be finishing on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of Hamilton. I didn’t see it coming that it would be baked at the same time as all this original music I’ve been writing. This four-year period was really the curing process for telling the story in many ways.

Chris, you’re presented with a treasure trove of Dropbox files.
Chris: Six terabytes worth of information.

Wow. How do you find the story arc in that?
Chris: It was incredibly difficult in the edit. I cannot thank our editors and our archival producers enough. They are the unsung heroes. The amount of stuff they had to sift through just to figure out how to thread the needle, and how to not overshadow Renée’s story with Hamilton.

We probably spoke for six hours during Covid just to see what we had, if it was a short or a feature. I watched her vlogs and I found her incredibly charismatic. She’s so compelling to watch, and that’s when we were like “I think we’ve got something here.”

We spent a whole weekend once, two years ago, just me and the archival producer scanning everything. Part of the deal I made to Renée and her mom is that I’d make hard drives for them, so they have it preserved in perpetuity. And Betty, who I’ve grown to love so much, was like “Ok Chris, I’m going to hold you to that.”

Renée: She was very nervous about sending him her photo albums from back in the day. “Can I trust that I’ll get this back?” And I’m like, “This is what you’re worried about? Your pictures coming back?”

Chris: We’re happy with the way it turned out, but it was tough. We were in the edit room for almost a year. But it was an embarrassment of riches having Renée in the room. She is the most incredibly trusting person I’ve ever met. I went to her house, and she gave me her heart and her hard drive. It was so much fun getting to dig into her life, and it was such a blessing to have so much, because it gave the film such texture and a nice arc.

Renée: I wish I had more footage. I wish I hadn’t lost my phone [from the Hamilton era]. Almost all of us [in the original cast] have lost the phones we had at that time, which we didn’t back up because we were so busy. I’m more aware of what we don’t have, but I’m grateful for what we do have. But I wish I had more.

Renée, tell me about the emotions you experience looking back through a time that was so joyous, but also so fraught.
Renée: One of my best friends said to me the other day, “This is so shockingly brave of you.” And I’m like “Really?” I feel very transparent about anything I’ve been through in terms of family planning and the difficulties. I’ve been asked to speak publicly in different places about the parenting struggle and the fertility struggle, and yet, I’ve felt unqualified to speak because I was always still in it.

At this moment, I am leaving the chapter of my life where I’m trying to have children, and I see so many people that I know and love who are in it, and I want to be like “It’s going to be different for you, but this is how it went for me.” Here’s the thing you take for granted: I’m a privileged person because I have help and support and it’s a two-parent home and I could do fertility treatment and all these things. This is a privileged person’s journey that you’re watching, let’s be mindful of that.

What felt like a risk to me was exploiting my children. This is not my story alone. For me to stand on a platform and talk about this is my choice, but what is their choice? That felt very important to me to be protective of. Another thing that felt like a risk was making sure that we weren’t just doing another documentary about Hamilton.

It’s awkward to have a documentary. Being the subject is very uncomfortable to me, because who the hell am I? I’m going to watch a documentary about Dionne Warwick. I’ve seen Jane Fonda’s documentary. There are people who’ve had a lifetime of a career that deserve a documentary, and it’s not Renée Elise Goldsberry, you know what I mean?

We wanted to make sure that this is the story of one woman’s journey, and if it’s helpful to you, here we go. It’s not a vanity project. I’m annoyingly picky about how we make clip reels and what the trailer looks like.

And this is a triumphant story. There’s challenge and struggle, but there’s so much joy in it. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. We make sure that this is a universal, even if you’re not in a hit Broadway show.