Meet this year’s NU Alumnae of the Year Award recipient: Tony award winner Heather Headley

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Courtesy of the Alumnae Association

Heather Headley is the 2020 Alumnae Award recipient. The Tony award winning actress has credits in Broadway’s “The Lion King” and “Aida” as well as Netflix’s “Sweet Magnolias.”

Rebecca Aizin, Arts and Entertainment Editor

Heather Headley left her junior year at Northwestern fully expecting to return the following September. That year, she made her Broadway debut instead.

Headley’s credits include “Ragtime,” “The Lion King” and “Aida,” for which she won a Tony Award for Best Actress in 2000. Most recently, Headley starred in television shows “Chicago Med” and Netflix’s “Sweet Magnolias.” Last week, Headley was presented with the 2020 Alumnae Award, an accolade that was a long time coming, Carolyn Krulee, president of the Alumnae of NU, said.

When she moved to the United States at age 15 from Trinidad, Headley never would have expected the future that lay ahead of her. At NU, which she attended from 1993 to 1996, Headley began following her passion in the performing arts, starting with the Waa-Mu show.

Professor emeritus Dominic Missimi, who directed the show, knew immediately that Heather was a talent like no other.

“From the minute she walked in (to the audition), she was beautiful and elegant and then she opened her mouth and I thought it was perfection,” Missimi said. “In terms of talent, there is a great abundance of it, but what she has in equal abundance is a beautiful humanity.”

It was the musical theater world that pursued Headley, rather than the other way around. The young actress got her first offer after her junior year of college to work in “Ragtime,” a new Broadway show at the time.

The role would require her to drop out of college — a decision her mother was not too keen on — but one Headley ultimately decided would be best after speaking to Missimi and her other professors.

“(At what point) does musical theater stop pursuing you, and you start running after it?” Headley said. “Something you love reckons you and you realize it’s calling my name and now you’re chasing it.”

Though her time at NU was cut short, Headley said it was integral in aiding her with the rest of her acting and professional career. She said even today, people are in awe and give her a certain level of added respect when they learn she attended NU.

“Every part of your journey is a step and preparation for the other part,” Headley said.

After her work on “Ragtime” and “The Lion King,” Headley took on the role of Aida, one she claims was her most challenging and rewarding to date. Her character went through every emotion during the three hour span of the show, from joy and anger to love and sadness, requiring Headley to experience a full arc of feelings throughout the performance.

She said she felt a responsibility to give every audience the best show she could give them, which was challenging when she had to balance her physical health and personal life.

“If I had to write a book about myself, she would get three chapters,” Headley said. “I had to grow to play Aida, and she grew me even more.”

When preparing for a role, Headley said she always wants to make the characters as believable as possible and to hone in on what makes the characters human and why they act the way they do, even when playing a “bad guy.” While playing Aida, she focused on Aida’s character arc, to ensure she was able to bring her truly to life.

Headley said her best advice for college students pursuing a career in theater is to always be prepared for the “no’s.” While “no” is heard in the theater industry disproportionately more often, it is important not to get discouraged, she said.

“Every no leads to a yes and the ultimate yes is always coming,” she said. “You want to love what you do so much that you could perform for 10 people or 100,000 and it will be the same performance.”

Though Headley’s career has proven to be extraordinarily successful, she still faced an incredible amount of negative feedback over the years and made difficult decisions to reject certain opportunities that came her way. Had she said yes to everything, especially if she had not said no to NU, she would not be where she was today, Headley said.

In 2018, Headley performed a benefit concert for Over The Rainbow Association, an organization that builds housing where people with severe physical disabilities can live independently. It was organized by Bienen professor and artistic director Nancy Gustafson.

The concert was met with such an overwhelmingly positive response, Gustafson asked her to do it again the following year and said she developed an admiration and respect for Headley along the way.

“Heather is not only a world class singer and actress, she is also one of my heroes,” Gustafson said during Headley’s award reception. “When someone uses their gifts to inspire our youth, inspire our faith and lift our communities, these are the greatest heroes of all.”

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Twitter: @rebecca_aizin

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