Renée Elise Goldsberry isn’t afraid to have it all. As she speaks to The Glow Up from her suite at the Essex Hotel in New York City while getting “all glammed up,” she explains that her 8-year-old son is resting in a nearby suite. He’s out of school for the day because of a cough.
“I couldn’t send him to school, and my babysitter wasn’t here, and my husband had to go to work,” she says, laughing. “I mean, you know, these are choices that you make when you have a very busy, exciting moment, launching a show that I love.”
That show is Altered Carbon, a bingeworthy dystopian drama that debuted on Netflix on Feb. 2. As Quellcrist Falconer, the unassuming architect of Altered Carbon’s dark futuristic universe (among other things), Goldsberry has seemingly chosen to do an about-face from the characters she has become known for. After all, this is the same woman who won a 2016 best actress Tony for portraying Angelica Schuyler in the Broadway smash Hamilton and, in 2017, immortalized Henrietta Lacks in HBO’s Oprah-produced The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
But if there’s a through-line between these very different characters (two of whom were based on actual women), it’s that each is, in her own way, a hero. Whether cast as the confidante of one of America’s Founding Fathers, the genesis of some of the greatest medical breakthroughs in American history or—as Quellcrist Falconer—a warrior woman in a futuristic wasteland, Goldsberry consistently gravitates toward heroic women.
It was a role she almost declined, since it would require shooting in Vancouver—more than a minor consideration for the New York-based actress, wife and mother of two small children, as she tells The Glow Up:
I was put on the phone with Laeta Kalogridis [showrunner for Altered Carbon]. I did not know the book. I did not know the story. ... I didn’t imagine there was anything she could say to me that would move me from New York City and put me into this other realm.
One of the first things she said is that “I feel that my mission in life is to create worlds where the “heroine”—[actually] she didn’t say “heroine,”she said, “where the hero is a woman of color.” And I was done pretty much at that. That’s all I really needed to hear.
But if the character of Quellcrist Falconer is one of the heroes of the world that Altered Carbon inhabits—which has drawn comparisons to both The Matrix and Blade Runner—she is also complex: equal parts warrior, mastermind and love interest. It’s a distinction that is significant to Goldsberry, and all too rare in the roles she’s traditionally been offered. She says:
I’ve spent a lot of my time as a woman of color in this business, and most often, we’re relegated to making a “destiny couple” interesting, but typically, never the goal—the “destiny woman”—the woman that wars are fought over. That’s normally saved for a woman that looks different than us. And that is not the case in this world.
And that is so necessary for us—for all people. We need to see women in roles where we are leaders; we need to see worlds in which the man that’s the supposed savior of the world has one mission in life, and that is to satisfy the vision and the mission of the woman that he believes in, the woman that basically created him.
That’s what’s real, and that’s what’s true and that’s we don’t typically get to see. And it’s really important. And it’s always been important. And the opportunity comes too rarely, as far as I’m concerned.
Goldsberry considers her career to be one based on aligning herself and her choices with storytellers—like Hamilton scribe and star Lin-Manuel Miranda—who have a vision she believes in. Being part of a now iconic work of art is a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly.
When you know that the storyteller’s mission is something that the world needs, it’s the place where I want to be. ...
I think as actresses, we flirt with so many things. ... We’re up for so many things and we do so many things, and they hit or they miss. So I just give all glory to God for the fact that I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t know to ask for it, but it’s a beautiful thing for that soundtrack and that piece of art in the world to be what I’m associated with. And I try to be very responsible with what I do and what I follow that up with, specifically because of, you know, the level and the integrity of that piece, Hamilton.
Altered Carbon has a different type of integrity, raising questions of the significance of the soul while confronting the quest for eternal life—a conflict that may ultimately be humanity’s undoing. And Goldsberry seems especially equipped for her role as Falconer—a woman reckoning with her own contradictions as she also challenges, navigates and conquers a world of her own making; not unlike the actress herself. Reconciling those contradictions is a challenge Goldsberry happily accepts:
I didn’t—when I envisioned this day—think I would have an 8-year-old upstairs eating pancakes waiting for me, but that’s kind of the chaos of this life that I have, and it’s a miracle to me. I worked really hard—I mean, I feel like I worked harder to have that family than even this career that I’m blessed with.
And so, in these really kind of inconvenient moments, I’m actually pretty grateful that I had to work that hard, because I’m immediately aware—when I’m quote-unquote “burdened” by being a mother, or a wife, and all the other things I have to do, on top of it—I’m immediately aware that this is what I begged, cried and prayed for. ...
I feel like this is something that I encourage all women to do: Get in this battle, get in this fight, ask for more than just your career. Ask for your family life, too. It’s not easy—you will lose a lot of sleep—but it is the most fulfilling thing I know, the opportunity to do both.”
The Glow Up tip: The first season of Altered Carbon is streaming now on Netflix.