Character Study

Actress Valisia LeKae has taken a thoughtful approach to her career by using her UT degree in psychology as a way to understand her characters and their behavior and emotions. It’s clearly working: She recently earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway performance as the legendary Diana Ross.

Valisia LeKae“Any good psychologist will have a therapist of their own,” says Valisia LeKae (’01) with a laugh.

The audience responds with laughter of their own. LeKae is speaking to a group of UT psychology students in the University Center. Although she holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, LeKae knows what it’s like to have an audience. It’s hard not to when you’re a Tony-nominated actress.

The jump from studying psychology to performing as Diana Ross in Broadway’s Motown the Musical isn’t as drastic as you might think. The characters LeKae portrays may be fictional, but she still has to get into their heads, think how they would think, behave like them in a believable way, and make them absolutely real when the curtains rise.

“I appreciate characters from an emotional perspective,” says LeKae, who has no formal training in acting or singing. “I feel their emotions and ask myself, ‘Why would she make these choices?’ On stage, I have to listen in that moment.”

Psychology was a natural fit for LeKae when she arrived at UT. LeKae already saw herself as a good listener and in high school had interviewed a psychologist.

“I watched this person help make lives better,” she says. “I found my love.”

But having grown up singing in her church and putting quarters in the jukebox in her grandfather’s barbershop, LeKae couldn’t suppress her singing and acting aspirations, either. She saw earning a psychology degree as a way to pursue a different career if she later wanted to switch from performing full-time.

“I felt comfortable,” LeKae says. “With psychology, I knew I could go anywhere.”

LeKae is definitely going places. Having already earned a Tony nomination for portraying Diana Ross on stage, she wants to eventually dive into film and TV. And if she wants, she can always jump back into psychology:

“My degree has served me very well.”