Broadway baby Anika Noni Rose is back from Hollywood and ready to pounce as the neglected sex kitten in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Photograph: Alison Dyer/CPI

“People think that because I’ve done this movie, my life is so different—that I’m a millionaire or something,” Anika Noni Rose says with a laugh. “That is simply not the case. It’s not the case!”

The movie in question is a little project called Dreamgirls. Rose played Lorell Robinson, joining Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson as the titular girl-group trio. It was a supporting part, like all of her other major roles to date—notably that of the teenage Emmie Thibodeaux in the landmark 2003 musical Caroline, or Change, which won her a Tony Award. But now she is ready to leap into center stage as Maggie Pollitt: the tempestuous, frustrated Southern belle at the broken heart of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

“I think this might be my first bona fide lead,” says Rose. “Miss Maggie’s not playing around. She is exhausting.” The casting of Rose in the all-black revival of Cat, scheduled to open next month at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre, has surprised people who know her only from musical theater. But her training was in serious drama (at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater), and her formidable musical instincts may be a boon in delivering Williams’s famously lyrical writing.

“Maggie is so many things: She’s tenacious, she’s fiery, she’s funny, she’s vulnerable, she’s bitchy,” notes Debbie Allen, the revival’s director. “That whole first act is like an aria, and you need to have somebody who really understands her voice.” Rose agrees. “I think of it as music,” she says. “You have so many different pieces within this piece. Tennessee writes women that are full. You get these beautiful parts, but also this nasty, ugly place that comes out. That’s so honest!”

An abiding respect for truth runs through Rose’s work. It is a hallmark of her performances, which—although quite different in style—share a vibrant simplicity and emotional directness. It is the reason she considers theater acting her natural home: “It’s a way to keep things honest, because there is no second take, no cleanup, no edit.” And it has helped Rose, who is in her thirties and describes herself as “extraordinarily private,” stay sane amid her increasing success. “I make it a point to be very honest [in interviews],” she notes. “People who spend a lot of time finding masks to put on at some point will get confused. ”

In person, Rose is a class act all the way: Smart and easygoing, she radiates decency and gentle, unpretentious seriousness. (Craftsman is a word that comes up often when she talks about actors she respects.) Although she grew up in Bloomfield, Connecticut—“very much what it sounds like: blooming fields, lots of cows”—and trained on the other coast, she lives in New York. “I love doing film, but my mind needs the reality of this city,” she says. “In L.A., if you’re not working, people don’t even look at you long enough to get to the end of your name. By the time I’m like, ‘Ani—,’ they’re done.”

People will soon be hearing her name a lot more: In addition to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rose will costar this year in the Anthony Minghella film The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (opposite Jill Scott), and has been signed to voice the princess in the upcoming Disney feature The Princess and the Frog. But her career has had its share of hurdles as well. In 2001 she was cast as Dorothy in a TV-movie version of The Wiz that ended up falling through. (“It took them a year to cancel it. I lay on the floor, I was so hurt.”) The 2003 American Idol movie From Justin to Kelly, in which she had a large part, was released to universal contempt; she initially resisted auditioning for it, she recalls, because her character had been described as “a sassy black girl.” (“I was like, ‘Please, I am not going to be wiggling my neck.’ ”) And her big song in Dreamgirls was sliced from the script before shooting began.

Behind her wide, easy smile, Rose sometimes hints at the difficulty of holding on to herself in a notoriously fickle industry. Yet if she feels frustrated, she knows how best to channel it: into the characters she plays. “There’s a fight in all these people,” she observes. “Emmie was fighting to get out of that little-ass town and that little house—she wanted out! Maggie, amazingly, wants in, and she’s fighting to stay. Lorell was fighting to be seen, to be recognized. I get it.” And here, perhaps, one catches a glimpse of the inner steel that undergirds her graceful good humor. “I’m nobody’s shrinking violet,” says Rose. “I understand what it is to fight for what you want.”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre and opens Mar 6