COVER STORY – JIM PARSONS

Photography: Dennis Tejero at ADB Agency

Fashion Editor/Interview: Marc Sifuentes

Grooming: Melissa Dezarate at The Wall Group

Production: Savvie

Photo Assistants: Ben Kasun, Jai Castillo

Location: The Stonewall Inn

 

A sharp tongue, quick wit, and great timing have often been the ingredients necessary to make a movie star, but the ability to spin those talents into a career of longevity and diversity are far rarer.

Born and raised in Houston, TX, Jim Parsons followed a winding path of community theater, small gigs, and part-time commercial acting until his break-out role as Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory”. While many actors struggle to break free of such well-known characters, Parsons’ talent and industry acumen have helped produce a portfolio that includes a starring role and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood”, an independent production company with his husband, Todd Spiewak, and numerous accolades for his role in Netflix’s The Boys in the Band.

In an interview with the multi-hyphenate, we got a look into the road map that turned Parsons into the well-known and well-accoladed actor and producer he is today. With us, Jim explores a perspective shift of a young man interested in community theater in Houston to an artist trying to make ends meet in New York, the untimely death of a father that inspired a new chapter in his career, and wrestling with his identity as a gay man in a world just starting to normalize his identity.

Parson’s outlook, unique in its optimism and trust in himself, is ultimately infectious and inspiring. From coping with personal tragedy to starting a new chapter in life, Jim Parsons has always tried “not to grasp the sand too hard and just let things happen,” and it seems to have worked so far.

 

Suit, sweater and shirt by Gucci

 

When you were growing up in Houston and you became inspired to get into the world of the arts, was it always in the form of theatre that you were drawn to? 

Yes, it was immediately. I knew that I wanted to be an actor. My mother had these children’s books “What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?” type of books, and for years I would say I wanted to be a movie star. I don’t know what I meant by that, and I don’t know what triggered it. I know I was in a play in first grade which obviously made a big impact. But I don’t actually remember that being the turning point.

I will say that my love of theatre is just a fortunate act of circumstance. We had plays in our school, and I did them, but that was the only outlet I had for acting as a youngster growing up in Houston. It’s not like my parents were getting me into auditions for local movies or anything, we didn’t even know how to do such a thing.

Houston has an incredible art scene. But, growing up there, I wasn’t exposed to the arts until I was in high school. I worked as an usher when I was around sixteen for the big theatre spaces in downtown like Jones Hall, The Wortham or the Alley Theatre. So, I think it’s interesting to hear when you became aware of these outlets particularly the more underground ones, like the now-defunct independent theater company, Infernal Bridegroom Productions?

I honestly wasn’t very motivated during my junior and senior years before going into college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to get into. I mean acting seemed very risky and luckily my parents were never discouraging to me, but they weren’t people who came from a situation where acting was even an option. Like they wouldn’t have pushed me in that direction either. So, my first year at the University of Houston I personally didn’t do theater, but I was around people who were doing it. And by the end of my first year, I felt very strongly that I needed to give it a shot. There was nothing else in my life going on. It’s kind of like when people always ask you if there is anything else you can do. I felt at that point in time there really wasn’t anything calling me. Everything else sounded like I was just settling.

What were you going to college for at the time? 

I don’t know what it’s called anymore. Something in the communications department like radio and television. I guess I thought that maybe I would go into broadcast, like a weatherman or something. But looking back, it was naïve that I didn’t realize that you needed to major in journalism, or you needed to major in meteorology you know, and the on-camera stuff would be obviously secondary to that. 

Infernal Bridegroom came from eventually being in theatre at the University of Houston I was brought to them by another classmate that was already involved. I had been doing some college shows and I was really having a great time, but I found the idea of doing things out of the scholastic environment, with a different group of people and surroundings, really exciting. 

IRIS: Looking back now, what advice would you give to young actors that are just starting out. Do you think it still stands true today to say yes to everything? Which in your case, also meant working for free a lot of the times? 

Yes, I do firmly believe that saying yes to as many things as you can is really the key. It’s easier said than done because the hard part is making sure you find the right people or situations that have opportunities to offer. 

Just like any other job, there’s only so much you can teach, only so much you can theorize about. But when you’re acting on a stage with lights on you and people staring at you, there’s no substitute for getting used to that unless you are doing it. So much of it is about building confidence. That’s what it was about for me. And then, of course, if you want to make a career out of it, there does come a point in time where you have to decide I’m no longer working for free. I don’t remember ever saying I’m not going to work for free anymore that never happened for me. Hell, I’d still work for free depending on what the project was. 

Suit and Shirt by Canali

IRIS: What was the main motivating factor that pushed you out of Houston and to New York?

I remember I was really getting to do a lot of work in Houston, and I was very happy with it in many ways, but there was a practical side of me that was like, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this,” since at the time there were so few people that were able to make a living off acting in Houston. So I kind of felt strongly that it was New York or LA.

I went to grad school and did a showcase in New York, and I knew a couple of people living here already. So a friend let me live with him, and it just kind of made sense. It’s funny going over any of this with you just how much scarier it sounds to me looking back than it did at the time. It felt like I didn’t really have much of a choice at the time. I felt this is just what I needed to do, this is what I am going to do. But looking back, I know all these things fell into place, all the fortunate things that happened or people I met. It’s now so easy to see the thread being pulled and things completely changing for me. So that’s the advice I would give a young actor – let your ignorance be your bliss and keep going.

IRIS: I read that you were doing some commercial work and then you ended up with a contract with CBS. So then would you say that your first big break was the “Big Bang Theory?”

Yes and no. It was definitely the big break in the obvious way of a lot of people seeing the show and being a consistent, well-paid acting job, but honestly it was the little things that came together. It was the commercials, the off-Broadway plays. They weren’t things that a lot of people were seeing, and they weren’t providing enough of a stable income, but I met great people. Again, it goes back to building the confidence. It felt like I was on the right journey and that was crucial for me. I think it’s so hard to wonder when or if anything is going to happen, and it is these little paths along the way that kind of give you a tiny little shove. They all add up. When I did get the audition for “Big Bang” I felt it was the appropriate time. I didn’t know if I was going to get it, but I didn’t feel like I was unworthy. I felt like, “I’m here and I’ve been working and I’m trying to get things going.” And so that’s what I would say about the big break. It was all the tiny little ones before that. 

IRIS: I was thinking about being a lead in a successful show like Big Bang, which is in syndication and can be seen anywhere in the world on any given day. Did you ever feel you might want to break away from being Sheldon for fear of being typecast? 

What I realize now, as far as typecasting goes, is if that if they want to typecast you, there’s really not a lot you can do to stop them. I was fortunate enough to find a few people who are interested in working with me on other things and taking a journey on projects outside my realm. That’s where I’ve been very fortunate, and I feel so very grateful. 

I never would have wanted to stop playing Sheldon because of the association with him or the show, or for fear of being typecast. I knew it was the end of the line for me, not because I didn’t want to do it anymore, but because I felt it had run its course. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I can’t imagine something I could list that I’m more grateful for than that entire experience. But twelve years was a long time for me to play a fairly intense character. He’s a big personality, you know? I was going to be 47 when those twelve years ended, and my dad had died when he was 52, and that just gave me a very unique perspective. I said to myself, “you know what? What if you’ve only got six years left to live?” And looking at it like that, there’s other things that I need to get done.

Suit and Shirt by Berluti, Shoes by Gucci

IRIS: Which brings us to your latest venture as the head of your own production company. It has already produced some pretty successful shows for Netflix, HBO and Fox. How did you start this new foray into producing? 

I did not know if I wanted to do it at first. I did not know exactly what it meant to do it. I am still five years into this and still learning what it means to do it. But I did feel it was a real gift, and I wasn’t afraid of failing at it. I felt that no one was going to care if I succeeded at it or not, but if we have this opportunity we should take it.  I use the word ‘we’ because my deal is very specifically both mine and my husband Todd’s. I would not have done it without him. I knew that for sure and if anything, I’ve only learned that to a greater and greater degree as this has gone on. Todd wasn’t in the business until he met me. He sees things much differently than I do. When we’re looking at something at the production company, I can see his brain work differently, receiving information about shows or scripts or whatever. He’s very good at dealing with all the different personalities involved, I’m really not, and that’s been one of the main reasons this has been a successful venture so far.

IRIS: Speaking of your husband Todd, I was watching an interview where you were talking about you two meeting on a blind date nearly nineteen years ago and I was curious, when did you know that he was the one? Was it love at first sight? 

No, but I did know very soon. I won’t say that night only because I was always a little too stable for thoughts like that. He would argue with me on that one. I would say within a couple of weeks after the first blind date almost nineteen years ago, I knew that this was very much worth pursuing, and I knew that I thought he was very special. You know, we met November 15th, and by the end of December I had basically moved into his apartment. It was really the most romantic time of my whole life. I’ll never forget he took off a week from work for the holidays in December and I had never had so much fun as running around New York with him. I remember going to the coin cashing machine at the supermarket on New Year’s Eve, and he had two pillowcases full of loose change that we dumped into the machine, and that’s what we used to go out that night. I remember we got pizza and bought alcohol. I don’t know, everything was just through rose-colored glasses that’s for sure. We just had our 18th anniversary together. 

We got married in 2018. But you know back in 2002 when we met, gay marriage was barely a thing. It wasn’t legal yet. It was a long evolutionary process for me to care about getting married, it really was. It took me a long time to realize that, not having seen examples of gay marriage, I had lived so much of my life without that dream. It was part of the reason it became important for me to do it. I really wanted our relationship to contribute to the visibility of gay marriage and help people have that dream too, if that’s what they want.

IRIS: I want to make sure we talk about “The Boys in The Band.” The Broadway production was such a big hit, I’m curious, what did you have to do mentally to creatively switch between the stage to the screen?

Before we were actually working on the movie, I was kind of overly anxious about it. I had such a profound summer working on that play.  A huge part of it was just that I love playing that role, I loved getting to be in that play and I really loved getting to work with a group of all gay actors, director, writer and producer. I think it was just a gay extravaganza. 

I always think of my first times, and I imagine a lot of gay people do depending on where you grew up and when you grew up, like the first few times you walk into a gay bar and you immediately feel like, “Oh, I don’t have to hide anything here.” Only when you feel that do you realize the depths to which you’ve been hiding certain things just to get along and to get by. I hope a lot of that has changed by now. I think that is why I was all the more surprised at how powerful working with all of these gay actors was. There’s a language spoken in shared experiences. So, I’m only telling this because all of that made me very anxious to work on the movie because it had been such a wonderful experience as a play, I was worried we might mar the production. 

We were very fortunate that we only had to do a few days of rehearsal because we had all done the play not long ago. We all knew this stuff and it quickly became clear within a day that it was going to be great. It was thrilling. I felt myself relax more and more, knowing I can do these lines a million different ways and calibrate it or just completely change it. I would give them options.

On Broadway, the actors are utterly responsible for getting the story told and it does affect me. The number of risks I’m willing to take, the number of things I’m willing to try in the spur of the moment. It’s calibrated because I can’t risk the point not getting made. But with the movie I thought there is so much freedom to be explored here because the director and the editor have to put this shit together at the end. I can do eight completely different takes of a single scene and then they can pick and choose, and they will tell the story. But I can take some of that responsibility off my shoulders. I knew that we could all trust ourselves because we knew the story that had to be told.

Suit and Shirt by Alexander McQueen

IRIS: I watched The Boys in the Band the day it came out on Netflix and still remember one of the final scenes where you’re about to walk out the door, talking about the loss of your father. It was such a strong scene. Did the memory of your father ever come into play during that scene?

Yes, I feel like my father affects all of my work in all ways. So, when it’s specific like it was there and it’s a character who also has lost their father then yes, I do think it is more obvious in my head. But I really do think about him everyday, and not in a sorrowful way. And not always even just celebratory either. I don’t know. I feel his presence, I firmly believe that. I always have, from the moment he was taken from us I felt that he was with us and always would be. I have never veered from that or doubted that. There can be a real gift to these tragedies if you’re able to appreciate your life more with these beings that are no longer.

IRIS: Do you think you get your dry sense of comedic timing from your mom or your dad.

My dad. No that’s not fair, I shouldn’t say that so quickly my mom would be insulted. She is very funny because she was a teacher. She was the talker; she was the more showman of the two of them. He was a quiet one. He had a very dry sense of humor. He had really good sense of timing. He knew when to throw in commentary, as it were. He knew when to throw in his one liner. I definitely didn’t appreciate it at the time. I mean some of it was dad humor, but it was being applied, I see now, very skillfully.

It’s interesting the older you get, especially when a parent is gone, you are able to see them as human and not the parental figure. I found it really frees me to get a clearer view of him which is another blessing of the tragedy. 

IRIS: You did mention earlier you’re about to start a new movie.

Hopefully! Everything’s crazy now, as you can imagine, but a couple of years ago we had optioned a book called “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words” by Michael Ausiello. I was on vacation when I read it. I don’t know if I really intended on crying so much during the vacation. And then Todd read it and reacted similarly to me, but he was the one to have the idea of optioning it for our production company and for me to star in the movie. I said I didn’t think that was a good idea. I thought it was a great book, but I wasn’t wanting to go through that heartbreaking experience. But the more I thought about it, I knew he was absolutely right; it is rare that I read anything that affects me at this level. So, we did option it, and it came out in the trades or whatever. We thew around director names, and one of the top dream names was Michael Showalter. We felt that he would be such a good fit for he clearly knows comedy and he clearly knows good entertainment. He has this grounded foundation of human connectivity. Anyway, the news came out that we had the option and, lo and behold, he contacted us. I couldn’t believe it came true!

Jacket and Suit by Salvatore Ferragamo

IRIS: You have been lucky to have had a lot of great things fall into place it seems.

The universal system is always that fine balance between striving and letting go, and it can be hard when it’s important to you. I remember being in an acting class towards the end of graduate school, a class about auditioning, what it means, the practicalities. It wasn’t the most interesting acting class, but it was the most harrowing and stomach-turning class. I remember the teacher telling me the whole career of an actor is like trying to hold sand. If you squeeze too hard, you lose it. You lose a lot of it. It was such a good example and I always remember it because it bears repeating time and time again. 

It’s true for love and dating too. You have to both try to not grasp the sand too hard and just let things happen. There is only so much you can do. Now why did you get me started on this?

IRIS: I’m going to start thinking of opportunities using that metaphor. See? You’re already helping me cope!

Well, that’s what I’m here for. I’m glad I can help the people!

Suit and Shirt by Teddy VonRanson

 

 

WILLOW SHIELDS STAR OF NEW NETFLIX SERIES SPINNING OUT

Dress and Coat by Versace

Photographers: Fionayeduardo @fionayeduardo
Art Direction: Louis Liu @herecomeslouis
Styling: Marc Sifuentes @marc.sifuentes
Hair: Austin Burns @austinkburns
Make-up: Agus Suga @Agus Suga
Production Assistant: Benjamin Price @benprice4real
Location: Colony Studios @colonystudios

Interview by Regina Moretto

Top by Marc Jacobs

Hunger Games alum Willow Shields deftly navigates her acting career with the confident beauty and grace of an ice skater. 

The beguiling illusion of easy jumps and spins requires many hours of handwork and tenacity; quite similar to the dedication, preparation and training expected of an actor, which makes watching this young star transcend new roles all the more intriguing.  Starting out with a box office smash at the early age of 12, surrounded by the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the precedent was set for Shield’s strong work ethic which helps drive her blossoming career. 

We sat down with Shields amidst her busy schedule to talk about her latest project; Netflix series Spinning Out.  Spinning Out, created by Samantha Stratton, is a series based on a figure skating Olympic hopeful struggling to balance her dreams of competition and the state of her family’s battle with mental health all while her dream of winning takes a dizzying hold.  Never one to remain idle for too long, Shields shared with us a few additional projects her fans can look forward to seeing her in soon. 

Sweater by Proenza Schouler White Label, Hat by Dara Senders

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?

I started acting when I was about seven but working on my first big film and experiencing the creativity and tight knit community involved in the acting world was when I knew I would love this job.

What was your first big break into entertainment?

I did an episode of a show called In Plain Site when I was about eight and that was my first experience on set. But I guess my big break into entertainment was two years later when I did the first Hunger Games film.

Fans know you from your role as Primrose Everdeen in The Hunger Games, can you tell us the best part of working on these films?

I truly feel like I learned so much from working on these films. I grew up on set for five years learning from the most brilliant actors from Jennifer Lawrence, to Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and so many more but aside from being able to watch and learn from them everyday I was also able to witness other brilliance from the technical side of filmmaking watching our director Francis Lawrence working. I feel like after those films I had more of an understanding about filmmaking and every detail that goes into making a great film.

Being cast in Hunger Games at age 12 and being surrounded by a cast of seasoned actors, what are the most important lesson you learned on set with this crew?

To work hard, show up on time but to also give yourself room to be creative and have fun at the same time.

Do you have any funny or memorable Hunger Games stories you could share?

We had so many cast members as a part of our whole series that there was always so many fun stories being told everyday on set. When you’re in a room with Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson, you know you’re gonna be laughing all day with those two.

Jacket by Zadig & Voltaire

 

Tell us about your new Netflix series Spinning Out and how did you land the central role as Serena Baker?

Spinning Out was a very exciting project for me after reading the script. The story elements are something I’d never seen in a show before and it deals with a lot of pivotal emotional and physical stories that I feel need to be seen.
I fell in love with the character of Serena because she feels like a real teenage girl who’s very complicated. She has a very unusual home life and deals with a lot of emotional ups and downs between her family life and her time in competitive figure skating. It felt like a bit of a dream come true to play a figure skater as well.

Your character is training for ice-skating  competitions, did you have any formal training in your past?

I did not. I came into this show with zero ice skating abilities but I trained for about two months everyday prior to filming the show. My goal was not only to be able to do as much of my own skating as possible but also experience what it was like to train that hard everyday. I came home black and blue all over my body from falling everyday but it helped me understand my character Serena and how figure skaters train.

The show brought on Sarah Kawahara, a former figure skater and Emmy winning choreographer who has worked on “Blades of Glory” and “I, Tonya”…what was it like to work with Sarah on this series?

Sarah is phenomenal. We were all so excited to work with someone so brilliant in this specific field. She helped us train in Toronto and choreographed all of our routines. The coolest thing about Sarah is she was right there with us on set when we filmed these scenes so any detail that was off she was able to help us fix in order to pull off all of the intense skating involved in our story.

Coat by Kenzo, Top by Zadig & Voltaire

 

Did you have any difficulties learning to ice skate or learning the choreography for the series and how did you work through these challenges?

It’s definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I trained for hours everyday and was so determined to learn as much as I could. But one of the most challenging things I did was for the final episode of the show I did a portion of my routine in front of an actual crowd of about five hundred extras so it really felt like a performance for me. Which is both stressful and exciting.

In what way is the character you play in this project different from the roles you’ve played in the past?

Her athleticism is unlike any character I’ve played in the past so that’s very different for me. But just like any young woman she’s full of so much life, emotion, drive, and confusion in her teenage life so those were similarities that I’ve seen in characters I’ve played in the past.

The series seems to focus on mental health.  What steps did you take to ensure your role was true to her character when handling her mother and sisters disorders?

My first step was to allow room for Kaya and January (my sister and mom in the show) to dive into those emotions and have room to experience that. I tried everyday to approach playing Serena in a very honest way, I thought through a lot of what she would go through on a daily basis living with her mom and sister who are both bi polar and how hard that truly is for a young woman who is struggling herself with things. But at the end of the day they love each other more than anyone and that was most important to portray.

Top and Skirt by Marc Jacobs

How have your fans reacted to your role in Spinning Out?

They are so excited! It feels great to have fans that follow and appreciate any project I’m a part of.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects When Time Got Louder and A Fall From Grace?

I am currently filming When Time Got Louder in Vancouver and it’s been an incredible experience. Our story is complex and raw following my character Abbie and her family including her brother Kayden who has non verbal autism. Abbie leaves home to go to school and falls in love with a girl named Karly while at college but struggles with being away from Kayden after being there for him his whole life.

Do you have any other projects coming down the pipeline that you can tell us about?

Nothing I can talk about yet haha

Do you have a daily mantra?

Just to be open minded and open to learning from your accomplishments and mistakes throughout everyday.

Coat by Kenzo, Top by Zadig & Voltaire, Turtleneck by Victoria Hayes

 

LOGAN BROWNING

Logan Browning’s intelligence, humor, and passion for both social activism and performance have culminated into a new controversial Netflix series entitled Dear White People.

Photography by Raul Romo, Styling by Rafael Linares @ Art Department, Creative Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Interview by Pauline Snyder-Goodwin | Coat by Victoria Hayes

Success has been no stranger to Logan Browning in both her personal and professional life. Browning started at an early age to pursue her career in film and TV all the while reigning as homecoming queen and honor student in her hometown of Atlanta, GA. With a starring role as Sasha in Bratz: The Movie, Playing Brianna in Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns, and as Jelena on VH1’s Hit The Floor just to name a few of her successes, it’s no wonder this multi-tasker will star in the lead role as Samantha White in Netflix’s original series, Dear White People which debuts April 28, 2017. Browning plays Sam, a biracial film major at a fictional Ivy League University where she hosts a radio show called Dear White People. The show becomes popular amongst black students on campus, and leads to discussions on racially charged topics that students typically avoided. In the trailer she addresses her radio listeners; “Dear white people, here’s a list of acceptable Halloween costumes,” classical music and images of elite white people serve as a backdrop. She proceeds by listing a series of ubiquitous costumes white people could dress up in: “Pirate, slutty nurse, any of our first 43 presidents. Top of the list of unacceptable costumes: Me.” Images of people wearing blackface pans across the screen against a crescendo of the classical music piece.

The 10-episode, satirical comedy is an adaptation of director, Justin Simien’s 2014 successful independent film of the same name. Simien has also written and directed the episodes and has found his new series in the fire of controversy sparked by the trailer release. The trailer has fueled some viewers into boycotting the streaming media giant or cancelling their accounts altogether, generating a lot of attention and awareness to the show. Much of the discussion has been superficial, based on the title, alone. But viewers will soon have actual content, in the form of episodes, to discuss.

Browning, under the direction of Simien, endeavors to deliver an insightful and entertaining series while offering a perspective and a criticism on one aspect of race and class tension in our society. With a combination of clever, progressive, and thought-provoking writing and a cast of comedic, young starlets, this Netflix original series is sure to ignite discussions among audiences across America.

IRIS Covet Book recently caught up with Logan Browning in her adopted home of Los Angeles to learn more about the young starlet and her involvement in the original Netflix series.

Top and Pants by Raisa & Vanessa, Shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti, Sunglasses by Sama Eyewear

When did you first know you wanted to become an actress? How did you initially get started in the industry?

I can remember my aunt telling me about a time I was riding in the backseat having a full-on conversation with myself as multiple people with different accents. That was possibly an early sign of a disorder, but more than that, it was apparent that I really loved becoming different characters. I loved doing it for myself, but I also performed for my family all the time. I started in the industry the way any how-to book would tell you: move to LA, get an agent, and go on auditions. All this came after I was a part of a competition called IMTA. At the same time, my parents were trying to figure out how to support two households while living in Georgia while I was chasing my dream as a 14-year-old in LA with my godfather and later on with my older brother as my guardian.

Tell us how you got involved with Netflix’s Dear White People.

I hate to disappoint readers with such a simple answer, but I just auditioned like everybody else. Sam felt natural to me, and I believe that and my commitment to her voice, are part of what awarded me the role. I also came fully dressed in my version of the character and even styled my hair into an exquisite pompadour. I wanted “Sam”, so I confidently walked in as “her”.

How did you prepare for your role as Samantha White? Do you find that you relate to her in any way?

I went around telling white people to stop appropriating my culture. Just kidding! I read. A lot. I read the original screenplay of the film. I read letters written by Dr. King. And I read books Justin mentioned during his press tour for the film. I also went to a radio station to shadow a DJ and learned how to work the boards.

You attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Any parallels to the campus setting in Dear White People?

Well speaking of setting, I give major props to the set designer of Dear White People. To date, it is the most gorgeous set I have ever been on. They basically built an Ivy League school in a warehouse. The halls were connected for continuous shots. There was velvet and leather and ornate wallpaper, chandeliers and columns. I was mesmerized. It reminded me of the day I visited Vanderbilt with my dad before deciding to go there. I remember how beautiful the campus was. There is a sense of community that Vanderbilt and Winchester have in common, but I think the self-zoning of groups and ethnicities is represented on most campuses.

What’s been memorable about working with director Justin Simien in the Dear White People series?

Learning from him! His mind is beautiful. His humor is sharp. He’s very Zen. He’s an interesting person to watch because he seems to always be thinking. I mostly appreciate his encouragement. As an actress, I still have a lot of growing to do. His notes to trust my instincts, and not to worry about things not happening the way they are written on the page if I’m honest, were such confidence boosters. Those stuck with me throughout filming and will continue to live with me as I work. His approach gave me a sense of calm which is necessary when I’m really excited about a scene and begin to overthink it. Working with Justin has made me a better actress and a more in-tune human.

Dress by Helo Rocha, Bangles by Djula J

Any personal life experiences that helped shape your role as Samantha White?

I’m a fighter. I’m a little lady. But I’ve always been the friend/daughter/sister whose intent is to protect the nest. Through my experiences with confrontation and debate, I’ve learned yelling may scare people but it doesn’t guarantee that anyone will hear you. That is a part of Samantha’s journey. She has a natural kick ass personality, but she’s also a very emotional and sensitive gal who can move mountains. When I play her, I sometimes feel like I’m living part of my life all over again.

Given our current political climate in the U.S., how do you think viewers will receive Dear White People?  What would you like them to take away from the series?

With the state of our nation and even global political turmoil, it’s undeniable that when we ingest any form of art our radars are up for offensiveness, conspiracy, corruption, and the like. Of course, a title like “Dear White People” is going to conjure up a lot of curiosity, and I proudly stand behind the show as something that transcends both intentionally and coincidentally. Specifically speaking, no one on our production could have known that Dear White People would be airing in a Trump presidency; we wrapped filming on Election Day. I’m sure when it came time for editing, the voice of the show became even more specific with cuts and choices because all eyes will be on this show wondering what it’s all about. Time and art play important roles with each other. Dear White People was written in a Bush Presidency, released as a film in an Obama Presidency, and will air as a show in a Trump Presidency. The temperature and tone is constantly changing with time, but the reason this title prevails is that there are deep rooted systemic issues that we will always battle as a country. At the end of the day, it’s 10 episodes of a 30-minute show. I want people to walk away having enjoyed the characters, the humor, the truth, the opinions, and feel open about discussing the themes of the series.

On VH1’s Hit the Floor, you played a team captain for a NBA cheerleading team called the Los Angeles Devil Girls. Dancing was a key part in this role. How did you train for this?

As soon as we wrapped the pilot episode I enrolled at The Edge Performing Arts Center and took Ballet, Jazz, and Jazz Funk classes every day. In a very limited amount of time, I needed to garner technique, flexibility, and confidence. Technique came from the classes I took, and ballet was the core of that learning process. My flexibility came from a lot of hot yoga and stretching every second of every day. Confidence was something I gained as I became more comfortable with myself. I was playing catch-up with women who have been dancing since they were 3 years old. I had to understand that I was hired to play the captain of this fictional dance team because they saw something special in me as an actress that they didn’t see in any other actress or dancer. I learned to own my sex appeal and strength as a woman. A lot of my confidence came from the support of the women around me. The dancers helped me pick up choreography quickly, taught me the tricks of the trade, and encouraged me to believe that I was truly a dancer.

What’s it like playing a satirical comedy role vs. a drama one?

The biggest difference for me, is playing up the humor. In a drama, I try to make the humor very organic, but with a satire, the goal is to get the audience’s mouth open with laughter so they can digest the message you’re feeding them.

What are your all-time favorite movies?

That would be such a long list. The Silence of the Lambs is the first thing that comes to mind. My dad loved that movie so I love that movie. I obsessed over the silently lethal Anthony Hopkins, and he became one of my favorite actors to study. I love Miss Congeniality and The Blind Side because watching Sandra Bullock is a treat. She is a truly transformational actress.

What would be your dream role to play in a film or tv series?

During our photo shoot, we were on location by a cool sign that read “Sade”. If there was ever a biopic about her life I would do everything possible to be considered for that role. She is so naturally intriguing. I would love to tell her story and transform into her for a film. To play any living or once living person’s story would be a dream. The responsibility of portraying a real person is a challenge I’m up for.

Shirt by Dodo Bar Or, Vest by Shahista Lalani, Jeans by Thomas Wylde, Shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti

How do you keep yourself energized during long hours of filming?

You are liable to find me curled in my cast chair taking a powernap! Number 27 on my list of being a small human is: “fits in most places”. I also stretch. Sometimes you just need to wiggle your joints and lengthen your muscles to get the oxygen flowing through your body and into your brain. Stretching also refocuses me and makes me aware of my body and emotional state. Drinking water is one of my magic weapons. Coffee never gives me the lasting energy that nourishing my body with water does in the long run.

What’s your go-to work out to stay fit?

A boxing class will always whip my ass into shape. It’s high-cardio, endurance, focus, balance, agility, and strength training. I also do a lot of yoga. I never feel like my muscles are super-cut after, but I do know I’m building a strong core and inner strength that will support all my other athletic activities and my general well-being.

Who are your favorite musicians? Who are you currently listening to?

A few of my favorites are: Ben Howard, Thelonious Monk, Lecrae, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, Tracy Chapman, Sade, George Stanford, Kendrick Lamar, and Frank Sinatra. I’m going to stop myself because now I’m just listing my entire Spotify library. I’m currently listening to the Big Little Lies soundtrack, and also Thundercat because my big brother told me to and he knows good music.

Last concert you went to?   

I saw my friend’s band perform at SXSW; LoMoon. They’re amazing—hop on early. An actual concert I went to see was The Brian Culbertson Funk Tour in Newport Beach with my mom in October.  

What charities in your community are you involved with?

I’m passionate about working with young people and people displaced from their homes. The outreach I do is mostly geared towards those two groups. One of my favorite outreach programs is called Young Story Tellers. It is a program that selects 5th graders to be paired with a writing mentor. They write a play, and after a few weeks actors show up to do cold reading performances of their plays. It is the most fun because kid’s imaginations are marvelous! I’ve been a sheep, a witch, a superhero, you name it! It’s also a great experience as an actor because we audition for these kids and have the responsibility of bringing their wildest imaginations to life by performing their play for the entire school after only a few hours with the material. We get creative and use whatever we have with us as props. It’s one of my favorite things to participate in because these kids learn early that they are important, talented and supported. I’m also very active with the Black Lives Matter movement. I attend meetings, marches, rallies, and stay knowledgeable so that I can help share important information via my platform.

What advice would you give aspiring actors wanting to pursue a career in television or film? What hurdles do they need to overcome?

Go to college. Finish school. Get involved in your theater. Read. Hang around and play with children. Their imaginations are without borders. The more childlike you can become with your truth and creativity, the less limited you will be as an actor. Knowing yourself is important. You must spend time alone and go deep into your past. You need to discover who you were before life came at you. Who God made you to be before ideas shifted you. Kids can know themselves quite simply because their experiences are limited. We are made up of our life’s journey. The longer we exist the more we must navigate to find our true selves. We are who the world sees us as, tries to mold us into, how our parents showed their love or didn’t, our failures, accomplishments, produced art, expressed and unexpressed ideas, our conscious minds and our instincts. We are the molded-clay, masterpieces, of God.

Coat by Styland, Top and Belt by Zana Bayne, Underwear by Agent Provocateur, Earrings by Victoria Hayes, Boots by Christian Dior

 

Hair by Dritan Vushaj @Forward Artists using Sachajuan, Makeup by Nancy Cialdella using Anastasia Beverly Hills, Laura Mercier, and Giorgio Armani Beauty, Manicure by Stephanie Stone @Nailing Hollywood using Chanel, Video by Heather Sommerfield, Production by XTheStudio. Special Thanks to Mike Liotta @True Public Relations and The Dream Factory LA Studio. Special thanks to Blowpro.