EXCLUSIVE: ERIKA JAYNE


Photography by Alexandra Gavillet | Styling by Rafael Linares @ Art Department | Interview by Cecily Strong

From dancing on gin-soaked stages in the dive bars of West Hollywood, navigating the many dramas of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, to being immortally satirized on Saturday Night Live, the reality star, pop culture icon, and now New York Times best-selling author is taking the world by storm.

Erika Jayne is embracing opportunities with open arms, switching at the drop of a hat between author, international performer, “housewife,” and the icon we didn’t even know we needed. The Real Housewives franchises are filled with meme-worthy moments, unforgettable quotes, and exciting drama, but few women from the reality series have become household names to the degree of Erika Girardi, AKA Erika Jayne. In an exclusive interview between Erika and Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong, who parodied Jayne on the legendary sketch show and cemented Erika’s status as a cultural touchstone, the two women discuss ageism in the entertainment industry, creating a public persona, and her new Simon & Schuster bestselling book, Pretty Mess.

Jacket by Tom Ford, Earrings by House of Emmanuele

Earrings by House of Emmanuele

Hello! How are you Erika?

Hi Cecily, I am so good—it’s so nice to talk to you.

You too, what a treat! I am such a fan! A real fan, not just an Instagram fan. I am so excited. I’ve been bragging to everyone at SNL about getting to do this interview! So, starting with your new book, how did the idea to publish a memoir take off?

I was approached to do the book and said yes because these days I am just saying yes to everything. Obviously, you see a little bit of it on TV, but sharing 45 minutes of screen time with five other women is difficult. Writing a memoir is a way to give the audience a more in-depth peek into my life.

How open are you in this book and are you nervous about revealing too much?

There’s always the version of the truth which you can never tell or else all of your friends and family will never talk to you again (laughs), and then there is the book that I wrote, and then there is the book that got published – which went through two legal processes. Hopefully it works out well and people like it.

(laughs) What was the most challenging part writing the book?

Well, my mother and I were discussing how my father left when I was nine months old, and then she remarried and divorced again. I feel like I had blocked out that part of my childhood. I went back with her trying to piece it all back together. I was looking at it through 46 year-old eyes and thinking it was basically ten years of bullshit!

Do you think that your childhood experiences are the reason that you have this amazing life and personality and are so fabulous and youthful—or in other words, do you think that you’re basking in the things you didn’t have in your childhood?

I feel like I’m eternally 16. I had a nice car, a hot boyfriend, good grades, was performing all the time, and I looked cute. I don’t know if that’s because of my childhood, but I definitely know that all of that has an effect on you growing up.

Well, I understand feeling like you’re eternally a teenager because I feel like I’m 16 even though I’m like… 34, but have you confronted ageism in your industry? Is it something you even think about? I know I don’t think about it much.

Good, and I’m glad you don’t, and the only time I do is when someone tells me, “Oh, aren’t you a little too old to be doing this?” and I’m like, “No, actually I’m not.” I think that it’s important to keep doing it and keep pushing and dreaming because that’s an old way of thinking that is falling by the wayside as women continue to improve and show how powerful we are. You know, when you’re in your 40’s you’re not dead, you’re not done! I feel the most powerful now. I didn’t feel powerful in my 20’s, I was a ding-dong!

I couldn’t wait to turn 30 because I thought, “Finally, people will take me seriously!” And I can’t imagine someone saying to you that you’re too old, that’s insane to me. I’d be like, “Just watch me perform!”

Thank you! Could you imagine telling a man that? Could you imagine telling a man, “Sir, don’t you think you’re a little too old to be running the company?” It’s not fair for us to get a tap on the shoulder like, “Sit down honey, you’ve had enough fun, you’ve had your day, people don’t find you attractive, you can’t sell anything, and your time is up” No! I’m not going to do that.

Good, me neither. We’re taking a vow! What do you hope that people take away from your book and your personal story?

First off, I want people to laugh and have fun. It’s an easy read and a fun read, and if one person walks away inspired to go to dance class again or back to college or just see that, through this human story, we are all the same. My experience is just this way, but it’s the same bullshit for everybody, so don’t quit. You never know what the future holds.

So let’s talk about your persona Erika Jayne, how she was born and how you found her within yourself?

I was about 35 years old, had been married to Tom for six or seven years, and had been exclusively living his lifestyle. I was going to every event and socializing with a whole new set of very educated, super interesting people. I am glad I did it because it was an invaluable education, but it wasn’t me. I was wealthy and living in a bubble where I would shop, go to the gym, and then go to dinners, but what the fuck was I really doing with myself? I longed to go out, create again, and have my own identity.

I just don’t think that Tom expected the book deal, concerts, or this interview in my future. I don’t think anybody did! I started to create on my own, it was something that I loved, and here we are today. And thank God he has been so supportive. I have learned so much, and I am really grateful because without him I wouldn’t be here at all.

That’s so great, and good for you two! You’re a great example for couples. So, when did you get your big break and what was the beginning of your career as Erika Jayne like?

Well, if you take the Erika Jayne Project, it was very small potatoes. It started at my kitchen table and it was just something that I wanted to do. I created the persona with a friend of mine from high school. He took me to a producer friend of his and we made the Pretty Mess album, and I started to perform because that’s what I really love to do. It was the typical beginning. A few people in some terrible dump, no one paying attention, and just begging to get on stage. I thought to myself, “I don’t have to fucking do this, I’m rich! What the fuck am I doing?” (Cecily laughs) I hate to break it down and sound so rude, but there are a lot of naysayers and rejection. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and building it, and slowly but surely people started to pay more attention and come to my shows. The biggest break into pop culture was definitely being cast in the Real Housewives because it took Erika Jayne out of the clubs and into people’s homes, and she even became a parody on Saturday Night Live! (laughs) But I think the most interesting thing was seeing young women, like high school and college-aged girls tell me how much they love my music and style, and I’m like, “Wow, really? I’m old enough to be your mom.” That acknowledgement makes it all worth it.

 

Jacket by Vitor Zerbinato, Dress by Nookie, Boots by Christian Louboutin, Earrings and Ring by Glynneth B.

Jacket by Vitor Zerbinato

Most of my circle of friends are gay men, and so I’m curious when did your relationship with the gay community start?

Children’s theater! (laughs)

Oh my God! Same for me! I was raised in a theater in Chicago by a group of gay men.

That was where I started! And then I went to a performing arts high school where everyone in dance and theater was gay, even our instructors were gay. They were always a part of my life. These are my people and that’s that.

Right, it’s so true, and it’s so funny that I had a very similar experience. When my parents split up I felt that the gay men of my Chicago theater were raising me while my family was a mess.

And I think that’s a wonderful thing to have and I can’t imagine life without gay people in it. They are my closest confidants.

Now what about drag culture? Has drag had an influence on your life and career?

I mean, just take one look at me! What do you think? (laughs) Of course! I love drag because you get to transform into a superhuman. It’s a true art form that is not for the faint of heart. Your costumes, hair, makeup, the whole look, and your style of drag too! There are so many different styles.

What style would you be?

Hooker drag! I want to be hooker drag (both laugh). Are you kidding? Basically that’s what I already am so why not? Keep it going!

So let’s talk Housewives of Beverly Hills! Obviously I am a huge fan, but how has being on the show changed your life? Cameras catching you crying, drunk…I drink a lot, so I could never do reality TV.

I don’t really like crying on camera because you are embarrassed worldwide, and that sucks. But without that exposure I wouldn’t be talking to Cecily Strong and I wouldn’t have a book out today! See what I’m saying? You have to roll with the punches and make the best of it. At the end of the day, it is reality television and I try to be as authentic as I can and have a good time doing it!

As I say in my book, it’s like professional wrestling. There are heroes, villains, costumes, pyrotechnics, but at the end of the day the injuries are real! It’s like we are participating in this absurd narrative, but these are still my feelings and sometimes they get really hurt.

People are awful! Celebrity in general, people feel like they have some sort of ownership over you, and because you get to do your job they get to hurl insults at you. It seems even worse for people in reality TV because it is your name and your life.

Thank god I am 46 and not 26! I have lived a full life, have a successful marriage, had an unsuccessful marriage, I have an adult child, I can pay the bills. Forget it, if I were a kid and did not know who I was, I may not have made it and I would have been crazy-town. Honestly, I consider myself pretty fucking normal.

I think about that all the time. Like I was crazy enough at 22—

Right! I didn’t need anyone telling me I sucked and was awful and should kill myself. You can imagine how the younger ones feel.

I will say that my favorite piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, and I don’t mean to name drop, but it was from Jim Carey at a host dinner for SNL and he told me “Don’t ever let anyone tell you the narrative of your career.”

He’s right, and thank you for sharing that. I’ll split when I’m ready and I’ll do what I need to do. That’s very well said.

Well, thank you Jim Carey! So, what’s next for you? What do you see in the future?

I am on my way to a book signing in New Jersey which is right across the street from a terrible go-go place I used to go-go in when I was younger.

Wow.

I know, it’s really interesting, Cecily. I’m continuing to create, and there’s going to be more music and more shows, and who knows what’s coming, but I feel like it’s going to be really good.

 

Jacket by The Blonds, Bangles, Cuffs, Earrings and Hat by Glynneth B.

Jumpsuit by Any Old Iron, Shoes by Christian Louboutin

Dress by Gucci

Makeup by Etienne Ortega @ The Only Agency using NARS and KKW Beauty, Hair by Castillo @ Tack Artist Group using Sexy Hair styling products & T3 styling tools, Art Direction Louis Liu, Editor-in-Chief Marc Sifuentes, Photo Assistant Mallory, DP Vanessa Konn, Gaffer Zachary Burnett, Production Assistant Benjamin Price, Produced by XTheStudio.com, Special Thanks to Jack Ketsoyan, Laia and Mikey Minden

EXCLUSIVE: RICKY MARTIN

Jacket by Tom Ford

Photography by Greg Swales
Styling and Interview by Marc Sifuentes

Taking over the legendary Sin City strip, making history as the first Latino to headline a Las Vegas residency, and jumping headlong into the world of acting, Ricky Martin shows he is one of the most intriguing and impactful entertainers of our time.

Father, husband, singer, dancer, and actor. Ricky Martin is constantly juggling his many roles with seemingly effortless ease. Currently a resident on the Vegas strip at the Park Theater at Monte Carlo for his solo show, Martin is also eager to further pursue his acting career, release a new album, create a new world tour, and continue helping the people of Puerto Rico and the victims of human trafficking. Filled with love, down-to-earth spirituality, and an effervescent charm, Ricky Martin has proven himself to be an everlasting icon of pop culture.

In an exclusive interview with Iris Covet Book Editor-in-Chief Marc Sifuentes, the Puerto Rican star gets personal about his daily life with his husband and twins, life in the limelight, and his continuous efforts to make the world a better place.

Hi Ricky! I wanted to thank you for doing this interview and for being so fun and easy-going on the day of the shoot.

Well, thank you! You and your team were amazing and had such a beautiful energy in the studio.

Thank you! So, I want to start with asking about your second “back by popular demand” Vegas residency at the Park Theater, what is the key to producing such a successful and in-demand show?

I give credit to the people that I work with: the producers, directors, all of the people behind the scenes, the musicians, and the dancers. It really takes a village, and I wouldn’t be able to do this show without an amazing group of people behind me. I’m happy to have these talented producers and directors who can translate my vision and make it magic! To be the first Latino male to have a residency in Vegas is a big responsibility. What I love about this show is having the opportunity to perform every night in front of a very international crowd. Just to be on stage and see all of these faces from all over the world really motivates and inspires me. What I want to do is break boundaries and unite cultures. To see the crowd disconnect from their everyday problems in life and leave the theater with a smile is a very beautiful thing. I wish we could do this show for many more years.

Will you be taking this show on the road at the end of it’s Vegas run?

Well since I have an exclusivity contract I won’t be able to take this particular show on the road or perform it outside of the Park Theater. But I will hopefully be on the road touring a new show next year through Latin America and the United States. The idea is to take a new show all over the world, hopefully by next year.

I was watching clips of the show and it just looks amazing, you seem larger than life and so confident. Do you ever feel insecure? And if you do, what do you tell yourself to get out of that headspace?

I am very insecure. I am insecure when I write music, when I perform, when I act…but what gets me through are my years of experience. I am human and I go through a lot of highs and lows before I go on stage. If you see the show, for the first song I’m coming down from a 300-foot drop! I may look super confident, but I’m not! (laughs) I suffer from vertigo and it can be very difficult to focus, but it is part of confronting my demons and breaking that trauma that triggers my vertigo. By the time the music starts, I just have to forget everything and jump into storytelling mode.

Well it’s been getting really great reviews! Would you consider extending your residency for a third round?

Oh, I would love that! And funny you should ask because that’s exactly what we are in discussions about at the moment, and if we do, I will need to create a whole new show for the international audience.

jacket and t-shirt by Philipp Plein, jeans by Tom Ford, rings by John Hardy

t-shirt by Philipp Plein, jeans by Tom Ford, ring by John Hardy

shirt by Ferragamo, jeans by Tom Ford

You recently teased your fans with a new single, “Fiebre”, when can we expect a new full length album?

I am thinking hopefully by the beginning of next year, but right now we have been pretty focused on the Vegas show and American Crime Story, which we were shooting for eight months. Today, the record company no longer needs the record out at a very specific time so the artists have more freedom, and if a song is ready then I can just release it. Obviously numbers are important in this industry, but it gives us an idea of what the audience likes or dislikes, and I have never felt more relaxed doing music.

Since you mentioned American Crime Story, how did you become involved and what made you say yes to the story?

A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with Ryan Murphy on an episode of Glee. We’ve kept in touch and he invited me to dinner to tell me that he thinks he has a role for me. Once I read the script I immediately said yes because it was personal. I knew I wanted to be a part of telling Versace’s story. I wanted to remind the viewers the injustice behind what happened. Because it’s not how Gianni Versace died, but how we allowed it to happen. What angers me most is that Cunanan was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, living on Miami Beach which is a very small community, but the FBI turned the other way because he was a gay man killing gay men. There is no denying to me that this was really an issue of homophobia. I think we did a great job covering that aspect of the story.

I read that Ryan Murphy wants to give you your own show, any word on that project?

Well he told me about it and then made it public, and I got really excited! We haven’t spoken in detail about it because he is transitioning from one network to another and he told me that he will be busy until June, but I’m not in a rush. (laughs) I would love to do something behind the scenes as well. But no, we haven’t talked about it yet.

You brought up the issue of homophobia and it made me think of your new music video. “Fiebre” and of course American Crime Story both show you openly embracing your sexuality. After being forced into the closet for so long, how does it feel for you to finally be able to express being gay through your music videos and now your acting roles?

Amazing! If I could go back and come out in the late ‘90s or early 2000’s then I would, because it felt amazing to come out. When I talk to people who are struggling with their identity, I tell them that it may be bumpy for awhile but in the long run the love that I received from my friends, family, from social media…it was spectacular. I know this is not the case for everyone but at the end of the day it is about dignity and self love.

You recently received a Trailblazer award from The LGBT Community Center in NYC, what did receiving that award mean to you?

Well like receiving any award, it is a big responsibility, but at the end of the day I am proud because it lets me talk about where I have been, who I am, and what I did to finally understand my real essence. In my case, I get to share my story. I meet so many people in the streets or on social media who tell me, “Ricky, thank you so much because I know what you went through and I can better understand my gay father, gay uncle, gay brother, lesbian aunt…” and I think it is a beautiful thing and it is important.

I wanted to talk about your husband, artist Jwan Yosef, a bit. You met on Instagram and I was reading you instant messaged for six months before meeting—

Yes! And nothing sexy! It was very romantic. We talked a lot just about our problems and lives. I never even heard his voice until six months later when I went to visit him in London, where he was based. I said to myself, “This is it. I just met the man who I am going to marry.” Two years later we were married. He is a great man, he loves my kids, and we have so many things in common.

He is a conceptual painter and I have mad respect and admiration for what he does. When I see him and his creative process… it is so sexy. I just love when he locks himself in his studio and starts creating. I become a fly on the wall, watching him paint and create works of art. I am in love, man, I am so in love.

jacket by DSquared2, ring by John Hardy


shirt, pants, and sneakers by Dior Homme, rings by John Hardy

 

shirt, pants, and shoes by Louis Vuitton, rings by John Hardy

You’ve mentioned in the past that you want more children, what do you love about being a father and what is the most challenging part of raising twins?

Yes, I want more; I’m just getting started! If it was my decision I would have six more, but Jwan says let’s take it one step at a time. (laughs) With kids, and I’m sure every parent out there will say this, but everything is new every day and being a single father with twins was extremely challenging, especially in the first year. No one is sleeping, and it’s two against one. Now that they’re older it’s still two against one, but they are amazing kids and the bonding time over the first year was so important. I took a sabbatical, and I did not accept any help. I wanted to do it all, change every diaper, bathe them everyday, and the relationship I have with my kids… there’s just so much love. They are almost 10 years old and this is when dads stop being cool and they start making fun of you! I’m really happy because I’m not there yet with them (laughs).

I’m sure your spirituality plays a big part in your parenting too, what helped you to discover your spirituality?

When we talk about spirituality we go back in time. Religion has nothing to do with spirituality, but I would say that growing up Catholic, even being an altar boy, was too much for me. I kept searching and looking for other philosophies and dogmas to ascribe to. There was a moment where I was obsessed with India and going about four times a year because they call it the “Cradle of Spirituality.”Then my kids became my religion. It doesn’t matter how late I go to bed, I religiously wake up at 7:00 a.m. everyday to have breakfast with them, and that bonding experience with the three of us is the only way I want to start my day. But once a Catholic, always a Catholic. To this day I sometimes look to God when the boys ask me questions because they ask some really hard questions, and I just want to give them the right answer.

I want to talk about Puerto Rico, from your experience can you give us an update on how the country is doing currently? I know that you were and still are very involved in fundraising after hurricane Maria.

Oh man, well 43% of the island still has no power, and if you go up to the more rural mountain areas, even now nine month later, people still have no power, no running water, and are bathing in the river and using candlelight. It is really frustrating and I wish the federal government would have done more. You have to wonder, if this were any other city in the continental US, would we ever hear that nine months later people have no power? No, I don’t think that would happen. But we have to do our part, and Puerto Ricans have experienced a great level of compassion, empathy, and care from volunteers, and the country has become creative and adapted. This too shall pass, but it will take a long time to go back to normal.

Another cause that is close to your heart is bringing awareness to human trafficking, can you explain where this compassion comes from and tell us more about the Ricky Martin Foundation?

With natural disasters like hurricanes for example, the community becomes more vulnerable and human traffickers take advantage. Traffickers come to the island and see all of these people who have lost everything and need money to buy things, and these kids end up selling their bodies or getting forced into pornography.

jacket by Valentino, shirt by COS

 

sweater by COS, pants by Dior Homme, rings by John Hardy

How did it first come to your attention?

More than a decade ago a friend of mine was building an orphanage in India, and this was when I was looking for any excuse to go to India. I flew to Calcutta, and he took me to the slums and said, “Come on, let’s rescue girls!” I had no idea what this meant, but when I got to the slums he started to point out girls like, “You see those three? They could be forced into prostitution.” and I’m standing there like, “What?! What do you mean? That girl must be five and her sister must be eight and her older sister must be eleven” and he says, “Yes, Rick. This is human trafficking. These girls live on the streets and they need money to help their family and they get paid for selling their bodies.” I was so astounded and went back home and started to educate myself on the subject. I went to Congress and told them we needed to bring more awareness to this global $150 billion industry. The victims are sex slaves.

Did you know there are more slaves today then back in the slave trade of the 18th century? Today, as soon as you open your computer you could easily fall victim to a criminal persuading you into the world of prostitution.

It’s encouraging to hear you are using your platform to educate others of these injustices.

It’s not easy. Ten years ago I wanted to stop. I said I couldn’t do it anymore because we couldn’t keep up. We were working so hard but I felt like I didn’t see any change. My mentor looked at me and said, “Ricky, you’ve got to stop being so arrogant. Who do you think you are? Do you think you will change the world? You’re not Superman! How about focusing on saving one life? And one life can become two.” We went back and built a holistic center in Puerto Rico in an area affected by trafficking, and right now we have 132 children coming to the center. We are educating them about human trafficking and opening their eyes to the predators. It’s a lifetime commitment. We are not going to save everyone, but we will save one person at a time.

What else can we expect from you this year?

I’m getting more prepared as an actor, meeting with great writers, producers, and directors and I think there are some great opportunities on the table. I am so lucky to be at a place where I can pick and choose the projects that speak to me. Aside from still making my music, I really want to jump into acting more and playing amazing roles that can have a positive impact on society. My acting career is very personal to me right now; I am obsessed and don’t want to stop!

coat and shirt by Prada, pants by COS, sneakers by Dior Homme, ring by John Hardy

Hair by Joey Nieves @ Grey Matter LA using Hanz de Fuko, Makeup by Maital Sabban @ MS Management, BTS Video by Lavoisier Clemente, Photo Assistant Amanda Yanez, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor-in-Chief Marc Sifuentes, Production by Benjamin Price

TARAJI P. HENSON

Taraji P. Henson and Pam Grier talk shop on their shared experiences playing formidable roles for women of color, executing death-defying stunts, and uniting women in entertainment.


Dress by Alexandre Vauthier, Hat by Eric Javits, Stay-Up Tights by Falke, Shoes by Aquazzura
Interview by Pam Grier | Photography by Alexander Saladrigas @ Cerutti and Co | Styling by Ron Hartleben

Taraji P. Henson is a typhoon of energy when she arrives curbside at the Plaza Hotel for her cover shoot. With an entourage in tow, Henson’s seven-day work weeks are the new normal for an actor in such high demand. Rising to fame years ago with her Academy Award nomination for her lauded role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Henson proved with her talent and tenacity that she had staying power. Now, beloved by Empire fans as the one-and-only Cookie Lyon, Henson’s take on the badass-boss-queen character earned her a Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice Award, and two Emmy nominations, as well as fashion-cred from her fans for her character’s memorable high-drama designer looks. Gaining international recognition and several awards and nominations for her role as NASA scientist Katherine Johnson in the historical drama Hidden Figures, it’s evident that Taraji brings a range and depth to her characters that incites a devoted audience, and garners accolades of esteem from an industry that has an infamous history of shortchanging roles for women of color.

After years of working odd jobs as a Pentagon secretary and a singing waitress while completing her degree at Howard University, Taraji moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. With her young son Marcell accompanying her, Taraji juggled being a mother while working as many roles as she could – a work ethic she refuses to shake to this day. Through her years in Hollywood, Henson has grown a thick skin and learned to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of show business, building off of the foundation laid by the women who came before her, and adding her contribution to the empowerment of women in entertainment. Dressed to kill in the upcoming action thriller, Proud Mary, as a hired hit-woman, Taraji chooses yet another career-defining role, pushing the envelope while balancing the razor wire between her signature bulletproof strength and intrepid vulnerability – something she’s managed to turn into a touchstone of her work.

One pioneering actress who helped pave the way for women of color in entertainment is legendary cultural symbol, Pam Grier, known for her iconic roles in Foxy Brown; Coffy; Sheba, Baby; and Jackie Brown. Here she interviews the newest face of black female action stars: Taraji P. Henson, for an IRIS Covet Book exclusive.


Jacket by Michael Kors Collection, Jewelry by Marc Jacobs, Stay-Up by Wolford

Coat by Landlord, Bra, garter and underwear are Vintage Christian Dior at My Haute Wardrobe, Stay-Up Tights by Wolford, Shoes by Manolo Blahnik

 

Taraji, how are you? Girl, congratulations I am so happy for you! I can’t wait to see Proud Mary.

Thank you, thank you! I can’t wait to see it either–we’ve just finished shooting.

Well, the trailers look fantastic! And to see that 50 years later is overwhelming because I was out there by myself, I was just trying to show an example of our culture, our black women, who we are. This is who we are. Nothing can stop you. You have wings, spread them.

Yes, ma’am.

When you won your Golden Globe for playing the role of Cookie Lyon on Empire, girl, I think I screamed louder than you! What does Cookie mean to you? How much do you identify with Cookie’s character?

I think what I have in common with Cookie is her fight; you’ve got to fight to be in this business, especially as a woman, and a woman of color. You’re always fighting. So, I think I have that in common with her for sure. The mother lion… I identify with how protective she is of her family. I identify with how protective she is of her family. I identify with what she will do for her family, the great lengths she will go for her family. Cookie chose to go to jail to save her boys from becoming a statistic in the hood. She didn’t want them selling crack like she did. She sacrificed her freedom for her family. Now, I don’t know if I would sell drugs for my family. That side of Cookie, I have to find another way to hustle! (laughs).

At the same time, I grew up in the hood. I grew up in the ‘80s, and I remember when crack was dropped off in the hood, so I can understand her thinking. Your [tax] refund, your McDonald’s income, or working at the grocery store as a clerk are not going to do it. So I understand your back being pushed up against the wall and that’s all you’ve got; I get it. But growing up in the hood, I saw all my friends who chose that path, and well…I couldn’t. That life was not enough for me, I needed more. I chose to go the tough route.

That’s where Cookie and I are different. I had friends in the drug gang, but I chose not to be. I chose to work doing data entry at 16-years-old making $4 an hour. I didn’t want to risk my freedom because I had things to do, and I knew there were other ways to be successful. There are other ways to accomplish your dreams. But I still understand her, that’s why I didn’t judge her. As an actor, you can’t judge. At first, she scared the hell out of me. I was like, “Oh my God, this character is crazy. The viewers are going to hate me. Black people are going to be like, ‘Why did you make us look like this?’” And then, you know, I peeled back the layers and found her truth. I thought if I play her truth then the audience will empathize with her, they will understand her, and they will understand why she made the choices she made.

And now you’ve got the support and they are moved, touched, and rooting for you! Sometimes as we work, there’s so much going on from scene to scene that the audience doesn’t get a chance to really absorb or savor all of those elements that you just described as the actor.

And especially on TV. I mean, you have to follow the series because you only have 43 minutes to tell a story. The beautiful thing about TV is that you get to watch each episode through the series and track the character’s journey and struggle. If I feel like I can’t bring the truth to a character, then it’s not the job for me. I’m not the only actress on this planet. There’s enough work for all of us. (laughs)

That was my philosophy as well! It’s a beautiful platform to have. When I would be working on a project and I would be sent scripts, sometimes I’d say, “You know who’s good for this? Vonetta McGee. Send this to her.” We always shared, and there weren’t that many movie roles.

I also wanted to welcome you to the “Action Woman’s Club!” You’ve got to tell me about Proud Mary, who she is, and the challenges you faced playing her. Now this looks like you’re going to take some blood!

Mary’s a different character for me. I played a killer before, but she was an ex-army sniper. Mary struck a chord in me because she’s a woman and she is a hired killer. She gets paid to kill. That was interesting to me because that’s usually something men do. We’re emotional creatures; we feel. I wanted to explore that side. The beautiful thing about Mary is you’re meeting her at a crossroad. The audience is meeting her where she wants something else for her life. She has never felt maternal, and all of a sudden she meets this kid through whom she sees herself. She sees a chance to not only save herself, but save this kid from the same life she’s had.

Mary was an orphan and she was found by Danny Glover’s character who is a big mob boss. She just was, instinctively, a good killer. I think people are going to want to see this movie because Mary is different, they’ve never seen a serious female black killer. She is a real, straight up, all-about-her-business hit woman. It’s not funny, it’s not jokey, there is no wink-wink on the side. It is very serious, like when you see Liam Neeson or Tom Cruise. You’ve seen white women do it on this level, but you have never seen a black woman in this light.

No, because black women have been so invisible, but not now, not today. I hear you like to take on roles that scare you, why is that?

I know right away that it’s going to be a challenge. I don’t want anything easy. Those are the roles I look for because, in those roles, I will grow. That means it’s going to stretch me. That means, Oh I’ve never done this before. I’ve never tapped into this emotional shit, how do I get there? Proud Mary scared the hell out of me. I’ve never done action before in my life. I wasn’t used to being as physical. If I had it all to do again, I wish we had had more time to train. The great thing about it is, we did reshoot to make it even better because that’s how much the studio believes in this film. I worked seven days a week like a crazy woman to get it right. When we went back to reshoot, the stunt coordinator was really blown away. He was like, I can’t believe you caught on that fast, and I was like, Imagine if we had three weeks to train!


Jumpsuit by Dundas, Boa by Helmut Lang, Earring by Erickson Beamon, Shoes by Aquazzura

 


Clothing and Shoes by Alexander Wang


What was the research you had to do to play a character who kills?

I came across this guy called The Iceman and I can’t let him go. He was a very handsome man. I forget where he operated out of… New York maybe? But what I found so interesting about him was that he had a family. This man had a family! He had two beautiful daughters and a wife, and he was a hitman. He would go home to his family and they did not know what he did. Finally, he got caught.

I watched his interviews to research the role and psychology. There was a charm about him. He was dangerously charming, and I found myself thinking he was handsome…this is a man who kills people. So, then I thought, Wow, what do you turn on and off inside you to just go out and kill people, and then go back home to your family like nothing ever happened? But Mary is a woman, so how do I make this make sense? Is she void of her feelings and then all of a sudden it changes? It was just a lot of things that I had to explore, and I think after awhile it just became too much, too much blood on her hands. Where is my retirement? You know? When do I get to kick up and get my pedicure, my manicure and live a normal life? You know, everybody wants to retire at some point; I don’t care what you do.

Were there any challenging stunts?

I was shooting a MP5 rifle and you have to smack the trigger to make it look cool on camera. They kept saying, Karate chop it. Well, thank you because now I have blood blisters on my hands! I threw my shoulder out when I had to do this stunt where I had to swing that rifle around with one arm. That’s a heavy rifle! In another stunt, I had to throw a guy over my back. I bit my lip. I got smacked in the head with the magazine of my partner’s rifle. I have bruises. These are the things people don’t realize when they see it on the screen, it’s, Oh that was incredible! No one really understands that you’re risking your life in it. If you’re tired, if you’re fatigued, you make the wrong step, you could really hurt yourself.

Oh yes, I’ve gotten many bruises and scrapes too. Often people couldn’t believe I was a lead that held a gun, that I played a character that could actually take a life and defend my family and myself. They were so shocked, and that realm created the audience for a woman in action films.

Now, I know you’re about to star in the upcoming movie, Best of Enemies. Tell me about playing the real life civil rights leader, Ann Atwater, and her association with the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

This movie is about how love can conquer hate. Ann Atwater was a poor woman; so was Claiborne Paul Ellis, the Ku Klux Klan character that Sam Rockwell plays. They were both poor, living in a poor neighborhood. The school where the black children attended burned down, so the children had to integrate into the white school. Well, of course, the white people of the town had an issue with that because there was a heavy Ku Klux Klan influence. The councilmen and a lawyer from the North had to step in to come to some kind of agreement for these kids.

Through this process, things were very hateful and scary. People’s lives were threatened. It wasn’t easy back then trying to mix the races, but Ann was boisterous; she didn’t care. She spent her entire life in poverty, but she fought for those people just like her. She was very loud about it; you could hear her before you see her. So, she and Claiborne developed a friendship through this tumultuous time and he ended up denouncing the KKK. They were the best of friends; their story is beautiful and I can’t wait until it comes out.

To play Ann Atwater, I had to totally change the way I look. I wore a fat-suit because we don’t look anything alike. I remember the paparazzi came on set one day. They saw a light skin woman with hair slick and styled, and they thought that was me. But Ann Atwater had a short afro and I had darkened my skin because she’s a little darker. So, they didn’t spot me. So, when it came out in the local newspaper, that Taraji P. Henson was in town filming her movie, the picture wasn’t of me and I was so happy because I didn’t want those images floating around yet. It would have been like they kind of gave us away before the movie poster had been released. You’re not going to believe who you’re looking at when you see me.

That’s a part of our craft that we so cherish, our transformations into our characters. I gained weight for mine, cut my hair, shaved off my eyebrows, but it’s part of the work. You want to become that character because you’re not going to be able to redo it or reshoot it, and it’s going into the future. Oh, a historical political story of love, I can’t wait for that one! Do you have a motto or philosophy that you live your life by?

Treat others the way that you will have them treat you. It’s got me a long way in life. You are kind to me, I’ll be kind to you because that’s what I want from you.

There you go! I guess most people attempt to live their life by how they treat someone because it comes back to you.

It’s called karma, and I believe in it. I have great karma around me because I give good karma. I’m just love, love, love.

And you know what, when you have great karma, great roles come to you, great people, great situations, because I do believe in the law of attraction.

Absolutely, me too.

You know, recently there has been a lot of press exposing the reality of treatment of women in Hollywood/entertainment. Tell me about your thoughts on women supporting women in the industry.

Well, I’ve always been a big supporter of women, even before I got into the industry. I just think overall that that needs to be the narrative. Not just in the industry, but in the world, because art imitates life. If we’re artists, then we need to be setting examples for the world. That’s how I was raised, that’s all I know.

My mother was one of five sisters, so I grew up watching sisterhood. I’m real tight with all of my cousins. We never snitched on each other. We all got in trouble together, and we all went down together. We learned that from our mothers, watching them and how close they are. So, of course I’m going to be like that with other women. I don’t understand hating another woman.

We go through so much as women. Why am I, another woman, going to add to the stresses that women already have? Why would I do that?

Yeah, why tear each other down competitively? We should be supporting each other as women.

Yeah, why would you want to be that selfish? God didn’t make you the only human. He certainly didn’t make you the only female and he certainly didn’t make you the only female actor. How can I learn if I don’t have my counterpart’s work to watch? You know what I mean? I’m so happy with what’s happening right now in the industry. All of my friends are working. All of them.

Yes, and working at various levels, not only as actors but, you know, writers, producers, directors, costume designers. It’s all across the board in so many ways, and each door that they open, 100 follow.

That’s true.

What advice would you give to young women coming to Hollywood?

Be very clear and know why you’re coming to Hollywood. Whatever that dream is, don’t let anyone deter you. Keep focused on your bigger picture, stay in your lane, do not compare yourself, put in the work, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and don’t take no shit!

Absolutely! Don’t take no shit!


Jacket, Bodysuit, and Skirt Vintage Gianni Versace at My Haute Wardrobe, Tights by Wolford, Shoes by Christian Louboutin

Hair by Tym Wallace @ Master Mind Artist Management, Makeup by Ashunta Sheriff @ The Montgomery Group for Ashunta Sheriff Beauty, Manicure by Honey @ Exposure NY using Debrorah Lippman, BTS Video DP Francis Chen, Photography Assistants Diego Bendezu and Casanova Cabrera, Stylist Assistant Clair Tang, Production Assistant Benjamin Price, Special Thanks to The Plaza Hotel and Pamela Sharp of Sharp & Associates.

WEB EXCLUSIVE – JULIAN MORRIS ON MODERN INTIMACY, TRUMP’S ASSAULT ON FREE SPEECH, AND HOLLYWOOD SEX SCANDALS

Photographed by Karl Simone | Styled by Alvin Stillwell @ Celestine Agency | Interviewed by Matthew Rettenmund
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After three seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he built a following with magnetic turns in horror fare like Cry Wolf (2005), Donkey Punch (2008) and cult-fave Sorority Row (2009). Though originally from England, he honed a foolproof American accent studying his Valkyrie (2007) co-star Tom Cruise.

Hot off a role on New Girl (2014-2015) and a return to the ABC Family teen drama Pretty Little Liars as Dr. Wren Kingston this year, just in time for that series’ sign-off, he appears to be making a clean break with less challenging roles, stunning in this summer’s British miniseries Man in an Orange Shirt as a gay man navigating empty hookup culture who discovers his grandfather was himself closeted — and had far more serious roadblocks to maneuver in the ‘40s.

Continuing his pattern of upward mobility, he is currently playing Watergate lid-blower Bob Woodward in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, and will next be seen in a new film adaptation of Little Women.

His good looks have made him an easy casting decision, whether in genre flicks or on PLL, but he has always given layered performances that rise about what’s on the printed page, which may be why he’s managed to work with Carrie Fisher, Vanessa Redgrave, Liam Neeson and Dame Angela Lansbury. Unsurprisingly, in his Iris Covet Book interview, he was similarly complex, speaking comfortably about politics, the abuse scandals sweeping Hollywood, and his sex-symbol status.


COS trench coat and trousers, Jacob Holston shirt

You started with some very intense training at the Royal Shakespeare Company. How did that stage training compare to your Hollywood experience?

Never at any point did it feel intense — it was just fun! I think what I learned in that time was that it’s about teamwork and the importance of the company and that it takes many, many people to build a production. When I got to America, I starting doing film and TV, and film work is very different, but in terms of what you do as an actor, the approach is the same. I’m lucky that as a teenager it was fun — and it still is.

You soon had a following for doing suspense and horror films like Sorority Row and Donkey Punch — are you naturally attracted to darker roles like that?

It’s not the genre. As long as the character has many layers and is interesting and challenging, that’s what I’m drawn to. I really dig horror. Some movies I’ve seen the last couple of years — The Witch (2015) and Under the Shadow (2016) — I love how they utilized horror to tell a bigger story. I’m in talks right now with a director named Kieran Evans, who I worked on Kelly + Victor with, to do a psychological horror.

There was a lot of psychological horror of a different type going on in Pretty Little Liars! Did being a part of PLL expose you to a whole new level of fandom?

Yeah, that happened. It was a really fun job. It wasn’t the most challenging work, but I had a really enjoyable time doing it from the get-go. I met one of my best friends on it, Ian Harding, and the girls and I always got along great. I remember at the time when I got the role I was supposed to go on this big trip to Africa and it was like, “Am I going to delay this trip or play this role in this pilot that may or may not go?” I wasn’t fully committed to the pilot and looked into who was making it, and it was Alloy Entertainment, who’d done tons of really successful shows, and Marlene King, whose work I really enjoyed. My gut told me that it would go, it would be special, and do well, and it did.

I never signed an option agreement with the show, despite one being offered, because I loved the people and I believed in the project, but I definitely always had an eye toward wanting to do more challenging material. The first few months of shooting that show, I was also shooting My Generation (2010-2011) in Austin, TX with Noah Hawley and Warren Littlefield. It was one of those shows where the ratings were not great. They’d be amazing now, but back then, they weren’t good enough and it was ripped off the air. Noah Hawley and Warren Littlefield went on to make Fargo (2014-present).

You left PLL and then returned this year for the final season. Was that strange leaving and coming back?

It wasn’t a strange thing; it was familiar. I continued to see and hang out with the people in the show. What was great was that in that time in-between I’d done work I was really proud of, in Hand of God (2014-2017) and New Girl and Kelly + Victor, and I’d told them I wanted to come back for the fans.


Banana Republic cardigan, Slow Build Heavy Grind shirt, Wings and Horns trouser

The great thing about that project is that once you’ve done it, you could have two Oscars in the future, but there will always be a certain sector of people who will be like, “Oh, yeah — from Pretty Little Liars!”

You and my mom say the same thing. [Laughs]

You mentioned your trip to Africa, and I saw on your Instagram that you did eventually make it to Rwanda. What was that like?

I’ve always loved animals, and I had this incredible in Borneo when I was 18 working in an orangutan sanctuary and have wanted for years and years to see the gorillas in Rwanda. It finally happened last Christmas.

It’s utterly magical. What’s so magical about it is that you see another species that is so similar to us, so like us. They’re another species, and yet you have such a sense of their humanity — you see it in their eyes, you see it in the way they interact with each other, and you see it in the way they interact with you. It’s breathtaking, and you can’t help but leave a situation like that thinking we’ve got to do everything we possibly can to help these very close relatives of ours.

Seems like an amazing observational exercise for an actor.

You’re absolutely right. One of the powers of acting, or at least what drives me to it, and why I think it’s so important or can be so important, is how universal it is — I really believe that as different as we may be superficially from each other, and it really is a superficial thing, we all experience the same emotions and dream the same and hope the same and feel devastated in exactly the same way no matter our politics or our superficial identity.

You described Hand of God as a role of a lifetime because you admired Marc Forster, who directed Monster’s Ball (2001). It’s sometimes said you shouldn’t meet your idols.

I wouldn’t say that I have “idols” in terms of my industry, I just admire them deeply. I think one of my idols was Christopher Hitchens in terms of his work in human rights, in terms of his eloquence, in terms of his integrity — and I did get to meet him. It was the only time in my life where I was completely starstruck to the extent that I couldn’t speak! He was talking to me and I just remember I had this grin on my face. I think I was speaking to him — I couldn’t tell you what I said or even what he was saying to me, I was totally starstruck.


Vilebrequin shirt, COS trousers, Hermès bracelet

You’re currently playing Bob Woodward in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. Why did you refer to it as “almost impossibly timed for its relevance”?

Clearly, we’re living in a time when institutions that support our democracy, that are fundamental to it, are under attack. I love what The Washington Post said: “Democracy dies in darkness.” It’s absolutely right. We need a functioning free press, and yet we have our leaders attack it daily and also of course institutions like the FBI, or our court system, our legal system, which I think is a really dangerous thing to do for politicians. I think when you use our court system to attack a political opponent or you defame an institution like the FBI when it is legitimately investigating something that is vital to our interest that it be investigated properly, that is when our institutions are under attack. In this film about Watergate, its relevancy today was very timely and striking.

What did you learn about how Woodward and Bernstein were looked upon by their fellow Americans while they were reporting these unpopular facts about Nixon. Were they similarly attacked?

I didn’t know, embarrassingly, nearly enough about Watergate going into it. It is incredible how similar it is to today, although they are very different. I think the level of attack today is really concerning and it’s coming from so many different places, not just the White House, that it makes our time, I think, so much more dangerous. Whereas back then, you had political parties that I think stood for something, today… I think they’re so… I don’t want to get too into politics, but I think at least back then you had really good people who could withstand an attack on democracy in many different places, and I think that today, it seems that we’re really wanting for good people in our legislature, and that’s concerning.

In terms of the role, it was fascinating to me to see how someone as young as Woodward was at the time of his investigation could take on someone so much more powerful than him in Mark Felt, and sort of manipulate him as any good journalist does to acquire information that would eventually bring down a government. That was an incredible discovery to look into Bob Woodward’s history to see how he might have been changed by fame.

Did Bob Woodward do a courageous thing? I think he was doing his job and was driven by his personal destiny, and that’s how I wanted to play him.

It was really an incredible time in my life making that project.


Ralph Lauren sweater

Your miniseries that aired in the UK in August, Man in an Orange Shirt, is another look back at a very different time. You play a gay man struggling with relationships who discovers his grandfather was gay and closeted in the ‘40s. Aside from working with the legendary Vanessa Redgrave, who I’m going to come back to, what did you find most compelling about the project?

There’s a number of things. I guess the first thing was the story. I think it showed something that I think is really important in society that should be revealed, and I think that any great film or artwork has that imperative to do so. It was this character that I found so moving and painful to read on the page and thinking how I might play him and thinking, “I have to play him,” and then of course the joy of working with Redgrave. But it really was a story that I felt was really important to tell.

It’s incredible to think that things were so different not so long ago.

It’s incredible how things have really changed and also how they haven’t. What was really interesting to me was to see how — it’s a multigenerational story— in the first episode it looks at what it was like to be a gay man in the ‘40s, where society deemed that an impossibility and a criminal offense. You have a man who falls in love and is denied that love by society, and then compared to my character, which takes place today in our time, where you’re able to get married and have a job and be yourself, at least in most places, although certainly not everywhere, and yet the shame that my character has carried with him all his life forced upon him by the relationship he has with his own grandmother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, makes him his own jailer. He is the one who, because of his shame, the shame that has been put upon him, his repression, denies himself love. I can’t think of anything more important in life and more sacred than that — to be loved and to allow yourself to be loved.


3.1 Phillip Lim sweater, COS shorts, Michael Kors belt

My impression is that Man in an Orange Shirt is very much about intimacy. What do you think about social media? Is it a doubled-edged sword because while in some ways we’re able to be much more connected much more easily, we question whether it’s a true connection?

One thing about social media and the internet is that it does connect. It connects people together and people who certainly might not feel a ready connection in their small environments. So, if you’re in a small town and put-upon, you can reach out and find someone who’s like you and there’s a strength in that. You can reach out and find people who are similar to you and then find people who are not like you and that connection is wonderful, too.

The challenge, though, is that it’s such a new technology and the change is happening so rapidly that its challenges are here and yet we’re taking too long to adapt to them. Before, when change came about, we had time to adapt to it, and yet now clearly we’re finding that hard to do. You see how the promise of social media to be this great connector, to be great for democracy, for freedom of speech, was in fact not so great in the last election or in Europe and is no doubt being utilized as a tool of propaganda by the enemies of free speech and liberalism and democracy… and we didn’t even know it! It was happening and yet we allowed it to happen because we didn’t know it was happening. Now, the conversation is about how we adapt to it. How do we prevent the manipulation of a tool of such potentially good things to be used against us?

I’m really against identity politics. I don’t like the atomization of it where we’re just individuals living alongside each other without any connection. I think that type of atomization leads to the populism that we’ve been seeing, certainly in Europe, and is the source of the dysfunction in society that I think we have.

Speaking of change, you’re in an industry going through turmoil due to sex-abuse allegations. Is it an exciting time? A scary time?

I have two feelings about what’s happening right now, and of course it’s not just happening in our industry, it’s happening across the board. I’m devastated reading the stories of these women and men who have been preyed upon. But also, there seems to be a cultural shift that hopefully will prevent these sorts of acts from happening again. I think if you look at any shift in terms of a progression of society, whether it’s civil rights or gay rights, the liberalization of society, it’s a cultural one and it’s a really positive one. So I think if we can come out of this time with a change, determined to really help people feel open enough to tell their story, we can hopefully stop people from preying on the vulnerable.

Chris Evans has talked about a provocative shoot he did for Flaunt, saying his publicist was against it because it showed too much skin. You show a lot of your body in Man in an Orange Shirt, and also did a revealing shoot a few years ago that was every gay man’s screensaver for a while — what’s your approach to nudity, whether on film or for a photo shoot?

 I’m not fazed by nudity. I don’t have a hang-up about being naked. In terms of work, it has to serve the story and the director’s vision or it becomes gratuitous.

Back to Vanessa Redgrave.

Genuinely, she is amazing to work with. I love and adore her. We got really close making Man in an Orange Shirt, in part because the material was so intimate, and all her scenes were with me, long days, just the two of us. I really admire her, I admire her of course for her talent, her intelligence, her silliness. She’s so silly on set in a fun, dramatic, and really funny way. I adore her. I loved being with her. As an actress, she is formidable. She is fierce. She is highly intelligent. She picks apart the script like only a truly great and truly intelligent actor can. You’ll do takes and she’ll be good — she’s always good — and then suddenly it will connect and something amazing will happen! And I’m like, “Fuck! How do I match that? How do I bring my game up to her level?” You’re pushing yourself and she’s pushing you and it’s wonderful. The other great thing is — and this isn’t true of every big actor that I’ve worked with — she is always there for you. She is giving her all. She is always there for you.

Leaving Pretty Little Liars, the dream was to work with people like this and be challenged. This is the dream.


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Grooming by Mira Chai Hyde at The Wall Group using Caudal Skincare Profound Beauty Hair
Special thanks to Simon Shwartz

HALEY BENNETT

Though press has angled her as a “girl on the rise” for years, Haley Bennett has proven herself as the screen siren she set out to become.

Photography by Diego Uchitel @Jones Management Styling by Sean Knight Interview by Dustin Mansyur
Top, Skirt and Belt by Michael Kors

It takes a special kind of girl from the Midwest to brave the shark-infested waters of Hollywood and emerge, not only unscathed, but also with one’s truest character still intact. In a world quick to tell you everything that you are not, Haley Bennett unapologetically beats her own drum to a tune that she is: grounded, earnest, and refreshingly honest. Her ability to play upon her vulnerabilities both on and off screen is what makes her most enticing. Having an “affinity for characters who have experienced loss” isn’t necessarily the kind of target P.R. strategy that most would choose for the path to becoming A-list. But then Bennett isn’t most.

For Haley’s convincing, intricate range of emotion as an actor, these are just the kind of roles that have given her career dimension and life. The whole of her experience has left her in touch with her humanity and its many complexities, in a way that makes her empathetic and aspirational. She is a different breed of protagonist, a new form of hero that captivates with a quiet strength – one that relies on the tools of good acting instead of flashy special effects. With exciting projects on the horizon, including the highlyanticipated directorial debut of Jason Hall’s Thank You For Your Service based on the Pulitzer-prize winning book by David Finkel, Bennett is positioned to beguile audiences yet again in what is certain to be a compelling story of love and war.

IRIS Covet Book recently had a chance to catch up with the winsome actress while on the set of her latest movie in production, Red Sea Diving Project. Bennett is perched inside of a production trailer on set, pandemonium ensues as the worker bees of wardrobe fawn over her, determining which pair of sunglasses best compliment her alabaster skin.


Dress by Jil Sander

How are you doing Haley? They told me you were going to be on set today for our interview.

I’m well thank you! I’m just in a hair and wardrobe test – we are dealing with wigs, sunglasses and all sorts of fun stuff!

I just want to start with a little bit about your background before we move into talking about your upcoming projects. Where did you grow up and what was your adolescence like?

I grew up near Akron, Ohio. Actually, my grandparents lived in a little town called Brimfield. It was delightfully Midwest, and quite outdoorsy as I still am. My dad was actually just visiting here in Africa, and we hiked to this incredible location called the Elephant’s Eye. It wasn’t far from what my life was like growing up. My dad would take me deer hunting, fishing, and four wheeling. I was climbing trees and swimming in creeks. It was all very idyllic.

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It sounds picturesque. Growing up in the Midwest, what sparked your interest in acting? Was it something that you were drawn to early on?

I have a love for cinema. I grew up watching a lot of Time Warner classics – I was very fortunate to be able to view these incredible classics with my grandparents. I thought it was the closest thing to magic-making. I would think, ‘God, are they real people? Are these real people on real adventures?’ and when I learned that they weren’t real people I became fascinated with the process of filmmaking. Growing up in a small town, I didn’t know or understand what the path would be like in order to do that. But, of course, I wanted to be a part of that world of creating characters and storytelling – sorry, Dustin.

(We are interrupted as a wardrobe designer comes in with a mound of accessories for Haley to try on for screen tests amidst our interview. )

This is crazy! I feel like I’ve become a master juggler. This could be another hour so…

Don’t worry, we can make it work. Last year you had a banner year with a lot of lead roles. You were in The Magnificent Seven, Rules Don’t Apply and The Girl on the Train. I expect it’s only going to get crazier for you as the spotlight shines on you more with your upcoming projects.

This past year I have gotten a lot more exposure, but it has very little to do with me and everything to do with people’s perception I suppose. As an actor, you just continue to do the same work. You always hope that the story that you tell resonates and that the character you are portraying will strike a chord with the audiences. It is a lot of work, but you leave the work on the show and go home when the production is finished and you don’t think about it anymore. Naturally, the more projects you take on, the more constant your schedule is. One of the first things trying to be a master juggler is to do the best you can. It’s just like anything else.

Dress by Rag & Bone

I guess that’s your latest role right now, “master juggler”?

(Laughs) I guess that would be a natural progression. It’s been incredible to get more exposure because you do get more opportunities to come in, and to do films that you believe in. So even though I’m juggling my schedule, the opportunity to be a part of projects I am inspired by is very much welcome. That means that there is more freedom to do things that I set out to do.

Can you share with us a little about your character in the upcoming movie Thank You for Your Service? What is she like?

My character is Saskia, and the film is based on a true story about a battalion coming home from the Iraq War. David Finkel [who wrote The Good Soldier] wrote the [Pulitzer prize-winning] book upon which the film is based. He shadowed veterans who were returning home from Iraq and learned what it really meant for these soldiers to come home and to re-integrate themselves back into their civilian lives. He got to witness and be a part of their journey upon returning home. The film is a story of heartbreak, brotherhood, love and courage. These veterans like Adam Schumann and their families opened themselves up to David. Their stories became very important to us, and we all became very close as cast and crew while filming.

My dad and my grandfather are also veterans, so it was quite a personal journey working on this project. The film explores, not only what the soldiers experienced while in combat in Iraq, but also what their families were going through at home while they were away. When they came home, if they did come home, they were changed people and maybe in some cases unrecognizable to their loved ones. The film gives an intimate view of Saskia’s reality while her husband, Adam, was away – raising their two small children, one of which was under a year old when he returned; and then his journey discovering and coping with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder].

Did you actually get to dialog and have conversations with the person whom your character is based upon so that you could better express and play her in the movie?

There was an enormous wealth of information in the book itself, which is very hard to read at times. It showed what Saskia went through. It’s a very complex story, but fortunately I had an opportunity to speak with Saskia prior to the film. Saskia and Adam inevitably separated and went on different paths. Since these are the lives of real people whom we are portraying, we wanted to be respectful and sensitive of their feelings. I wasn’t as close to Saskia as I would have liked, but the material and script that was adapted from the book was so rich.

Dress and Belt by Monse


Do you feel like you personally evolve by learning from the character while working on the project like this? Does it gives you a new perspective on things?

I believe we are constantly learning and evolving. Experiences merge with a person. Even if someone else has had a completely different experience than you have personally, they are still human. As humans, we all share the same spectrum of emotions. It’s innate to our humanity. I always say that I have an affinity for characters that have experienced loss. This film is no different because, in a way, Saskia has experienced an enormous loss. She loses her husband to PTSD and the aftermath of the war, and yet, the interesting part is that a lot of her friends lost their husbands to the war.

She is dealing with a complex and confusing aftermath from the war, and she has an enormous well of feelings of loss, grief, and loneliness that resulted from her husband’s return and diagnosis with PTSD. He isn’t the same man with whom she fell in love and had a full life with prior to the war. So I found her to be an incredibly strong woman to endure this lifestyle and her loss while still managing to be the light within the story.

Cape by Chloe

Wow, that sounds like it was a very emotional project to work on. What is the experience like exiting a production like this after having been in such an emotional role?

It can be an extremely intimate and intense experience depending on the film. This film in particular we had forged these incredible bonds that really allowed us access to each other’s emotions and feelings. So it was quite painful to say goodbye to this cast, crew, and staff. It’s also hard to say goodbye to the character that has made an impact on you the way that Saskia did for me. We really exposed ourselves on this film. Going back to your day-to-day life, you kind of have to put your armor back on. You go back out into the world and adjust, so it is a bittersweet process.

Jason Hall is making his directorial debut with this film. So, what was the experience like working with him?

This story is a very personal story – the veterans whom Jason shadowed have become very important to him and he really had a deep understanding of the psychology of what it was like to be in Iraq and then to come home. He spent a lot of time with them. Jason immersed himself in this world for the past five years of his life. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affects those who have survived extremely traumatic events, and can affect anyone who has experienced trauma. As humans, we all will experience trauma to some degree within our lives.

I just think Jason had this incredible insight. He was able to personalize his own trauma and was very open about some of those issues. He had this way of making us really feel very connected, attached, vulnerable and empathetic to the material. He pushed us to explore emotional territory that wasn’t always comfortable. He was constantly pushing me, which I believe to be necessary. You need that push in order to lunge deeper into your work. Jason was the architect of that; working with him was a transformative experience in my life and work.

Slip Dress by Palace Costume

You’re on set of the production of Red Sea Diving Resort. Are you able to share with us any details about your role in this film, your character, and how you came on board the project?

Absolutely! I had spent a lot of time promoting Magnificent Seven and The Girl on the Train which was a completely new territory for me. After working on Magnificent Seven and Girl on the Train, I wanted to refocus on work, so I sought out a new project. I was reading a lot of material, but I wasn’t really connecting with any of what I was reading until I read the Red Sea Diving Resort. Then, it was all I could think about! Gideon Raff [creator and writer of Homeland] wrote the script and is directing the film. It is one of the most compelling, shocking, and evocative stories that I have ever read. It is based on a true story about a group of Mossad operatives in the 70’s with an incredible cast and crew. It’s amazing that the story hasn’t been told. But I’m glad Gideon uncovered this gem.

That’s very exciting to be involved with such stellar and exciting projects! Not only have you been busy with films, but fashion is keeping you busy as well. You are the new face of Chloé’s signature fragrance for their ten-year anniversary. How would you describe the Chloé woman and what about the brand speaks to you?

My collaboration with Chloé was a very organic one. Their brand philosophy is very aligned with my own personal aesthetic: effortless, easy, and elevated. It celebrates strong women who embrace their own femininity and freedom. The campaign film was directed by a woman named Stephanie DiGusto, who directed a film called The Dancer which is this incredibly poetic and lyrical film. I was really excited to work with a female director, and the theme of the campaign was freedom and female empowerment. Stephanie’s approach was very cinematic. We shot in South Africa in January, and the commercial itself looks like a film. It’s funny, when I was shooting the campaign, I had a feeling that I was going to be shooting my next film here. At that point, I didn’t know I was going to be doing Red Sea; but sure enough, here I am.

Coat by 3.1 Phillip Lim, Slip Dress by Palace Costume

Skirt and belt by Michael Kors

It all came full circle for you then. I am just guessing that in some ways you must feel like you are finally living the dream you had from childhood while growing up on those Time Warner classic movies. Is “the dream” constantly changing as it becomes a reality? What do you foresee in the future?

In my experience, I found that the more I tried to will something into existence, the more resistant it became. Now, I think that when you allow yourself to be the most open to all possibilities, that is when the most exciting things begin to happen. I live with a willingness to be surprised, to let life take me where it wants to. You can make your mind up about something, but in the end you really have very little say in things. I think it is important to live in the moment and to be open to life.

The sun is setting in South Africa. As I thank her for her time and juggling all the many distractions of being on set while managing to hold down an interview with charm and eloquence. She interjects just before we hang up, “The biggest distraction was that gorgeous sunset!”

 

Cardigan by No. 21, Vintage Slip and Boots from Palace Costume.

Dress and Belt by Alexander McQueen

Hair by Lona Vigi using Clairol at Starworks Artists, Makeup by Sabrina Bedrani using Dior, Nails by Morgan McGuire using Chanel, Prop styling by Ali Gallagher, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Photographer’s 1st Assistant Jordan Jennings , 2nd Assistant Luc Richard Elle, Digital Tech Logan Bingham, Producer Monae Caviness @ Jones Management and XTheStudio, Stylist Assistant Jake Sammis.‡

LEE DANIELS

Star of His Own Empire: Behind the scenes, Lee Daniels is protagonist of his own story and reinventing the Great American Musical along the way.

Photography by Diego Uchitel @ Jones Management | Styling by Rafael Linares @ Art Department | Interview by Alan Bindler

Suit and Shirt by Ron Tomson

West Side Story. Hair. Rent. Hamilton. Musicals have always reflected the times we live in. Passing on specific narratives as told by the people who have lived them is crucial to a society’s fabric, an entertaining amalgam of “real facts,” song and dance that often packs more truth than a public school history textbook. In this current Golden Age of Television, various portrayals of our society are being played out on screen to dizzying and oftentimes brutally honest effect. No one is synergizing these two factors better than Lee Daniels – the Academy Award nominated director and producer of Precious, Monster’s Ball, and The Paperboy, amongst others.

Empire, now in it’s fourth season and Star, in its second, are the hit television shows written and created by Daniels to confront the same topics splashed across newspaper headlines daily – sexual assault, racism, class divide – and are revolutionizing the industry with their interweaving of original music, fashion, and celebrity; using these as a backdrop to the gritty storylines that are holding a mirror up to the changing demographics of America.

Born in Philadelphia, his grandmother was a huge influence. In previous interviews, he has fondly described her as “a crooked politician“ and “gangster” who helped get the African- American community to vote at local levels in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. After the death of Daniels’ father, a policeman who beat him for being gay, his mother sent him to an upscale, white suburban high school, knowing he “couldn’t survive selling drugs.” A fund assembled by the Philadelphia police force had provided him with enough money for his first year and a half of college, and as an act of filial piety, Daniels found himself a girlfriend. The money ran out, and not wanting him to turn to the streets, she gave him seven dollars and a bus ticket to LA.

Living in the back of a church, he started working with the theatre program there to earn his keep. At the same time, he got a job as the receptionist for a nursing agency, a fact he attributed to using the “white voice” he learned in high school. Soon after, he went out on his own, founding his own agency and taking some of the nurses with him. At the height of the AIDS crisis, when other agencies were too scared to allow their nurses to work with HIV+ patients, Daniels’ became the first agency under AIDS Project LA. It made him a lot of money. That, united with a chance encounter with a connected Hollywood client, lead Daniels to sell his agency for “a couple of million.” His career in entertainment was born, starting with a PA job on the set of Prince’s Purple Rain and later moving up the ladder to Head of Minority Talent for Warner Bros.

Casting directing lead to managing, but when he got “tired of telling [African- American] actors that there weren’t any jobs for them,” Daniels transitioned into producing, hustling up the money to make Monster’s Ball, which garnered Halle Berry her history-making Best Actress Academy Award. Mining his own captivating life story, the goal in his work is to give the voiceless a voice, and to make viewers look at people that they normally wouldn’t.

“I’ll give you and feed you a political agenda, but with music, or with a sexy girl or a sexy boy or with some fashion. You will find yourself drawn and sucked into my world regardless of how you feel about me, through what you’re seeing and the audacity of it. Audacious is what it is that I try to be. Not shocking, but just showing shit to people that they don’t always get a chance to see, that other people are afraid to show…”, Daniels says. He is a truth teller, shit-talker, and skilled auteur, telling intimate stories that haven’t received such wide exposure until now.

Passionate as he is in bringing personal narratives to the screen, Daniels is also involved in several charities and nonprofit organizations. His work with the African American AIDS Institute (which is in danger of losing their funding) is a direct result of having lost most of his friends to the epidemic. “That I don’t have [HIV] is a miracle from God and I don’t know how I didn’t get it or haven’t gotten it… and I know that my work as an artist, my obligation isn’t just to my art and my craft but to my people,” he tells me candidly. This humility is also summoned when discussing his work with The Ghetto Film School, an award winning nonprofit that helps young filmmakers, which Daniels helped co-found with David O. Russell. They both still sit on the Board of Directors. “Because I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t have the luxury… I learned how to hold a camera by watching people as I produced films. To me this is not my gift. I don’t own it. I don’t own my art. My art is to pass on. My job in life is to pass it on to someone that will be far more talented than I. And so for me, the Ghetto Film School represents who it is that I am and what I have to do. It is my obligation to pass whatever gift that God has given me to others who haven’t been fortunate enough (to be able to) afford to go to film school.”

Speaking to him over the phone while he was in France for the Cannes Lions festival, I sense two things: one, that Mr. Daniels is extremely candid, as much so as his work; and two, that what Mr. Daniels doesn’t say is as important as what he does. He’s warm and spirited, with our conversation splitting off into tangents as numerous as his subplots. Here, we discuss embracing the grey areas of life, mortality, binge-watching… and a possible John Waters collaboration? With Lee Daniels, the element of surprise is as guaranteed as the controversy he brings to the screen.

There are times when I’m watching Star, specifically when they break into fantasy sequence musical numbers, that I really feel like I’m watching the 21st century incarnation of “The Great American Musical” … and yet this is about a very specific demographic. I pose this question in relation with a recent comment you made about wanting to be referred to as a “director” instead of a “Black director”, or a “creator” instead of a “Black creator”. Could you speak on how coming from a place of personal authenticity can translate to all people being able to relate, on a mass scale?

Yeah… it’s crazy… and this is what’s really frightening… It’s not the overt racists, that clearly one can see is racist, or clearly one can see is a gay basher… people with white masks, or people that don’t have a problem calling someone a nigger or a faggot… I’d rather see that, than those who truly don’t understand that they’re racist or homophobic. Those who really believe that they’re liberal and embracing of “the other,” and yet still take offense to my work. And ones that are in power that don’t see the problem. So for me, I’m the first to call someone out on that. That type there is the one that is scary, and I get in trouble with those people.

So in a way it’s almost as if your work is holding up a mirror to those that think they’re “woke…”

Yeah, because a lot of them ain’t woke!

You’re known for telling stories, and for giving a voice to controversial topics that haven’t been shared on the scale in which you’re sharing them. Do you ever feel you’re not giving enough time to one topic because there’s more emphasis placed on another?

Oh my God, I always feel like I’m rushing through a story, and I’m not giving enough time to a topic. There are so many subjects and atrocities to cover in America, and in our culture today. In film I can do it, in television I can’t. With Empire, it’s clearly about the kids in the empire. With Star, it’s about three girls struggling; but in the backdrop of that, we’re trying to tell stories that are politically important. That are important to what Americans need to see. Social topics are important. It’s hard to weave everything in.

How many other voices, particularly voices with power, and how many other opinions affect which stories you give priority to?

They sort of let me do my thing now. Which is the reason why I got into television from the very beginning. Danny Strong and I did Empire together and we had a very strong political agenda that was served. With Star I have a political agenda as well. When I am making the network uncomfortable, I know I’m doing my job. When Cookie descended from a cage in a gorilla suit from Central Park in the second season, beating her chest, and she rips off her outfit, and it’s Cookie dressed in Gucci couture and diamonds, saying that she felt like an animal in a cage because that’s how they’re treating us. The network freaked out! But that’s what I was feeling at the moment. I felt like my son, Taraji’s son, Terrence’s son, they were all Black men that were being targeted by the law at that time, so I wrote about it; I felt like we were all people in cages. But guess what? When she pulled off that gorilla suit, homegirl was in Gucci, head to toe, bejeweled in diamonds! I still laugh about Taraji screaming about getting into that monkey suit! But she did it because there’s no actor like her.

On that same subject, there’s a line in an episode of Star, the one with the Black Lives Matter protest, where Queen Latifah’s character says “You win by speaking the truth.” Your narrative, the specific narratives of the stories you tell are your truth. However, at a certain point that a creative achieves a certain level of fame – becomes mainstream, if you will – their narrative and their perspective sort of become “the narrative.” Are you worried about that at all with your work?

It’s terrifying because I didn’t realize that… you don’t know that you’re famous until you say something and it is completely taken out of context, and your kids are coming up to you and saying “why are they saying this ?”. And then there’s negative feedback from your own people. That’s really painful because you then realize you have an obligation to be politically correct in your agenda. And I’m not politically correct AT ALL. It can get me in trouble with my own people sometimes. And that’s inclusive of gays, I can get in trouble with the gay situation, I can get in trouble with the black situation, and you know… I’m sort of a loose cannon in that regard. It can get me sued. I’ve learned over the years to edit myself. And I don’t like editing myself. I’ve learned that some people just can’t handle too much of the truth. So I can only give them a little bit of the truth at a time. You’ve received criticism of topics you cover being “too left leaning” “too gay” etc… and these come from both sides of political and racial divides, different communities… Because I’m not going to sugarcoat a topic. I’m going to tell the truth from my perspective. Racism is not black or white. Homophobia is not black or white. There are grey areas that are there. Unless you take a specific stand on it that is pro or con, you get eggs thrown at you. So I’m very clear that there is a grey area. Because I embrace that grey area, I am criticized. I’ve learned to accept that, and it is what it is. There’s this one quote in which you reference your grandmother. You said you learned from her that “people aren’t good or bad, we all try to wake up in the morning to be the best person that we can be but we end up falling on our asses. No one is perfect. So my work has really been that grey area that we all are — that murky area that we all live in.

Is there anything else about that grey area that you can speak on?

Yeah (long pause). I know what I can talk about. I can talk about the grey area of parenting. I have two 21-year old kids, and oftentimes I feel like I have let them down as a parent. I’m constantly reminded that there’s no such thing as a great parent. You can only be the best parent that you can be. You see kids today, and this represents the millennial, and there’s a sense of entitlement that comes to these kids. Like “you owe me, give me, I’m here to take.” And there’s no work ethic there. I have wanted everything for my children that I did not have. And then you realize “Oh my god what have I done? I’ve created monsters,” not monsters but you know, like, entitled kids that are used to certain things. How will they be able to survive in the streets if I were to die tomorrow, you know, how will they survive? Not from a monetary standpoint, but how will they have the skillset to interact with people? So, now I find that I have to reteach things. My son didn’t know about racism at all until very recently. I had protected him from that by putting him in the schools that he went to. So now he sees it and he’s looking at me like, “why didn’t you talk to me about this?” Again, it goes into the grey area of life. I know that I’m not perfect but striving for perfection.

You’ve mentioned that before – how you have raised your own kids in this bubble where they had not known what it was like as far as what the real world had to bring; do you think that sort of affected how you tell stories, and if you were to make another Precious, now that your kids are older, how does that affect how you dive into these tough topics?

The most potent storytelling comes from a place of where I’m at right now in the moment. Empire came at a place where I was in that moment. It was important for me to tell that story because I needed to tell my family’s story at that moment. Star came at a time when I had to tell that story, and I’m still telling that story because I’m in that moment now. I’m not the guy that I was when I shot Precious. I don’t want to repeat myself, and I also have to tell a story that is important to me. It’s not going to resonate as true unless it’s in me right now. I’m in another part of my life where I’m realizing that mortality is real and that my next breath is not promised. So that area of storytelling is important to me because that’s how I’m feeling right now. Mortality, and telling stories about what have I contributed, what is my contribution, what have I laid out, what have I given back to the world in some way? That’s where I’m at right now.

Trench Coat by Saint Laurent, Shirt and Jeans by Gucci, Sunglasses by Tom Ford

Speaking of mortality, you’re directing a new version of Terms of Endearment; you recently revealed that your remake of Terms of Endearment would deal with the intersectional issues of race and sexuality, specifically that Flap would contract HIV through homosexual sex and infect his wife. In response, critics and fans alike are saying things like “Wait, don’t mess with this classic” and “Far more people died of cancer than HIV!” Why do you think people have reacted this way?

People can say whatever they’d like to say. I say, BYE, haters! I have a story to tell. See y’all in the theaters! I don’t have time for people’s opinions. If I go with people’s opinions, then I’m not making Monster’s Ball, and I’m not making Precious, and I’m not making The Butler, and I’m not making Empire, and I’m not making Star, I’m doing what people want me to do. So, BYE people! I’ll see you in the theaters. And then they go see the movie and are like, (mockingly) “Oh, ok I get it.” …NEXT!

So basically you’re saying “Wait for it to come out, then come at me…”

Then come at me with all of your armor and spears… and you will anyway, so whatever.

In an interview with Elvis Duran, your protegé and an amazing actor, Gabourey Sidibe said what I think is going to be one of the most iconic quotes of her career. Speaking on the topic of self-confidence, she said that self-confidence is something that she has to remember to reapply to herself during the day, like lipstick. Could you speak to that a little bit? You’re a very confident guy…

I am not confident. It’s all a facade. It’s masked. As hard as I try to go for the truth in everything that I do, the only thing that’s untruthful about me, which is fascinating, is my confidence. My confidence is forced. And it’s exactly what Gabourey Sidibe says. That I have to constantly remind myself that I am worthy of being on this phone with you talking about ME. Because I don’t think that I… deep down somewhere there is an insecure boy that feels very much that he isn’t qualified to be on the phone. And I have no problems sharing that with the world, that the exterior masks a very scarred and insecure man, who has learned to love himself.

I want to follow up with you on a question that was raised during your SXSW keynote – I believe the question was something along the lines of how you feel the visual elements of storytelling are changing in this era of binge watching and mobile viewing platforms… at the time you didn’t have an answer. Have you thought about it since?

Well, let me tell you. I can talk about that now because I am now binge watching, and I’m always a little bit behind the eight ball because I’m always working. When I took a little break I started binge watching and now I’m obsessed!

(laughs) So tell me what you’re binge watching!

Well I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m obsessed with The Crown, like borderline crazy level. And right before that I binge watched The Handmaid’s Tale – obsessed with it! I can’t get enough of it! And right before that I binge watched The Night Of – oh my god! Just like obsessed with it, can’t get enough of it, and right after that I binge watched Feud. So I’m ready to talk about binge watching. I’ve never binge watched before until then.

Even your own work – Empire, Star…

I don’t see my work… I don’t binge watch my work, I cringe watch my work! how’s that? (Laughs)

But a lot of people are binge watching your work as it’s available on platforms like Hulu, so now that you are binge watching, could you speak on how that’s inspiring you to tell stories or how that may affect how you tell stories?

What I have learned now through binge watching is that these stories have to be ON. I can’t just drop the ball on a subject matter or topic that I’ve sort of grazed upon in one episode. So I’ve got to make sure that they land. Because I see the mistakes even with my favorite television shows that I binge watch and I would like to make sure that I don’t make the same ones. And I understand now the importance of binge watching, and I have a new appreciation of it.

Are there stories or products that you were holding on to and didn’t know quite what to do with and now that you are a part of this binge watching culture, you maybe see better opportunity to tell those stories?

Yeah, it’s hard though. Because you’re dealing with celebrities’ schedules that are on the show, along with production schedules, and then the notes from the studio. It’s a puzzle, it’s a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a miracle really, that any great television is made. I really don’t know how it’s done. Through a wing and a prayer! Because that’s how we did Star last year, and it will be just as difficult this year in making sure that we tell this story. Because we’re dealing with schedules. People’s schedules really screw it up! (laughs)

Other than your life stories and experiences, you’ve mentioned before that your influences vary widely. The first book you read, which had a huge influence on your entrée into the entertainment world, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. You’ve also said you and Mariah Carey call each other Cotton and Kitten based on an old John Waters movie [Pink Flamingos]…

(Laughs) Do you know John Waters’ films? I mean, how great is he? Astounding. I would love to see John Waters do something for Netflix or another streaming site, I mean what would that look like? He better figure it out! As a matter of fact I’m gonna call him when I get back from Cannes to make sure that his ass is behind the camera again because so many are influenced by his work. He is such an underrated trailblazer, at least in my eyes. He is everything! So yeah, Kitten and Cotton come to the rescue.

Do you think that we would ever get a Lee Daniels / John Waters collaboration?

I would kill for that! But here’s the thing. As we get older, we become more politically correct. I know I do, and I think John did and I think it’s just that a part of age is being old. I don’t know that I would have the courage to do Precious now, if that makes any sense at all. I know how it is out there. And youth… you know the naiveté that you have when you’re young and not afraid to be criticized, and then that level of fame that comes with that. I may hang up the phone with you now and say “Wow, this is almost like a therapy session, where I might say ‘well maybe I will do something like Precious just to shock people.’” Because one expects you to go on and on, to bigger and better things. My first movie we made for two cents and it garnered Halle Berry the first Black woman to have an Academy Award, and that came from a place of utter fearlessness and not caring and not giving two F’s what anyone had to say about a subject matter that everyone in Hollywood passed on.

In 2015 you were on a drama showrunner roundtable panel where you said “I hate white people writing for Black people; it’s so offensive. So we go out and look specifically for African-American voices. Yes, it’s all about reverse racism!” and asked the other show creators if they had African-American people in their writer’s rooms. Another notable creator, Ava Duvernay, is known for selecting female directors for her show Queen Sugar. For this and the upcoming film A Wrinkle In Time, she even sent notice to the heads of each department not to submit a homogenous list of hires unless they could prove they had considered others. How do you feel about this approach to hiring crew and building a team? Could you speak more on this, especially with direct relation to the stories that you’re telling?

I can’t speak for Ms. Duvernay, I don’t know her. But I can speak for myself in that… I have to be frank with you. Again, it’s a grey area. Not to retract the comment, but if I could think about it again… there are people that aren’t of color that can write for people of color. But to a bigger picture so many people of color weren’t being hired to write for themselves. So, I can’t isolate to say that there aren’t those exceptions. That’s like saying that I can’t write for a white man, when I have; you know what I mean? A hundred percent. I think what a lot of people would say to that is that there’s enough white men writing for white men, so that’s why this is important; that we make sure we have enough people of color in the writing room… Yeah but I think that I make it a point to make sure that my world around me reflects the environment that I have grown up in and that I’m trying to articulate on the screen. So yeah, I believe strongly in hiring who’s right for the job. It’s tricky. I think I’m gonna be politically correct on that subject and shut up. Let me shut up on that comment. (laughing) How about that!

Going from one politically sensitive subject to another, last year was a huge year for entertainment depicting stories about people of color and featuring POC with Moonlight, Hamilton, etc. It was also the year our administration completely changed. Do you think these are related and how does one inform the other?

Yes. I think Trump is a reflection of who we are today and who we have become. Just as Obama was a reflection of where we were when he was in office. I think Trump is our karma, just as Obama was our karma.

Would you almost consider that as a backlash of sorts? You know, all of a sudden people of color have these voices… and now this happens. Do you think these stories that are being told and released on such a mass scale are causing this kind of backlash and uproar?

I think that we had our first Black president; and Empire was created, that changed the landscape of television. I think my mother needed a reality check. And I needed a reality check. America made sure that we got that reality check by putting Mr. Trump in office. So how does that now affect the narratives that you’re exposing or the stories that you’re telling? I have to respond accordingly now, don’t I? ‡ Suit and Shirt by Ron Tomson, Watch by Rolex

Grooming by Jhizet @ Forward Artists, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Photographer’s 1st Assistant Jordan Jennings, 2nd Assistant: Luc Richard Elle, Production by XTheStudio, Special Thanks to Chantal Artur and Brooke Blumberg from Sunshine Sachs.