Interview: Teyonah Parris Tells S&A About Color on TV, Being a Natural Beauty Icon, and 'Dear White People' (Opens Wide This Fri)
Photo Credit: S & A

Interview: Teyonah Parris Tells S&A About Color on TV, Being a Natural Beauty Icon, and 'Dear White People' (Opens Wide This Fri)

Teyonah ParrisWell known for her role as Dawn Chambers on

AMC’s "Mad

Men," actress Teyonah Parris has added to a growing slate of new

projects including co-starring roles in "Survivor’s

Remorse," Starz’ new comedy set in the world of the NBA, and "Dear White People,"

the highly anticipated first feature from Justin Simien, which opens in theaters

nationwide this Friday.

She spoke with Shadow And Act about her recent work and

lessons learned on and off screen.

JAI TIGGETT: You’re co-starring in "Survivor’s Remorse" now.

Are you learning a ton about basketball through the show, about the game or the

business behind it?

TEYONAH PARRIS: Definitely the business, the

politics and the drama that happens off the court, because that’s really what

our show deals with. What happens when a superstar athlete is thrust into this

world of fame and fortune and he’s just come from the hood. How does he respond

to this new world and the relationships that he brings with him? We follow Cam Callaway who is a basketball phenom and his family

members as they move into this new world and have to make huge decisions.

I play Missy Vaughn, his cousin and manager’s

wife. And Missy is special because she comes from money, it isn’t new to her.

She comes from a wealthy family, has multiple degrees, is very cultured. She’s

seen some things and so she tries to help them in whatever way she can and open

up their horizons.

It’s only been a few years since your first major role, but you’re

working a lot now and it seems that you’re suddenly in the spotlight. Has it

been an easy transition?

It feels like it’s been a nice steady

graduation, not too much at once. I know everybody’s just starting to see it

but it doesn’t feel like I burst onto the scene, to me. Right out of school,

starting with the James L. Brooks film with Reese Witherspoon ["How Do You

Know"], I just kind of jumped in and from that moment it’s been nice and gradual.

I’ve definitely been able to appreciate every level.

"Dear White People" is in theaters now. Your character

Coco is kind of an assimilationist with white culture – she’s got the weave and

the blue contacts, but she’s a complex character.

What I love about Coco is just how

seemingly flawed she is. And I say "seemingly" because out of the

four main characters, Coco’s the only one who’s truly honest about who she is

and what her intentions are. You may not agree with the way she goes about it,

but she realizes what side of herself she’s putting aside and what she’s

putting out there, and she goes full throttle with it. I wanted to see what

makes that kind of person tick, without judgment.

Through Coco the film also deals with social media and the trend

of trying to become internet famous. What do you think about the way that she tries

to use sensationalism to get ahead?

I think social media is a slippery slope

because while you’re projecting something out to people, they also project back

onto you what they want to see. And like Coco, I think you can start doing it

for the likes and you can lose yourself in those likes. You start to cater to

one aspect of who you are, or maybe it’s not even who you really are, but

that’s what you’re putting out there.

Dear White People

We hear it with a lot of films but also with this one – that it’s

about identity and not about race. What do you think is the hesitation with the

word "race"?

The movie does deal with race, but I think it

has more to do with what it means to be a black face in a white place. What it

shows you is that this isn’t racism like it was 40 or 50 years ago. It’s the

little things.


Right. How saying things like, "You’re

very pretty for a black girl" – that’s not a compliment. You’re trying to

say it in a nice way I guess, but that’s basically saying that black girls

aren’t pretty and that’s kind of racist. So no, I’m not being told I can’t come

into this building or drink from that water fountain, but it’s those microaggressions

that the film deals with.

On the subject of beauty, you’re becoming something of a fashion

and beauty icon, especially with your hair. But you had a tough transition

to natural hair. What’s it like for you now that people are looking up to you

for that?

It’s so hard for me to believe because I know

where I was five or six years ago. If you would have told me six years ago, you’ll

have a big afro and little brown girls will see your natural beauty, I would

have laughed. That’s just where I was. I couldn’t leave the house without a

relaxer or a weave. As a girl I remember looking up to pop singers and they all

had long, straight weaves and light skin. And I thought, that’s what I have to

look like if I’m going to be fierce and sexy and all those things. I did feel

beautiful. My dad, bless his heart, always told me I was beautiful, so I was

never self-conscious in that way. But when you look at the images on TV, you

think you need to look like that in order to be sexy.

When I got to college I realized maybe I did

have some issues, and that’s when I gave myself the challenge to go natural,

just to see what my hair would look like. I absolutely had no clue because from

the time I was 10 I had been getting a relaxer every six weeks.

So I’m just grateful to be able to be an

image for young brown girls, or any person who’s different, to show that you’re

beautiful just how God made you. With your natural hair, curly hair, dark skin

– however you were put on this earth – it is beautiful. And learning to accept

that beauty comes in so many different forms, it took time for me to fully

grasp that because I didn’t have the images to affirm it. It’s important as a

young person of color to see yourself reflected in the media. So in the most

basic terms, it feels good.

On "Mad Men," your character Dawn has kind of broken the

color line of that show. How have these roles impacted your own sense of


With Dawn I went back to my grandma, because she

was a secretary in the ’60s and one of the only African-Americans in her workplace.

I remember asking about her experiences and thinking that I was going to get this

story that it was so hard and everybody was so mean. And she was just like, "It

was fine. Some were nice, some weren’t. But I did the work and went home."

It just showed me that one person can’t

represent the whole race. So when I took on Dawn I thought, she can’t be the

spokesperson for the entire black community in the ’60s, so what is her story

going to be? And it puts it into perspective, that they [in the ’60s] went

through this so that I could be here today on the red carpet amongst peers who

don’t look like me. It really grounds me in the privilege that I have, that was

built on the backs of those that came before me.

And with Coco, it’s like they didn’t go

through that for you to be here with blue eyes and blond hair. So it just puts

into perspective how far we’ve come and what are the things we still need to

work on as a country and as a people.

"Dear White People" is opening nationwide this weekend,

to a wider audience and to Middle America. What do you want them to know about

the film, going in?

I think that’s who the film is really for. I’m

hoping that they give it a chance and see that not all black folks are alike.

We come from many different socioeconomic backgrounds, we are all so different and

multidimensional, and you shouldn’t group us all together based on what you’re

being fed by television. I hope that it can open up their minds about what can

be offensive or hurtful, and see that everyone has their own journey to finding

who they are and it’s universal, you can relate to it as well. Because as

humans we all have a time in our lives when we’re trying to figure out, "Who

am I and where do I fit in?"

"Dear White People" opens in theaters nationwide this

Friday, October 24.  

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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