Ashley Romans is an actress every Blerd can relate to. Once she was cast as Agent 355 in FX on Hulu‘s adaptation of Y: The Last Man, she read the entire graphic novel series in a weekend.
“I ended up reading the entire series in a weekend and just enjoying the storytelling with no expectation. Most actors can relate to this–you submit a self-tape, it goes out into the either, and you never hear back,” she continued. “You could have been great, you could have been terrible, [but] you’ll never hear anything. So I was kind of expecting that. But I got a call back and then I read a lot with [series creator/executive producer Eliza Clark] and it’s so interesting because [of] the source material and what [Clark] is doing with the source material, it’s such an interesting…variation and really brings it to the real world. I was excited by the source material but I was most excited about Eli’s vision for the show. It was so specific, really real world. It breaks down into some really awesome real-world themes that are easy to explore. It’s a very cathartic show in that sense.”
Her character is named after the real-life woman agent who worked with George Washington during the American Revolution as part of the spy network the Culper Ring (also a name used within Y: The Last Man for a top-secret government organization). She is tasked with guarding Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer), presumed to be the last cisgender male alive after a global virus kills every person with a Y-chromosome on earth. Agent 355’s role is to keep Yorick safe until he can be cloned to regenerate the human population.
With the nature of the story, the show will most certainly put women in power at the helm. Women characters in leadership positions is part of a sea change in Hollywood, which is focusing on showing women as more than just damsels, crones, or villains. Example: The Wheel of Time, coming to Amazon. Like Y: The Last Man, The Wheel of Time features women who are tasked with saving the world from an unforeseen horror. And, with both series, a man is the outcast in a world of women running the shots.
“I think what Y: The Last Man really seeks to explore is a world without these systems of oppression that we’re used to and what that world could look like. I really consider it social science-fiction, in a way,” said Romans. “I think we are seeing a theme in our current world, too. Women are stepping into their power. People of all genders are really exploring…and embracing their feminine power and feminine energy.”
Romans said prison abolition is actually what drew her to the project.
“I was thinking of this one writer, she’s an abolitionist [named] Derecka Purnell. She wrote a book about becoming an abolitionist and honestly…prison abolition is one of the themes that really attracted me to the graphic novel. And [Eliza Clark? who is that?] said this too–what does a world look like without prisons? How could we function highly in a world without the patriarchy, without capitalism?” she said. “What I saw Derecka Purnell say in an interview that really struck me is that we don’t know all the answers, so people it’s not a worthy goal to pursue because we don’t have all the answers now. But what it is…is exploration.”
“I think because the show is a series and not a movie, it doesn’t demand any finite answers from us. By the end of two hours, you don’t need to have any answers. We’re going to be exploring for multiple seasons what this world looks like without all the roles we assume,” she continued. “…[A]nd I think because specifically 355 is a Black women and her Blackness is so essential to her, to her world experience, but also to her experience being a war criminal and an agent of oppression within the Culper ring, and now that the Culper Ring is now around, she’s kind of figuring out who else she can be, who else she could be in this new world.”
Romans is now part of a growing lineage of Black characters, especially Black women characters, in the sci-fi and fantasy canon. Thinking about that lineage is something Romans approaches lightly in order to not feel overwhelmed.
“It’s a blessing and monumental, but also at the same time, we know Black people have been doing science fiction for a while,” she said. “Like Octavia Butler, her books have always been really like pivotal…I guess it doesn’t really feel quite it hasn’t really set in that I’m a part of this movement of black people in sci-fi. The only thing I really know is that this character is trying to make it through whatever she’s trying to make it through. And I can really only eat that elephant by bite and…I think it’s definitely, I think in 15 years’ time, I’m going to look back and say, wow, that was pivotal at the moment.”
“I heard Angela Davis say something really interesting,” she continued. “She said that it’s…interesting to think that the current moment you’re in is history. It changes everything.”
Romans said that she hopes that in 15 years time, she can be looked back on as one of the actors who helped Black characters become more commonplace in sci-fi and fantasy series. But she also wants Black science-fiction and fantasy to stand on its own merits.
“A part of me wants to say I wish Black people just made their own fantasy. And we did our thing and we don’t need to be embraced by everyone else’s idea of what fantasy looks like or could be,” she said. “But I do love that…[people] are starting to embrace the full human expression of what a Black woman could be. And what I love about this character is that she’s so full of contradictions. 355 wants to be seen and disappear at the same time. She’s a war criminal, but she’s also an artist. She’s trying to figure out if this system or this agency that she works for is good or bad.”
“She’s really struggling to figure out who she is outside of what her job is, which, you know, I think a lot of people can relate to, especially when the pandemic hit and they couldn’t go anywhere. They’re stuck figuring out ‘Who am I?'” she continued. “And, um, honestly, that’s my main interest exploring this Black woman and also being part of the conversation of mental health and what being a Black woman in this world could look like and does look like. I think a lot of people are going to see themselves in these characters.”
Romans spoke to a phenomenon most Black Americans have experienced growing up in this country–learning to empathize with others, even when no Black characters were on screen. It’s a muscle a lot of people of color have had to flex more than the average white person, white men in particular. Now, White people–who, as Romans said, had the “luxury” of not having to empathize or identify with others–are beginning to exercise that muscle as well thanks to the growing number of Black characters and other marginalized characters on screen.
“Growing up as a young Black girl, you could watch basically anything and relate to any character on there because that’s a muscle of empathy that we have that we need to exercise when we watch TV,” she said. “So like Black people can watch game of Thrones and not the any Black people…and yet still see themselves. Now, I enjoy that white men, white cisgender men who were fans of the comics, have to see 355 or see…trans characters, female characters, and identify with that. Now they got to build that muscle. You start building that muscle and the world starts changing and you don’t even realize it.”
Y: The Last Man is currently streaming on FX on Hulu.