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

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

Well 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.

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.

Microaggressions.

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
identity?

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.  

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