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“Divine destiny” is the phrase that first comes to mind when considering Teyonah Parris’ career. The 31-year-old actress has made her way up from trying her luck as a “ham” in beauty pageants in her native South Carolina to being sought out by some of the biggest power players in Hollywood.

But to call it destiny would be to undermine Parris’ own talent and tenacity: It’s a combination of hard work blended with a Juilliard education and a supportive black sisterhood that has led her to groundbreaking acting roles in the films Dear White People, Chi-Raq and If Beale Street Could Talk and, on the small screen, in Mad Men, Survivor’s Remorse and Empire.

Parris recalls that her flair for captivating an audience came to her suddenly. She was a young girl growing up in Hopkins, South Carolina, climbing trees and running around. “We didn’t have social media like we do now,” Parris remembers. “It was really just me and my brothers and my grandparents and my friends. I think having that sort of freedom [forces] you to be creative in order to have fun.” Without fully knowing where her gift lay, only that she was destined to do something that involved her imagination, she enrolled at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. She blossomed. “Going to the Governor’s School took that freedom, that instinct, that spontaneity and helped me to actually learn the craft of acting,” she says. “Before, it was just a hobby and something fun to do, which it still is. But being able to gain the tools and techniques to sustain what I naturally had was helpful.”

If she had to pinpoint her “aha” moment, it would be in 2002 when she watched Halle Berry accept the Academy Award for best actress—the first and only for a black woman. “That’s when it changed for me,” she recalls. “I was sitting there watching her on TV and was so inspired by [how big] this moment was for the entire world. [I thought] ‘I could do that. I want to inspire people and have young girls like me look up to me and say, “Wow, she made history. She told stories. She affected our lives and inspired me to follow my dreams.”’”

Parris still reflects on this moment today when she thinks about the impact she wants to make as an actress. When you consider the roles she’s played—the determined college student defining blackness on her own terms (Dear White People), the modern-day black queen taking control of her body and sexuality (Chi-Raq) or the black secretary confronting white supremacy (Mad Men)—it seems she is making her message clear. “Certainly, with every role, I ask what the character has to say. How does she add to the narrative of being a human, but more specifically a woman and a black woman?” says Parris. “No matter what I do and what roles I choose, I’m going to be a black woman.”

Despite being a part of an industry that undeniably favors white actors, she’s never felt isolated in the struggle. In fact, she recalls the sense of camaraderie she experienced among the other budding black actresses while a student at the Juilliard School in New York. It’s a feeling she holds dear today; the same classmates—Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley and Nicole Beharie—remain her peers and sisters. She is also grateful to the black female alumni, like Tracie Thoms and Rutina Wesley, who would come back and offer warm support. “They were huge supporters who had already gone through the program and let us know that we weren’t alone. I’m still extremely close with the people I came out of there with. I learned so much about myself [at Juilliard] because I was deconstructed and forced to look at pieces of myself to figure out what is it I’m made of. What is it that I hide? What are the things that I’ve allowed others to tell me about who I am—but may not be who I am? These women went on that journey with me.”

“Hollywood can’t be one group of people being able to tell their stories all the time.”

This journey toward feeling comfortable in herself was not strictly limited to her time at the prestigious arts school. It’s something she’s continued in the years that have followed. For example, after years of relaxing her hair, she realized one day that she had “no clue” what her natural hair looked like. Making the decision to go natural required “a re-conditioning of my mind of what I thought beauty was… I didn’t associate how I looked in my natural state with beauty,” she says. “And I had to change that for myself.” Now, a search for “Teyonah Parris hair” on YouTube returns pages of tutorial videos in which women attempt to recreate her various styles. Parris has also been diligent about helping change the perception of black lives through her performances on screen. She has actively pursued parts that were particularly important to her. She got the role in Dear White People, which tells the stories of black students at a predominantly white Ivy league college, because she asked for it: She knew writer/director Justin Simien and producer Lena Waithe and asked to be a part of the movie. “I knew Justin and Lena when we were all struggling and hustling out in LA, so when [Dear White People] started to happen, I said to Justin, ‘Hey, I want to come in and audition.’” She’s remained very pointed about the roles that she chooses, explaining, “It needs to be something that people can glean something from—that reflects something going on in their lives or in the world around them. Or that reveals someone else’s truth so that people may have a better understanding of someone they may not meet.”

Though she’s specifically sought out collaborations with black directors, she was the one being chased to play one of her most influential roles: as Dawn, the first black recurring character on the hit series Mad Men, which centers on the lives of a mostly white advertising agency in 1960s New York. When asked about this specific character, Parris laughs and says it was pure luck that brought the role to her. At the time, she was a struggling actress in LA, sleeping on her teenage cousin’s twin-size bunk bed, with only $1,200 to her name. She was considering a move back to New York when a friend invited her on a trip to India. She couldn’t really afford it but booked a nonrefundable ticket anyway. Shortly after, she got the call to audition for Dawn—a character described as a “co-star, possibly recurring.” She was supposed to be in India during the exact dates she would have to film, but she decided to audition anyway.

Of course, Parris got the role. Dawn was introduced in the third episode of season five, when she submits her resumé to become a secretary for the show’s lead character, Don Draper. It just so happened—for the first time in the show’s history—that the series was filmed out of sequence, which meant that Parris could film the third episode and then go to India while they completed episodes one and two. When she came back from her trip, she was asked to return as Dawn. Looking back, she says, “That was nothing but God and his grace and his favor and luck.” This is typical of Parris’ attitude toward her success: “It’s been hard work and discipline and dedication, facilitated and orchestrated by God the creator,” she says. “My faith is the foundation on which all things that are Teyonah come from. My belief in God and his greater plan, my relationship with him is the foundation of my life. Period.”

The Mad Men schedule clash also taught her the necessity of balancing her personal life with an increasingly busy professional career. “The nature of being an actor, performer or entertainer is that we’re always looking for work. We’re always trying to figure out what’s next. Everything is a variable: ‘Well if this goes well, then I might be in this city.’ Everything is up in the air and you find yourself never feeling settled, never going to your niece’s birthday because you might miss an audition, never going to sit with your family because maybe they’ll call you back. You never really get to live. We need to take time for ourselves, to nurture relationships with family, friends and loved ones. That reflects in your work.” Parris’ most recent role is as Ernestine Rivers in Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of the James Baldwin classic If Beale Street Could Talk—a project that fills her with pride. “I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin. Just being able to get up there and say his words and bring his story to life was a blessing,” she says. The film follows the story of Ernestine’s pregnant sister Tish (Kiki Layne) and her fiancé Alonzo (Stephan James) as Alonzo is wrongfully accused and jailed for rape in the 1970s. Tish and Ernestine, along with their mother Sharon (Regina King), are forced to utilize their respective strengths to prove his innocence during what was a particularly racist period in United States history—one marked by police brutality, housing discrimination and mass incarceration.

The film bears even greater significance for Parris when she reflects on its parallels with the current political climate. “It’s crazy because [Baldwin] wrote this over 40 years ago and—looking at what we’re dealing with now—you would not know any difference, which is heartbreaking,” she says. “I think it’s important for black people to be seen in many different capacities and walks of life. That goes back to what I was saying about choosing things I want to be a part of. What does this say to the masses about who we are as a people and our different facets and ways in which you can be black and female in the world? I think this film deals with all of that.”

When it comes to responding to situations of social and racial injustice (and if you follow her on social media, you know that she will always respond) Parris’ passion is evident, albeit inflected with a politeness that reflects her South Carolina roots. In a 2016 interview with The Huffington Post, after the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers, Parris implored white Americans to stand with black Americans in the fight against injustice: “Dear white people, when your black brothers and sisters are in pain and hurting, it also affects you. It would behoove you to help, be a voice, and stand in solidarity with them [against] these awful injustices, that are so clear to everyone via cell phone videos, and know that it matters.”

Today, when asked whether she feels there’s been any progress galvanizing white allies in the struggle for equality in Hollywood in the wake of the #TimesUp movement, when issues like the gender pay gap are at the forefront of many women’s minds, she offers another characteristically considered response: “I think that it is important in the struggle—the struggle being pay equality, racial equality, gender equality—that white people position themselves as allies. What does that look like? That means amplifying the voice of those in need, learning about whatever their struggles are and asking how they can be of assistance.”

There has been some improvement, she feels. “I do find it happening more. Specifically, when you see roles that were originally for actors of color or based on a book in which that character was Asian or black or whatever and somehow it got cast white. Those actors are now saying, ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t take this. Let me step out of the way so that I can be an ally to my fellow artists who may be more appropriate for the role as it was written or who don’t typically have as much opportunity as someone like me’—typically a white man or a white female.”

It’s something Parris hopes will only get better. Already in 2018, there have been unprecedented options to see people of color on the big screen—which excited Parris. “I will be there for Crazy Rich Asians,” she said at the time. “I will, and I should, and I hope that others will support them and their stories, and make sure that Hollywood and entertainment is not a monolith. It can’t be one single story being told, or one group of people being able to tell their stories all the time. I’ll also be there for BlacKkKlansman. I think it’s important for us all to find a way to become an ally to those who need it.”

She holds herself personally accountable: “I think that it’s important for not only white allies, but for all people of color to be allies. Like my Asian and Hispanic brothers and sisters and artists, they all need more space and representation,” she says. “They have even less than we as black people typically are given, less space to be seen and less stories that are told. So, I find myself making sure I’m an ally to them.”

At 31 years old, Parris has become the role model she set out to be when watching Berry’s iconic Oscar moment. Now she is hoping to find a new way to leave her mark—producing. “I want to be a part of getting those stories out,” she says. “I want to find like-minded artists who have stories to tell and need a place to amplify their vision.”

“I didn’t associate how I looked in my natural state with beauty.”

“I didn’t associate how I looked in my natural state with beauty.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty

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