For over 30 years, Bianca Lawson, 40, has wowed a variety of audiences. From commercials for Barbie and Revlon to appearances in damn near every iconic ’90s teen sitcom (Saved by the Bell, My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, Sister, Sister, and more) to mid ’00s fame on Teen Wolf and Pretty Little Liars, Lawson has secured herself a place in the hearts of millennials and Gen Zers alike.
And now, with her latest role as Darla, an addict navigating recovery within an unforgiving family on the hit OWN soap Queen Sugar—beginning its fourth season June 12—she's proving herself capable of meatier, more mature roles. BUST caught up with Lawson by phone at her hotel in LA to talk about her long-standing career, the power of just showing up and being present, and #TheAvaEffect.
At the beginning of your career, you were the only representation for a lot of Black girls in the ’90s on major mainstream shows. How does it feel to be that representation in spaces that weren’t really diverse?
There’s something about innocence and naïveté—to me, it was just like, “Oh I just want this job.” I literally wasn’t aware of it at the time, like what it symbolized for people until I was older. Fans would tell me “You were like the only person of color I saw on these shows." But for me, I was so in it, that I couldn’t see it from the outside in that way, and because I was so young. Other people would tell me, “Bianca, do you realize, you’ve done all these shows and you’re the single person of color?” And I would just be like "Really?" I was just running from the next job to the next job to the next job. I didn't have this massive outside eye on myself. I was so young. I didn't realize how truly special that was until I was much older. I was on a set, in my early 30s, and a young Black woman, who was an extra said, “You being the only Black actress here, we're all watching you. We’re all rooting for you.” It was like, “Wait a minute, let me look around. Oh wow!” I was just doing it. I was just showing up. Once I was older, I started to observe the room. And I think with that [awareness] comes a feeling of responsibility. You know? You go through your life, and your doing your thing and you do the best work you can, and you try to be a good human. Even now, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it. I don't know if it was a good or bad thing. Maybe it's good I didn't realize then, and I just had blinders on.
Because your career is full of such a wide range of characters, was there a sort of science as to the roles you auditioned for?
I auditioned for hundreds of things. I would just audition for things. I didn’t even realize I would just audition nonstop, like the whole year. And I wouldn’t get anything. That would happen a lot of the time. Then, the end of year—December is my month—at the very end of the year, I would book one thing. But that one thing would end up being so much more special than the 30 other things that I didn’t get or whatever. Sometimes I feel like a part will really find you and come to you at a certain time in your life. Othertimes, there is just something on the pages, you’d be so excited about, like “Oh my Godness, I love this part.” Then ultimately you see what it turned into and it’s like, “Oh yeah, that wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be.” Or something that you think doesn't have layers or complexities, ends up being this amazing thing that you didn’t even anticipate. But there were a lot of roles where it was like, “I’m not going for that.” But mostly it would just have to be interesting to me, like a director I wanted to work with. A lot of times, you just read it and you feel connected to the character, or you don’t feel connected. Like, “I don’t see how I could contribute to this role,” or, “this isn’t something I want to experience.” Of course in the beginning, a job is a job. But I think I was very fortunate that I did say no to a lot of things that just didn’t speak to me.
Do you remember your motivation for wanting the role of Nikki in Save the Last Dance? That was such a important film for that time and Nikki was the O.G. Unfriendly Black Hottie, hence making her sort of a villian.
It’s interesting you say that, because usually when you’re done playing one kind of character [Nikki Green of Dawson’s Creek], the last thing you want to do is play another character just like that one. I remember having a conversation with Kerry Washington about that in Chicago while shooting. She was asking me something about my character and whatever my answer was she said “So do you have a rule about never judging your character? Like you never see them as the villians?” And in my mind I don’t have that rule, but I always kind of find the character’s perspective. Like to me, Nikki wasn’t a villain. I can’t remember, why, but it was something about her protecting her territory. There was a real emotional motivation or reason why she was the way that she was, so it would totally justify her behaviour. I can’t remember what I decided for myself. But when I read it, I heard her; I saw her; I felt her; I empathized with her. I immediately understood why she felt the way that she felt. Another actor that I had known prior to shooting was like “Wow I didn’t know you had that in you.” [laughs] But I was also really excited to get to dance.
That dance scene is iconic.
I loved it. I loved playing her.
What narratives have you yet to portray that you would love the opportunity to play?
It’s funny because I didn’t remember this, but when I got Darla, somebody said “You’ve been saying you’ve wanted to play a role like this forever!” So two things, 1. I’ve always wanted to play a part where I really physically transform, and learn a real skill, like play a boxer, or like, something like The Matrix or Black Swan—something where you have to train and become really great at some physical skill, at a high level. And 2. A character that I would always say that I wanted to play is Cleopatra. I feel like people misunderstand why I would want to do that, because she was really beautiful and had these love affairs, but there is something about her that I don't think people realize. She was a great political strategist. She had this great mind—really, really smart. I don't think that in reality that she was just this ravishing beauty. Often times war is thought of as this masculine prowess, but I don’t think that we’ve seen a woman like that yet.
Many of the representations of Black people dealing with substance abuse on television often has a weird comedic undertone, but Darla’s struggle isn’t; it’s full of dignity. How does it feel to give a character like her, such a redemptive portrayal on Queen Sugar?
I never really thought of it that way. Thanks for pointing that out. It’s a real gift, because you don’t realize—kind of like the other roles—but you feel lucky and grateful to get to have a character that has layers and it’s not a stereotypical thing, like what you’re talking about. You're excited to see that [character] as an actor. I can hope and pray and cross my fingers and hope that I’m doing something truthful, but you never know 100% because you’re trying to do the best you can—as true to life as can be. You don’t know if you never lived it. But then when people come up to you and tell you, “No, I really went through this, and I’m telling you this is so true to my life,” that [confirmation] is the greatest gift ever. Better than any award for me. It means that you, in some way, are giving a voice to people’s stories that no one ever hears or sees, and shining a light in a way that’s not funny or this heightened thing. Just showing someone’s real life—and maybe it’s healing or makes them feel not so alone, and it makes them feel seen. You don’t always get that opportunity, so I’m really trying to savor it, and just be grateful for it while I’m doing it. On one hand I don’t want to think about it too much, because I don’t want to put pressure on myself. But, when the show ends, I am going to miss playing Darla.
For all four seasons of Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay has exclusively hired women directors for each episode. What’s it like on such a groundbreaking, inclusive set?
It’s extraordinary! I mean really. I was actually on the plane yesterday talking about last season's producing director, DeMane Davis’s hashtag on twitter, #TheAvaEffect. And it’s basically like, in a lot of cases women directors, directed these beautiful shorts that won all kinds of awards, but could not get one episode in a tv show. And now, all of these women, who have directed an episode of Queen Sugar are killing the game right now. Or directing all these other shows! And that’s really the Ava Effect—like before this everyone was like “No, no, we can’t, we can’t; it’s an impossibility.” And then one woman, is just like “Oh really? It’s an impossibility? Watch this.” And then does it season after season--every season. We’re at our fourth season! You can’t ask for anything better. Each episode, getting to meet a new director, hearing their stories, and what their journey was to get to Queen Sugar, and what it means to them and how excited they are about it, and how it was so hard. A couple of them, wanted to be actresses and couldn’t get jobs, and then started writing and directing, and really just having to do it themselves. There is something really empowering about that. Then to become this little network of people holding each other up, pushing each other forward, and creating this big sisterhood. But she [DuVernary] is kind of single-handedly changing the game. Some people get really huge and they rise, but people aren’t necessarily rising with them. But as she’s rising, so many people are rising too. And it becomes this kind of virtuous cycle.
And she makes it looks so simple, like, “That’s it.”
Right! And that’s what I’m learning. I was watching something online, and this person was saying, “Don’t listen to what people tell you. Like, “You can’t do this, you have to do it this way, because it’s the only way.” Well maybe that person can’t see what’s possible. Or maybe that’s just their fear or inability. It just takes one person to be like, “Well, actually, I see it. I see how it can be done.” It’s really not that difficult.
If you could describe Season 4 of Queen Sugar in one word, what would it be?
One word? I wanted to do two. How can I put this into words? Revelatory. Someone else said, rebirth and reckoning. It’s not going to be predictable. I’ll say that. You know how other shows will lay back and take the easy route? No. This is not going to be easy for anybody.
Check out Queen Sugar Season 4 Trailer below | Need to catch up? Binge Seasons 1-3 on Hulu before the premiere (June 12)
Collage by Olivia Shumate; main image courtesy of OWN; other images (top to bottom) courtesy of: THE CW NETWORK; Disney ABC Television Group; Paramount Pictures; New Line Cinema; Warner Brothers Studios
gif courtesy of Tumblr
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Bry'onna Mention is a digital editor at BUST and a wavvy womanist who is always ready to square up against misogynoir and respectability. She can usually be found running through the burbs with her ‘fro. Catch her on the internet at @radsadblackbry or firstname.lastname@example.org.