Nothing But the Truth: An Interview with Teyonah Parris
by Stefania Marghitu
You may recognize Teyonah Parris for her role on AMC’s Mad Men as Dawn Chambers, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first African-American employee, and subsequently, the series’ first recurring African-American co-star. As Don Draper’s former faithful secretary, she has mastered the series’ distinct sensibility of balancing thoughtful, serious drama with wry humor and wit.
As Parris started her role on Mad Men, I began writing my master’s thesis on the series, a critical feminist analysis of the representations of women in the workplace. After hours of multiple viewings, I was most intrigued by the pivotal scenes among Parris, Elizabeth Moss, and Christina Hendricks, and their personal and professional struggles at various levels within the fictional advertising agency. For a series set amidst the civil rights and second-wave feminist movements, Mad Men has done little to directly address the issues surrounding them.
Parris seems acutely aware of the developments in contemporary mainstream and independent film and television, and has actively taken on challenging and complex roles that address issues of race, gender, class, and privilege. With the end of Mad Men in sight, her career is only getting started: she has two projects premiering this month — -Dear White People, a critical favorite at the Sundance Film Festival, and the Lebron James-produced Starz basketball drama Survivor’s Remorse. She also worked with Amy Poehler in this summer’s satirical rom-com They Came Together, poking fun at the inherent tokenism of the sassy-best-friend archetype.
I talked to Parris about her education as an actor, landing Mad Men, working on Survivor’s Remorse and Dear White People, and the future.
I love how your official website headline says, “Teyonah Parris has Southern Charm.” I also grew up in the south, and it’s a difficult thing to describe to people. What was your upbringing like?
It was definitely slow living. My friends from New York think South Carolina is the country and I’m like “I kind of grew up in the city part for a bit,” but they just laugh because they don’t see the difference. For the summers, I would go down to my grandparents’ house, where, literally, the biggest thing happening in that town was the Wal-Mart. We climbed trees and cut grass; there were rabbits and pigs. I really just got to be a kid. I think that’s the one of the pluses of growing up “down south:” being outside for hours and just running around with my brothers playing. Climbing trees, going into the woods and doing things, being scared we’d be bit by a rattlesnake. It fostered adventure and creativity. I was a wild child tomboy.
You started acting at a very young age. Was your high school specifically arts-oriented? Is that where you met Danielle Brooks [of Orange is The New Black]?
I went to two different high schools. For the last two years of school, I moved two and a half hours away to Greenville, South Carolina, and that was a performance arts high school [South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities], and I lived there on campus. Danielle actually came in right after me; it’s a two year program. Nicole Beharie [of Sleepy Hollow] left when I got there, and I left when Danielle got there.
You also graduated from Julliard. Did you know what your focus was going to be when you arrived?
I was open. I had grown up doing theatre. What you learn when you go to a lot of these institutions is the craft of acting, then you take that and use it in whatever medium you so choose. You learn the heart of what it is to cultivate a character and tell the truth in someone else’s words. You can use that in film, television, theater, whatever you choose.
What was the audition process for Mad Men like?
I auditioned like everybody else. Actually, I didn’t want to go in because I had this trip planned to India. It’s so funny now and I’m so happy it worked out, but I had been in LA for 8 or 9 months and I could not get a callback to save my life! I was going out and not getting any good feedback, not getting any responses. I was a bit frustrated, and my friends were going to India. And I was like, You know what? I’m going to spend my last bit of money, then I’m leaving LA and going to back to New York, because I know I can crash on somebody’s couch and eat ramen. I can’t do LA anymore, and this trip to India will be my goodbye.
So I told my team three weeks before this audition came up, and they were like “okay, okay.” Then of course this audition comes up and they were like, “Well, T, we have something we think you should try out for.” And I was like “I told y’all I’m not cancelling this trip, I can’t get the money back, and I want to go!”
And of course, they don’t tell you anything. All the audition listing said was a co-star, which could be one or two lines and that could be it. It doesn’t mean you’re coming back. I wasn’t going to lose thousands of dollars for this gig that could be one line. You’ve got to be kidding me! They were like “Let’s go in, we’ll see what happens.” So I went in, I had a great audition, I enjoyed it, I think I did well. Then they called me and told me I had a callback and I said, “Listen, I can’t do this, I have to go to India!” They were going to hate us if I booked this and couldn’t do it. Then I’m in the room for my callback with Jon Hamm, Matt Weiner, and Laura Schiff and Carrie Audino [Mad Men’s casting directors] I left the room and I had this feeling. “Why? Why now that I’m leaving the country?”
Long story short, it ended up working out. I think it was the only time in the show’s production history that it ended up shooting out of order and it wasn’t because of me. They did that two-hour premiere [of Season 5] and ended up shooting that third episode, where I was introduced [“Tea Leaves”] first, then went back and shot the two-episode, movie-like premiere. So I got to go on my India trip! Then when I came back, they told me they want me to come back on.
And you guys finished the whole thing a few months ago?
Yes, the whole thing. From that one audition, that whole breakdown of “African-American secretary,” I was able to be a part of that show’s history. Three years of filming, and I’m so glad it happened.
Since the show had already been on so long, did you feel like the new kid once you arrived?
Yeah, and definitely in a few ways. I was also the first African-American in their workspace at that time, so the show was tackling this whole new other issue. When you just come into a show that’s already established, you feel that they’re family and they have a way of doing things and running things. And for me, I kind of hung back and learned, and they were very welcoming. And you just kind of ease yourself into whatever the flow is of that show.
My master’s thesis was a feminist reading of Mad Men. I wrote about that scene between Peggy and Dawn in “Mystery Date,” in Peggy’s apartment, because I think it was such a vivid example of what relationships were like before the language of second-wave feminism was introduced. I know that the women writers of the series have often said they actually write in their real life scenarios to show contemporary injustices. Was there any moment for you in your time as Dawn that hit home for you?
Yeah, definitely. The moment Dawn and Shirley have in the kitchenette where they call each other by the other’s name, commenting on the fact that no one in the office can tell them apart, actually happened to myself and the actress who plays Shirley, Sola Bamis. I won’t say who the offenders were, but it’s happened…on more than one occasion. They were completely embarrassed and apologized, but it’s one of those moments where you just call them on it and keep it moving. That’s the brilliance of what the Mad Men writers are able to do, though, address the issue so subtly but it rings of truth!
And you’ve already Have you started shooting Survivor’s Remorse?
We’ve finished! We finished our first season and it airs October 4, so I’m really excited about that. I think it’s going to be awesome, a half-hour of television that people look forward to I hope. It’s so…politically incorrect and hilarious, but it gives people truth, so that’s what makes it even funnier like, “Man, this actually does happen and it’s so messed up to laugh right now.” Those types of moments.
Can you talk a little bit about your character on the show?
I play Nicki Vaughn, who is married to Reggie Vaughn, the cousin and manager of the basketball phenom Cam Callaway.
So it’s really about the sports family and the actual family, the intersections of professional and personal lives of these characters?
Exactly. You follow Cam Callaway as he’s thrust into the limelight after he’s signed a multi-million dollar basketball deal, and he has his family with him. You watch these six people navigate through this world, and these six people as his support system. You see the mistakes they make along the way as they try to do what they think is right, and you also see them succeed in other areas. And my character, Nicki, married into the family, and she comes from money. We joke that my family is old money where the Callaways are new money. So I’m definitely the one who tries to guide them in the right way in different social settings when I can. You really watch these six people try to make their way in the new world, lots of money and basketball and all that good stuff.
Dear White People is coming out in theaters on October 17, after huge acclaim at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. How did you become involved with the production?
I auditioned like everyone else.
These two roles, in Mad Men and Dear White People, are probably the most notable of your career so far. Did you have this consciousness in pursuing these characters, although they are in different eras, encountering both racism and sexism? Was that in your mindset as you auditioned and thought about the roles?
When I look at material, I get excited by things that are telling the truth, because that’s what you want to do, tell somebody else’s truth. And projects like Mad Men and Dear White People make you realize like, okay, this is the first African-American woman in a white workspace. She doesn’t represent all African-American women, it’s just one black woman’s story. When I looked at Dear White People, you have four African-American students who are all very different, and who are trying to figure out who they are. They’re dealing with identity issues and crises. That is exciting to me, to see African-American young people on a page, on a screen, who are so diverse and whose stories are all so different. A lot of times when you see these African-American stories, it’s only one experience, as if all African-Americans have the same story. It’s exciting to be a part of a project that says, “well, here’s four African-American students who are very different, here are their stories, and there’s 18 million other stories that black folk can have, and stay true to who they are, and it’s just as authentic as this other African-American experience over here or over there.” I like to tell stories to see all people of color, not just African-Americans, being portrayed with some depth and complexity and truth, because those stories exist and are interesting.
If there is one takeaway you would want the viewer to learn from your Dear White People character, Coco, what would it be?
I would want people to look at Coco’s journey and take away the fact that everyone, no matter how different from your own, is entitled to their own beliefs and goals. You may not agree with what it is they want or how they choose to obtain it, but all you can do is lay out your truth and at some point hope that when relevant it will resonate with them.
Stefania Marghitu is a PhD Student in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California, focusing on television, modes of authorship, and feminist analysis. A condensed version of her Master’s thesis on Mad Men can be found in the edited collection Smart Chicks on Screen: Representing Women’s Intellect in Film and Television. You can follow her on Twitter at DearStefania.
Image by Nina Duncan.