Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: There’s a clear through-line that connects a majority of Lorraine Toussaint’s 100-plus screen credits, and that’s the authoritative voice. Comb through her enthralling portfolio and you’ll spot more than a few characters who are doctors, police chiefs, lawyers, and judges—put-together figures that boom with conviction and knowledge. (And yes, that includes at least one prophetess, courtesy of Into The Badlands.) It’s no mystery as to why that may be: From the moment Toussaint utters her first syllable, she commands the attention of everyone in her orbit. It’s a very specific power that those who’ve followed her career have witnessed time and time again, from her early soap opera days to her chilling turn in Orange Is The New Black as Yvonne “Vee” Parker.
That’s why opportunities like CBS’s action drama The Equalizer are a welcome reprieve for Toussaint: She still gets to exude wisdom while also tapping into the softer, more vulnerable side of herself that she doesn’t get to explore as often. After decades of truly engaging on-screen work, she’s still looking to take on new challenges. Her next ideal gig: a spot on Netflix’s Bridgerton. After two back-to-back appearances in Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy allowed her a brief stint in Shondaland in 2012, she’s ready to make a return. “I’m hoping to go play with [Shonda Rhimes] in London,” Toussaint told The A.V. Club at the beginning of February. “I’m composing the text right now.” In addition to her hopes to cavort in Regency London, the actress also shared her parting judgment’s of She-Ra’s Shadow Weaver, the scariest part about playing OITNB’s biggest villain, and how a dip in the ocean while filming in the Carolinas turned out to be way more revealing than she had anticipated.
The A.V. Club: In The Equalizer, you play Aunt Vi, who provides support and knowledge for Queen Latifah’s character, Robyn McCall. What aspect of Viola are you most looking forward to audiences getting to know?
Lorraine Toussaint: The last few years, whenever I’ve gotten the opportunity to luxuriate in motherhood, I’ve jumped at it because it really does show the softer, more vulnerable aspects of me that for a good chunk of my career, I was not asked to play. One of the aspects that drew me to this is Queen. We danced around each other socially, but we never really gotten to play in the sandbox. The other part is, our McCall, as in the franchise, has been a part of Black Ops. But unlike the franchise, she has a family. She’s consistently had this pull between what she loves to do and what she’s leaving at home. She’s neglected the home front for quite a while, which is where [Aunt Vi has] been holding down the fort. So I tend to play a bit of the referee between the two of them, the peacemaker, while I help educate and guide her a little bit.
It’s lovely when I get to really revel in all of those softer, warmer, fuzzier qualities as well as just being a straight talker, not unlike Lorraine. There are so many qualities of this role that were right in my wheelhouse. Given the past year, this has been a tough world to navigate and anything that makes me exhale and speaks to my heart staying open, I really have gravitated towards. So this role anchor that part of me and I love that.
She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power (2018-2020)—“Shadow Weaver/Light Spinner”
AVC: The Shadow Weaver we met at the beginning of She-Ra versus the one we met at the end of the series were two totally different beings. What was your parting judgment of Shadow Weaver by the time of her demise?
LT: Listen, if there’s one thing I love, it’s complexity. And where there is no complexity, I will infuse some just because. But Shadow Weaver surprised even me because she was so darn evil in the beginning. And then you really saw how wounded she was. She was a really good sorceress, and then some bad stuff happened to her and she was betrayed. It’s a real lesson in how everybody’s doing the best they can at every given moment with what they’ve got. It took the entire series for her to drill deep, deep down into her soul where there was a pool of goodness that was finally able to float to the surface. But it took some drilling.
I grew up in the era of She-Ra, Aquaman, and all of those sword-raising heroes. I loved playing that part and I was glad to see her have some redemption in the end. It felt like a gift to me personally that she didn’t just go out evil—she actually found something in her soul that she was willing to die for in the name of love. It’s fun to play bad, but the real fun for me has always been finding the goodness in the bad. That speaks to the human condition, which is the only thing I’m really interested in.
LT: One of my favorites. Quiet as it’s kept, very few people have seen it. It’s got its cult following, but it’s up there with being one of my absolute favorite things I’ve ever done. I loved putting her together because we had a great costume designer, but the visuals of her—how Cressida finally looked with the hair, the tattoos, and the scarification—I worked with an incredibly creative Irish team to put her look together. I was very hands-on in how she looked and what she sounded like. Miles Miller and [Alfred] Gough gave me free rein creatively in bringing her to life, so I feel like I have great ownership of her.
Also, getting to shoot in Ireland was a fantasy. It was rough, don’t get me wrong. I’m no longer one of those young actors who says, “I’m going to suffer and be cold for my art!” No, I don’t want to be cold. [Laughs] There’s nothing glamorous about shooting outside the United States, they have very different standards of comfort. Most of the show was shot outdoors in the Irish winter. I had this huge, luxurious queen-like cloak with a train and a big hood—it was fabulous. I said, “We’re going to find a twin-size down duvet and make sure that bad boy is dark.” We cut armholes and a slit to slip my head into one side, and I put that on underneath my cloak. I was not playing.
It was nothing comfortable, but the meeting of those minds—the fight team was from Hong Kong, the Italians were in charge of the visuals and costuming, the Brits and the Irish and the handful of Americans—made for a really international group. I liked creating that new language. I loved the complexity of that relationship with Pilgrim [Babou Ceesay]. I like pushing against taboos because the human psyche really is that complex.
AVC: There are very few roles that send a chill down my spine like Yvonne “Vee” Parker. The first season of Orange Is The New Black mainly established the characters and the environment, but Vee showed up in season two as the first Big Bad, the outsider. Was there a moment with Vee that sincerely chilled you?
LT: There were lots of moments that chilled me, mostly because I rarely knew what I was going to do on a day-to-day basis. I would learn my words and put on my boots. It was one of those roles where hair, makeup, and wardrobe took all of 15 minutes. I found that the moment I put on the boots, Vee would wake up and once she was awake, I just got out of the way and let her have her day. When she was awake, I didn’t pay too much attention to what she did, so I would witness this at the same time as everybody else, and part of my brain would be going, “Oh! that was interesting. Didn’t see that coming.”
I think it stems from the way I started the role. They offered it and a few days later I was somehow in New York. I think I started it barely reading a full script—I think I read one from the previous year, but the script with Vee wasn’t even ready. When I said yes to this, I said yes to an idea. They wanted a character that would shake up this world and make it dangerous. It was that broad. They said, “You know, we don’t quite know where we’re going, we’ll develop it as we go along.” I felt that they had enough interesting ideas and I trusted Jenji Kohan based on what I saw the previous year.
I got to the first day and it was a little bit freaky because I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know this character. Jenji and I kept playing phone tag because we were going to have a more in-depth conversation about this character, but we kept missing each other. I was put into hair and makeup and I’m in the prison garb going, “I’ve got to talk to Jenji! What am I doing?” I walked off to where she’d been sitting and we just talked for a few minutes, about 30 minutes before I begin shooting. I asked, “Is there anything you want to tell me?” Jenji said, “Yes, she’s a clinical psychopath.” I went back to my dressing room and I looked up the clinical definition of “psychopath” and one of the things I found is that they don’t have a strong sense of consequence, but they can mimic what certain emotions look like by virtue of survival. I plugged that in right away. I played a lot of “what ifs” with Yvonne: What if I didn’t have any connection to the consequences? It lent itself to an enormous amount of freedom. I could just switch directions on a dime. I could be fully invested in this moment and just flip the switch and go into another one. As an actor, it’s rare to get that opportunity to have that level of internal emotional spontaneity.
It was a lot of fun. Vee was the mother who ate her children, but Lorraine wasn’t. We had so much fun bringing our A game and we made it really safe for each other to jump into the deep end because you knew someone was going to be there to catch you. As an actor, there is no greater atmosphere in which to create.
LT: I did Queen with Halle Berry 10 years before [Their Eyes Were Watching God] and she’s one of my faves as a woman and as a lovely actor. She’s really coming into her own and reinventing yourself yet again. I think her talent has yet to be fully recognized.
It was my first meeting of the minds with Oprah and that level of a creative camp. I don’t have much of a memory of Queen, and Their Eyes Were Watching God was shot in the Carolinas, I think. But when I think back to those days, I just remember getting caught skinny dipping on the beach by a bunch of Boy Scouts.
LT: I don’t remember much about the shoot, but I do remember that. [Laughs] I was in the Carolinas, exploring the coastline in Cape Cod on this deserted beach. It was my day off and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, the water is so warm!” I looked down the beach and just had to go in. So I pulled all my clothes off, I went in, and it was glorious. I was there for a very long time because there was nobody on the beach. Then it started getting dark. I looked over and thought, “Are those lights? All right, Lorraine, you better get out.” So I get out, but the current had clearly carried me away. I was nowhere near where I’d left my clothes. I’m going, “Oh my god, where are my clothes?!” This little group was getting closer and closer to the point where I could recognize what looked like a small band of Boy Scouts on some sort of night mission. They were studying shells or something. They did not envision encountering a Black mermaid that night.
As they get closer, I’m scrambling for my clothes. I finally find them and grab enough of them to dive back into the water to put them on. And that’s what I remember about Their Eyes Were Watching God.
LT: I think what we did on that show has yet to be done on television. The issues we took on are so relevant and needed today. We addressed race with a kind of courage and resilience, and we just did not give up until we told as much truth as we were capable of at that moment. I remember early on Annie Potts and I committed ourselves to outing our communities. She was going to out white people and I, to the best of my ability, was going to out Black people. And we were going to put that out on the table for these two seemingly opposing characters to wrestle with. We [approached] everything from profiling to the N-word.
There might have been a scene in the two-parter [called “It’s Not Just A Word”] where I was [cross-examining] this character who was pretty high up in the Klan. I pushed him to the limits until we went nose to nose, where he all but called me the N-word from the stand. I remember feeling the heat in my body as I was shooting that scene with Mike Malone, who played this old racist so well. There were so many moments like that where the hair would stand up on my arm because I knew we were tapping into the dark side of America. The creator, Nancy Miller, and the executive producer, Gary Randall, gave me an enormous amount of latitude and creative involvement so that with every single script, I had the ability to argue my point of view as a Black woman. If it isn’t my favorite work, it’s the work I’m most proud of.
LT: Oh my god, the movie that would not end. I think it was one of the first of its kind where we were so far over budget and so far over time—a two-month film took four months to finally finish. I can remember David Caruso and I trying to wash blue jeans in the bathtub because there was no place to do laundry, so we had to wash all of our clothes ourselves in the bathtub of this hotel. But being in Rome and seeing every Caravaggio at the museums, the Sistine Chapel—that was marvelous.
AVC: Was there a key lesson that you learned from your very first role that helped you throughout your career?
LT: I just gotten out of Juilliard and was doing regional theater. To be able to get something on camera, I didn’t know what I was doing at all. Back then, they didn’t even teach on-camera skills in the conservatory. You were only given your lines. Early morning, you get the day’s work and I think at 1:00 or 2:00 [in the afternoon], they started filming live. And you’d have to commit to memory pages and pages of dialogue. I think it’s one of the places where I learned how to do that, and that’s a muscle. It may not be tested at this point in my career, but it really was a muscle. Cutting my teeth on the soaps, you had to learn it. You had to break down those scenes, you had to make choices, and you didn’t have time to think so much. It lent itself to a kind of emotional, creative spontaneity where you had to trust your instincts and commit to a choice. If you screwed it up, then this tomorrow you could fix it tomorrow. It’s not so precious.
I don’t think young actors cut their teeth anymore. There are so many things being called acting now where the goal isn’t mastering the craft. Oftentimes it’s mastering social media. That is a skill, but I’m still a firm believer in the idea that you can’t beat master craftspeople. And when you’re in the presence of that, you just know it. The only way to do that is through mentorship and practice. It’s not just what’s in front of the camera or on the stage, it’s oftentimes what’s not.