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Bianca Lawson On The Final Season Of ‘Queen Sugar’ And Career Longevity

I Run This is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Yvonne Orji interview here.

Bianca Lawson is as humble as her résumé is lengthy. She began acting when she was 8 and has continued to stay booked. From “Saved by the Bell” to “Sister, Sister” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Pretty Little Liars,” Lawson’s range can’t be debated. The 43-year-old’s presence has been a staple in television for 35 years.

Since 2016, however, she’s played a character significantly different from her previous roles in Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar.” As the OWN show comes to a close with its seventh and final season, Lawson has been reflecting on her journey as Darla, the troubled Louisiana mother who’s battled drug addiction, sexual assault and mental illness. Lawson’s Darla is a powerfully nuanced and gentle portrayal of real-life people’s stories. Lawson received an NAACP Award for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her “Queen Sugar” role. She sees her character as holding a special place in a TV landscape broadly still struggling to accurately capture Black women living with addiction.

“That’s something that lives on beyond it. You do your work, and it’s meaningful to me as an actress, as an artist, but the fact that she’s resonated so much with viewers is an extra gift,” Lawson said. “And so just getting to be a part of this kind of movement and this kind of innovation, and I think, the beginning of what hopefully will become not an out-of-the-ordinary thing.”

Though her work has made a big impact on screen, in a lot of respects Lawson, daughter to actor Richard Lawson, is a quiet force. Her name is never associated with industry drama, and she’s been able to be versatile in the roles she chooses to play. But that hasn’t come without struggle and rejection. She said one of the best pieces of advice she got from a veteran actor when she was younger was to just do the work. Lawson has held on to that.

“The work is the most important thing, just the work, because you’ll be made to feel that everything else is really important. But at the end of the day, if the work isn’t solid, the rest doesn’t really matter,” she recalled from that conversation. “And that’s a thing that’s going to stand the test of time, and that’s a thing that’s going to anchor you and anchor your legacy and anchor your pride about what you’re doing is ultimately the work.”

Lawson discussed what the final season of “Queen Sugar” means for her, how she’s been able to maintain longevity in Hollywood and her aspirations of producing and directing.

Bianca Lawson has been in television for 35 years.
Bianca Lawson has been in television for 35 years.
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Getty

We’ve seen you play Darla for seven seasons on “Queen Sugar.” As you reflect on those seven seasons, what has this character and this show meant for you, especially in the grand scheme of everything you accomplished in your career?

Well, this is a very, very different character for me and a very different experience. And I have a feeling that some time in the future, this show is going to be one of those cultural touchstones, that everyone’s going to look back and say “Queen Sugar” was the first to do it. And so this character in particular, Darla, seems to mean a lot to people. So it’s like one of those characters that the most people come up to me about to say how she has touched them, how she reminds them of them, or someone they know, or their mother.

That’s something that lives on beyond it. You do your work, and it’s meaningful to me as an actress, as an artist, but the fact that she’s resonated so much with viewers is an extra gift. And just this show in particular, working with Ava, working with Oprah, working with all of the whole female directorial team, most of our department heads are women — that’s unusual. And so just getting to be a part of this kind of movement and this kind of innovation, and I think, the beginning of what hopefully will become not an out-of-the-ordinary thing.

I feel really, really, really blessed. And there’s all kinds of topics that this show is bringing to light: Black farmers and all of these things that aren’t normally talked about. And I think we explore it in a way that’s very nuanced and realistic and human and reflective of not a fantastical, heightened entertainment way. But in a way that people feel is reflective of what their experience has been with those subjects.

I think that’s what makes “Queen Sugar” so revolutionary. Not only from the lens that it’s told, but also those specificities and nuances that we see. Darla was only supposed to be in the show for a few episodes but her trajectory became so much more expansive. What has Darla’s journey meant for you?

I feel like I’ve lived an entire life through Darla. And there’s something very hopeful about her story. We find her in the beginning, she’s really struggling just to stay sober, just one more day, just to get a job, just to have her trailer, just to get to see her child and to see her grow so much and evolve so much. It’s hopeful to me that no matter how bad things can seem, if you don’t give up in the midst of it, what’s on the other side of it could be even greater than before the dark thing that took you under.

I love that. You told Ebony that you try to be as honest as possible when you play Darla. I’m wondering how that’s challenged you as a person and as an actor?

People are going to feel how they feel about characters. And I just try to choose what’s the most honest, most truthful choice that I can make and point of view that I can have regardless of what anybody else thinks about the character or feels. And in that way, really challenging myself to not just take the simplistic quick interpretation when I first read something. And roll it back and look at it from different angles. And sometimes that’s a tough thing. And maybe it’s like, how do I find it within myself? And maybe I need to confront something within myself. And it’s all in the nuances and complexities of what that means. And are there places in my life or things in my life that maybe I’m not really looking at as closely as maybe I should?

And so in order to tease apart something that Darla is trying to chew on and figure out, and how to really reflect that in a way that feels authentic, requires a rigorous honesty with myself. And also, if I don’t feel like I maybe am the best person to know deeply, deeply about a certain thing, I will call people I know that have gone through certain things and say, how does this land on you? And everybody’s different. There’s no one face of addiction or one face of sexual assault trauma or one face of mental illness. People are unique and their stories are unique, and their journeys within those things and how they react are unique. Someone might get triggered and completely shut down and feel nothing and go numb, and someone might get triggered and cry.

And so it doesn’t mean this thing has happened, and I know exactly how I’m going to respond because everyone responds differently. So allowing myself to be really open with that and really, really, really go as deeply as I can into the research or into the options I give myself to give Darla and then throw it away if in the moment something new pops up, or I get into a scene with someone and they do something and suddenly aligns me with something completely different and I’m like, oh, my God. And just being open to being able to throw everything away as well.

Yeah, this moment right here feels very special. “Insecure” and “Black-ish” were able to end on their own terms and now “Queen Sugar is ending on its own terms, too. Black shows don’t always get that chance. Do you think right now is different? If so, what do you think is different about the time and place that we’re in with Black television?

I do think it’s different. I think there’s that thing of sometimes when you feel so grateful to have this thing there is that level of we’ll just keep going until we can’t go anymore, until they shut the lights off. And I think it’s very reflective of something happening in the culture right now in terms of ownership, in terms of making it ourselves, in terms of determining what we want it to look like. Not like, they never let anybody do this, so we’ll just do it until they let us not do it. So this kind of agency and saying, you know what? This is how I wanted to go out. We built this thing. And so we’re going to determine when we feel like it’s ready to stop, and not because we’re forced to or because this is the only opportunity to do it. So, yeah.

What are you going to miss the most about this show and this cast?

I think there’s something very special about New Orleans and shooting in New Orleans and the energy that that brings and this being a show where so many characters go through so many deeply, deeply emotional things. And so when you’re working with the other actors, there’s a vulnerability that requires and a transparency that requires. And to go through all of these things with people, even though it’s acting, your body doesn’t know it’s acting. So it almost feels like it really happened in some parallel universe. So I think I’m going to miss that.

This particular experience is a little bit different, where it feels a bit more personal as opposed to, we’re just showing up and we’re acting, we’re being our characters, right? But I really went through something with you. I really exchanged something with you. I really bared my soul with you and shared this thing with you. So that level of intimacy, and it’s like you had that experience and it’s wonderful and you may not always have that experience, but I think we all will probably be energetically attached forever, maybe because of that.

Bianca Lawson portrays Darla in "Queen Sugar."
Bianca Lawson portrays Darla in “Queen Sugar.”
Skip Bolen/OWN

You’ve been in this business for 35 years. What an accomplishment to even have not only that longevity but also that versatility in the roles that you’ve been able to play. What has been the key for you to maintain not only that longevity, but that versatility?

One doesn’t always have the luxury, but I try to not repeat myself. And so what’s interesting to me is asking is this a different kind of character? Or is this a different kind of experience that I want to have or different kind of filmmaker I want to work with? I think in the beginning, obviously, 8 years old, I did not know that I was going to end up here. I just wanted to do it. And I auditioned for a million bajillion things that I did not get, and the things that I did were the things that I got. And then there were certain things that I said no to, because I felt like I did that, that would just be going backward. So it’s a combination of just these were the parts that I got and the other things I didn’t get.

And I think, honestly, just not quitting. Because there’s so many times when you want to quit. And usually right at those moments where I feel like, oh, maybe it’s time to reshift and do something else, or take a step back. That’s usually when a new opportunity comes that you think, oh I got to take this. So I wish I had some answer or secret to that other than just, it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of rejection, a lot of frustration.

And there’s this really interesting thing of, as an artist, as an actor, to allow yourself to be emotionally porous and have somewhat of a thin skin so that you can access all of that and it be right there and available, but then having to have a very thick skin for the rest of it, for the business side of it. And I think it’s so important to have good people around you and to keep reminding yourself, and this can change. Why am I doing this, though? Because everyone will have their different reasons for why they want you to do something, or why you should do something, or if they were you, what they would do, but they’re not you. And it’s easy to get pulled into a lot of different directions and in other people’s expectations and desires.

Just so, for me, surprising to hear that because I just can’t even imagine a Hollywood landscape without you. So thankfully for us that you didn’t quit. I’m wondering what you haven’t done yet that you hope to accomplish before all of this is said and done for you?

There’s so many things that I haven’t done yet. It’s an interesting thing. I always had very, very specific goals of what I wanted to do now and what I wanted to prioritize now in terms of my work, in terms of the kind of work, or even just the kind of people I wanted to work with, the kind of material, the kind of characters. And I’m in a place right now where I feel very, very open to whatever.

It could be because I’m 43 and it’s a new chapter of my life, but I’m also open to experimenting. And I’ve never directed, I’ve never written anything. I have produced and I love that. So I don’t know, there’s a million and one things I haven’t done, and at this moment in time, I’m just allowing myself to see what manifests, what surprises me. I’m not putting any expectation or need. I’m just wanting to be open.

What do you want your legacy to be?

That is a big question. That in whatever way what I’ve left in the world, what I’ve done publicly, privately, whatever, has been helpful to people, has left light. And maybe that I leave people better than I found them, and in some way was helpful in their journeys, directly or indirectly.

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