For Gina Torres, The Mission Is Afro-Latina Excellence In Her New Series 'Pearson'
That’s what the formidable Jessica Pearson, a disbarred New York lawyer who enters Chicago’s dirty politics as a fixer, warns her new boss, the mayor, in the trailer for the forthcoming Suits spin-off series, Pearson.
For fans of the eight-season USA Network legal drama, Jessica’s tough-talk and self-assurance is par for the course. Exuding power from the top of quick-witted head to the tips of her pointy stilettos, Jessica isn’t intimidated by status. An opportunity to tell the man how it only bolsters her own vigor. She’s commanding, incredibly skilled and feared–and she knows it. She’s the kind of powerhouse woman Gina Torres, the Cuban-American actress reprising the role, has taken on throughout her lengthy career.
“I’m very fortunate to play strong, significant women,” Torres, 50, tells Vibe Viva. “It’s been an incredible blessing and one I didn’t see coming early on.”
The Manhattan-born, Bronx-raised Torres got her start on the soap opera One Life To Live but has made a name for herself bringing sci-fi badasses to life. Famously playing Zoë Washburne, an ass-kicking fan favorite in Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly, the Afro-Latina actress was also Nebula, a Sumerian princess and pirate in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; Jasmine, a demon who takes human form and devours people into her super slaves in Angel and woman warrior Hel in the two-season Cleopatra 2525–a role that won her an Alma Award.
The sci-fi goddess, who also had roles in Hannibal, Xena: Warrior Princess, Alias and Westworld, says she, like many aspiring actresses, initially pined for the coveted girlfriend part in films and shows about the mundane life of some American man. But she was rarely cast as anyone’s sweetheart. Instead, she says, each snub guided her down a more fulfilling theatrical path.
“I got to play far more interesting roles,” she says.
For Torres, Jessica’s comeback in Pearson is an evolution of all the fierce women she has played in the past. Unlike in Suits, where the character, a former managing partner at New York law firm Pearson Specter Litt, is somewhat of an enigma, its spin-off, which sees Jessica as its lead, introduces viewers to the complexity of an influential woman of color who understands her might and value.
She is, to quote Torres, a “fully realized human,” who we see restarting her life in the Windy City, navigating the cutthroat, grimy political world as the mayor’s right-hand, grappling with relationship woes that stem from her controversial career transition and reconciling her incessant impulse to win by any means necessary with her drive to do the right thing.
“As I have evolved over the years, as a woman and as an actress, Jessica is a beautiful realization of so many roads taken and not taken. It’s why I think this character will resonate with a lot of professional women,” Torres says. “It shows the sacrifices it takes, the things you have to go through and let go along the way, the rewards and benefits you gain as well as the peace you have to make with it all.”
The idea for the gripping new series, where Torres will make her co-executive production debut alongside Suits veterans Aaron Korsh and Daniel Arkin, came to the actress while she was home watching the 2016 election explode on her TV.
Looking at the key players, their nasty tactics and the cult-like supporters they cultivated from her small screen got her thinking about her former Suits character Jessica and how she might move in this messy political landscape.
“I was perplexed by the different characters who inhabited this world, and I have to say on both sides of the aisle. I was looking at blind loyalty, true believers, people who just want to power grab. I was fascinated by all of that,” Torres said. “Jessica, as a character, I think was particularly interesting to people because she was a loyal, intelligent character who did whatever she had to do to keep her people safe and the firm together. So I started to think of her in this political arena, because she does have a specific skill set that can be seen in a different way, but she ultimately wants to use her power for good.”
She brought the idea to her agent, who told her she “had a show,” and Suits creators agreed. The then-unnamed spin-off was picked up by the USA Network in March 2018. The series casts Morgan Spector (Homeland) as Chicago Mayor Bobby Novak, Bethany Joy Lenz (One Tree Hill) as an ambitious city attorney, Eli Goree (Riverdale) as a journalist-turned-press secretary, Chantel Riley (Wynonna Earp) as Angela Cook, Jessica's cousin, and Simon Kassianides (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the mayor's tough-guy driver.
As a co-executive producer with influence behind the scenes, Torres has taken the responsibility to drive diversity in the writer’s room. To start, she pitched the character and arc for Yoli Castillo, a DREAMer who is just starting her career in Chicago politics as Jessica’s assistant, who will be played by Puerto Rican actress Isabel Arraiza (Driven).
“Because it was my idea and I brought it to them, the powers that be have been incredibly open to my story ideas and respectful to my original vision of the show, which was to create and mirror Chicago as it is: a diverse world, socioeconomically, culturally and racially,” she said.
Being in the room where stories are created and decisions are made, an experience Torres calls “incredible,” also helped her make a lifelong career dream come true: playing an Afro-Latina character.
“I was very specific about reinventing Jessica’s mythology and making sure, for the first time in my life, I would actually be playing an Afro-Latina character,” she said, excitedly. “In the past, it was never an issue for me because I wasn’t in a position of power, but now, in this instance, I was, and I got to say, ‘this is who she is and we are going to reintroduce her to the world as a proud Afro-Latina character.’”
The Black Cubana, who has played multiple African-American characters during the span of her career, has long called out the mainstream media’s Eurocentric representation of Latinidad.
In 2012, she discussed how casting directors continuously passed on her for Latinx roles in NBCUniverso’s documentary Black and Latino, famously saying, “When I became an actress, I quickly realized that 'the world' liked their Latinas to look Italian and not like me.”
The following year, she told Latina magazine that despite the film industry needing to “figure it out and catch up,” her view of herself never changed, adding, “I know who I am. I’m Cuban American.”
For a Black Latina trying to make it in an industry that not only didn’t understand her but operated to erase her from the popular imagination of Latinidad, self-awareness was survival.
“They didn’t care about the Latina part of me at all because I didn’t look like the Spanish, Eurocentric standard of what Latina women were supposed to look like. But the way I counteracted that was by hiding in plain sight, never pretending to be anything but what I was,” she told Vibe Viva.
Years after Torres criticized the media’s whitewashing of Latinidad, we are seeing more Afro-Latinx characters on TV. On FX, the drama series Pose, which follows the lives of trans and queer African American and Latinx young people in New York's ballroom scene in the late '80s and early '90s, Afro-Puerto Rican actress Mj Rodriguez and the nonconforming Puerto Rican-Dominican-Haitian performer Indya Moore both play lead trans Afro-Latina characters. In the streaming space, even wider representation of Afro-Latinidad is prevalent, with Black Latina main cast members in Orange is the New Black, The Get Down and On My Block.
“We’ve always been around, Afro-Latinx people, gay people, indigenous people, we’ve always been here. Dealing with immigration, diversity, LGBTQ rights and inclusivity isn’t new,” Torres said. “The fact that there has been such a stranglehold on acceptance and inclusivity really boggles the mind. All of our contributions through time are significant, and so what this, [having women of color behind the scenes], brings is a point of view, a truth to what life is, a truth to how society functions.”
While there have been gains for Afro-Latinxs in film and TV in recent years, Torres’ anticipated role in Pearson marks another feat: it’s among the first hour-long, primetime network drama series to have an Afro-Latina lead, alongside FX’s Pose. While social media has been abuzz, praising the legend actress for the triumph, and Torres, too, understands its significance, she also recognizes that representation, alone, is never enough.
“My hope is that people watch the show and enjoy it because it is a great show and the performance is wonderful. I want people to get sucked into it because the success of the show means that I get to be on television for other girls, boys and women like us,” she said. “It’s not always about what you see, but about excellence and creating excellence. So often we are told our stories don’t matter or the talent pool isn’t wide enough, so we need excellence and success for this to last.”
If there’s one thing we can expect from both Torres and Jessica, it’s Afro-Latina excellence.
Pearson airs on the USA Network starting July 17, 2019.