Ever wondered what it really takes to be a black actress? Andrea Lewis surely knows.
Before the days of Being Mary Jane, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, the 29-year-old Canadian-born actress was perfecting her acting chops as the token black girl on our favorite TV shows and movies. Flashback to 2001 when she played catty adolescent Hazel Aden who saw potential in “Wheelchair Jimmy” (aka Drake) before the rest of the world did on the popular teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, and you’ll understand just why she isn’t new to the game, but true to it.
But these days, Lewis isn’t just making moves in front of the camera. She’s also pulling the strings behind the scenes as the writer and lead actress of the web series “Black Actress,” a “mockumentary” of the trials and triumphs of life seen through the eyes of an aspiring black actress.
Vixen caught up with Andrea Lewis for a session of Vixen Chat where she spills the tea on the inspiration behind her web series, the climate of blackness in the acting world and how she learned to be confident in her convictions. —Ashley Monae
VIBE Vixen: Many of us grew up seeing you on our TV screens. How did you get into acting?
Andrea Lewis: I was just really blessed. My mom was approached by a casting agent in the mall when I was a year old, but she was hesitant at first because acting was something she wasn’t familiar with. The next year she was on maternity leave with my brother so she had more time on her hands and decided to call that same agent. Luckily they remembered me. From there I started doing commercials and modeling and I really enjoyed it. I had a very unconventional way of getting in the industry and really learning the business because I learned simply just by doing. So, I was lucky in that sense because I found something that was my calling and it came easy to me.
How did you manage to balance living a normal life, going to school and acting?
I feel like an anomaly because I’m one of the few actors I know that really balanced a regular school schedule. I went to regular school all my life, up until high school, and it was just a matter of my teachers knowing that I might miss some days of class. When I was younger and doing commercials I was gone maybe every two weeks for a few days, and once I got to high school would miss nearly half of the year. But of course when you’re a child actor there are rules so I actually had to do school work on set for a number of hours and have a tutor. I managed to have that balance and I think that’s what really made me this normal, down-to-earth person because I was able to have my friends that lived normal lives and didn’t care about the fame. I couldn’t have imagined going to one of those specialty schools. I feel like my world would be so boring [Laughs].
Was acting always a passion of yours?
I always had a great imagination. I had also started singing and performing at a very young age so it’s almost like, “What came first: the chicken or the egg?” for me, in the sense that I have wondered whether I would have been doing this if I hadn’t experienced being on a set at two years old. But at the end of the day, once I got older and found more confidence I accepted that this was my calling and there was no other job I could imagine myself doing.
Tell us about your latest project “Black Actress.”
“Black Actress” is a web series I created and star in. The “mockumentary” focuses on the life of actress Kori Bailey [played by myself] and her relentless hunt for her big break in the entertainment industry as an actress. For me, this project was a way to showcase the person that I really am. I’m more than just an actress. I’m a writer and producer, so this was a way to express that to people. I think this is a great time to be a black woman as you’re getting to see us on television and more in media. The show doesn’t just highlight me and the other actresses. It highlights women of color, period. I try my best to have different complexions, different hair types and different body types within the episode because I want people to see and understand just how beautiful we, black women, are. But overall, “Black Actress” is relatable to everyone regardless of gender and ethnicity. That’s really my driving force for the scripted part of the series; molding a story that is relatable.
What was the inspiration behind web series?
I always knew that I was going to be a producer or writer in addition to acting. Since I was a young girl, I was inspired by talented individuals like Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore and just actresses in general that I saw that had their own production companies and were really active in them. “Black Actress” in particular was inspired by an experience I had when I was filming a movie in Vancouver and I was the only black girl. One of my cast mates introduced everyone to his manager and says, “This is Andrea and she’s the urban one.” It was a really weird experience. Nobody knew what to do, and it was just that moment where I was like wow he see’s me as the script see’s me. Like, I really am just the urban girl. Just the black girl. Not a full person pursuing a career just like he is. So from there I knew I wanted to do something that told the story and showed us as normal people. Mind you, as awkward as that moment was I also thought it was really funny. I realized this was something to look at with comedy. So I decided to make the experience comedic, include interviews with actresses so they could share their stories in the industry too. I honestly wasn’t quite too sure what to do with it but the web series was a great idea because I could do whatever I wanted without anyone dictating the format that I knew was going to be unconventional.
Creator of the YouTube comedy series “Awkward Black Girl,” Issa Rae, is one of the producers of “Black Actress.” How did you two link up?
When I decided I wanted to put “Black Actress” out as a web series, I immediately started thinking of who I’d like to collaborate with. When we first started pitching the idea, Issa was actually one of the first people to jump on board. She loved the idea and wanted to be hands on. That’s the complete idea of the show. I wanted to bring that sisterhood vibe to the forefront. I think her style compliments the show and she understood my vision.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges black actresses face today?
The climate is changing a lot when it comes to being a black actress. Right now, we’re hot! So it’s actually a great time, probably the best time I’ve ever seen in my entire career. But usually our challenges are definitely the roles. There aren’t as many roles for us; it’s very limited. It’s like a food chain for all actors where it’s the white male actor, the white female actor, black men and then lastly black women. I believe the overall challenge is finding not only good roles, but roles that let you be somebody, like a significant part of the show or a fully functioning character. It’s kind of hard. I know for myself, personally, there have been times where I’ve played just the best friend or just the neighbor or the go-to girl, not someone you really got to see and know on and experience things with. Overall, I think that’s the main challenge black actresses face. Luckily, with the rise of shows like Empire, How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal people are finally getting to see us be these dimensional women. I’m hoping that this trend takes charge. For me, it’s truly an exciting time to be a black actress right now.
What’s next for you?
Well, right now I’m doing a kickstarter campaign for my production company, Jungle Wild, where we make diverse content, share stories and focus on people that look like us, too. The goal is to raise funds so we can expand all of our shows [including “Black Actress”]. I think many people fail to understand and sometimes take for granted the fact that web content is very expensive to produce. No, it’s not as expensive as TV but it’s definitely not cheap, especially if you want it to be quality and top level, which I always strive for. Within my production company we have a few other shows besides “Black Actress” that we’re working to release, so that’s my main focus right now.
What advice would you give for those trying to break into the acting world?
Make sure your confidence is up. This is such a tough industry and it’s pretty saturated with many people wanting to be actors and so many people being told no. But you have to stay confident in this pursuit, from your choices to knowing the person that you are, and not being shaken by anything. Also, training. It’s one thing to have a passion for acting but it’s also another thing to have the skill-set, and trust me, it takes a lot of training. Some of your best actors and actresses have a trainer all year long and others have come from esteemed theater schools, so people have to always keep in mind that there is a level of training you will need for your overall success.
Who is an actress that has inspired your career?
There are two actually. I’m very inspired by Diahann Carroll. I worked with her when I was 12 years old on Livin’ For Love: The Natalie Cole Story, and it was like seeing a diamond in person. She was fabulous from head to toe and so regal. When seeing a legend like that it’s hard not to feel like you have to do great because you look up to someone like Diahann‘s career. Also, I absolutely love Loretta Devine, who I’ve worked with a couple times. She’s one of the most honest people I’ve ever met. She’s going to always give it to you straight and I admire that about her. She’s hilarious, she’s wise, she’s experienced everything and has done good work. When people think of Loretta Devine, they think good work and that’s how I want people to recognize me, too.
What would you tell your 16-year-old self?
Wow, so many things. When I was 16 I was on Degrassi so I was very much in the public eye as a teenager at a time when looking back on it is your most awkward age and I’m on TV for the world to see [laughs]. I think I would tell myself to focus and to love yourself. As a teenager, it’s easy to be influenced by what others do and say. I had many times like that where I was unsure of myself. I’d sometimes think I was awesome and sometimes if you said something it would affect me for the rest of the day, week and even month. Literally, I would change my whole dynamic so much that I met so many [standards], but I never thought they got a sense of who I really was because I was too afraid or trying to be cool. So, I think if I really got to see my younger self I’d say, “Don’t listen to those people, be your true self and be confident in your convictions.” Of course, it’s easier said than done but you live and you learn.
Photo Credit: Instagram/@andrealewis