If Kerry Washington taught us anything this year, it’s that 2013 is the year of the black actress. Although the plight of brown-skinned thespians is a never-ending story, the emergence of web series like Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl not only gives us meaty characters, but it allows for creative freedom. For Canadian industry vet Andrea Lewis (Degrassi, Cadet Kelly), this new media breakthrough makes being a black actress more exciting than ever before. Her upcoming series of the same name will spotlight the quirky everyday life of Cory Bailey, a mildly successful actress struggling to overcome Hollywood roadblocks.
Vixen recently caught up with Lewis to talk about teaming up with Issa Rae, running a successful IndieGogo fundraiser and her craziest audition experience.
VIBE Vixen: Is there camaraderie between you and other Toronto entertainers?
Andrea Lewis: Yeah! Any city or place you come from where there’s multiple people pursuing the same career, you definitely meet everybody and get to know everyone fairly well, whether it be on a professional level or friendship wise. I’ve always been blessed and very fortunate that I’ve lived in different parts of the U.S. and I always have friends there that are from Toronto. So, I’m never far from home [in a sense] which is really good.
Is there one person in particular you count as a close friend?
I’m really close with Melanie Fiona. She’s been my girl for many, many years. Maybe because we’re both Canadian. We both have West Indian background. She’s just a truth teller. Melanie keeps it real all the time. She’s always been my closest friend.
At what point did you realize being a black actress was going to be difficult?
I knew being a black actress was going to be difficult when I was 14. I started in the industry when I was only a toddler and I think if there’s one big thing you learn right away, it’s who you are or what you are in terms of the protocol and list of parts. There was always projects that wanted the token person of color. I was going to auditions that wanted people of color period and not just black girls. Everybody’s there and they’re just trying to fill one role. You learn that very quickly. It’s eye opening. It makes you take a stand, whether you’re going to stick by the stereotype or you say ‘Eff it, I’m going to create my own opportunities.’
Did you feel the same way on Degrassi?
My character a lot of the time was the token girl of color in a scene. She wasn’t necessarily significant. I might’ve been in a ton of episodes. I might’ve been in advertising and all kinds of things, but you didn’t always know things about my character or you didn’t get to hear her speak. I used to ask and talk to them about developing my character a little bit more and giving me a little more shine, but it was always fairly difficult. That’s just the system unfortunately. Luckily, we’re in a time now where the first lady is a black woman and you have TV shows like Scandal. There’s a real sense of turning around to bring in more people of color.
Canada is not like the U.S. in the sense that we don’t have a Canadian BET. We don’t have shows that have a full cast of black people. It is a feat itself to have been on such a recognized show in Canada and the U.S. as a person of color. That is an accomplishment.
What television characters inspire you?
I’m definitely inspired by Scandal. Not just necessarily Olivia Pope, but everything about it. This is a show written by a black woman about a black woman starring a black woman. When you saw the ads or the behind the scenes for it, that in itself is exciting to me. Those are things I literally live for and look for my entire life. I watch those shows to support. I watched Deception simply to support Meagan Good she’s similar to me in a sense that she’s been acting forever. And it’s inspiring because it shows you you just have to stick this thing out and the chances will come.
Who are some of your favorite black actresses?
I love Taraji [P. Henson]. I think her growth is amazing. I used to see Taraji on like Sister, Sister and Smart Guy, so to see her Oscar nominated is like ‘Wow. The work will pay off.’ I think when I was a little girl, some of my biggest inspirations were Tia and Tamera Mowry. I’ve always loved Kerry Washington and the roles that she takes. I also love Sanaa Lathan and Nia Long—they’re the 90’s queens of film and TV.
What was your take on web series before deciding to create your own?
I had my idea for the show for a long time. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with it. I ended up going to this really interesting panel discussion where it had a whole bunch of content creators that were making content for the web. Mainly because studios and networks weren’t giving them the opportunity to put their work out. Instead of waiting of joining a rat race, they went online. They were just talking about being online and how we are in the beginning of something huge when it comes to scripted content for people of color. And I really do feel like that. You can complain all day that there isn’t enough shows with people of color, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not working. When you look online, there are so many different shows. Before collaborating with Issa, I was a genuine fan of Awkward Black Girl.
What is Black Actress and who is Cory Bailey?
Black Actress is a mokumentary style scripted web series in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Modern Family. It’s following a black actress named Cory Bailey who is in the phase where it’s really up to the powers within her to change her circumstances. But right now she’s at that place in her life where she’s a little insecure; she’s quick to blame others and doesn’t really recognize that everything is in her hands if she really wants it. The show also features interviews with other well known black actresses for the “real” documentary part of it. These people include Kerry Washington, Tatyana Ali and Nia Long, Tracee Ellis Ross—women I truly admire. The audience watches Cory Bailey, a girl in her 20’s, figuring out life. Which is something I think we can all relate to.
What is Issa Rae’s involvement?
She read the script, thought that it was very funny and that it fit her channel and her content. When it came to Black Actress, she said she would love to be a part of it and be a producer on it. I thought, Why not? What is more fitting? A friendship between us is perfect because the last thing I want is for people to see Black Actress and compare it to Awkward Black Girl. I don’t want people to think I’m trying to be or trying to follow. And you know there’s always people that are going to say stuff like that. So when Issa came along, it was perfect for her to give the co-sign.
What’s your craziest audition experience?
I went for an audition the other day and I was playing an elf and whole time I was just like ‘I’m playing an elf,’ but I had to just go along and make it the best audition I could make it. But you literally leave the audition like, ‘what’s going on in my life?’
Why did you go with Indiegogo to raise money?
The crowdfunding idea was mainly to get people involved with the project. I believe in community and letting people feel like they’re a part of your journey as much as possible. We knew we couldn’t create our project on little money. So we figured we’d see how crowdfunding works out. I was so scared. I thought, how can I avoid this as much as possible? You’re literally at your most vulnerable state. I’m begging people for money! But, it teaches you a lot about yourself and what you want. It opens your eyes to who your supporters are.
Was campaigning an adjustment?
It was interesting. I don’t mind tweeting, Instagramming, Facebook and all that stuff. I’m that person that might do a couple a week or even a couple a day. It’s all spontaneous. But, with the crowd funding, you have such a limited amount of time. I think for the people observing it, 40 days might seem like a lot. To me, 40 days flew by. It was one of those things like “I can’t miss a day.” Because I want it so bad and I need it. It’s for something bigger and this whole plan.
What does the money go towards?
All of the money is for the production. That entails equipment, hiring the cast and crew, locations, permits—everything post production, marketing. Everything goes toward the actual show. I knew I wanted something great. If I’m going to make a statement about black girls and black women and black actresses, I want to show it in the best light possible. With that, it’s going to take some serious finances.
What advice can you offer actresses just starting out?
The best advice I’d ever gotten was…the best thing you can do for yourself is have fun. It sounds cliché, but no matter what the outcome is, just enjoy the fact that you are going to play this character. I try to do that as much as possible.
Watch the trailer on the next page.