Lorraine Toussaint: living with purpose

Lorraine Toussaint talks to Caroline Taylor about her Trinidadian roots, her life, her career, her artistic process, motherhood, making her own way as a black, Caribbean woman in Hollywood…and the things that matter to her most.

Q&A with Trinidad-born actress Lorraine Toussaint

Caroline Taylor caught up with Lorraine Toussaint a few years ago — in early 2008 — on the way back from dropping her daughter to school, at a time when Hollywood was at a virtual standstill during the months’ long 2007–2008 writers’ strike. During her commute back home, they talked about life, her career, her artistic process, motherhood, making her own way as a black, Caribbean woman in Hollywood…and the things that matter to her most.

CAROLINE TAYLOR: So you’re producing an upcoming TV movie. Tell us a little more about that.

LORRAINE TOUSSAINT: I’ve been producing on and off. There’s one in the pipeline now ready to go called An Accidental Friendship, and we were supposed to started filming right now as a matter of fact…But that’s now too [along with my show Saving Grace] been put on hold because of the [writers’] strike. So once we know, hopefully by the end of the week what’s going on there…that’s a piece I’ve been working on for a while. It’s based on an article I found in the LA Times with my partner Chris Rose. It’s about a homeless woman who has developed a very intimate friendship with a police officer on her beat, and it’s based on the fact that the homeless woman was spending all of her resources and most of her day collecting bottles and trying to get money to take care of her dog.

CT: Her dog! Aww, wow!

LT: Yes, her dog! And the police officer noticed that she was really neglecting herself, but taking exquisite care of her dog! And so they came together…she started helping her take care of the dog, and they developed an incredible friendship and eventually literally took her into her home. So my partner Chris Rose and I developed a really lovely story around this project, around this story, of these two extraordinary women. And it will be for the Hallmark Channel, which has purchased it, so hopefully we can get this done in the next few months. It’s lovely.

CT: I also saw that after initially joining Saving Grace as a recurring character, you’ll be a regular cast member from next season?

LT: Exactly.

CT: So I guess that means no more Law & Order or Ugly Betty appearances any time soon? [laughter]

LT: Oh gosh no! [laughing] I think I have showed out on Ugly Betty! What’s left to bring that character back? [more laughter] I don’t know…you know, I have a feeling we have not seen the end of Yoga, but I think she’ll be in Italy for a while sailing the Mediterranean in one disguise or another…But I have a feeling she will return to Mode at some point, and God help us all! [laughing] I had so much fun doing that character, because it’s not a character that people think I’m even capable of. And it was just so outrageous.

CT: It was like the antithesis of roles you’ve played on series like Law & Order.

LT: Yes, you know, these “dicty”, uppity black women, who’ve been well-bred and properly brought up. That is certainly a part of me, who and what I am…But good Lord, there’s so much more in there, and so many more fun aspects of me that I don’t often get called upon to portray. It’s interesting that as I’m getting older, I’m so much more unselfconscious…and willing to drop my drawers at the drop of a hat. Because I really have so little investment any more in how I’m perceived that’s very freeing. I’m having a great deal of fun now, at this age. It’s lovely.

CT: That’s fantastic. You’ve had a career now that’s spanned 25 years if not more. Has there been any character on stage or screen that’s stuck out for you, and been particularly memorable or meaningful?

LT: Um, yes…You have me jogging my memory here. At the moment, and you probably can’t print this, but I’m suffering from a major case of TRS — which is, “can’t remember shit”. So when the TRS kicks in it’s like… [laughing] Yoga is definitely one of the more fun characters for sure. I actually did a play a couple of years ago that was interesting to me as I’m getting older. And with the birth of my daughter, I’m certainly becoming more aware politically. I played a character when she was about eight months old…I played Condoleezza Rice…

CT: Stuff Happens

LT: In Stuff Happens. That was really interesting to me. Of course Any Day Now was one of the more fun things I’ve done. I’m actually playing a character…I’m doing a film right now that’s turning out to be quite wonderful. It’s called The Soloist. It’s directed by Joe Wright who did Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley, and it’s about a young black man who starts playing the violin outside of Disney Hall…a homeless man, who’s playing the violin on two strings outside the Disney Hall. And an LA Times reporter notices him. They begin a relationship, and he begins writing articles about this man. Turns out he, in his youth, was a virtuoso, a child prodigy, that grew up in the slums of Detroit and eventually went to Julliard like I did. And while he was at Julliard he began having schizophrenic episodes…and he turned out — like many mentally ill people do — he ended up on the streets. It’s a wonderful story between these two men, between the reporter — who’s trying to bring him back and bring him off the streets…It’s a very very touching story. Jaime Foxx is playing the man, Nathaniel Ayers, and Robert Downey Jr is playing the reporter. And I play Jamie Foxx’s mother in the early years as he’s coming up and going to Julliard. From about 12 to 25, I play his mom. And then his mother dies. But it’s a very sweet story…And I mean this is a real person. I met the real Nathaniel. We’ve been rehearsing downtown, in Skid Row, and in one of the rehearsals the real Nathaniel came in and played for us on his cello. And he still lives on the streets. It’s extraordinary. So we’ve just started principal shooting on that, and that’s a three-month shoot that will take us into April. I really love Joe Wright, and I love Jaime.

CT: Yes, he sounds perfect for that.

LT: Yes, it’s really lovey.

CT: So do you get back to Trinidad at all?

LT: Yes! I just got back. I was there for a month, and I got back January 3rd. I was there for most of December into January. I came to visit family and to chill out…I’m usually visiting family and on my own. It’s really important to me to bring my daughter home…It’s really important to me for her to identify herself partly as a Caribbean woman. It has served me in the world, and it’s an empowering label, an empowering perspective of the world, coming from a place where being a person of colour doesn’t render you a minority. To be part of the majority as a person of colour is very important, so I keep bringing her home. So that she’s got roots there.

CT: You come in really inconspicuously then!

LT: I do. [laughs] I actually manage to go to the first Carnival….Soca in Moka! I actually made Soca in Moka! And ran into quite a few people who recognised me, but I ran into Peter Ray Blood and Peter was just going, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I’m planning another trip probably late Spring.

[We digress a bit talking about people we had in common including my cousin who also went to Julliard]

CT: Now what was it like being a black woman, a Caribbean woman, at Julliard at the time you were there?

LT: You know, by the time I got to Julliard, I did not… I no longer identified myself as…Now this is going to sound so weird. But by the time I got to Julliard, I was neither Caribbean nor black. I had been in the US pretty much as long as I had been in Trinidad. I got to the United States when I was 10, and those formative years between 10 and 18 are huge. I certainly didn’t solely identify as a Caribbean. Not necessarily as an American either. So…I enjoyed being the kind of hybrid that I am, that is, Caribbean-American, partly European…I’ve planted seeds in lots of places, so I’m this I think really terrific sort of hybrid. So that’s the Caribbean part. But also the black part, and this is why I keep bringing my daughter back to the Caribbean…I didn’t know I was black! I really didn’t. Most white people in the western world don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Oh, I am a white man, and I am going into the world now to do battle as a white man.’ I did not ever think, ‘Good morning, you’re black, going into the world as a minority and you’re going to be battling as a black person.’ That’s the power of growing up in the Caribbean. It’s that wonderful line Sydney Poitier says in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner…He says to his father: ‘You think of yourself as a black man, I think of myself as a man.’ That really is a seemingly subtle but significant difference in perception. And so I considered myself an artist, I considered myself a lot of things.

But it wasn’t until I got to Julliard that I began to realise that I actually might be black, which meant that there actually might be restrictions placed on me based on the fact that I was the colour that I am. I learned about racism. And it isn’t because racism hadn’t necessarily been directed at me growing up in the United States, but because I had no frame of reference to identify it. We only identify and categorise things based on our frame of reference, and because I didn’t have much of a frame of reference for racism, people were probably being hateful to me and I just didn’t know it, or put it in that particular category…that they were being that way towards me because I was black. I thought, well, maybe they were being this way because…for lots of other reasons, like their own stuff. But not because I was black. It wasn’t until I got there…there were specific incidents at Julliard that began to awaken me. In my last year I remember specifically doing a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and at that time I thought I could play any role. I know I could play any role and I thought that the world would cast me based on my abilities. And when I got to that final project at Julliard, I remember I was playing one of the leads. It was an entourage of four women: the princess and her entourage. The Princess was a lead and my character Lady Rosaline was a lead. She was for me the most interesting part in the show. And we were all dressed in formal 18th century garb with wigs and all that stuff, and during the dress rehearsal, the director sent a note down to the makeup and wig people that, if it were possible, to lighten my wig and my makeup so that I didn’t stand out so much. I was one of two black women in my class. And it was sort of in that moment…that’s just kind of a pivotal moment when I went, wow. That’s not possible — one. I’m not going to do this show as a kind of beigey-black woman. And what are they hoping to accomplish to the audience, that I’m what? Err…a beige person? What is the point here? So I didn’t comply. But they tried.

And you know it was sort of the beginning when I got out of school and the reviews singled me out with excellent reviews, but was prefaced by “the dusky Lorraine Toussaint”. And I was like, ‘Oh. Many people know that I was black. Dusky.’ So my early career is littered with words like ‘dusky’ and all sorts of odd words. But yeah…It wasn’t hard for me, it was easy for me. I’d only done acting since I was 11 years old. It was like breathing. I went from [the High School of] Performing Arts to Julliard, and I was one of those people who loved the discipline of that curriculum, that kind of intensive study that went on there from nine in the morning til 11 at night. You ate it, breathed it…I loved that. So Julliard was a tough conservatory, but it was effortless for me, it was easy.

CT: As your career has progressed, do you continue to find people try to pigeonhole you or make strange demands on you as an actor, a ‘black actor’?

LT: When I got out of school, I was suddenly black. And when I went in for TV and film things, I was young and firm and fine, and there were a lot of prostitute roles coming my way. And I remember fairly early on consciously saying I’m not going to do that. As a young actress, when you pretty much take everything that’s thrown your way, I was very discerning and discriminating in terms of what I wanted to do…the things I’d be proud to have my mother see me do. But now I’ll play a hoe in a minute. I’m sure my family would love to read that in print. I really don’t care! Because I’m less attached to image now than I was in my youth. And both are correct. There’s no mistaking it. And then when I tried to do things like get into the Negro Ensemble Company, which at the time was in its heyday in New York City, I just knew I’d have a place there. Here I was this trained actress, black, trained up the wazoo…and I wasn’t black enough! So there I was straddling two worlds: one where I was too black, and one where I wasn’t black enough. It’s interesting that it’s given rise to an interesting career in both theatre…and then ground-breaking kind of things. It taught me early on that I was going to go my own way, that I would create my own niche, and write my own ticket. I wasn’t necessarily going to be able to climb on board. I did speak well. I did have this Caribbean thing. I did have a quality that they couldn’t quite recognise, didn’t know quite what it was, which I think and thought would serve me…and it is.

CT: How would you define that niche you’ve created for yourself?

LT: Oh…I was always too smart to play stupid roles. It’s allowed me to do the classics, which was my first love. It has given me an appreciation of language which certainly has served me in the theatre. It has alerted me to the power of being in a position where people….where I am indeed a role model. Early in my career, I was silly enough to think, ‘Oh I’m going to do my own thing.’ I didn’t sign on to have anybody follow me or pay attention and use me as a role model. But somewhere fairly early on, I realised that was nonsense. What you do matters. The power of the medium in you’re in, in theatre and certainly on television, you’re reaching millions and millions of people. You must be responsible in the roles you do and how you do them, the level of excellence you bring to it. And that’s my mother. She says whatever you do, do it well. And I really really really took that to heart. And because of the adversity, it became a kind of private…I created personal and private steps up the ladder for myself. My accomplishments and my goals were very private ones in terms of…There was a teacher at the High School of the Performing arts who said don’t believe the critics. Don’t buy into it. Don’t believe them when they say you’re good, because they’ll believe you when they say you’re bad. And so early on I realised I was gonna create my own criteria for what was good. And so one of the things that I wanted to do was that, no matter what role I was given, the mandate I’d given myself was that I was going to bring as much humanity to that role — be it large or small — that I could possibly squeeze into it…Enough humanity that was recognisable, across the board, across colour lines…because we can recognise the humanity in any truthful piece of work. That goes beyond race, colour, creed. It touches a spot in us that is universal and frankly touches upon the God in all of us. And you know, pretty darned early on I committed myself to doing that level of work no matter what, so that at the end, the process would be satisfying to me — regardless of the pay, regardless of the size of the role, regardless of what the role looks like on paper. I had a secret. And the secret was I could transform this into something glorious. And in a business that tells us that we are powerless, I knew that I had the ultimate power. And so today, I don’t care, I rarely look at what I do, and I sure don’t do it now, because I’m too busy! Because the ultimate investment I have in my work is in the doing of it. I love to be in the trenches.

I took my daughter to work last year while we were filming. She needed to know where mummy was going when I went to work. And in fact that moment she stopped crying when I left the house because then she knew where I was. If your kids are freaking out when you leave to go to work, then take them to work. They’re freaking out mostly because they don’t know where you’re going. So I took her to work and took her around then brought her back home, so she had a beginning, middle and an end in terms of my journey when I say goodbye and go to work, she knows where that is. Because kids worry about you. Kids are so marvellous.  We’re learning so much about the way their brains work, and they’re so much like ours. They get frightened, because I disappear and then I suddenly reappear and she doesn’t know where I’ve been. But I took her to work and she was like, ‘Oh! Mummy works in a cave!’ [laughs] And I said, ‘Yeah!’ Because it was a soundstage and it was dark in there, and you come out and it’s not dark. But it’s dark as heck up in there!

And so the hours I spend in the cave are the most glorious hours I spend in my life, because of what I just said, because it is happening on two different levels… It’s a product of course and one I’m paid to deliver, but also what I secretly deliver up is the true investment for me, and that is synonymous with my God. And I don’t mean that in any pseudo-religious way. I mean that in the truest, deepest sense of purpose. For this purpose was I born. I have several purposes. But this is one of the ones I was born to. So I don’t care, really, what it looks like after. Like I’ve never seen any of the Ugly Bettys. Number one, I’m afraid to watch! [laughter] I saw 20 seconds of it and went, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to turn this off!’ I mean, the one shot of me, you know, with the snake tattoo on my belly going down…I mean, ‘Oh my God, Lorraine what were you thinking?’ [laughs]

I’m just having fun, I’ve earned that. I’ve been serious enough for a sufficient number of years. And so, I also haven’t seen any of the Saving Graces. I have them Tivo’d, and I mean to watch them. But usually when it’s on, it’s bath time and story time, and by the end of the day when my daughter is finally asleep and I balance the cheque book and I’ve done the grocery shopping and I’ve seen to the career and to the five or six really important emails and put the others on hold, by then I’m exhausted! The last thing I want to do is watch myself! I would rather eat nails! So you know, it’s Tivo’d there. Some one of these years I’ll get to it.

CT: You said the classics are your first love. How often are you able to get back to the theatre?

LT: I can’t afford to do the theatre! The theatre doesn’t pay and they work you like a slave! [laughs] I’m too old, and I like being comfortable. So it’s really got to be…every couple of years a theatre project comes along that really moves me…on a non-egoic basis…that politically is interesting, or spiritually is interesting, or I’m directed to do this piece of work, then I respond. But theatre is a lot of work darlin’, and I’ve done enough plays in my life to last me a lifetime. I will do a play every few years. But it really does have to be a special project.

CT: You said something really interesting earlier, about being called to many purposes in this life, including being an actor. If you could, how would you describe the other ones?

LT: One of them is being a mother. And when I say purposes, I mean they are acts of service in the highest sense, where I really am in service to the infinite. And one of them is the charge that I have accepted to love and guide — gently guide — and facilitate a space, to create an environment where my daughter remembers who and what she is and why she has come to this plane. And my job is to create an environment where that reveals itself and blossoms in a way that is nonviolent, and loving, creative, joyous, peaceful, responsible to herself and to her planet…that’s my job, that’s my gig. And that’s how I perceive parenting, with her. So, that’ one of the purposes. And I’ve got one or two others that are private, that you don’t even speak on. But the obvious ones are as artist and as mother.

CT: This has been wonderful.

LT: It has. Thank-you. I’ve had a good time.

CT: Thank-you for taking the time.

LT: And I’ve said some irreverent things you have permission to print, just because they will embarrass my family. [laughs]

CT: I take no responsibility for the embarrassment! [laughing]

LT: I’m afraid I take a little of glee in it. I laugh at myself all the time, because I’ve been so well brought up that it isn’t that I don’t know what to do. I just choose not to do it. And I take a secret glee in it. We can’t take ourselves too seriously.

In addition to the recently released Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, Lorraine has joined ABC’s new series Forever, and will be seen in the upcoming film Selma.

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