Actress Teyonah Parris plays Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners in Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” which is now playing. She also stars in the new Starz network show “Survivor’s Remorse.”Read our exclusive interview with Teyonah below:
What attracted you to the project?
I saw the teaser trailer that Justin released. Then I found out he used his tax return money to put the teaser together, so he could have means of showing people what he was trying to do and how it would look. I saw it on the internet and immediately fell in love with it, but I thought it had already been made. When I found out it hadn’t, I said somebody get me in to a room with these folks.
Speak about working with Justin Simien.
Justin is so smart and open and willing to hear your ideas. It was so amazing to watch him knowing he is a first time director/writer on a big film like this. Watching him stand his ground and keep his vision even when there was so much pressure around him to keep moving or sacrifice things for the sake of time. When you have different people breathing down your neck and to watch him always be open to other people’s suggestions but ultimately see him get exactly the shot he wanted the way he wanted. His vision was so amazing to watch. We shot this film in like 19 or 21 days or something like that. On average there is about 3 months given to a feature film and we did it in 21 days!
The film tackles some controversial issues, what was it like for you to play them out?
I think that the film is really about identity. Like what it means to be a black face in a white place and how sometimes as a minority, you sometimes walk into peoples assumptions of who you should be. So I think that being able to share the stories of four different African American students who are also so rich and complex and multi dimensional and being able to do that on the big screen was really amazing to be apart of. I don’t feel like it is done enough.
Do you feel racism still exist in this magnitude on college campuses?
Absolutely did you see the end of the movie! Those were real life pictures from different campuses across the country! People are still dealing with those things and more so – like the president says in the film to Sam White … but there are tons of micro aggressions that happen everyday like someone saying “you’re really pretty for a black girl.” That’s kind of racist and that’s not ok. Because what you are really saying is that black girls are not pretty. I think that yeah we deal with different forms of racism everyday still.
What would you like viewers to take from this film?
I want them to see that yes this story is being told from the lens of 4 African American students but it’s truly about identity and finding your identity in a place that may not be home to you so to speak. And really figuring out who you are as a person and how you fit in maybe how you fit into your family, with your peers or whatever the case might be. It’s about finding or who you are and sometimes you may put on a certain attitude or persona because you feel that’s what’s called of you. Or sometimes you walk into somebody else’s assumptions of who you are and you just go with it because that’s what’s easier. The film really deals with identity and that’s a universal thing that anybody can relate to.
We see your character grow from the beginning of the film to the end, how was it for you getting in to Coco’s mindset?
What I liked about Coco is that I was digging and trying to explore, which is what excites me about her because we don’t have all the same views. I wouldn’t necessarily go about achieving my life ambitions the same ways she did. But at the end of the day she is human and these are someones feelings and I’m sure there are a lot of people in the world who agree with Coco and her stance on the whole race and why do we have to blame white people for everything. There are people who really connect with her and finding that humanity and having to take her side was a journey; but one that I welcomed.
What was your favorite scene to film and why?
The election scene was mine because we were all in the room together and got to watch each other work. Having Tessa and Brandon up there and teasing them was fun.
How did you enjoy working with the cast?
We absolutely had a good time. I could not have been luckier than to have the cast that we had! Because we shot that movie in lightening speed we really had to lean on each other for support and encouragement because you’re just moving so fast. Then you start to second guess yourself and some days you can barely keep your eyes open because you’re just so tired from being on the fifteenth hour. We really had to lean on each other through those moments. They had stuck us all in a hotel which was kind of like a college dorm, we were living out that whole college life off the set as well. It was really us enjoying each other.
If you could describe the film in three words what would it be?
Fresh, fighting and I want to say no no-nsense but I’ll go with hilarious.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Right now I am on a show on Starz called ‘Survivors Remorse’ that airs every Saturday at 9 p.m., so definitely check that out. It is executive produced by Lebron James. It’s politically incorrect and gives you a peek of a huge basketball star’s life off the court and all of the things he has to deal with when the game is over. It has some good people in it and you should watch it! I just filmed a movie called “5 Nights in Maine” with David Oyelowo, directed by Maris Curran. It’s really a beautiful quiet film about a man who deals with the recent loss of his wife. I play David’s sister in that movie.
– Toyibat Oridami