When rising star Ashley Blaine Featherson heard that Netflix was turning the award-winning indie film Dear White People into a 10-episode series, she was hyped to play Joelle “Curls” Brooks again.
“It’s not often as an artist that you’re able to revisit a character and ascend her story and get to know her better,” Featherson told HelloBeautiful in an exclusive interview.
But walking into Joelle’s footsteps for a second time also provided the Howard grad with a chance to work with director and creator Justin Simien again, which the actress calls a “genius” and a “part of her tribe.”
“Justin is really ahead and of his time and such of visionary as an artist he’s also dream to work with because he’s an actor’s director. You trust him and he trusts you so to take it Joelle from the movie to the screen with him has been an honor,” she stressed.
The hilarious and touching 30-minute comedy picks up where Simien’s 2014 movie left off. We follow Joelle, her best friend Sam, her crush Reggie and her Black cohort navigate their collegiate existence on the campus of the Ivy League-esque Winchester University. And the show goes there tackling pressing issues that African-American millennials face in white and Black spaces—microaggressions, colorism, police brutality, coming to terms with one’s sexuality and dating both interracially and intraracially.
Since Dear White People dropped on April 28, the series boasts a rare 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been hailed as “the best TV of 2017,” and “a provocative near-ideal comedy of our age.” And while Featherson may have a supporting role on the show, her sharp one-liners and on-point comedic timing help carry the series and play into its overall brilliance.
We recently sat down with Featherson to talk about being part of such an important show, what it means to be an apologetically Black actress in Trump’s America and why female friendships are important on and off-screen.
HelloBeautiful: Joelle really had the funniest and driest one-liners of the show! I was cracking up.
Ashley Blaine Featherson: Thank you!
HB: Do you prefer comedy over drama?
ABF: As an actor I’m trained to do dramatic and comedic, but I love comedy and most of my friends know me for my funnier work. When it comes to performing comedy, I strongly believe that the first step to being funny is not trying to be funny. [Laughs] Acting is about reacting and being in the moment and so it’s always important to be authentic and real.
For me, acting is the most vulnerable job you can have and you have to be fearless regardless if its drama or comedy, but comedy requires an extra layer. You can’t have anything holding you down and you have to be an incredible listener and be in tune of what’s going on around you. That and comedy isn’t just about the lines and the timing—it’s also about your body language. It’s a full body experience.
HB: What do you like best and least about Joelle? And if the show gets picked up for a second season, what do you hope the future holds for her?
ABF: Throughout the ten episodes, it’s obvious that Joelle is incredibly dedicated to her friends—and I love that about her. She’s dedicated to Sam (Logan Browning); she’s dedicated to the cause and despite Reggie (Marque Richardson) having feelings for Sam, she’s still there for him too. But for a season 2, I hope Joelle works on making sure that she lives her life for herself and that she requires the same amount of respect and support that she gives to others in return.
HB: Speaking of friendship. . .in reality shows such the Real Housewives and Love & Hip Hop, Black women at constantly at each other’s throats. Or on Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, these powerful Black female leads don’t have any Black girlfriends. It’s been incredibly refreshing to see Joelle and Sam’s deep bond and comradery.
How important is to be part of that much-needed representation? And how important are your Black girlfriends in your life?
ABF: It feels great to be able to be part of something that shows strong Black relationships especially given how scarce strong Black relationships [familial romantic and friendship-wise] on are TV in general. There’s beauty in their relationship, and I’m happy to be part of it.
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Anyone who knows me knows how important my real-life girlfriends are to me. For my birthday last year, I did a photo shoot with all of my closest girlfriends. They are the most beautiful, most bad-ass, most talented and the most ambitious women out there—and they are around me at all times. No one is falling off because we got each other. And this is a tough business to have friends like that.
I have friends who call me cause they want to tell me that God wants them to put this on my heart or they will come over because I need a shoulder to cry on or vice- versa. I survive because of my their love and my relationship with God and my family.
HB: The show has gotten such a huge response; both positive and negative. Does the backlash worry you at all?
ABF: Honestly, I haven’t been scared about the controversy surrounding the show. Even if I don’t agree with what [critics] are saying, on our end the show is exposing the veil of ignorance and sparking conversations that need to be to happen. And I welcome it.
HB: As Black folks we’ve always lived in racially charged times, but those tensions have really heightened since the election. How do you navigate being a Black actress in Trump’s America?
ABF: It’s interesting; we stopped filming season 1 on Election Day. I just remember that how sad and disappointed we all were with the end result, but I also thank God that we are part of a show that stands in direct opposition of what that man stands for. And I truly believe that I was meant to be on a show like this.
In terms of me personally, I have always been proud to be Black and proud of where I come from. I went to an HBCU and I have surrounded myself with diverse people of color. And that’s important to me especially as a Black actor because there is so much pressure to be palatable and be agreeable—and I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be part of project that diminishes or masks my Blackness or requires me to tone that down in order to fit in.
When I go to auditions, I will wear my hair however I want—kinky or straight—and I won’t tone down my skin color. I am going to be myself and that’s that.
HB: DWP didn’t shy away from addressing colorism on campus, as a Black actress in what have been your experiences with it? Has it gotten better?
ABF: We do have a little more of representation of ourselves on the screen, but it’s not enough. As far as my experiences, there have been times that someone lighter or someone who is not even Black has gotten the role over me and my other brown cohorts. Again its not fool proof, but it’s obvious that Hollywood has a lot more work to do.
Dear White People is streaming on Netflix now.