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Lorraine Toussaint Interview: "If We’re Gonna Talk 'Pussy Power,' It’s Not About Slogans"

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Image attributed to Lorraine Toussaint

Lorraine Toussaint

Trinidadian-American actress and producer Lorraine Toussaint is known for her role as Rene Jackson in the critically acclaimed Lifetime drama series Any Day Now (1998-2002) and her recurring role as defense attorney Shambala Green in the NBC legal drama Law & Order.

Other television appearances include Crossing Jordan, Saving Grace, Friday Night Lights, Body of Proof, Grey’s Anatomy, The Fosters, Chicago P.D.  and it’s spinoff, Chicago Justice. She starred in the second season of Netflix’s original comedy-drama series, Orange Is the New Black, in 2014, and can currently be seen in the Fox police procedural drama series Rosewood, as Donna Rosewood.

“I happen to loathe the word ‘pussy’ in the way in which it has been used to this point. It’s a word that makes me cringe. I’m a middle-class Caribbean girl. We are more British than the British. There’s a part of me that is incredibly uptight. The word ‘pussy’ could never possibly have come across my mother’s lips (laughs). She’s rolling in her grave watching her daughter use the word ‘pussy.’”

Toussaint portrayed civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson in the 2014 historical drama film Selma. Other feature films include Breaking In, Hudson Hawk, Dangerous Minds, The Soloist, Runaway Island and Freak Show.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lorraine, what’s coming up in the next part of Rosewood’s second season?

Lorraine Toussaint: You know, we started out with the premise of my son Rosewood, played by the lovely Morris Chestnut, having some really compromising health issues, and for the first half of the first season, that was very clear. Then, we veered off into lovely, wonderful areas. But, I think for the third half of this second season, that is going to come home to us in a very dramatic way that is going to kind of shake the foundation of this family. So, I’m really very excited about how the season is progressing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What interested you in the show and the role of Donna Rosewood in the beginning?

Lorraine Toussaint: When I spoke to Todd Harthan, the creator, Donna wasn’t even in the script. He wanted to straddle two lanes in the show, which no one had ever done before, the procedural and the family, in equal parts. He needed a matriarch to anchor the familial part of this show. I was in my car, and he was on the phone telling me his ideas of who Donna Rosewood was going to be and what she was going to represent and that he was going to absolutely welcome a collaboration with me in terms of creating who she is and how she shows up.

Todd clearly did a very good sale job because at the end of that conversation, I said, “Oh, dammit! Guess I’m going to do the show.” It sounded like it had so much potential, and I’d heard such lovely things about Morris. I didn’t see any of the evidence of the show that we now see in the pilot, but after talking to Todd, I had a really clear sense of where he wanted to go with it. That made me very happy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you continuing to have input into how the character is shaped?

Lorraine Toussaint: Oh, yes. They hear me. I don’t play that card very often because I don’t need to in terms of her voice and her input. But, we have a lovely meeting at the beginning of every season where Todd gets to tell me where we’re going in the season and asks my thoughts and ideas. So, I’m having a really creatively and personally lovely time doing the show. It’s a warm show. It’s a fuzzy show. It’s a smart show.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re also known for playing Yvonne “Vee” Parker on Orange Is the New Black.

Lorraine Toussaint: Speaking of warm and fuzzy, you think of Vee (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was that the first time you played such a dark …

Lorraine Toussaint: Heinous, human being?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes (laughs).

Lorraine Toussaint: Troubled, misunderstood, human being? Yes, it was the first time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting character to play?

Lorraine Toussaint: Interesting, yes. I’m a smart actor, and I’m a thinking actor, so I always welcome an intellectual challenge. Certainly doing the research for Vee was interesting because I had never really studied psychopaths before. Then, I switched my brain off. My job is to then embody that idea. You know, I don’t do work that doesn’t cost me. It costs in one way or another, and each one is very different. The price of each role is different in terms of the physical price I pay, the psychological, the spiritual and the emotional. Those are the ones that are interesting, and certainly Vee costs. She costs quite a bit, in fact.

The more it cost, the better the work, so I have a sense that Vee was good on film because I’ve still not seen it. I have a sense that it is good because I have an inner way of measuring it, and also, I’m very clear how much she cost. She cost quite a bit, so I’m really grateful that audiences so appreciate her because it was an expensive gift.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe that many fans wanted Vee not to be dead, so I would say they are very grateful to you for that excellent performance.

Lorraine Toussaint: And continue to be. It’s lovely. Wherever I go, there she is (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any interesting projects coming up?

Lorraine Toussaint: Oh, yes. I’m starting a wonderful film about women soon called Fast Color directed by Julia Hart. It’s about three generations of black women. Julia Hart is the writer/director and an interesting woman who is not black. She’s white. But, it’s three generations of black women who each have unusual powers, have isolated themselves as a result of these extraordinary powers, then end up being on the run. It’s a really wonderful, soulful film about women and our innate powers. We’ll be shooting in Albuquerque next month.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve had such a storied career, especially on television. I have to say that Any Day Now is one of my all-time favorite shows.

Lorraine Toussaint: Mine, too. In fact, I was in New York last weekend and stayed at Annie’s apartment. In hindsight, I’ve got to tell you, Nancy Miller, the creator, is my hero. But, that show is so relevant today. It’s like a goldmine that Lifetime and whomever else that owns it has and are just sitting on it for legal reasons because they’re quarreling amongst each other as to who owns it and who can franchise it. It’s so sad.

I’m not saying this from an egotistical point of view, but the world needs it now. The world needs Any Day Now now because black lives matter. We are deeply embroiled in racial issues and desperately looking for areas and ways in which to dialogue. I think it is socially irresponsible of whomever it is that is holding on to this show. It’s socially irresponsible of them to do so. It is needed.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Set in the South, the show bravely tackled discussions about civil rights, religious conflicts, homosexuality, feminism, the Vietnam War, and many other controversial subjects. It was right on target.

Lorraine Toussaint: Annie and I would read those scripts and go, “Oh, my God!” Talk about collaborative. It’s one of my proudest shows because of Nancy Miller. As the voice of the black perspective on that show, I took it upon myself to push that envelope as far as we could push it because my intention was to out the black community for the purpose of transparency. If everybody is sitting in the dark in their own little corners, nobody gets to see anybody else. Nobody gets to be brave enough to ask the difficult questions without feeling stupid. Most people aren’t malicious. Most people are just afraid of being embarrassed (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This may be a good time to segue into a discussion of “Black Pussy Matters,” an article you wrote on your blog, “Everyday Lovely,” and for The Huffington Post. What did you want to convey in the piece?

Lorraine Toussaint: I watched how Hillary’s camp and her campaign made certain kinds of assumptions about this country and operated from the purview of even within white America from a socioeconomic perspective that is prevalent within the dominant culture. That’s excluding a whole sector of people that felt unseen, unheard and unrecognized. These people, and they were white people, were not invited to the party. They didn’t feel that an invitation had been extended to them. Big mistake.

I happen to loathe the word “pussy” in the way in which it has been used to this point. It’s a word that makes me cringe. I’m a middle-class Caribbean girl. We are more British than the British. There’s a part of me that is incredibly uptight. The word “pussy” could never possibly have come across my mother’s lips (laughs). She’s rolling in her grave watching her daughter use the word “pussy.”

Having said that, I watched how it has become crudely normalized because of Donald Trump, and then, I watched as the new women’s movement assumed it as part of their credo, as part of their mantra, as part of their purpose statement, the empowerment of it and the little pussy hats that went along with it. It has become a slogan. I think the intent is to reclaim that word, but I wasn’t clear if was being reclaimed in the most powerful way and the way in which it needs to be and deserves to be in this time in history.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So, you decided not to join a protest march?

Lorraine Toussaint: There was a kind of distancing, a kind of irritation inside of myself as I was talking about going to the march and wanting to go to the march, planning to go to the march and ultimately not going to the march. I was so internally conflicted that I wanted to figure out what the source was of this push-pull in me. As a black woman, I’m extraordinarily aware that within my family going back many generations, we have been empowered. We have been at the forefront. We have been doing things and moving and grooving, bringing about change and carrying loads and our families in the world and in the workplace. We’ve been doing all of these things for so long.

The women’s suffrage movement was not created for or wasn’t particularly actively inclusive of women of color. There were a few of us that showed up. But, we were talking about other kinds of rights that had to do with us not getting lynched, not being killed, at that time. We had other issues on the table ahead of women’s rights. I think that women can change the world. I think we actually have the power to change the world in a way, I think, that will send men scurrying to their corners once we step in that power, really step into it.

Men do men better than anyone else. To really step into our power does not mean we try to be men. It’s just the opposite. We go deeper into being a woman. We go deeper into the feminine. There’s nothing greater than that, nothing more powerful on this planet. So, if that’s the pussy power we’re talking about, that’s a force to be reckoned with. If that is the case, the dominant culture of white women cannot assume that all women’s experiences are the same. You can’t assume that all women are on board. You can’t make that mistake. We’re at a time in this country where we can’t afford to make those kinds of mistakes, but these types of dominant assumptions are everywhere.

When I go to a shoe store, and I’m trying to buy a nude shoe, the shoe they bring me is beige. That’s not a nude shoe for me. A nude shoe for me is brown. There are all these subtle ways and big ways in which people of color, and most importantly at this moment, women of color are excluded. It’s not intentional. It’s not malicious. But, it is based on the level of ignorance we can no longer afford, that the dominant culture can’t afford.

In order to bring all these women together, and we’re going to need every single woman in this fight, certain groups of women have to be reached out to and invited. You have to sit down with them and not assume you know the answers to the questions because they, I think, have something to bring to the table that may surprise you. I think we may have some answers, so that you may not have to reinvent that wheel because we’ve been at it for a longer time. Quietly. Unobserved.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Behind the scenes?

Lorraine Toussaint: Yes, certainly not in the media. But, women of color are a force to be reckoned with because we’ve been doing it. We’ve been doing what you’re fighting to get started. We’ve been at it for a couple of generations now. That was my intent with “pussy power.” If we’re gonna talk “pussy power,” it’s not about slogans. It’s not a fad. It’s not a style. It’s not cute or clever or something I can just tweet out. It’s not about trending and no longer trending. That’s not accessing the archetypal feminine, which is what I’m after.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you explain what’s currently going on in the world, especially the hate and divisiveness, to your young daughter?

Lorraine Toussaint: I tell her she can’t call Donald Trump an idiot. I told her, no matter what, he’s still the president of the United States. I just say, “No, sweetheart. No, sweetheart.” That’s mostly because I don’t advocate her calling anyone an idiot. That’s not who we are. That’s not how we live. I never lie to my daughter. She asks questions and I answer them. I answer them often times as simply as I can or sometimes not so simply. I tell her the truth. My man is white, by the way, and God love him, he’s got this kind of radical black woman, but sometimes I think he’s more radical than I am (laughs).

But, I explain to my daughter these are challenging times, and more than anything else, it calls for us to dig deeper in our compassion, to dig deeper in our acts of service, to dig deeper in speaking our truths, standing up for right, standing up for justice and standing up on the playground against bullying because what we’re seeing is the ultimate act of bullying. Our president is a bully. Bullies are cowards and frightened people. With my daughter, it’s about love, and that’s what women do best. We are built to love.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, we are.

Lorraine Toussaint: Listen, I renovated one of my houses years ago, and I was a woman doing it alone with an all-man crew. It took about eight months, and I was living in the guest house on the premises. I learned immediately that I was going to be the boss, as the only woman standing there. I knew what I wanted and learned very fast how it was actually going to get done. My contractor and foreman were very butch, Type A white males, and I knew clearly that I was never going to get what I wanted if I squared off on those men. I don’t have a dick. I don’t have one to measure. I’m not interested in having one in that capacity.

I knew that the greater power that I had was in the feminine. I was going to be more woman than they knew what to do with. There’s nothing more confusing to a man than a woman and a woman who is unapologetically feminine. I don’t mean girly. I don’t mean flirtatious, and I don’t mean superficially sexual. I mean deeply feminine. I never squared off on those gentlemen ever, and they went about doing exactly what I wanted and felt awesome about doing it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And, they never realized what happened?

Lorraine Toussaint: Ever. They were so thrilled because it was their idea. They were doing it. But, my God, it was absolutely intentional. That is the power that women have, and we give it away every single day.

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  1. Matti Lehmusvirta

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