Posted on Thursday, August 12th, 2021 by Danielle Ryan
After the success of their 2018 comedy-drama Blindspotting, creators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal decided to continue the story. The Starz series of the same name follows where the movie left off, centering on hotel concierge and loving mom Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Her long-term partner, Miles, just got sent to prison, and now she has to figure out how to survive without him. She gets some help, in the form of Miles’ feisty sister Trish (Jaylen Barron), his mother Rainey (Helen Hunt), and her friends Janelle (Candace Nicholas-Lippman) and Earl (Benjamin Earl Turner).
Each of the supporting characters has their own thing going on. Janelle is a globe-trotting adventurer just back from somewhere exotic when Miles is sentenced. Trish is trying to start her own business doing sex work out of her mother’s living room. Earl just got out of prison and is trying to make the best of life on parole, even if it means he can’t go get a burrito from his favorite taco truck because it’s outside of his parole area.
I had a chance to chat via Zoom with Barron, Nicholas-Lippman, and Turner about their characters’ journeys in season 1 of Blindspotting, Oakland, the impact of incarceration, and of course, burritos.
Can you tell me a little bit more about bringing your characters to life? Because these are characters we don’t really get to see on TV very often.
Candace Nicholas-Lippman: I’m a big research actor, so I do a lot of research when it comes to developing specific roles. Specifically for Janelle, I feel like I’m a lot like Janelle. So, there was parts from my own life experiences that I was able to draw from when creating her. The other part of it too, is Janelle’s background from her being part town and being part worldly. Again, I feel like I’m the same in that. So, I was able to just really draw from my own life experiences from people that I know who are like Janelle and stuff, and just really grabbing from what I know is around me and helping to mold and shape who she is.
Benjamin Earl Turner: Earl is really a character that I think is sort of amalgamation of a bunch of different Black folks that I know who’ve unfortunately been incarcerated before, but who maintain all the things we think people lose when they are incarcerated. So, all the humanity, essentially, all the parts of us that make us human.
We think that people lose that when they go to jail, but they really don’t. And I think I wanted to have a masculine presenting male character who’s still strong, but also soft and kind and gentle and well-meaning because I think those are all things that we don’t associate with Black men in a really like weird way. We don’t do it. I mean, historically, so I understand it, but it’s just weird. It’s like, “Come on. It’s 2021.” So, I felt like that was part of what I wanted to bring to the character as well. And then also just having the example of Collin, it was good because I think Daveed had already cracked some of that space. So, I didn’t have to do that work alone. Just had to really pay attention to the other actors in the world who are doing some of that work and it made it a fun challenge to take on, to sort of build their own.
Absolutely. And it’s relatable to want a burrito that bad.
Turner: The thing is, to this day, I am still waiting for that burrito. Hopefully season 2, they’ll rock with your boy.
Oakland is kind of a character in the series, as much as your characters are. Can you tell me a little bit about keeping that authenticity and bringing Oakland to life? What it was like filming there?
Jaylen Barron: Yeah. I mean, Oakland is a character on its own and that’s what’s so beautiful about the show is that, it captures it effortlessly from the details of the taco trucks, to the side shows and to even the people just being hype-y in the corner. Like Candace says, you do research and you watch different interviews of people from the Bay and how they talk and their demeanor and what do they bring. So, specifically for Trish, I watched many different rappers who are women who are from the Bay and I listened to them and their je ne sais quoi and their essence. And I really didn’t want to come off as corny or just as if I was trying too hard. And being not from Oakland, it’s difficult to gauge what you can and you cannot do.
But luckily Rafael and Daveed were there. Every step of the way he gave me advice, talked to me, some of my friends from the Bay, I just was on the phone with them constantly. Like, “How do you say this? Okay. But would you do this in this scene? How would you dance?” From the dance moves to how you stand, it’s very specific, I feel. And I mean, I think that’s the beautiful part of this show is that Rafael and Daveed, they captured everything about Oakland that you’d want to see in such a natural light.
Turner: I think to quickly add to that too. There’s this trap that, I think, Rafael and Daveed were able to sort of realize. And the trap is that there is only one way to show Oakland, that’s the trap. The trap is that the things we think are not authentic to Oakland are actually authentic. So, it’s also, Rainey as a character, is so authentically a Bay area mom. And it’s easy to think that that’s not a part of what the story of Oakland is, but it is, right? That the taco trucks aren’t just a decoration in Black neighborhoods.
There’s a robust Latin community all throughout Oakland. So, it’s easy to think Oakland, think Black Panthers, think Steph Curry. And then you’re like, “Oh.” And that’s it. And then maybe Mac Dre. And it’s like, “Well, there’s actually so much more.” And we do a disservice to Oakland by trying to only touch on the sort of authenticity points that we’ve gotten from media. So, it is, like Jaylen said, and to Jaylen’s credit, that deeper level of research, that really allows us to be guided into a space to authentically tell a story about both Oakland and from a larger scope, the Bay Area. And I think that really helped us a lot.
Barron: And people sometimes see Oakland as one thing, and it might be their side of Oakland or what they view as Oakland, but there’s so much more in such deeper levels to that area with poetry and dance and plays and stuff like that. And I feel like people who know all of Oakland are able to relive that in this show and relive their experience themselves.
Jaylen, tell me a little bit about playing Trish. You said you looked at some different rappers and things like that. What other sort of figures helped inspired her?
Barron: I mean, I feel like I put myself into this character as well and somebody that I’m like, “Well, who would I have fun watching on television? Who would it be?” And definitely some of my friends are the life of the party. And I’ve said that many times before, and that’s who I wanted Trish to be, is the fun, go-to girl to be like, “Let’s go out and let’s do something.” And I mean, I feel like that’s what Trish brings. So, I feel like not only watching women from the Bay, but putting some of you into your character always helps that rawness and that realness to it and brings it to life. Because she is an imperfect person, and I wanted her to have different levels and not just all the time be this super cool being, because I am not super cool all the time. I don’t keep my cool, some people are nervous at times and I wanted that to show. So, I think another aspect is definitely just putting yourself into the character, and that’s what can make it even more so real.
I think it’s interesting that the series focuses more on women than the movie. The movie is very masculine driven. The show is much more about women and how families cope with the horrors of mass incarceration, instead of focusing on the incarcerated. What does it feel like to bring that perspective to the screen since it’s really not been shown before?
Nicholas-Lippman: It feels amazing. It’s a blessing because finally, in entertainment, we’re [finally] getting the narrative of the woman and we’re finally hearing the woman’s voice. And throughout the years, a lot of times our voices are stifled or our experiences are told through the lenses of a man. So, I love the fact that it is a woman that is spearheading the show. It is a woman that we finally get to take a look into her life, into her perspective and how she deals with things, as opposed to a man telling us how we’re supposed to feel or how they perceive [how] women are supposed to deal with certain situations.
So, I’m very honored to be a part of a show where women are at the forefront and we’re the ones that’s finally telling our narratives our way. And I also love, more importantly, that we’re all women of color. We’re so diverse. Every female in this cast is so diverse in terms of our backgrounds and stuff. So, I really love that we’re able to see that. That all women, I feel, watching the show, they will be able to identify with one of us, and you don’t really get that a lot when you’re watching TV or movies. So, I really love that aspect of it as well.
Barron: Yeah. And to just add onto what Candace said, she said everything perfectly and I mean, what this show can mean for women is that they can feel inspired and — Candace being a dark skinned woman — she’s able to have that warmth and reach out to a whole bunch of young, dark skin girls and show them like, “This is the character that you can be. And this is who you can be. If you want to be, you can be a traveler and worldly and X, Y, and Z.” And then for Trish’s side, it could be like, “Oh, you can own your own business and you can, be this hot, sexy figure, but still a boss and it’s okay. And you can get what you want and in a way that not many women have been able to do before us.”
Benjamin, you spoke a little bit about playing Earl and bringing a different kind of perspective to him — softer and more gentle, things like that. How did your experiences play into that? Not only what you’ve seen on TV, but did your life play into that as well, the way it has for some of the other actors on this series?
Turner: Yeah. I think my life taught me as much about what I would have wanted as much as what I actually got. And so I think sometimes it’s looking into the negative space — and I don’t mean negative as in bad — but sort of, in a photography sense, the other side of a photo, the part that’s missing. So, sometimes I did have that softness in my life. I always think about a particular uncle of mine, who to me was, and still is, essentially, he’s like my own Robin Williams, and he always was that for me in my life. And then I also think of all the times that I could have used or benefited from softness or kindness, but I didn’t have it, or I wasn’t able to trade on that currency because that’s not the currency that we trade on in the world.
And particularly as men, we don’t trade on that currency. Unfortunately, we trade most often on the currency of power. And so our ability to reflect power in whatever circumstances is the currency that allows us to position ourselves to a better advantage. And that’s a thing that I really want to subvert and deconstruct for my own selfish reasons. So, in a lot of ways, the short answer is that I learned that the things that I could bring to Earl weren’t necessarily because of what I experienced, but it’s also because of what I didn’t experience, but would have liked to, what I thought would have been valuable or what I should have experienced, but wasn’t able to. I think the power of having a character, or that space, is that that character continues to do that for as long as this show is available. So, I think that just represented a really awesome opportunity that I did my best to take advantage of.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
All episodes of Blindspotting season 1 are streaming on Starz.
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