Erika Alexander has one of those signature laughs. It’s really more of a cackle. Over the phone, her effusiveness travels, just as her character Maxine Shaw’s did through five seasons of Living Single, the prototypical ’90s sitcom about four black women in Brooklyn. At one point a cultural force—the highest-rated television show among black audiences—the series has had a recent resurgence via streaming on Hulu, where its stories have aged gracefully.
Alexander has since reappeared on shows like Queen Sugar and Bosch, and memorably, a bit role in Get Out. She also makes a living as a writer. Five years ago, she wrote a spec script for Mad Men and posted it on her blog, where she explained, in a post titled “Why I Wrote a Mad Men Episode With Negroes”: “I was born in the mountains of Arizona, but as a writer I don’t have a hard time imagining black and white on Madison Avenue.” Most recently, she wrote a sci-fi graphic novel titled Concrete Park. And on February 28, the first issue of her Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book spinoff Giles, will be released as part of a four-issue miniseries, co-written with Buffy creator Joss Whedon.
In an interview earlier this week, she and I talked about her foray into comics. We praised Black Panther and went deep into the legend of Maxine and Living Single (and how T.C. Carson, as Kyle Barker, was like the Dean Martin to her Jerry Lewis). She also got passionate about her work as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton, being non-religious, and Brooklyn gentrification. Our lightly edited conversation below.
JEZEBEL: Thank you so much for speaking with me. It’s an honor.
ERIKA ALEXANDER: Girl, please. Thank you.
I first have to ask if you’ve seen Black Panther yet because it’s the biggest phenomenon right now, and because you’re into comics, and because your Get Out co-star Daniel Kaluuya is in it.
The answer is yes, yes and yes. I have seen it, and I loved it.
Had you read the comics before or did you go into it dry?
I certainly hadn’t read the comics, but you’re talking about 50 years of back-reading. It wasn’t gonna happen [laughs]. Not with me. But I had some awareness of it because my ex-husband Tony Puryear was friends with [producer] Reginald Hudlin and all those people. I truly was surprised by what they did on the screen. I was glad to see they stayed true to the nature of [the story] by embracing the flaw in the man [T’Challa] and giving him a really great bad guy, frankly, who stood for every American and lost child of Africa, who stood in for that, and that anger and that rage.
The Killmonger character.
Killmonger, yes. Michael B. Jordan did a really lovely job. And wasn’t he delicious? With all his muscles? And scars.
Yes, half the joy of watching the movie was just looking at him. Everyone in it looked gorgeous.
Oh my god. And as a dark-skinned person, it was very satisfying to see all the dark skin, even at the end, when they ended on the little black boy’s face, the dark-skinned brother’s face. They were choosing to say this is unapologetically black. That the love interest can’t be light-skinned and everybody else be dark, like they always do. Those were all great choices. I mean, did you see that and feel that as you were watching?
Yeah, definitely, as a dark-skinned woman, I was excited beforehand that the cast featured Lupita and Danai Gurira. It exceeded my expectations as far as the storyline and depth of the plot.
And you know Danai writes, right? I’ve seen her play The Convert.
I saw The Convert at the Kirk Douglas [Theatre] before Eclipsed. That girl is no joke. To me, she’s getting to startle people about her range. They love her now, but they’re gonna be, I think, astounded by her soon.
People don’t know that you double as a writer as well. Joss Whedon reached out to you to co-write this graphic novel series based on Buffy but centered around Giles. Can you give me a breakdown of the story and some of the themes you explored?
Giles is—Did you see Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Yeah, I loved it growing up.
Okay, well, I was a person who did not. [Laughs] So if I make mistakes, it’s honest mistakes because we’re doing a totally different thing. I was working. I’ve been head of my household for a very, very long time and frankly when you do TV, you barely watch it. So when [Joss] called me and said, “Do you wanna do it?” I said yes! But then I was like, “Oh my god, what is it?”
I was gratified when he said it’s gonna be Giles the Watcher—who teaches Buffy—now resurrected into a teenage body. There’s a whole mythology in the comic books. He’s gotta go into hiding in an inner-city high school where he meets a black girl vampire who’s 200 years old. Now when [Joss] said “black girl vampire, 200 years old,” that’s when I was like, I’ll do it! [Laughs] I was gonna do it anyway because it’s Joss Whedon. But I was like, now I see why maybe I’m necessary. Not that I wouldn’t have been necessary before, but I saw that I could put my experiences in it.
He wanted to not only talk about, here’s this Watcher that teaches this slayer how to fight for justice, but this vampire who’s seen as his mortal enemy will be teaching him a history about what it is to be human in a whole other way. And I like the vampire, Roux, because Roux’s whole thing is— I mean anybody who’s a black girl vampire in America, the people that she mistrusts are humans. They’re the monsters. She’s not the monster to herself. So she’s always asking [Giles], “Some monster hunter. Why aren’t you hunting them?” And I love that.
When you say inner city, do you mean black?
Well, I hate to use that term inner city, but it’s a good way for you to understand that it’s a high school that Giles would never be in. I don’t wanna say inner city. He’s in a city high school, and it’s everything that means. It’s actually a charter school, an academy. I tried to mitigate some of that by making sure they understood there weren’t only black people there. It was just someplace that wasn’t going to be as organized as Sunnydale—’cause [Giles] was brought up in a boarding school in England—for him to bump up against and have conflict with something that he didn’t know anything about.
What was the most exciting part of the story to develop?
Well, I had to remember through this whole thing, the hero is Giles. After I said, “Oh, I know how to write this! Somebody about to get his ass whooped!” [Laughs] And then I realized, no not him. He’s the hero, he’s gonna learn something. He’s gonna get a little ass-kicking, but he’s also gotta do some ass-kicking. It really makes you think about the pathologies that guide us, that are given to us, and what you adopt. You got the hurt and pain of slavery, you got the hurt and pain of poverty, and all these things sort of pressing down on you. And then you got the things you take in that we create around, the anger and rage. To me, the fun part of writing that was asking myself the same questions in a new way and making sure that I service the hero, Giles. For a writer as new as me, that was a little difficult, but I tried my best.
Is there a theme that runs throughout your writing?
The thing that pops up, now that I’ve written enough, is home. Both my parents were orphans. My father was an itinerant preacher and my mother was a teacher. I used to be obsessed with buying my mother a home. A place we could all be. The hurt and the pain that was there could not be assuaged by anything bought. It had to be something that you can’t buy, that peace. And that was a learning curve. So I think that home keeps popping up. By the way, none of my characters will ever be heroic in that classic way because, like I said, I had an itinerant preacher father. And I loved my father, but he was so damaged. He would tell people what to do and the hypocrisy...
I used to look up to him. You grow up and you go, why are you not doing anything like that? You sitting up here telling stories. And after awhile, you see that everywhere. And people say, you’re not religious? Absolutely not. I’m reformed. I don’t believe that that’s a panacea. I believe people do what they can to get where they need to go, and maybe I didn’t need that much [religion]. I am a spiritual person, that’s how I was raised. But I can let it go in a way that other people can’t. I was always afraid and thinking God’s gonna throw me in hell. I said, I can’t do that. If he’s gonna throw people in hell, he ain’t gonna throw me. I’m sorry. Home [is a theme], but also false identify, false faces, two faces.
What made your dad a hypocrite?
He was damaged, because he was an abused child. As a pastor, he would advise people on what they should do, but would often do the opposite. Growing up, I looked up to him, but that contradiction was confusing. I soon came to view him as a hypocrite. At the end of his life, while he was fighting for his life, he never apologized or righted wrongs he could have.
I’m curious what he thought of you falling out of religion.
Oh, he didn’t think nothing ’cause he was dead. He died. But he knew who he was, too. He was aware. His family had fallen apart. He was running a church in East New York and had only six members. And he was dying from congestive heart failure and diabetes. He was fighting for his life, and even inside of all that, never righted the wrongs, never said he was sorry and never accepted it. It’s a shame because he was ordained at the age of six, and they said he was truly a talented healer. I saw him in his prime and then, growing up, I saw him in his decline.
Did you get to buy your mom a home like you wanted to?
I did buy her a home and then when the 2008 crash happened, actually three years before, I lost it.
South Carolina. By that time, we moved. We were in Arizona and then we moved—’cause he was an itinerant preacher—to upstate New York and then to a seminary in Philadelphia and that’s where I was discovered in a Merchant Ivory [Productions] film called My Little Girl. Then to New York, where they gave him the church. My mother moved to South Carolina after he passed away. And now she lives in upstate New York. She just goes anywhere ’cause they were both orphans.
You talk about not being religious. We don’t see many stories in Hollywood about black people who aren’t.
’Cause we had to be. That’s slavery. You were beat. If somebody tells you this is it and you’re gonna get something in heaven, you’d believe that, too. I’d believe a fairytale. I’m not saying it’s just a fairytale. I’m saying you can believe anything somebody told you when you’re in the depths of hell. Malcolm talked about how we wouldn’t have this religion without our oppressors giving it to us so we could be good negroes—good niggas—and work in the field. I believe it takes a certain amount of bravery and courage to throw off some of the things your parents gave you, especially if it’s out of fear. I grew up in the mountains of Arizona, that Southern gothic stuff. It was: hell, damnation, you gon’ die, you better do it, the wages of sin is death. I was full of anxiety, panic, any little thing I did, I’d be like, please! It was too much. [Laughs] I had to let it go. I decided if I’m going to hell, we all going. I really did. ’Cause I was a good person and I knew it.
I want to go into the past a bit because there’s been renewed conversation around Living Single now that the episodes are available on Hulu. People who don’t know your backstory may be curious how you landed on the show, how you got that iconic role.
Well, I’d done The Cosby Show, but by that time, I’d been in showbiz almost seven years. I went for an audition and didn’t really think much of it because I was trying to be on a show called M.A.N.T.I.S., which was on Fox. It was a comic book series. And by the way, I’m not the biggest nerd in the world. It seems like I am, but I’m not.
It seems to be a theme.
Not at all, it’s just the character I was going for was a scientist. I was like, I’m gonna be that scientist! [Laughs] I didn’t know M.A.N.T.I.S. from nothing. I didn’t get the role and I ended up getting Living Single. I did admire [Queen] Latifah and I heard she was in it, but I didn’t really know what that would mean. The [Maxine Shaw] character, I was told later, was not supposed to be a regular. She was supposed to come in every now and then. So I did the pilot and I think from the beginning, you could tell how much the audience was enjoying it, how much they were laughing, how well the chemistry was. That was automatic. At that time, having never done a comedy series from the ground up, I didn’t know that was gonna be automatic. I was like I gotta get back to New York and do some more theater. And they were like, no we picked it up, and we’re off to the races.
Looking back, what do you realize was so special about the show in terms of its significance in pop culture? I’m sure at the time you weren’t thinking about all that.
I think we always had a lot of love from the audience, and it didn’t take long for them to pay attention to it. They were looking because we were right behind Martin and also A Different World. I gotta give props to the people who paved the way, not just The Cosby Show, but Different World had tons of really strong women who were in school but they didn’t have careers yet. I always said, I kinda knew what it was gonna be ’cause I thought Whitley and those people would [eventually] be where we were [on Living Single]. I think that you know right away whether something’s working with comedy. You may not know with drama, but you know with comedy. Something may be making you cry at home, but it doesn’t touch everybody that way. But comedy is instant. You almost can’t stop it. It’s like a sneeze. And you’re either laughing or you aren’t. And they were always laughing. Always. We were laughing at ourselves. In fact, we didn’t need the audience. We laughed at our own jokes and our own ridiculousness.
It was a very beautiful set in terms of the generosity. There was no competition, just always astounded by what we thought was pure genius. You know, the silliness of it all. And yet we were very accessible and down-to-earth in real life. We really were. Everybody that came on our show as guests said, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had.” We were so happy because we didn’t have all the big sort of catering that Friends had and the marketing that other shows had. But we did have the fact that we tried to make people feel like they were wanted, that they were necessary, and that we admired them. We had a lot of people who came on who were admirable. Gladys Knight, we had Shaft. We had everybody. Jasmine Guy, Charnele Brown. C.C.H. Pounder. Harold Perrineau. Eartha Kitt. [Ed. Note: Nia Long! TLC! Grant Hill! Naughty by Nature!] Come on now. These are the people, literally they’d come in and we’d bow down to them. Genuflect. And they’d be like, stop, stop. We had the fellas who always would bring them food and say, “What do you need?” Everything was really easygoing, and nobody was there to laugh at you. Nobody thought that they were above it all. We had our issues, but that wasn’t one of them. So I think early on, we knew we had something just because of the chemistry of the set and generosity of spirit.
What were the issues you had?
Well, you have issues because we’re six very independently outspoken personalities. I’m telling you, if something happened, you would hear about it. It was really one of those things where we so respected each other that we rarely ever fought between us. When we did, it was about the same silly stuff you might fight about in high school. [Laughs] Just some crap. But really, I’d look at other sets and go, I can’t even really believe they’re dealing with stuff like this ’cause we had a Shangri-La. Again, any problems that came on that set [were] from us not doing our jobs as well as we could have and then being pulled up like, okay let’s get it done. But for the most part, we really did work hard. All the time. And come in prepared. There’s times where it could be frustrating after five years. Whatever problems you had after four years in high school, we had the same ones. Sometimes you just want to break out. But they were, to me, nothing compared to [other shows].
Maxine’s character was especially groundbreaking, a black woman lawyer who would qualify as what many people today call unapologetic. I was looking back on old Jet stories about Living Single and a term that was used a lot was “upwardly mobile.” That was a big thing about the show, that it was these black characters who had jobs. What did you think about your character as you were playing her and what do you think of Maxine now?
When you first see scripts, they’re lines on a piece of paper. To me, it’s not a character at all. It can be attitude inside of the lines. Cues for you. But you don’t know yet what you don’t know. I was actually doing my best version of my older sister who’s looney as a bat. I’m telling you, Carolyn is very much in Max’s DNA. And only people who know Carolyn go, “Oh yes I can see that.” I only graduated from high school. The lawyer I had seen on TV that would’ve been most identifiable to me was Phylicia Rashad and I never thought I could be her. Claire Huxtable. And the person [Maxine] had her hairstyle biting off was Whoopi Goldberg. Because I was coming straight from New York, I just happened to have that hairstyle in my head. A woman from Red Salon had created these new locs and she said, “I’m gonna put that in so you can grow your hair out,” from another show I’d just done in Jamaica.
So I really didn’t know what she’d be. All I knew was I needed to come through that door with energy. They put me in a red-hot suit I think, and it showed legs and I always had long legs. I never thought about what my body looked like. I’m a tomboy. But for people to see a person in that suit, strutting around talking crap, they went crazy. But I was just being me because I grew up around men. I’m my mother’s child, but I’m a daddy’s girl. I don’t have no problem shit-talking. I talk so much crap in real life, but I’m shyer than people know. I certainly never did as well as Max did as early. But I knew how to fake the funk. That’s one thing black people know. I was shit-talking and I’ll tell you, it worked. And I was glad they liked it. The rest is all costume, hair, then you get to the words that Yvette Lee [Bowser, the show’s creator and executive producer] wrote.
Did anyone ever ask you to change the hairstyle?
They would’ve been wasting their time if they had! Because I had just run into Cicely Tyson, girl. I was in John Atchison’s hair salon in New York and I was just dealing with my— I’ve had fine hair that was long that grew out as I wore braids. I went around the world, came back, and I asked Ms. Tyson—she was in [the salon]—I said, “I don’t know what to do with my hair and I don’t know what producers want.” She said, “Don’t ever let anybody tell you what to do to your hair.” And let me tell you something, when Cicely Tyson tells you what not to do, you remember it. It’s like she put a hex on me. And from that day on, I never thought or cared. If they said something, that probably would’ve been the end of the road for me ’cause I would’ve been offended. The truth is I came in the door with that [hair], that’s how we filmed it, and that’s what it was.
The storyline between Max and Kyle was really interesting because it was this love-hate relationship. Why do you think that couple resonated so strongly with people?
That happened organically. I think the producers saw that it was real gold when the audience came in. They liked it. But if you notice, in the beginning, I really sparred more with Regine. They would have those biting scenes between Max and Regine, but then Kyle would gang up with Regine and get me. And then they started to tilt it more toward me and Kyle. ’Cause it would be a good back-and-forth. And T.C. [Carson] was the first person I met. We auditioned, we were in the same hotel, and he was the first castmember I met, so we were already friends. And it turns out, we were born on the same day, November 19, in real life. So we were meant to be.
It’s very hard to find partners in life. Everybody has a partner in life, if you look at Gene Kelly, who he danced with, Fred Astaire. People have their comedy partners. Famous comedy partners. Jerry Lewis and Martin. [T.C.] was mine. And I stumbled into that relationship not knowing that that would be the case, and was really gratified. Because he couldn’t have loved me more, and I loved him, too. We were good at going back and forth and the audience ate it up and, there you go, that’s all you need. It’s like you’re speaking a language between three. We had us. But we would play off the audience. We needed them in order to build and for them to know about the back and forth, for them to have the expectation and start going, “Ohhh, Max getting ready to get…” You know? We needed that. What that brings is huge. You can’t do that without them.
What do you think of the recent slate of reboots like Will & Grace, Rosanne? Is it a good trend or should those shows be left in the past?
I think it’s great that audiences are nostalgic, but I haven’t made any plans to reboot any show I was on, including Living Single.
There were stories out about how the idea for Friends was basically based on Living Single. Queen Latifah talked about it in an interview. And I read that Yvette cited Waiting to Exhale. She said the success of the book with black women helped Living Single get made. Do you know much about how the idea for the show came about? Had you talked to Yvette about it?
No, I have to say I was more like a hired gun. The thing about me, I’m like a horse with blinders. I’ll just do what’s in front of me sometimes. And it often doesn’t matter where it comes from ’cause I’m just like, let me just get in here and do my thang. I heard those things myself and I knew about the whole Friends thing. That did come around later on. John Henton tells a different story where we all knew that we were called My Girls at first and then eventually got to Living Single. One of the execs came down and was walking around with a list of names and one of them was Living Single and one of them was Friends. And they went with Living Single, but Friends was on that list as well. So that’s true. And, you know, Latifah and Kim Coles, the show was built around them, so they have an origin story around their coming together that’s totally different. I have to say I’m kind of grateful ’cause I didn’t know what it was gonna be, or if it was going to be. All I knew was that they had hired me to do a gig and I was hoping that, again, that I’d be able to do it and get back to New York. I was happy that didn’t happen, now that I look back.
Do you have a great memory that you walked away with from that show? Obviously, there are a lot.
There are a lot. It’s hard to say. A lot of people don’t know that Michael Clarke Duncan was our security guard. We called him Bear. I remember Bear came in, he said, “Girl, I got a role. I’m gonna do this thing called Armageddon.” We were like, “Really, bear, what is that?” [Laughs] He told us he was going to do some movie and we’re like, “Well, we hope you got a nice part in it.” He goes and does Armageddon, he comes back, and he tells us. We said, “We went to go see your movie, Bear, and you didn’t get killed. You lasted till the end.” Who knew he’d be The Green Mile and all these other things. You see the sweetness of Bear, you know that’s who was guarding our door, so you know that everyone was welcome. You see Michael Clarke Duncan, The Green Mile, was guarding our door, then you know what kind of hospitality and fortune we were in at the time.
It was a time where black people were magical and it went away. Literally, they segregated TV after the year 2000. They had a few shows, Bernie Mac and Chris Rock, but for the most part it went away until Shonda Rhimes proved, with her excellence, that we were profitable and worth betting on again. That’s shocking. And we rode the end of that wave. I want to tell people, what they should know about the show is we were well aware of being fortunate, but we also thought we belonged, and it was because of all the people that we had seen, from Good Times on. We knew we were standing on the shoulders of those people and, frankly, it’s everything in life to know that. I think it’s like being in an HBCU, like Different World, where you’re aware of your importance but you also know that you got a job to do, you got something to prove. We hope we proved it.
Now there’s a new generation of black creatives making shows like Insecure and Atlanta. The Chi.
Have you gotten to check out any of those shows? And why do you think there was such a decline before?
I’ve seen a couple of those shows and I really love Issa Rae. I really like all the shows. There was a decline because there’s racism. That’s out-and-out racism. It wasn’t ’cause [the shows] weren’t profitable. It wasn’t ’cause they weren’t making money. We don’t think that exists until we see the ascendance of somebody that’s really radical and extreme as who’s in the White House now. But those forces always existed and they will tamp down excellence of color anywhere they can. Because they have a lie to tell and they can’t tell that lie in the face of a moving image. A moving image is a dreamscape of the world. If you keep showing black people doing well, it’s harder to do First 48, it’s harder to do the cop show and all that other mess. You have to create a space of absence. And so the absence sucked [these shows] out the door. There were many [black] people who made plenty of money, but they weren’t in a position to really make change. And I’m talking about the Wayans Brothers, on. None of them owned a studio. There was no Netflix, there was no streaming, there was nothing, and you were lucky to do some independent films.
Does this new era of blackness on TV feel like a renaissance to you, having lived through that age in the ’90s?
Not to me. It feels like somebody finally—The baton was coming over the mountain and through the woods and somebody finally threw it at us and we caught it. We said, this time we not giving it up. There might be some renaissance in the way we’re approaching it. That the pathology is a lot less and that we’re aware of the pathology. So maybe there is a renaissance in the expectation of how we’re supposed to lay it out there. Awkward Black Girl couldn’t get through, but she’s always been there. It’s like somebody threw her the baton from a long way and said, “Here, bitch run!”
“Run like you’re on fire. And don’t ever give it up.” And guess what, Issa Rae ain’t giving it up. Shonda Rhimes ain’t giving it up. Guess what’s not giving it up? These huge markets that they just realized need to be serviced. There are no more borders. They are now stopped by their awareness of people around them. And I say “they” because it was a real “they.” It was a real structure in place. But this time, with all these different YouTubes and everything else, people have their own channels. They have their own CNN. They get up each morning and be like, “Hi, this is Terrence Richards in South Carolina.” They do their own reports, y’all. [Laughs] And guess what, good bad or ugly, they’re online. Nobody can keep telling lies in the face of a moving image. They can see.
You brought up Trump and it kinda flew under the radar that you served as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
I was her most traveled surrogate. I was with her for nine years.
There was one campaign stop where you said, “We can’t go backwards.” What was your feeling on election night, knowing that was basically going to happen?
Um. I ain’t got the words. I’m telling you, I ain’t got the words. You wanna know the truth? I thought that there was something wrong. I always said that Hillary Clinton didn’t win. America lost. America lost that night. I knew something was wrong. People started to blame. I said, no I have been on this campaign the whole time for several years. I know what was done in Detroit. Sure people would say, “Well she could’ve done...” But I know what was done. I was there. I was in those small places, the large places. She didn’t run the race they said, and Russia really did matter more than people think. I keep saying, people need to look from precinct to precinct, from polling place to polling place. People think it has to be just tech. You can just pay people off. That sounds crazy and I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist. This is not a conspiracy. Journalists need to go and follow that money. Something went wrong. That’s what I felt.
Here’s what I did know. That Hillary Clinton was a stand-up chick. She would immediately concede if that was the case and that we would move on, because that’s who she is, and she wouldn’t contest it. And that broke my heart, because I wanted her to contest it. I wanted her to fight. But she was right. She’d go, “People think democracy is a spectator sport and it’s not.” And now they’re seeing what’s on the other end of their fork. So anybody who thought she was the lesser of two evils, shame on them. She was the best of what was good. And if they can’t recognize decent and good people in front of them, then they deserve people like him up there. That’s what they get. I get hot, but it made me mad because we could’ve gone from one smooth move [to another]. We did it before after Bill Clinton, we could’ve gone to Gore and kept moving with progress and we let some silliness in. But this was even more insidious. So good luck.
As far as the lesser of two evils, did you find yourself in conversations with women voters who were skeptical? How did you handle the skeptics?
Oh, that’s all I found for her. The funny thing is, people kept trying to qualify it with, “I’m gonna vote for her.” I said, “Stop acting like this is the worst thing but you’re gonna do it.” They didn’t even know what they didn’t know. I would tell them things and say, “Go to the website, goddammit!” It’s just ridiculous to be that ignorant in the age of Google. “I didn’t know she did that. Why didn’t she say it?” She did say that! She says it all the time. Are you listening? You’re not. Because you want to believe a lie. And you can’t tell people that are looking for a lie that they can’t find one. You can find one for Obama. He’s from Kenya, this, whatever, and people believe that mess.
I said, let’s get real. This person has been in your space, and I’m talking about healthcare for children, all this stuff was in place, Pell Grants, changed adoption laws, handicap laws. And you don’t know who’s behind that? I said that’s pathetic. And guess what? They let that fool up in there. America always wanna play like it’s The Voice. Or American Idol. “Oh, he hit a bad note so that means he’s not good.” You know how many bad notes Prince or Michael Jackson might’ve hit in a competition like that? Well, maybe not Michael. [Laughs] But you get the point, right? They hear the bad note and don’t hear the song. If they can’t hear the good melody and the lyrics, I say fuck ’em. I’m angry still ’cause we didn’t have to be in this.
I think a lot of people are still angry and trying to direct that anger to be more active.
Yes, and I want black women to know, because we tried to hold up the world, because we always trying to hold up the world, that I appreciate that. They need to hold their head up. They knew who she was for the most part. And not everybody can be everything. We argued about the crime bill. We argued about all sorts of stuff. I said, she didn’t sign the crime bill. They were voting for Bernie, who had. Black people showed out. Black women showed out and they showed out in Alabama to stop that pedophile, but we won’t always be there to stop America from destroying itself. We can’t. There’s only 13% of us. But can you imagine that we hold up this world that much? How brilliant are we? Going back to where we started with Black Panther. That’s why we all that. That’s why we’re all that.
Yeah, that was another thing I loved about the movie, the importance of every single woman. Going from that to your Get Out role as a police officer. I know Jordan Peele wrote you personally to ask you to be in the movie. What’s your take on how that small character turned out and what feedback did you get?
It’s so funny, we talked about it after it was put in the can, because I didn’t know really what he saw in me. He said, “Erika, you just had a different take.” I had an audition and apparently he wanted me to work the role, but I had so many other guest jobs I was working. Queen Sugar, Bosch and Beyond. He wrote me this gorgeous note that said, “You brought so much to the role that I didn’t think had that much and you changed my mind on it.” I was reading the note going, “Really?” [Laughs] I said, maybe you gotta show me the audition ’cause I don’t know what he talking about. [Laughs] But I came in and did the best I could and Li’l Rel, we had a good time on the set. Jordan couldn’t be nicer, kinder, or more easygoing. And then it becomes a juggernaut cultural hit. People say you can’t know. There’s times you know. Like I said, Living Single, I think we knew that we were gonna be good. On the scale of things, we weren’t as big as the biggest shows but... I had no idea that Get Out was gonna be this way, so I’m really gratified. I had no idea, and he saw it. But it just shows you that the visionary sometimes puts it out there. And then he puts pieces together. You’re not supposed to see all that. You’re supposed to do your piece.
I think people hoped that your character would come back and save the day or something, but I guess that would be putting a lot on the black woman’s shoulder.
Oh, I wouldn’t have minded. I think we expect black women to do that. But it was also not just the black woman’s shoulder. That’s where you thought the narrative was going, that she’d come in and be like, “hey, stick ’em up.” Or whatever. But I love it because everybody has that expectation and maybe this is where Jordan’s smart. Because they see Max. They don’t just see a detective. They think, Oh, Max getting ready to get into this! You know, I’m wearing her face. And then by the end of it, they go, Aw man, she laughed at the black man. Damn. That’s why it’s good that people bring all sorts of baggage from other roles.
Are you going to the Oscars? Or will be around it?
Yeah, I’ll be around it. How ’bout that? [Laughs] I’ma be around it.
You’re working on a horror project under your company.
Yes, Color Farm Media. Myself and Ben Arnon are partners on a new television and tech company called Color Farm Media and one of the things we set up last year was a horror thriller with Lionsgate. Can’t tell you anymore about that, but we’re with them on that. And also a movie about the Boyz Choir of Harlem that we’re going with Tammy Barnes and Paul Barnes, Ava DuVernay’s producing partner. He produced Selma and Queen Sugar. And Electric City, Jamie Patricof’s company.
I’m curious if you got a chance to see Kim Fields on Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Yeah, I saw it. [Laughs]
That season, she was kind of the fish out of water.
That’s exactly what she was. She was like Giles.
It was funny to see her in that element, knowing her character from Living Single.
Yeah. You know what. I think she tried something. And I think it’s very hard for somebody, especially like Kim, who grew up in the business. She grew up playing fictional characters. People know her and go, oh that’s Kim Fields, there’s Tutti, there’s Regine. She might’ve thought, well maybe I can hang in a platform like that and make something of it, be comfortable, go toe-to-toe. I don’t know what her thinking was. I give her props for trying. It’s not something I would want to do or think I’d ever do. I can never say never, but for the most part I can’t see myself doing that. I don’t look at it as something that was beneath her. I do think it was something she wasn’t used to. Because we’re not asked as actresses to play parts of ourselves as villains in real life.
That’s what they’re doing. Let’s just be real. If you have those arguments in front of a camera, you’re not playing Regine. You’re playing yourself. I would never put myself in an argument on camera because I wouldn’t want my mother to see me like that. That’s me. But see, I didn’t come up in that world. My world is very protected by the narrative and the script. I can do anything as Max. Child, I’d rip somebody apart from across the table if they wanted. As Max. But Erika, I wouldn’t do that because who does that make me? And that’s the problem. It’s hard to be an actress and then go and say, okay, but I’m playing this role now. Whether they understand it or not, they’re playing roles. They have their own faces on. But those are roles. And I believe she tried something on and then moved on and that was probably the right thing to do.
I loved it because her face was always like, what’s going on...?
[Laughs] I think that’s the role she thought she could play. But that role can’t be played on a show like that. You have to engage. You can’t just look on and be a spectator. Nobody wants you looking. They want you to engage and then they want you to participate in a way that undermines or confronts. And if you can’t do that, then you can’t hang.
Last question, one thing about Living Single is that the women were able to afford the brownstones. I live in Brooklyn and was wondering if you thought about how now, obviously, Brooklyn is way more expensive.
I live in Brooklyn, too, partly. I used to live in East New York, which is almost near Brownsville. Still, that’s a place that hasn’t really gotten built up, but I hear that they’ve rezoned it now for high rises. Uh, I don’t know about you, girl, but my mouth dropped when I saw how many people came out of a building that nobody would’ve gone in. There were these white students, women with baby carriages and their lattes. I said, “Where am I?” There’s a little part of me that was jealous. Because when we were living there, there wasn’t cleanliness, there wasn’t the police presence and if it was, the police presence was shaking and baking folks and stressing us out.
And then suddenly, new faces move in that are lighter and suddenly we have all these services and the rent goes up and they’re angry at you and “Get out my way.” Really? Really? That’s really frustrating to see, and I think that’s what hurts black people the most. Like, don’t we get these services? Why can’t we have this expectation? That’s why Black Panther—going back to Wakanda—Wakanda was fabulous. I wish there was a real Wakanda. Girl, I’d have my ticket yesterday. They’d be like, “Where’s Erika?” I’m in Wakanda, baby. I’m gone. You know how many black people would be on that boat to Wakanda? Or ship, whatever. JetBlue, whatever I need to do to get over there. So yeah, it’s disgusting. And, by the way, Max was the only one out of all of them that could afford her own apartment. So I like to say she was doing the best out of all of them, maybe ’cause she was saving money on food.
Eating their food. But you could’ve afforded it back in the day and certainly something like that would’ve been doable then. By the way, I want to say, all the people that come up to me on the street and say they went to law school because of that character. People like Marilyn Mosby who’s over in Baltimore, Maryland. The de Blasios have said that they were inspired by her in politics. I’m not kidding you! And I laughed and [Bill de Blasio] said, “No, don’t laugh Erika. I’m serious.” I’m telling you, that’s the power of the moving image. It moves. And it literally moves people.