Talent Q & A
Deja Dee is a self-proclaimed Virginia military brat by birthright, but the former radio personality turned actor’s profile has been steadily rising since 2013 when she landed the role of Alma in Cinemax’s Banshee. Now, following up a fruitful 2016 and 2017 that witnessed her featured alongside the likes of Queen Latifah (Star) and Michael K. Williams (Hap & Leonard), 2018 is poised to be another bang-up year as she forays into the world of feature film. She’ll share the screen with Shia Lebouf and Bruce Dern in The Peanut Butter Falcon, and even chatter some teeth with Mandy Moore in the upcoming adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young-adult thriller, The Darkest Minds.
OZ: When did you first notice that you had a naturally outgoing, expressive personality—a la, that of a performer?
DD: I don’t know. Because when I was younger, I was kind of bashful, but I loved to create. And I was an only child, a military brat. As far as I remember, I can tell you that I never thought of it as being an actress. It was always about being an entertainer. Back in those days, watching the behind-the-scenes stories of actors, they did everything. They acted, they danced, they sang, they did comedy. And they were referred to as “entertainers,” so that’s what I thought.
I really liked musicals, and I just remember really wanting to do them. But it was probably at 10 or 11 that I watched this film with my grandmother — a film that I’m sure I shouldn’t have been watching at that age — and that’s when I first understood what acting was. It was Sally Field in Sybil.
OZ: Oh wow, that is a deep one for an 11-year-old.
DD: [Laughs] It definitely haunted me for a while. But I was familiar with her from Gidget, The Flying Nun and Smokey and the Bandit, and seeing her switch to a completely different personality and character within the same film, I was like, 'Ohhhhh, now I get it.'
Oz: Your Facebook page has a lot of inspirational quotes. For instance, “There will always be someone who can’t see your worth. Don’t let it be you.” What have you been through in your life that makes these self reminders useful?
DD: Oh, a lot. Eating disorder. Sexual assault. [Interviewer’s note: At this point in this conversation, Dee stoically recounts an incident of sexual predation she suffered as an adolescent girl, perpetrated by a pair of neighborhood boys. Although she tells it in the least explicit manner possible, to transcribe it here is neither tasteful nor necessary. Suffice to say that it is harrowing, heartbreaking. We take a hard right and change the subject altogether.]
OZ: I’ve heard time and time again that it took L.A. transports—people in the business—quite a while to respect Atlanta as a legit entertainment city with its own ethos and vibe. How has your experience here played out, both personally and professionally?
DD: My first year, I was blessed. I booked 16 projects and 14 of them went through, so I was constantly working and I didn’t really get to “see” Atlanta. I’m just kind of getting around to the personal aspect of it. But professionally? Oh, it’s been off the chain.
And first of all, let me just say thank you for doing this interview. The great casting director, Twinkie Bird, was asking me like three years ago what I do for PR, and I was like, ‘Nothing.’ She said, ‘Listen, I’m not saying you need to be on Jimmy Fallon’s couch, but you have a perspective, and there are plenty of actors who would love your knowledge.’ She was like, ‘I’ve done a lot of stuff, but I have no idea what it’s like to be an African-American woman on a predominantly Caucasian set. What is that like?’ Because I was the only black person my first year of Banshee, the only African-American woman in the cast.
‘If you want to tell a real story, tell a real story.’
OZ: What obstacles does being the only black woman in a cast create?
DD: Well, let me say first that the crew was very diverse, so that was great. It was my first time seeing that diversity behind the camera. And then, of course, (Banshee director) Greg Yaitanes is just kind of a genius. And everyone—the writers, everyone—was just great. The core cast, the series regulars, they too were just great.
But I was on another set recently where—OK, so African-American women’s hair: It’s a thing. [Laughs] And you can put this in the article: It’s a thing. And it didn’t really make sense to me, but the director wanted a particular “look” because of my character’s backstory. But that backstory was never referenced at all. I was just a day player on this one, but I bring it up because I had scenes with the lead, and it just became this whole thing about what my hair should look like. Of course, [the portrayal of race in film] has become a big conversation over the last couple of years. That conversation being, ‘If you want to tell a real story, tell a real story.’
OZ: One of your upcoming films set for release in 2018, The Darkest Minds, is ostensibly about a disease that wipes out 98 percent of the children in America. Is it as eerie as the plot summary reads?
DD: I cannot wait to see that one. In fact, I auditioned for a few roles, and one of the roles scared me. I got the script at night and I was like, eek!
OZ: Do you scare easily?
DD: I don’t, but I have a very vivid imagination sometimes. So, I’m reading the script and I can see it in my mind, and I’m just like, whaaat?!
Although the plot summary probably reads as more literal than it will actually be, because this is from one of those teen novels like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.
The director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, it was her first live feature and she was awesome, just awesome to work with. I only had a one-liner, but I use it as an example with the actors that I teach, that you can’t underestimate the power of a one-liner.
OZ: You teach acting as well?
DD: Yes. And I always tell my actors that when I booked Banshee, it was for a oneliner. We didn’t know it was going to be a recurring role…but the work I did for the audition, when I show it to my actors they’re like, 'I saw everything!' It’s like 24 seconds and the line is, “C’mon, let’s go.” And they’re like, ‘How did you figure that out?! Oh my god! It’s all there.’
It’s one of those things that can’t be cut out because it’s a turning point. The director and I really worked on how to get there and tell the story, by just understanding what’s happening to motivate what you’re saying.
OZ: Was that the first one-liner that really opened your eyes to their power?
DD: No, I just believe that if someone is going to hire you even to say one word, it must be important, so I’m going to treat it as such. I often book those types of things because, a lot of times, people think that if it’s small, it’s not important. So, they treat it that way, and it looks that way.
I don’t know when I began to understand that. I’m sure it was a natural thing. But certainly, within the last couple of years I’ve focused with my mentors and coaches on how important it is living between the words. That’s where you connect.
OZ: What is the first step in getting your mind to that place, where you can act by expression alone and not lean on your lines?
DD: It’s a lot of detective work. It’s understanding the story that you’re telling, understanding the circumstances, where you are. It’s about understanding what your objective is, who the other person is to you. When you understand all of these things, seemingly it should be pretty easy.
The problem—when it’s hard—is when you don’t understand. Because if you know the history between you and your partner in the scene, you know where you are at that moment, how you got there, what brought you to that moment. The writers are writing to move the story along, so you know what the conflict is, what the obstacle is, and then you have to consider the consequences of not “getting” your objective.
OZ: How did you start teaching? Is this new?
DD: After studying with Wendy Davis in Charleston for three years, I was approached by this young lady who was in the record business. At the time I was a radio personality, and she was a model back in the day, and she wanted to create an artist development center in Charleston. She had music friends, she had the modeling thing, but she was looking for someone in theater to teach. She came to me for ideas, and I asked if I could just come in and sit at her open house and see what she was doing. I gave the actors some thoughts, some adjustments or whatever, and she and her partner decided they wanted to offer me a $10,000 management contract. I was like, ‘Wait, huh? You haven’t seen me do anything.’
And they were like, ‘By the way you spoke to those girls, we could tell.’ I was like, ‘But you haven’t seen me do anything!’ They said, ‘Go to L.A. for six months and see what happens.’ I said, ‘What if nothing happens in six months?’ They said, ‘That’s a chance we’re willing to take.’
It freaked me out for like, three days, because I’m thinking, ‘Eeee, I don’t know.’ And then God was like, ‘Girl, if you don’t sit down somewhere! Settle down, I got this.’
I turned down the offer at first, really because I didn’t know enough about management at that time, but I decided that I would come onboard to help if my coach gave me the thumbs up. She said absolutely. So, I did that for a few months in Charleston and, before I knew it, I had a gift of $10,000 that started my journey to move.
When I left, I was just helping my actor friends because this region was all about taped auditions. I understood that I had to get really good at it, because you can’t actually go into the room. There were a few other actors who were also bicoastal at that time, so it was really just word of mouth reaching who I would coach. It was just a natural thing. This year, I have a ton of clients literally just from word of mouth.
OZ: For most genuinely talented people, the medium of art is almost irrelevant. There are just people who “get it”— concept, execution, attention to detail—and people who don’t. Is that true of the talents with whom you’ve worked as a coach?
DD: Absolutely. They say you book or lose a job within the first five to 10 seconds of entering the room.
OZ: What do you think Sierra, your character in season 2 of Queen Sugar, brings to the show’s dynamic?
DD: It wasn’t until probably my third episode that I really figured it out: I’m Nova’s bouncing board. I’m a corporate lawyer, so I’m smart. I’m already a partner in the firm at my age, so I defy the odds, as she says in the first episode. And I’m having twins without the man because I’m going to get what I want when I want it; I’m not going to wait. Nova appreciates that, and I think Sierra is really there to help tell Nova’s story.
OZ: You also appear in the Lee Daniels series, Star, alongside Queen Latifah. From a fashion perspective, which Queen do you prefer: early ’90s, U.N.I.T.Y., Cross Colours-wearing Queen? Or daytime talk-era, business skirt Queen?
DD: [Laughs and begins to sing aloud] “U.N.I.T.Y!” As a radio personality, part of my show was what we called “Back in the Day Buffet,” so I got to play that one often. [Sings] “Come into my house! Give me body!”
But if you’re asking me which style do I prefer? Listen, it depends on which day it is. Because sometimes I wanna put my wrap on and be like, ‘What?! I dare you!’
OZ: Being that famous could make some people nuts. Do you think you’ll keep it together if you ever have that kind of profile?
DD: I pray that I don’t [go nuts]. I believe that I won’t. But I understand the possibility. Because I still have to check myself, even now.
OZ: There was a Dave Chappelle interview from years ago in which he was talking about this same subject with regard to Martin Lawrence, after Lawrence was arrested for waving a gun in the middle of the street and yelling, “They’re trying to kill me!” Chappelle’s comment was along the lines of, ‘Celebrities who’ve fought their way to the top, then at some point suffer a mental breakdown, are not weak people. To get to that level, you have to be a strong person. Therefore, something insane has to be happening around them—happening to them— in order to make them act this way.’ His implication was that Hollywood culture can be so twisted and insidious that, over time, it makes many in the spotlight lose their sanity.
DD: When you don’t have your checks and balances in place, ego is a trip. Case in point: I booked 16 projects last year. In the middle of this year, I’m like, I only booked three things! And one of my friends was like, ‘Girl, if you don’t shut up. Yeah, you “only” did that, but you’re working. You’re literally going back to New Orleans next week. You’re getting ready to go to Savannah for a shoot.’
Then, the other thing is just getting an audition. There are like 800, 900, 1,000 people who are submitting for a role, and there are only about 30 people selected to audition for that role. So, the fact that you’ve even gotten an audition alone, as a friend once told me, you’ve already won the lottery. Now you’ve got it; do your thing and be free. Then you get a call-back and it’s like, dude, you won. I always consider a call-back a win because, after that, it has nothing to do with you.
I just learned recently, after going to an event and listening to the other side talk about their issues, that sometimes it’s about the combination of the director and the actor, or the writer and producer and actor. That combination has to line up, so sometimes you just don’t fit that combo. Other times, it’s about whether or not it’s sellable. Can I sell this project with this actor? Or if it’s an actor no one knows, can I sell it with this director?
I was in the room waiting for something—maybe coming in for wardrobe—and it just so happened that they were trying to make a decision between two actors. It came down to the size of their heads, and they literally took out a tape measure. [Laughs] The actors weren’t there, it was on screen. But they were literally measuring. One guy’s head made him look older, so it was a choice.
"The craft is only two percent."
OZ: It can come down to that minor of a technicality? That must make it feel even more rewarding to land the jobs that you’re landing. To be on the other side of the hump, so to speak, has to be a great feeling.
DD: I’m so grateful, and I have to remember that. Even the body of work that I have right now, even though I feel that most of it doesn’t match my talent, there are so many fabulous, wonderful, creative artists that don’t have that.
OZ: There are so many variables, both within and outside of your control, aren’t there?
DD: Sometimes as creatives, we don’t think about the business side of it. I tell people that my understanding of it now is that the craft is only two percent. Consider the triangle is upside down, and that everything else sits on that two percent, so it’s gotta be good. All the rest of it is so many things: networking, researching, just living life so that you can inform your art. We never make time for that.
OZ: Michael K. Williams, who you worked with on Hap & Leonard, is one of the most versatile—however underutilized—actors in the business today. Describe for us your experience with him on set.
DD: He’s very giving. Very, very giving in his art.
OZ: What does it mean when an actor uses the term “giving”?
DD: It means making sure that I’m giving you what you need—asking, checking in. Is there something else that I can do? And my man James Purefoy (co-star of Hap & Leonard), oh my God, I love James. If it wasn’t for James, I couldn’t have gotten through what I did for the finale.
The crazy thing is that I was shooting Star and Hap & Leonard at the same time. Star was a very dark character, and though Miriam from Hap & Leonard wasn’t dark, she had dark baggage. So, it was the first time that I had been able to do this kind of work on set. I’d done it for class, done it for auditions, but outside of the projects that I’ve created for myself, I haven’t been able to do this kind of work.
You just don’t realize how much it takes out of you. You understand intellectually that you’ve gotta get there, do it, then let it go, start over, shoot it again, et cetera, but it’s just really hard. You wanna do a good job and, in your mind, you’re thinking, I’ve gotta have all this stuff and I need to be ready.
James would just come over and talk me down off the ledge. He’s like, ‘Don’t even think about it. Let it go.’ And he would give me this history lesson about how to deal with very emotional scenes. It was just really nice because it did help me deal with a lot.
OZ: What is your career endgame?
DD: What I have understood about my acting career since I was a little girl is that I want to help other young girls. I want to be an inspiration, because of what I went through as a young girl. The truth is that my story is not special, and I believe that God used me to experience just enough to understand the mindset you have to be in to want to kill yourself, or to have an eating disorder, or to deal with being sexually assaulted. He understood that, I need to give you just enough that I don’t break you. And it didn’t break me; it didn’t break my spirit.
But now I understand what that feels like and where that place is, so I can help young girls dealing with that and show them, look, I’m still standing, I’m successful. Because when you’re in that place and you’re that young, you can’t see that far into the future. All you can see is tomorrow and dealing with school, your parents and whatever. And you’re gonna choose whether to deal with it or not.
It’s funny, but I was just sharing this with another actor two nights ago. I believe that my frustration sometimes about my acting career is about not being able to get to the other side. I always believed that my fame, if you will, would allow me the opportunity, the access and the resources to put programs in place for young girls. Hopefully, to create a school in the vein of Montessori.