By Karen Frost
tello favorite Aasha Davis is bubbly, optimistic, down to earth and still good friends with the “South of Nowhere” cast. We sat down with her to find out more about her experiences in LGBT roles, the current state of diversity and representation in Hollywood, and what it was like to work with Nacylee Wyatt on tello’s “Cowgirl Up” and “Nikki & Nora: The N&N Files.”
I want to start with the topic of minority storytelling in the entertainment industry. I recently watched “Pariah” on Netflix and it immediately struck me how unique the story is: a nontraditional “coming of age” story of a teenage girl as she navigates not only an unstable home life, but a very specific part of LGBT culture: aggressive culture. Even as a lesbian myself, I’m completely unfamiliar with that particular subculture, and it makes me realize how important it is to have diverse filmmakers who can bring these otherwise hidden worlds to light. As an actress, are you seeing scripts for more of these sorts of other than Anglo-Protestant, upper middle class stories or is this just an outlier?
I definitely understand how you feel; it's so exciting and wonderful to hear new stories. Viewers like us are seriously craving unique stories, which makes sense since we’ve been fed the same meal for such a long time. There are more outlets these days and so the demand for more stories to fill the gaps really created an opening for different stories. I’m definitely seeing more diversity than I used to but I still don't think it’s enough.
In a similar vein, in the past few years we’ve seen a lot of high profile movies be successful with diverse casts and directors: “Wonder Woman” with its female director Patty Jenkins and female protagonist, for example, the new “Star Wars” movies, and now the massive blockbuster success of “Black Panther.” Are you starting to see a tangible shift towards inclusivity in the gender/race/physical descriptions in casting calls, or have the ostensibly revolutionary implications of these movies been overstated in the media?
These successes can never be overstated in the media. People, especially in Hollywood, need to see something over and over and over again before they jump on board. The more “talk/exposure” of this inclusivity, the better, in my opinion. Normalize it, please!! Let it become some boring story... “Yeah!! Yeah!! (yawn) Of course that blockbuster movie had a female director.” Lol!
In “Pariah,” you play a girl who, wherever she is on the sexual spectrum, nevertheless is not straight. In your next movie, “The Long Shadow,” which is in post-production now, you play another queer woman. As a heterosexual (excuse the assumption), how do you approach learning about the experience of another minority group? What do you think differentiates the queer experience from that of heterosexuals in a way that impacts how you play queer roles?
Both stories have a common thread, probably because it's a big part of the experience of being disapproved of because of who you naturally are. I understand that because I was in an interracial relationship for many, many years. I know what it's like to wonder how much disapproval you will sustain for loving the person you love. Will you be talked about? Will you be sneered at? Will you be harmed, all because of who you have feelings for? There's a world of differences between the two lifestyles that I learn from talking to my queer friends, reading articles, and watching documentaries. The same way I prepare for most roles since I've yet to play someone much like myself. Lol
For “Pariah,” you worked with writer and director Dee Rees, who recently wrote, directed, and executive produced for Netflix the movie “Mudbound,” a powerful film about racism in post-World War II Mississippi. What is it like working with a director with such a distinct vision and skill at taking a story of struggle and turning it into a powerful study of human dynamics, and what have you learned from that collaboration experience?
Dee is incredible. It's a true pleasure to watch someone so deserving reap the benefits of excellent storytelling. She's a delight to work with. She cares about her work and puts her all into it. I liked her secret directions and how she would put us as actors in real life situations to bring that realness to the characters. For example, at our Sundance Lab she made Adepero [Oduye] and I ride a ski lift together. It was something I had done before and therefore was pretty comfortable but it was Adepero's first time and I found myself holding her hand and trying to make her laugh and feel as safe as possible.
Which is more important: a good director or a good script?
A good director is more important because a script is a living thing that can change and grow as it is touched by a talented vision. I couldn't say the same if a great script had a terrible director.
You’ve worked with executive producer Nancylee Myatt on “South of Nowhere,” “The Long Shadow,” “Cowgirl Up,” and “Nikki & Nora: The N&N Files” (the latter two of which are on tello’s website and all of which have queer female lead characters). What appeals to you about how Nancylee approaches or selects projects that has resulted in your working together so many times?
Nancylee Myatt is not only smart and talented she's also a hell of a lot of fun to work with!!! She cares about me. On “South of Nowhere,” she was always encouraging me. She's so full of love, which is my favorite of all traits.
You got your first acting gig in 2002 (as Sheera in “Scratch and Burn”). How have you seen the industry change in the last 16 years for minority actresses and what advice would you give young women trying to get into the business today?
There are a lot more opportunities but it's harder to make a living off of the gigs that you get.
When they think “Hollywood,” most people probably think Oscars, fancy dresses, vacations in the Caribbean, and wild, drug-filled parties. What is it actually like? For example, how much of your time is spent reading script, going to go to auditions, etc.?
I read scripts and go out on auditions often. For one audition I study... get dressed... drive to the destination... spend about 5 minutes in the room... drive back home... peel of my facade... and get ready to do it again. You have to think of yourself as a commodity. Take care of your temple with good food and a healthy life style. Stay ready so you don't have to get ready. But don't take yourself too seriously.
Social media has drastically changed the relationship between fans and actresses. How do you balance sharing parts of your life with fans as a way of forming social bonds with wanting to keep your personal life private?
It's not easy, I want people to get to know me as a person but I don't want to distract audiences from characters I might play. It's harder to see a person as a warrior when you know they geek out over fro-yo!
You starred in season two of “Cowgirl Up” with most of the cast of “South of Nowhere.” What made the friendships that you formed on the latter show special enough that you wanted to keep acting with them, and why are bonds like that so unusual to see in Hollywood?
Maybe because we were telling important non-ego driven stories? Tommy's good taste? I'm not sure but we all really do love each other. The cast is super special. SON forever!
In the director’s statement for “The Long Shadow,” director Daniel Lafrentz writes that film noir “holds a mirror up to characters and audiences alike, forcing them to take a hard look at their values and beliefs…This film was born out of, and reflects on, the intense feelings of division running through our country today.” What can you tell us about this interesting sounding project?
We shot in glorious Louisiana, an irreplaceable and enchanting backdrop. We have fantastic female co-stars like Tess Harper, Yetide Badaki and Teri Wybler. And I'm playing a role like nothing I've ever done before. I'm excited to share it.
If you could write yourself the perfect role, what would it be?
A Phoenix who rises from the ashes. I'd love to play some strong and sexy female roles.