‘Queen Sugar’s Bianca Lawson: ‘I’m a bit of a private person’
The ageless actress talks about living and working in the midst of a pandemic and why famous rappers are in her DM's
Bianca Lawson is in a hotel room conducting an interview on Zoom. It’s the middle of a busy day for the Queen Sugar actress yet she looks fresh, dewy and calm, despite the built-in awkwardness of talking to reporters on a video platform instead of over the phone or in-person. Hotel room lighting is notoriously poor, so we’re sure there’s a Ring light involved yet in the midst of the interview, a ray of sunshine settles over Lawson’s face and stays there. She appears throughout to be lit from within.
It’s an apt analogy for the almost 42-year-old actress who has made aging seem like something that only lesser mortals do. The sun has been shining on Lawson since birth, who has so many famous relatives that her very existence seems like a documentary on Black entertainment past and present.
She’s a Gordy, and yes, we mean the Motown Gordys. Her mother, Denise, is Berry Gordy’s niece. Marvin Gaye, Jr., is Lawson’s half-brother. Her father is actor Richard Lawson and her stepmother and stepsisters, well, you know who they are.
Despite the bold-faced names family, she was born into and years of being the coolest Black girl on just about every teen TV show from Saved by the Bell (The New Class) to Pretty Little Liars to The Vampire Diaries, Lawson is enjoying her greatest success as Darla Sutton on Queen Sugar. She’s the troubled to triumphant girlfriend of Ralph Angel Bordelon, (Kofi Siriboe) the prodigal son of fictional St. Josephine, Louisiana’s Bordelon clan.
Lawson’s character arc has taken her from the degradation and shame of an addict and sexual assault survivor to a fully realized mother and wife-to-be whose relationship with herself and her man and son have evolved through it all.
We caught up with Bianca, tried to pry a few secrets out of her (to no avail) and got her take on living and working through quarantine both on and off the screen. (Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
This season, Queen Sugar was shot with the actors and actresses living and working in different pods. So you didn’t interact as much with the rest of the cast as you normally would. What was that experience like?
We flew up early, Kofi, Ethan, Ethan’s family, and myself, so we could quarantine for a couple weeks in a hotel building thing, but it was like a real hotel. It wasn’t like room service and cleaning people because they were trying to minimize all the contact. Right. So we kind of like were at camp. Right. So we lived together and then we would shoot, and then once it was over, we would come back to the hotel. So we weren’t, like, out socializing.
I know that you guys had just gotten to set March 2, last year, which Kofi remembers well because it was his birthday. And then in a blink, the world changed and everyone’s life changed. So how did you adjust once you came back to the set? Because not only do you have to adjust, then you have to go into playing these characters that are also going through that experience.
I think in a way, it’s kind of nice, right? Cause you don’t have to use your imagination as much because you’re really doing all these things that the characters are doing. You know, the disinfecting everything, quarantining at home and living with someone, essentially. I do think it’s sort of fun. But all the different COVID protocols, it does kind of take away a level of physical intimacy, right? I’m a hugger. And I’m a toucher. So that was like, ‘oh, my God, I can’t hug.’ You have to kind of, like, wave at people from afar. So all of that was a little bit different. I mean, but it’s all the things we had to do in real life.
The forced quarantine is interesting because of the way your storyline is going this season. Your characters are now engaged and the storyline, seemingly, hopefully, we don’t know yet, is moving toward a happier situation with Darla and Ralph Angel. So did that kind of inform the season in a different way?
In terms of the storyline, Ava had said to me early on that she wanted to explore commitment and what that means. And that was before COVID. And so I think, she had in her mind already how she wanted our journey to go, Ralph Angel and I, but then just within the framework of this new normal.
Bianca, you are the most mysterious person in Hollywood that everybody knows and grew up with. How have you managed to maintain such a sense of privacy? When you’re in L.A., you’re probably driving around and doing normal things. Do people see you and respond to you or do they even recognize you when you’re out?
I live in sweats and a baseball cap, so when people recognize me, I’m always surprised. I have a lot of the same friends from school. I don’t tend to kind of be on the scene. Like, if I go to parties or events, it’s usually work-related. I think just by nature, I’m a bit of a private person. But I think also, too, because I started so much younger, it’s that school of like, ‘Oh, you know, we don’t know anything about what Daniel Day Lewis is like, really.’ So then when you see him in his characters, you really see the character.
But now with social media, people sometimes when they know things about you, it makes them feel closer to you. And so then they want to watch you everywhere because they just love you as a person.
After growing up in such a famous family, what did you learn about fame and celebrity very early?
At the end of the day, it’s about having good people around you and having pride in the work is the most important thing. Because you can do all the fluff stuff but if the work itself is not good, if the product itself is not good, who cares? And I’ve seen so many people in my life blow up and then crash and burn. I’m an optimist.
I believe that people are inherently good. But sometimes when there’s fame and money and celebrity, it does something to people’s minds. And they suddenly want to get close to you and then that kind of pulls you off track. I think just really knowing sort of what your values are, keeping the work foremost, because everyone’s going to want what they want.
There have been some mind-blowing things that have happened since we last talked. There’s been the #MeToo movement. There’s been a racial reckoning. What changes have you seen that make you hopeful for the future?
Growing up, you would see the same two or three women of color at the auditions. Now I feel like all of us can get the work. I do feel like there’s a bit more of a shift in terms of colorblind casting a bit more. And I love that. On the one hand, it’s not perfect, but there are a bit more opportunities for characters that aren’t just like, ‘OK, we have to have the obligatory Black character.’ As for #MeToo, there was this feeling of, will I get blacklisted if I speak up. Now that’s breaking down.
People are feeling like, no, I can actually say what my experience was like on the set or with this person and I still will work again and people will come and support me. So there is a higher level of transparency happening. And, you know, it’s a work in progress. But I feel very hopeful.
So are you going to ever endorse a beauty line? I’m surprised people haven’t come to you with offers.
I would love to. From your mouth to God’s ears. But I’ve never been asked, you’ve heard it here first.
That’s the number one thing people ask me. They’re like, why are you not doing endorsements – like that is the number one thing people say to me.
I’d figure it’s because you’re maintaining this private life and you don’t want to get into that sell, sell, sell thing. Or is it really just because some crazy brand hasn’t figured it out?
If I believe in the project, it would be fun for me. I think it’s hard when you don’t believe in it and it’s just a check. But if I believe in the product, I would totally do it.
But you do have the Ivy Park hookup!
I mean, I get excited when the truck stops at my house. I’m like, ‘Oh, let me see what she picks for me to wear.’ I love that.
I know that you’re close to your dad and there’s a new appreciation of #girldads these days. (Lawson also has a son). How much do you feel that your father also being an actor has impacted your life and career?
My dad would love if I consulted him more. He’s like, ‘use me.’ When it’s your parents, you want to do it on your own. I don’t really talk to him about acting stuff that much, but definitely having two parents that were in the business and all of that, they have a level of understanding of the different frustrations. I know a lot of people don’t necessarily get to have that kind of healthy father-daughter relationship.
He’s such a wonderful soul, you know, and he’s not judgmental. And I could literally talk about anything. Nothing would shock him. He’s such a free spirit. Just as a person that’s helpful, especially in terms of what your standards are in terms of men. Right. And that’s hard. And that can make it really hard for anyone to live up to that, because you started with an eight.
What was your best coping mechanism during the pandemic?
Words With Friends, the online Scrabble game.
Are you kidding, really?
Yes, I’d be up all night doing Words With Friends, on Facetime, hiking, going for walks. I wish I could say I binge-watched a bunch of shows and movies like most people did, but I didn’t. And like, literally, there are all these people in my DM’s, like famous rappers, like ‘Oh, what’s your handle? I want to play.’
I’m thinking maybe they’re not just trying to play Words With Friends, that’s all I’m saying. How are you at it?
Good. I was terrible at first, but my competitive spirit has come out and so I’m much better.
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