Bianca Lawson On Her Return To OWN’s “Queen Sugar” And Why Oprah Winfrey Really IS The Queen Of All Things

Bianca LawsonPhoto Credit: Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock.com

As Darla on “Queen Sugar,” Bianca Lawson is a quiet tour de force that’s breaking stereotypes by shining a light on addiction and mental illness. But then, the actress—who has been in the industry for over 20 years, with roles on series like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Sister Sister,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Vampire Diaries”—has a pretty serious Hollywood story. Not only is the daughter of Denise Gordy and actor Richard Lawson, making her the step-daughter to Lawson’s second wife Tina Knowles, and step-sister to singers Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, but she is also the great-niece of Motown founder Berry Gordy. We chatted with Lawson, who will reprise her role as Darla, a recovering drug addict looking to get her life back on track, when her OWN (owned by Oprah Winfrey) series returns June 12, about the show’s upcoming fourth season, living and loving in New Orleans, and what Oprah is REALLY like behind the scenes.
Bianca LawsonPhoto Credit: OWN/Skip Bolen

“Queen Sugar” is going into its 4th season. Tell us about the process getting back into character.

I mean it’s a little bit different every season. Depending on where the writers are beginning her journey, how much time has elapsed, what she’s been up to during the break.. This season in particular, it took me a minute to find my way back. So many things had happened to me personally during the break, I was wondering if any of that was going to seep into the character at all. But I think it ended up being completely appropriate in the end because she has evolved as a woman as well. It’s interesting.. there was a scene we shot one night where Darla comes into her voice in a fuller way than we’ve seen before. When it was over, I felt slightly invigorated and it suddenly hit me so clearly that I had lost my own voice in certain aspects of my life. Obviously, I’m not Darla but sometimes things do overlap. Darla’s grief specifically in the first couple of seasons forced me to have to process grief in my life that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel or had been minimizing. She’s a very emotional character, there’s a depth of feeling that one never knows.. “will I be able to tap into that again?” “How do I find my way back into her?” It’s different every season, I never know exactly how I’m going to do it, and I’m always a little bit nervous about it but it ends up being fine in the end. Plus, each season we’re experiencing different aspects of her so there’s also that discovery of “what is Darla like in this new space?” and that part becomes a new creation in a way, as opposed to ‘getting back into the character of who she was before’.

What can we expect from Darla this season?

A completely new phase of her continuing ‘internal revolution.’ But you know, there are peaks and valleys within that. I’ve been interested in the concept of post traumatic growth. That some people actually rise to a higher level of functioning post trauma than they were pre. The extreme adversity actually improves them as opposed to destroying them or setting them back in some way. We’ll see if that’s in the cards for her because her challenges are definitely not over.

Do you have a special affinity with New Orleans? Can you share a totally NOLA-related memory from set?

I really do. It’s such a special place. The energy here is complex and rich and deep and sometimes very intense. There’s also a kind of quiet here and a bit of a slower pace that I think is conducive to the work and just getting more peaceful within yourself- which might be a challenge for some people used to a faster pace, more noise. But there definitely is a kind of magic here.. so many deeply growing things have occurred while I’ve been shooting here, so many synchronicities. And the people are very warm and helpful; much different feeling of community than say LA. I’ve made some great friends here, and it was effortless. A friend of mine was saying to me that certain places that they’ve lived, the relationships feel very transactional; not a real human connection. This isn’t one of those places. [And] ‘A totally Nola- related memory from set’? This is a little creepy and gross but they have these insects called ‘love bugs’ here. They’re everywhere when we’re shooting on the plantation. They fly all over you, around you, on you… really irritating. But what makes it so gross is that they’re called love bugs because they’re flying in the air while having sex and then when they’re finished, the male dies. So it’s all these bugs having sex on you and then dying.

What are your New Orleans’ musts?

There are so many restaurants I love. The food is just… hard to resist. And I think everyone should try a traditional crawfish boil if there aren’t dietary or moral considerations. My feeling the first time was that it seemed like a lot of work for little reward but it was fun learning how to do it properly, getting down and dirty into the process of it, and just the social aspect of it. And it did taste good. There are beautiful botanical and sculpture gardens here. Always live music, SO MUCH art. Wonderful metaphysical shops… I spent so much time the last three seasons working or preparing for work that I’m really going to set the intention of getting out and about more here. There are museums I still want to visit, art classes I want to take. This year was my first Mardi Gras. Someone really broke down for me the historical and symbolic meaning behind the different floats and crews which was fascinating People associate it with partying and drinking- and yes, there’s a lot of that but it’s actually quite deep. It’s a kind of purge and then the next day is lent which is the purification and rebirth.

 

Bianca LawsonPhoto Credit: OWN/Skip Bolen

This season will also feature all female directors – what has that experience been like? Is that something you look forward to every season?

It’s been a divine experience! I do look forward to it. The industry has been saying that they just can’t find that many female directors, but clearly that’s not the case because I work with a new one every week. And they’ve all been generous and warm and brought something different and unique to their respective episodes. Some past ones I’m still in contact with and probably will be friends with for the rest of my life. I’m just excited to get to have personally witnessed this movement from it’s inception. I’m excited to be a part of the future. Because this is what the future is going to look like more and more I honestly believe. I think we’re already seeing a huge shift and this show was the beginning of that. This one aspect is a tremendous part of what makes Queen Sugar special.

You’ve said playing Darla on “Queen Sugar” was the best role you’ve ever done. Why, specifically?

Darla has just challenged me in entirely different and new ways than any other character I’ve played before which can be very liberating as an artist. As a black woman, we haven’t always gotten such layered, nuanced characters. Even though there’s a real complexity to her as a person, her story is complex, just being a recovering addict is a deeply complex path in and of itself- there’s an economy about her, a simplicity and purity of spirit that I love. And in her relationship with Ralph Angel and Blue.. as actors, there was an immediate intimacy and trust between us from the very beginning which isn’t always the case and just makes it easier to be fully present in the work. And because Ava’s given me some extraordinary material.. I really think I’ve done some of the best work of my career on this show. I’ve always considered myself more of an imagination based actor, not someone that intentionally pulls from myself or my personal experiences, but I had to submit to the fact early on that in order to do her justice, it would have to be more personal than I had been used to.

Why did you gravitate toward this role? What makes her so different from all the other roles you have held before?

I gravitated to it because I just loved her the moment I read the sides. I felt protective of her. There was an opportunity to honor women like her in a way that we don’t normally see, that’s not stereotypical and one-dimensional. Also, there’s a perception in certain circles that vulnerability and sensitivity is a weakness. It requires so much more strength and courage to be vulnerable and embrace one’s sensitivity. I really admire her, she’s gone through so many fires and hasn’t broken, she’s had cracks but hasn’t shattered yet. I can’t imagine being dropped so many times and not breaking. Takes a great strength of will. [And] What makes her different from my previous characters? On the obvious front, just who she is as a person, her origin story, her issues and struggles. But she also just sits differently in my body, in my heart in a different way than the others. How one channels these things I’m not trying to figure out too closely because I think it’s good to embrace the mysterious nature of it, trust that you can access it somehow and just have gratitude for it.

Have you met Oprah personally? What was that interaction like if so? Did she give you any advice?

I have on many occasions. Other than Queen Sugar related things, I’ve gone to her home for a party she was having in celebration of her book “The Wisdom of Sunday’s.” I also, not that long ago was sitting near her at a concert. We were on a kind of riser thing outdoors and my younger brother had broken his foot playing Badminton (I know, so bizarre). We were late arrivals and there weren’t any chairs left in our section. I asked an attendant for a chair for my brother because of his foot. Someone down the isle let us have their chair. I walked over to thank the person, and it was Oprah. I mean, she still had a chair, but there was an extra chair I think. Either way, it was very sweet. I can’t think of any advice per se.. but she’s always very warm and complimentary. She actually told me that she thought the scene in the season two finale when Ralph Angel finds Darla swimming and then they have that whole big moment between them was probably the best thing she’s ever seen on television. She then turned to Yvonner Orji (who was standing nearby) and said to her “Don’t you think that’s the best thing you’ve ever seen on television?” I mean, just utter loveliness like that. She’s very WARM.

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