Andrea Lewis has been acting since she was a mere adolescent. After years of success, including 5 seasons on teen cult classic series Degrassi: The Next Generation, the multi-faceted starlet has spread her wings to delve into music and production, even starting her own production company, Jungle Wild Productions. It’s only right that the first project from Jungle Wild Productions is a web series about the plight of the black actress in Hollywood written by and starring Andrea, Black Actress. I spoke with Andrea about Black Actress, black images and racism in 2015, the natural hair movement, how she wants to impact the next generation of artists and more.
As much as we love Andrea the actress, she says it was always in her plans to work on the other side of the camera as well.
Because I grew in the entertainment industry I always had a crazy imagination, I knew I was gonna eventually do my own thing. That just was apart of my life plan maybe since I was like 8 or 12 years old. Something in my soul just always felt like that. So I always look up to and admired any actresses that I saw doing that like Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore they had their own production company’s a long time ago and a lot of the things they were doing was through those productions companies. I just had to get to a place where I confident enough to do it on my own. I think that’s where Black Actress came into play. I was finally confident to put myself out there like that to let people see that I’m more than just an actress.
Andrea’s expansion into production was strategic but the idea for Black Actress was far from planned. It came from an awkward moment on set.
I was doing a film and I was the only black girl on the project and I mean that’s very normal for my life to be quite honest with you. So I wasn’t like weirded out or anything. But one of my castmates was introducing everybody to his manager and when he got to me he was like ‘this is Andrea and she’s the urban one’. It was the weirdest introduction…nobody knew what to do including myself (laughs out loud). Other than being black I don’t consider myself that urban because I don’t even know what than means (continues to laugh). It was in that moment that I was like ‘oh he’s actually seeing me, the person, the same way the script sees me’. It is as the “urban one” the “black girl” and not really as a person or as the same as him, an actor pursuing my dreams. He didn’t see me that way. So it was in that moment that I was like I have to make something that shows the experience of black women, black actresses specifically, to show that we are the same. Obviously, we don’t have the same amount of roles and we have some other challenges. I have to make sure my makeup is right, I gotta do my own hair most times…those types of things, yes. But the pursuit of my dreams, my insecurities, my friends, my relationships, those things are all universal. So I knew I wanted to make something that touched on all of that.
And the story lines and plots written for the Black Actress come from that authentic, real place of Andrea’s experiences and the other black actresses she knows.
I take them from my own experience and from the experiences of my friends. I have tons of friends who are actresses, ones who are super famous, ones that are grinding it out, ones that are recognizable, so I just kinda took everything I’ve done, experienced and heard and made them into these stories. It’s also why I wanted to put in these interviews (the intro interviews Andrea conducts with actual Black actresses) because I want people to see that this is universal. All of us have the same ups and downs.
The decision to include real interviews with real actresses sharing their experiences was one that Andrea feels was a necessary component and helps viewers to relate to the show.
It’s very inspiring when I’m doing the interviews. Some of them (the actresses) I don’t know prior to, so I get to learn their stories too and I’m like yeah I’ve been through that. That’s what I want. I look at the show as a creator and a viewer. So I’m always looking to see how the story is like me and how I can relate. The interviews definitely help with that.
Relatability has never really been a problem for Andrea. The former Degrassi star is approached by young actresses all the time looking for advice. The advice she gives them is less about lines and auditions and more about preparing them to sustain in a sometimes cut throat industry.
“I talk about confidence. I don’t think people realize how much rejection you face in this business. I think you hear that but I’m like REALLY, it’s A LOT of rejection lol. So this is not the business you get into if you’re hoping to gain confidence or you’re hoping people tell you you’re pretty or awesome. Self love, self help books, training etc. is important. You have to go in with some sense of self and confidence in your abilities in order to sustain.
The entertainment industry can indeed be cut throat, but the fact remains that it’s an artist’s playground. As fun as it is to create, Andrea feels that as a person of African American descent, she has a duty to create positive diverse images of people of color.
I think that’s my responsibility. I’ve been fortunate to have a platform and for people to recognize me and be somebody to look up to. So, I’ve always felt like I have a responsibility for the images of black women and black people as a whole. I try my best when doing a show like “Black Actress” to show the spectrum of women…because that’s something that has always boggled my mind when it comes to black beauty. There is so much, there are so many complexions, so many body types, so many hair textures, so it’s complicated for a white person to really understand the level of how diverse we actually are as a race. So I try my best to show that in as many ways as I can. Even when I’m casting, I’m looking for people that are representative of everything. I want every complexion, every hair type in there. I try to stay away from stereotypes and show us as relatable to EVERYONE. I think that’s the problem with how white people see us in media. They are not accustomed to seeing a black hero, to seeing a black man that is not intimidating or scary. Or a black woman who is not sassy who likes humus and does yoga. There are women like that who are black. So I want my work to reflect that in every way because that’s the way I am and the way my friends are.
But for those who are not yet creating what they want to be a part of, the hurdles and challenges that come with getting the roles you want or deserve are still enormous.
I had a genuine conversation with my actress friends about hair, wearing it straight, wearing a wig or wearing it natural. I got different responses across the board. One friend said she’s not booking with her hair natural so she’s gonna wear a wig and see if that helps her. One of my other friends was like ‘I’m never gonna do that. I’m always gonna wear my hair like this because that’s who I am.’ I went through a phase where I thought I was prettier with my hair straight. But then I was like ‘this is not realistic to me, this is not me. I’m just gonna be who I am.’
One of the major issues that exists in Hollywood is the ethnicity changes for reprised roles like Annie (played by Quvenzhané Wallis in the 2014 Annie remake) and the Human Torch (played by Michael B. Jordan in the Fantastic 4 remake hitting theaters in August). Accordingly to Andrea, it’s something that people ill have to accept and the world will be better for it.
We’re so accustomed to be on the outside (Blacks) and our positive images not represented that we are able to see a magazine cover with white people and still be able to see an outfit and be like ‘that would probably look good on me’ or ‘I can still look at this magazine and get makeup tips’. White people are so not accustomed to that. That’s where that white privilege comes into play right? They’re kind of unaware of their privilege and I think these ethnicity changes are bringing that to the forefront.
Andrea feels that more and more people of color becoming content creators will help us to share the stories that create change. She praised Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get away With Murder) for the recent episode that brought to prime time television one of the most relevant issues of this country, the killing of unarmed blacks. The episode’s fact pattern mirrored the details of the killing of Mike Brown back in Fall 2014.
Ava Duvernay (Director of “Selma”) said it best.
An episode like this isn’t easy. Isn’t easy to write. Isn’t easy to direct. Isn’t easy to get on air. I appreciate the effort.
#ScandalABC – Ava Duvernay
That’s what I thought when I saw that. I was very happy and I felt a bit of triumph. I think Shonda Rhimes has a huge platform. We have to keep in mind that it’s not a platform that’s run by a black person and it’s not a black network. That was probably a huge challenge to get someone to say yes. She is taking a step forward and I have to commend her on that. I read people’s reaction and it was mixed. Some thought it was amazing and some thought it was cheapened, thought it was too soon. Again, I think what Ava said was best. The hoops you have jump through, the behind the scenes discussions…who knows how long she (Shonda Rhimes) even had this idea. I think Zahir McGhee did an amazing job writing it. To watch something that is so relevant to today on a predominately white show…(thoughtful pause). I thought the things that the character Marcus said to Olivia (about not being able to relate to the black struggle) were real and the fact that they took away the white hero (the crime was solved and the assailant, a white cop, was arrested). I thought it was one of their best episodes because I know the difficulties in trying to do something like that. Art is suppose to imitate life.
It’s easy to get caught up in the sensational part of acting and content creating, but Andrea says there’s so much more to know. The one thing she would advise someone getting into the entertainment industry…never stop learning.
There’s never enough education in this business. When you’re young on a tv series like I was, you take for granted the hard work that it takes. Some people get into this industry for fame and not necessarily for the art so they’re lazy. You must sharpen your tool on a regular basis.
To learn more about Andrea Lewis, Jungle Wild Productions and go to MissAndreaLewis.com.