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Erika Alexander on ‘American Fiction’ Awards Chances, ‘Living Single’

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Erika Alexander got her start as a teen on “The Cosby Show” before assuming the breakout role of attorney Maxine Shaw on “Living Single.” But it’s her latest performance in “American Fiction,” a satire that critiques our culture’s obsession with stereotypes, that’s put her in a conversation she’s never been in before — that of awards season contender.

Alexander plays Coraline, the love interest of Jeffrey Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a cantankerous author who challenges the industry’s perceptions of “Black entertainment.” On Dec. 5, just hours before sitting down with Variety, Alexander learned she’d been nominated in the supporting category at the Independent Spirit Awards; she attended last year’s ceremony as a guest.

“I got dropped off on the highway and walked, scooting around the Porta-Potties,” she says, laughing brightly to keep her emotions about the moment at bay. They seep in anyway.

Though Alexander has delivered standout performances in “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” “Black Lightning,” “Run the World,” “Get Out” and expanded her impact as a writer, producer, director and activist — in August, a street in her Winslow, Arizona, hometown was christened “Erika Alexander Way” — this recognition represents a career high.

“It’s lovely to be talked about like this,” she adds, reaching for a tissue to dab her eyes. “I’ve been in the business 40 years, and yet, never talked about in spaces like this. I think about that with great gratitude. I trained my whole life for this moment.”

How did “American Fiction” come to you?

I got a call that Cord Jefferson was interested in me playing the part in his new film. He’s an accomplished writer — I knew of his work in “Watchmen,” so I had a certain expectation that it was going to be good. He explained his vision and my part in it. When someone tells you that he’s imagined you in that space and invites you to play, with no audition — like “I know who you are, and I know what you’re capable of” — you say yes.

Cord has said that he was interested in you because you’re a legend, and he wondered why you hadn’t gotten more of these big-screen opportunities after “Living Single.” What does it mean to hear him speak of you that way?

It’s a beautiful thing. But it also is something that’s frustrating because someone has assessed me as a risk. Doesn’t have anything to do with talent; “deserves” got nothing to do with it. Not past work. Someone said it’s not worth the risk. It won’t sell; it’s not palatable. I’m not the only one being assessed like that. And that can be very hurtful. It’s powerful when someone invests in you. I’ve been one of the lucky ones — believe it or not — if I’ve managed to last 40 years. That’s grace.

What interested you about Coraline?

Coraline is the quiet storm. Every time Monk — played so beautifully by Jeffrey Wright — turns around, there’s a whole different weather system that he’s in, and he won’t be able to keep the silo around him that is his comfort zone.

She was attracted to him before she met him. He’s had an impact on her and attracted the possibility of a new relationship that could be healthy for him. But what I love about her is that he may be discontented, but she isn’t. She’s not allowing him to change the weather system around her. We’re looking at a mature relationship and a conversation around what it is to find a partner. Black women have been told over and over again we want too much, and yet these characters are walking through the Everglades licking ice cream cones, trying it out.

“American Fiction” won the people’s choice award at TIFF, as well as audience awards at the Middleburg and Mill Valley film festivals, and has now surged to the top of critics list. Why do you think this film is resonating the way it is?

Cord wrote a script that was a beautifully articulated adaptation of the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett. He was made for the moment. Then he had the stroke of genius to put us all together. People might think, “They’re all very independent strong players, will they work together?” He understood that people who were used to being hammers in leading positions would know, when they came together as an ensemble, how not to overdo it. That is experience. Every one of us knew how to play our part and how to also rise above any one space, because we’ve been having to do it our whole careers — stand out in small places. And Jeffrey Wright is no joke; he’s the Death Star that attracted us all.

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in “American Fiction.”
MGM

Tell me about working with this cast: Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, Leslie Uggams, Issa Rae, John Ortiz, Keith David, Adam Brody, the list just goes on.

I got to share a dressing room with the great Leslie Uggams and hear her stories. I’ve sat at the foot of the greats — Cicely Tyson, Gloria Foster, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg — and listened, didn’t say a word. What will inform me in my next role will be having worked in proximity to Leslie Uggams, because she showed me a model of the future. I say I’m the “Ghost of Christmas Future” to young people; she’s mine, and wow, the view from there is great!

What did you take away from those conversations?

What those stories told me is that [this career] is not only survivable, but she still has so much joy. She had her own TV show on CBS [“The Leslie Uggams Show,” aired in 1969 and was the second variety show to feature an African American performer] and was not being asked to do things. She had done well over time because she shifted to voiceover; she had to adapt and she was so happy to have it. There wasn’t any hollowness, like “Oh they don’t want me.”

As you speak of the greats, your production company Color Farm Media is making a documentary about Diahann Carroll, with Venus and Serena Williams as executive producers. How did that project come together?

Diahann Carroll, one of the first and best to ever do it, has never had a documentary about her — not unlike John Lewis. (Alexander and her Color Farm Media co-founder Ben Arnon produced the Emmy and NAACP Image Award-winning documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” in 2020.) So, we partnered with her daughter Suzanne Kay and Susanne Rostock, who will direct.

Suzanne Kay found a hidden diary that her mother had left for her, and the things she couldn’t talk about are in this diary. There are love letters from Sidney Poitier to her and there’s footage in the basement from parties at her home and you realize how big of a movie star she is. We’re glad that the Williams sisters come on, too. They understand what it is to be “the first” and have their family go through that. We’re looking forward to a great film about her, but also to start a tsunami, a wave of storytelling around these great masters who have not had their day.

How do you evaluate the impact of roles that you’ve played? Maxine Shaw has been credited with inspiring many young Black women to become lawyers, including Stacey Abrams. What is that like?

It’s why we need to think about value. We needed Yvette Lee Bowser to create that show, to create that character based on something she wanted to be, and then cast me to bring my flair to it. I had the hairstyle because I worked with Whoopi Goldberg [on 1990’s “The Long Walk Home”] and was inspired by “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I worked with Phylicia Rashad, who played the lawyer on “The Cosby Show,” and then the great Cicely Tyson, who has strengthen ungodly. These people poured into me and I would use those experiences to inform Maxine Shaw.

Erika Alexander, Queen Latifah, Kim Fields and Kim Coles on “Living Single”
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

And there’s young Stacey Abrams, looking at her natural hair and her dark skin, saying “Hmm.” She had it in her the entire time, but Maxine’s a model, a template. It tells her that she does exist and that it’s important that she exists, and then she goes on to help save our world. That’s a one to one [comparison], all in the same generation. It’s unreal. And all I can say is thank you.

I think about all the Wakanda kids, the Letitia Wrights, who see themselves in STEM [because of the “Black Panther” movies]. So it’s very important that I can last for the journey. Think about it: how many times did Harriet Tubman come back for us? I haven’t earned the right to be tired. The right to stop. We won’t earn it in our lifetimes. It’s just our turn to run the baton.

“Living Single” just celebrated its 30th anniversary. What is the latest on a revival?

I was the person who was most on the fence about that. I’m very associated with that character — more than the others, frankly. I put on that wig and it becomes a thing. I wanted to transcend it, to expand and grow. I thought, “Would I be even able to do it?” Now I’m rethinking it because I realize I can transcend anything. I can resurrect that character within me because it’s never been outside of me. I can grow inside of it as long as the audience is willing for it to grow. So, we’ll see.

What do you want to do next?

I would like to be the female “Pink Panther” — to use my physical comedy chops and play a new type of detective that’s fallible, and yet finds the answer anyway. I would love to do movies like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, where they a certain age and use that to tell these great film noir stories. Maybe I’ll do sketch comedy, why not?

I’ve done a lot to make sure that none of this time where it felt like I “wasn’t working” is wasted. I became larger than the scope of my opportunity. That didn’t mean that I didn’t want to be the actress that I thought I could be, but I would like to make sure that I make good on some of the promises of having a gift that I don’t think was leveraged in a full capacity — yet.

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