Queen Sugar’s Dawn-Lyen Gardner on the Pilot’s ‘Maury Povich Moment,’ Black-Brown Tension, and Tonight’s Pivotal Episode

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Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Queen Sugar fans know Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Charley Bordelon West, the no-nonsense businesswoman whose father dies and marriage falls apart at the same time. But what fans of OWN’s hit fall drama don’t know is that Gardner, who’s been acting for two decades, also auditioned for the role of Darla (Bianca Dawson), a recovering drug addict and Blue's mother. In an interview with Vulture, Gardner said she would have played either role: “Just meeting [Ava DuVernay] was a check off my bucket list.” DuVernay, director of the Oscar-nominated Selma, created the series, based on Natalie Baszile’s novel, upon Oprah Winfrey’s nudging.

“Ava’s been a hero of mine for a long time,” Gardner continued. “Being a black woman, being a director, being even a distributor of her own work, she's just been a hero. To get the call from her that I got a job as a series regular on her show was to literally feel, Oh, my life has changed. It was incredible. It was something beyond the project. It was something about her, about working with her: This is a right turn in my life and I can feel it.

Gardner, who also appears in four episodes of Netflix’s Luke Cage, graduated from the Juilliard School in 2003, where she studied and became friends with Rutina Wesley, who plays her sister on Queen Sugar. Gardner spoke with Vulture about Charley’s pivotal sixth episode, what it was like working with only female directors on the series, and how the show mirrors her own life.

Do you consider this to be your big break?
I think I do. It's definitely been an unexpected path that I've been on. When I graduated school, I very much wanted to try everything. Julliard was a wide training field, and you really get prepped to be able to transform and apply all of these skills to any medium. So I said to myself, I'm just going to try everything and anything, and that's what I did. I went into theater but I also did a lot of voice-over. I did some film, did TV. I even did children's theater. I stuck through the learning curve of some of it — things like voice-over, you really have to be in the booth for like a year before you get used to being in front of a mic. Even theater, if you don't stick it out, you don't get the high of being in front of a live audience and really feeling like you know how to own a stage and work in that medium in a collaborative and intentional way. Even as I was trying everything, I was still being pretty selective about the kinds of projects I was working on in each medium, and I did find myself leaning into projects that were having a conversation about culture or having a conversation about difference or about having a conversation about otherness. So Queen Sugar is the master culmination of so many things in terms of it being a project that is having those social conversations in a way that is beautifully human, and masterful artistically. Ava is a visionary. She's almost something of an auteur at this point. She's a lover of the medium, but she's so committed to story and these conversations and it feels like a synthesis of everything I've really wanted in a project.

Did you have a preference in whether you played Charley or Darla?
I fell in love with both of those women. I really did, and for completely different reasons. With Darla, I fell in love with the moment she's in. I fell in love with her heroism, you know? Especially in that first episode, which is the only episode that I read, she is so heroic to me in summoning up the courage to confront Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) about wanting to see Blue, even in the midst of the craziness of the family. You really just feel for Ralph Angel in that scene — it’s not the time to be talking about this. But it's the time for her. I found it so beautiful, so overwhelmingly beautiful because it's a very sensitive moment for someone who is fighting the stigma of being an addict and trying to prove to herself that she can be in the world. My heart opened reading that scene, and I fell in love with her in that moment.

Charley, I fell in love with her journey. It was a totally different kind of love. When we meet her, she is really on top in every way, and she values that. She has defined herself by being in control and making sure that her life looks a certain way. And by the time that first episode is over, she's in the underworld. I was so excited for where she was going. I was so excited for everything happening after episode one [laughs]. From that point, you could take her anywhere, but I felt strongly that she had to go down into the underworld first. She has to confront herself and confront some demons, and as we’ve seen in this season so far, she has to confront her denial. To not see all of what is revealed up until this point for that long takes an incredibly strong, willful denial. And we have to see her deal with that and not do it lightly. As the season went on, and as I played her for five months, I fell in love with her absolute confidence in her own ability, in her refusal to be defeated by circumstance or to be a victim to something. I learned so much in literally saying her words and going through her emotional life. It was like my own education.

Did you know when you were cast that Ava DuVernay was only hiring female directors?
No, I had no idea. Christmas kept unfolding on this show. It was literally everything I have dreamed of and wanted in terms of the content, but then bringing on a slate of all women directors who are all very different, had completely different approaches and styles, and were all in their own way an education too. Ava really walked her talk. She does not just talk about inclusion. She really does live it. She institutes it on her sets. The first couple days of shooting I remember so distinctly. Being in L.A. and seeing more women on a set than I've ever seen on a set combined in my life. It was that profound of a paradigm shift, and that paradigm shift continued through the whole season. You don't even realize that the previous paradigm is so strong until that shift is happening and you're so aware of it because it's so new. It's hard to find words to describe it. 

In episode six, “As Promised,” Charley learns what her husband really did and her role in all of it. Tanya Hamilton directed that episode. What was it like to film it?
I feel like I could write an essay for each director on what I learned. It is so extraordinary. With Tanya, it’s like this quiet power she has. It's almost deceptive because it's so gentle and so incredibly respectful. I felt so honored and constantly consulted. We met for two to three hours before shooting even started and it was just to connect. That kind of move, that kind of willingness, I was just blown away. She heard everything that I had been constructing up until that point with Charley and what I was after episode six. There were some very important things I wanted to make sure were in the storytelling with Charley, and she honored all of that. It was such a lesson in trusting your style and your intention, trusting your skill, trusting your talent, and empowering your actors to fully bring what they want and what they have to give. 

What were some of those things that were important to you in that episode?
I remember reading this episode and being shocked. I remember sitting there for a few minutes in silence after I read it and then I just started sobbing. I called Ava and told her I needed to talk because I had a really hard time forgiving Charley because, in my view, at that moment, she was a participant. You can call it ego drive, or you can call it something else, but in that constant pursuit of success and of being a team-maker and really creating this brand, it blinded her. I was so horrified. Unknowingly, she had manufactured a way for these people who are guilty to not have to deal with that. Even though it was not her fault, she would not knowingly do that, it was a moment of realization: Wow, we really do protect these superstars, don't we? We don't want to see our hero fall.  It was a hard social moment for me when I read that. But then in talking to Ava, I realized that Charley’s now in the dirt with everybody else. Nova has used the bail money and sort of stole it. Ralph Angel was doing some real suspect stuff, and in essence, he was stealing, too. At the end of episode six, she's in the dirt with everybody else and no one knows it but her. She can't even really talk about it. She can't expose it. There's nothing glamorous about it anymore. There's nothing flashy and attractive. It's just her in the dirt by herself and having to confront that she can't run anymore. So for me, it was important that the moment at the end contained that horror. It wasn't just the shock and the betrayal and the pain. It was the horror of what she had participated in and what could not be undone. 

It was crushing to see her come to that, just like the scene in the pilot at the basketball game.
Reading that scene the first time, I remember seeing exactly the words on the page. Ava had written in capital letters “And she steps onto the court,” and I'd been like screaming like, Oh my God, reading the script. In the audience, the extras were there. They had no idea what was coming. Once we did it a few times they got it, but the first time they were in shock and they were just like a regular audience. They had no idea what was going on and so there was this feeling that it was like a Maury Povich moment. The way that Ava caught it and the way she cut it and the way she treated it was with so much love and so much dignity and so much respect for the pain.

The show doles out information in a very subtle way. In last week’s episode, we learned something super-important about Charley — she has a different mother.
There is such a tender way that information is coming out. All these questions that we had, even as the cast playing these characters, it was such a familiar way that things are being revealed. Nova is the oldest, Charley's one to two years behind her. Then Ralph Angel is ten years younger than Charley. So, for a long time in the summers, it was just Nova and Charley and they were very, very close. That's the backstory. Charley was not in Louisiana with the rest of the family so they were essentially only children, except when they were together, so there was an extremely close sisterhood and bond. That's what you're watching during these explosive fights between the two of them — this desire for that closeness again. In a more self-aware world, they would just sit down and say, I love you and I miss you and I don’t know how to get back to you.

You mentioned that you look for projects that have something to say socially, or that speak to you in that way. That's one of the things about the show that's been remarkable. We’re watching the story of this particular family but it’s packed with societal and cultural conversation, too.
For me, the show feels like my life. It feels as dynamic and as culturally inclusive and as deep and as rich and as conflicted as my life feels. That's what I'm processing almost every day. I'm processing my politics. I'm processing my family pain. I'm processing the cultural places I rub up against and don't understand. I'm processing my financial life. I'm processing the things that I still want and dream about and aspire toward professionally. It's not like they go one by one. Often times they're right on top of each other and they're very related. Sometimes with issue-driven material, there's that risk of it being a little PSA-like and didactic. But this just felt true. What I know as a black woman in 2016 is that these are the conversations I'm having with my family. These are the conversations I'm having with my friends and my community, and it's not just because I'm a certain kind of socially conscious black person. It's because these are the conversations that are necessary to who I am and necessary to me understanding what's happening in the world. When I watch it, I feel like we're sharing these intimate nuances of black life and black family life that then allow people to actually access a universal space where it becomes not about black family life, but about family. It becomes about humans who are searching and seeking to redefine themselves and who are doing it in very messy ways. That's what humans do. So there's something I feel about this that I've never felt about a project before. It feels like an offering of what I know to be true, what I know to be present in black culture, which is all of this beauty.

In tonight’s episode, “Next to Nothing,” the Bordelons have to face the fact that they didn’t even know the names of the migrant workers who were killed on their land. What was it like to film that? Charley took it especially hard.
I'm so proud of that episode. I feel that that story of the migrant farm workers is a story that we really do not want to see and look at and investigate and embrace. We, as a society, take for granted the way we get things and the way that we have things. And we're not really present to who's doing the work that allows us to have the things we have. What are those people's stories and lives? And when are going to hear that? I was proud because Nova in the third episode talks about seeing the workers on Landry's land when we first arrive and she says, "It's just like replacing black with brown." And then six episodes later, here we come. I think there's something about being a black family who's employing them on this land, that has the kind of history that it has, and becoming present to something that feels familiar — an oppressed people who are in an extremely vulnerable state, who we possibly made more vulnerable. Charley has to again confront herself even more deeply and examine that they were men with lives and dignity. To be really honest, and to be really specific for me as an L.A. native, there's been a lot of black-brown tension in the last 15 to 20 years that has a lot to do with so many things politically and socially, especially in an urban environment. For me, seeing a black family honor and really see and feel the plight of their brown brothers was profoundly moving.

This interview has been edited and condensed.