Queen Sugar’s Dawn-Lyen Gardner on How Playing a Biracial Woman Informs Her Acting Choices

Photo: Kyle Dorosz/Vulture

The second season of Queen Sugar, which returned with a two-part midseason finale this week, has many pleasures — chief among them is the equal parts tender and steely performance by Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Charley Bordelon. The midseason premiere finds Charley in a very complex position. Her divorce has now gone public, her mother has shown up uninvited, and she’s still struggling to define herself on her own terms in a community that is still somewhat foreign to her. Vulture spoke with Gardner about biracial identity, working with director Julie Dash, and why Charley’s story means so much to her personally.

Charley gets a lot of development in the two-part midseason premiere. The episode opens with her divorce having now gone public. Now she can truly define her life on her own terms in public and in private. Can you talk about where she is as a person and what she wants from her life now?
There is a nakedness she feels that she’s never felt before. A lot of the fights in the first part of the season were about that and her confronting that. And that hair change was a signal and embrace of that. There is a freedom that happens in that nakedness, but as soon as she steps into this new territory her mom shows up. [Laughs.] She in some ways epitomizes why she’s created the identity that she’s created thus far. I found these two episodes to be very critical in terms of what makes her tick and why she is the way that she is.

Part of what I’ve been walking with from the very beginning has been the sense of fracture underneath all of the perfection, the structures of invincibility she’s built up over her life. What was most interesting is what happens when those structures crumble. What are they protecting? Why did she build them up in the first place? What was so difficult for her to face?

Her relationship with her mother, Lorna, played by Sharon Lawrence, is really fascinating because I don’t think we get a lot of meaty mother-daughter dynamics on TV. Also the reveal that her mother is white clicks a lot of things into place for Charley. Could you discuss how Charley’s mother being white affects the story and your own understanding of her character?
What’s interesting is I have had this information from the very beginning. So it’s fascinating and somewhat fun and somewhat scary to know that people are encountering this for the first time. I’ve been moving with this for a year and a half. Every decision I’ve made, every character choice has taken that into consideration in a big way. It’s impacted huge character choices. Just no one knew it but me and Ava [DuVernay]. [Laughs.] And the family knew, too. I feel we’re inviting it into the conversation around blackness and black folk. There’s so many conversations this show takes on when it comes to communities of color, when it comes to even just African-American identity. This is one that is really tricky. As someone who is biracial myself [Editor’s note: Gardner is half-black and half-Chinese] the feeling is like, this is a part of us, too, this complicated experience is a part of blackness, too. I found myself feeling more vulnerable as I’ve talked about this part of the season. It’s complicated because I’ve had that moment with my mom. There is a space she cannot understand. And it is a pretty large space. I’ve heard her say back to me, “That may be true but I’m still your mother and I feel all the pain you feel just because I’m your mother.” So it’s a very specific thing to unpack.

As well as feeling othered on both sides of my family, part of Charley’s experience has been one of the keys of how I built her. In terms of her need to prove, in terms of her desire for acceptance, in terms of her deep, deep need for belonging. That last one has been key in her confronting her relationship with the community of black farmers and how she relates to her family. Even her choice to become a mother so early. For me, part of that was so that she could belong to someone.

I was sort of amazed when I read the script. The writer of the episode [Jason Wilborn] didn’t talk to me about it. He has biracial kids. He said, “I just wanted to write something that could speak to them, that could be out there for them, that would be telling some part of their story so they could be understood.” I was amazed he got that pretty right. At the same time, as complicated as their relationship is, at the end of the day they are just a mother and a daughter. At the end of the day, she can comfort her and provide solace for her because her child is hurting and because her child’s child is hurting. There is a universal truth in there that really does go beyond race.

I thought that moment where Charley says to her mom, about Micah, “I didn’t prepare him for living in the South” was really powerful, as was her discussion about her upbringing. I personally figured that Charley was half-white, simply because my mother is actually half-white and from rural Louisiana as well.

We’re from Iberia Parish. The town specifically is called Loreauville. This is also why I love this show — I’ve never been able to see that. I see so much of my mom in Charley. Also, personally, I have a multicultural background. My father is Dominican, and at times I’ve had that feeling of not being a part of either world and feeling very lonely, and my mom not getting certain things about me being Latina, and me not getting how she feels being half-white. Those scenes with Charley and her mother really beautifully capture the complexity of that. I thought it was really smart that they weren’t wholly antagonistic toward each other. It was just miscommunication and not really being fully there for each other. Can you discuss what it was like filming those scenes and crafting this very complex relationship with the actress Sharon Lawrence?
I have to thank [Sharon]. It almost makes me want to cry just thinking about working with her because it was the other half of the equation. She was absolutely down from the moment we met to go to every single place I wanted to go. She was so committed to really getting to the truth of that relationship and to not shying away from how messy it is, how hard to acknowledge and name it. We had extremely intimate conversations around their history, around why this story line matters and what it means to both of us. It was one of the most beautiful working relationships I’ve ever had.

There were also a lot of conversations with the writers. It was a lot between the three of us once we were all together and she was on set. Again, it was Ava who was very clear and wanted to make sure that, at the end of the day, what we’re seeing are mother-daughter dynamics everyone can relate with. [She made it clear] that their relationship is not dominated by race, it’s dominated by the need for approval and the need to guide and shape your daughter. All the things that mothers and daughters deal with and go through.

One of the things I really appreciated with the midseason premiere was the directing, which was done by a personal favorite of mine, Julie Dash, who directed Daughters of the Dust. She’s had such an immense impact on black independent filmmaking. How was it working with her?
Julie is a legend walking. You wouldn’t know it from meeting her. She does not carry any of that into her work. There’s no entitlement. It is such a beautiful creative process, and she’s a visual poet. There’s a sacred space that she nurtures, and it creates a very safe environment.

I remember watching that film [Daughters of the Dust] for the first time and my life changed. There were light bulbs that went off. This space belongs to us, too. Look at how beautiful and how layered and how dimensional and how worthy of exploration we are. I remember the experience of — and this is how it felt with the women directors, too — knowing intellectually you’re not in this space. You know that you haven’t been invited to that table. You know you want to be. You know you want to see yourself there. You deeply desire it. It’s only when that happens that you actually feel how painful it was to not have been there. You fully feel it. For the first time, you’re in the room. For the first time, you are a part of that conversation. It hits how deeply fracturing it was not have been up until that moment. To be working with her in this capacity — on this project, which is in some ways an extension of Daughters of the Dust — was a full circle moment in a lot of ways. I just will never, ever forget it. It’s moving to be in the same space as her, to have the same experience with her, to acknowledge who she has been for such a long time and continues to be. She’s blessed the project.

One thing you brought up just now — and I think it actually describes Charley personally and as a business woman — is being invited to the table and being seen. The black farmers have not always fully trusted her in the past, especially since she’s seen as an outsider in many ways. White people in power, like Samuel Landry, routinely doubt her even though she’s obviously a business powerhouse and is incredibly intelligent. How do you feel about this aspect of Charley’s life, and what can fans expect for her professional life going forward?
What people can expect with her going forward professionally is that it only gets more interesting. I can say that with confidence because we’ve now shot the finale. This is not her home turf. It’s not L.A. It’s not the kind of wheeling and dealing she’s used to. She’s very much a fish out of water. This is millions of dollars of big industry in the South. That’s a whole other boys club, and she has no real-time experience measuring that. It’s fascinating to see her so confident, and rightly so. She can do anything she wants, clearly. This is a woman who, if she puts her mind to it, can navigate any world. She has that assumption about herself, and not in any arrogant way. She has chosen to use it in her way to fight for economic justice for a community that’s been exploited, and that’s a very noble way to use those gifts and talents. I think she, in all of that confidence, underestimates to a degree just how unprepared she may be.

She has to do a lot of course correction because of that. It’s such a dramatic shift in power and in position with her professional life.
Up until this point we’ve seen this superwoman. She’s definitely not all superhero. What’s exciting about this new business moment is we’re going to see her maybe discovering powers she didn’t know she has. We’re going to see her rise to her next level of her superhero-dom, or not. That to me is where she becomes truly human, where we have to question: How capable is she? We have to walk with her through all of those assumptions, through that maybe rude awakening, through her own vulnerability in this area of her life, which has never really been in question.

I feel like it’s only deepening the conversation we’re in around this area of the world, around black folks being in spaces we’re not “supposed to be” or “expected to be,” and what does that really mean, and what are the things we face, and what are the ways we face them to get through that experience?

Let’s talk about the friendship between Charley and Darla, played by Bianca Lawson. She seems to really look up to her, which is a fascinating dynamic. There’s a beautiful moment between you two when she’s going wedding-dress shopping, and Charley opens up about her own wedding. Could you talk a little bit about the vulnerability Charley shows with Darla, and her connections with other black women on the show?
I truly love that relationship. I love the journey of it this season, and I love that wedding-dress-shopping scene because you see these two women who really — at least I would say, if we had to name it class-wise – are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. They’re mirrors for each other in a lot of ways, and I don’t think they realized it until this conversation. They’re both mothers of boys. They both got pregnant before they got married. That happened in college for both of them. That is for all intents and purposes a secret for Charley that’s not publicly known. It’s not something she would share with most anyone, except for likely Nova and Violet. In this moment, they see themselves in each other, in terms of their relationships with their parents. That the desire for acceptance is very real for both of them. It’s such a tender experience for this woman Darla admires, and I think in some ways was on the path to becoming. To have this woman look at her and say, “I see you, and in some ways I am you, and you matter, even if your family doesn’t see you” is profound. It is representative of really the cross-section of black folks in this country.

I know, for me, my family is just like the Bordelons. It has the range of everyone in my family. The feeling across my family is, “We’re all in the same family, and no matter where any of us go, no matter what happens to us, we speak to each other. That’s the most important thing.” For a lot of us it’s complicated in terms of class and different life experiences and different points of view. Where we’re standing in life, it’s sometimes hard to know what the other’s experience is. At the end of the day, we are in each other’s worlds. How do we make space for each other to make authentic contact and see ourselves in each other? It goes beyond the black community. We start talking about our country, and we’re in that same conversation. How do we see each other?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Dawn-Lyen Gardner on Playing a Biracial Woman on Queen Sugar