Spoilers ahead of season two of Dear White People.
Dear White People star Logan Browning admits there were times that the first season’s backlash toward her character Samantha White got the better of her. Winchester University’s political activist/radio host spoke truth to power and wasn’t afraid to be a catalyst, but some viewers didn’t think a biracial woman was the best person for that job. Others simply didn’t think Browning was the right person to play Sam.
Browning, 28, says she learned to use the criticism to her advantage.“There have been people who said they don’t like my portrayal of Sam, which means they don’t like my performance,” she told Vulture during a phone interview. “Sometimes I take it as, you can be the sweetest peach in the bunch, and there’s still someone who won’t like peaches. But at the same time, if I’m not resonating with a large amount of people, then I try to ask myself, “Am I being as truthful as possible?’”
Remembering that question helped her when she started working on the second season, which was released on Netflix on Friday. “It’s just a good challenge for me,” she said. “It is part of what makes me do better every time I get on a set. I’m not trying to appease anybody but my character’s truth. I want to try to continue to reach more people. That’s why I do this. If you’re looking at my performance and not my character, then sometimes I feel like I’m doing you a disservice.”
In the second season, viewers see a different side of Sam. Recovering after her breakup with Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) and facing even more online animosity, Sam is forced to look within in a more profound way. Browning spoke to Vulture about Sam’s journey and that very confusing finale.
Last season, some of Dear White People’s fans complained about Sam. Her outspokenness was a turn-off for some. In season two, we get to know Sam on a deeper, personal level. Do you think it might bring some people around?
That’s what I kind of hoped. It made me sad when people were so against Sam because of her outspokenness. I didn’t understand why this young black woman being so outspoken was such an offense to people. Or that this young, biracial woman speaking out about injustice in the black community was such an offense. So it was a desire of mine in season two that we show a lot of her humanity and her true identity in terms of her parents, and how she was raised. Oftentimes, we dehumanize the people in the public eye in real life. I wanted to give this particular character an opportunity to be empathized with.
By the end of the season, did you feel that it had accomplished that?
To be honest, it could go either way. It can make people love her more. It can make people go, “I was right. This is exactly what I meant.” Those responses don’t necessarily matter as much to me as getting the opportunity to share the story that we did. I used the comments from season one to cultivate some of what I desired for season two. But at the end of the day, that’s how you make art. You take opinion and then you create more opinion and voice with it. It doesn’t necessarily matter to me now at this point how that is received, because I feel like, I gave you something, you gave me a response, and now I’ve given you my final statement about it. I don’t feel compelled to continue to try to make people like Sam. Not every character is meant to be liked. And sometimes I wonder if was that a faux pas on my part to want people to like Sam. I’ve played many a character that people do not like, and it’s usually fun for me. I wonder sometimes, if it’s because Sam is so similar to me that it bothered my ego that people didn’t like her.
In what ways are you similar?
In a very general sense. Not necessarily how we are, but who we are. We both went to predominantly white institutions and have no problem being a voice. And we do have difficulty navigating white and black friendships. And feeling like sometimes you’re stuck in the middle or feeling like you’re forced to choose a side. So in that way, I relate to her. And I can see myself in her. We’re not the same person by any means, but, still, those comments sometimes make it difficult to separate and go, “That’s the character. It’s not the person.”
I feel like people need to also remember the context. Sam is in college. That’s the time of life where we make mistakes, and figure out who we are. No one has the answers then.
Absolutely. I mean, I’m not in college. I’m out of college. And I still don’t have all the answers. No one told me that I would not have all the answers after school. Like that’s why you go to school, right? To figure life out. And then you’re set. No. That’s not what happens.
This season, Sam has to face alt-right trolls on social media. You’re active on social media, too. Do you ever fall into the trap of wanting to respond, the way Sam does?
Not necessarily. Our creator Justin Simien really relates to that. And the reason being is he’s funny. He knows how to respond in intelligent and satirical ways. And that’s what Sam is. Sam knows she is good at clapping back. She knows she’s got a knack for it. And I guess I kind of do, but I also, personally, am hesitant to ever say the wrong thing. [Laughs.] Because, you know, Samantha’s a character. Everything she loses is fiction. I’m a real person and if I say something that isn’t received properly, I could lose everything. So I’m very cognizant of not trying to clap back at trolls. I will, on occasion, partake in a discussion. Especially if I feel like someone has brought something to my attention that I may not have thought of, something that changes my way of thinking. Those conversations are fun for me.
The storyline is so true to modern life in current times, I wondered if it sometimes felt too real to be fun-to-play for you?
It’s interesting: when we’re actually filming it, I don’t feel overwhelmed like that because our set is such a fun place to be. And to be honest, when we’re not filming, we’re cutting up; we’re all such goofballs. We’re hilariously a mess together. So, I don’t ever feel like it’s overwhelmingly heavy. When I watch the show and everything is cut together and I’m emotionally invested in these characters, things are different. Because we are inundated with so much negativity constantly, I appreciate that Dear White People addresses a lot of the issues, but it’s still funny. It’s giving you a place to escape to and not feel overwhelmed by the 24-hour news cycle. It’s refreshing. I don’t think it overwhelms me. Maybe moment-to-moment, when we’re actually doing those scenes, it is taxing, but overall I love going to work.
There’s also a lot of heartbreak for Sam this season. She’s dealing with the breakup with Gabe. And then, of course, the really sad turn of events with her father. What was it like for you to film that episode where she goes back home because her father has passed away?
Very difficult. Very, very difficult because I lost my father not too long ago.
Oh, no. I’m so sorry.
Talking about ways that Sam is similar to me, that was just too close to home. Like Sam, I had an amazing dad, and not everybody can say that. Regardless of how people treat her because of her not acknowledging her whiteness, Sam loves her dad, and the episodes this season really force Sam to accept that part of her — to not push it away, because she did, and now it’s gone. And that’s sad. I know she loved her dad. She had an amazing upbringing. The last time she called her dad she was hanging up with him on FaceTime, so it was also difficult. Two of our writers co-wrote that episode, Nastaran Dibai and Yvette Lee Bowser, and they both had experienced similar losses. And that letter that I read, that eulogy, was something that Nastaran’s husband had left her, so for them it was very therapeutic and cathartic and emotional.
Let’s talk about the eighth episode, which read like a play between you and John Patrick Amedori, and brought up a lot of deep topics. Tell me about making it. How long did you work on that? Your scene took up almost the whole episode.
The actual filming of it was so incredibly rewarding. We knew we were going to film this episode in three days, which is not as long as we film any other episode. It’s a short amount of time to film an episode. So John Patrick and I worked so much together, and we discussed a lot of the topics that we bring up — how we felt about it, how we think the characters feel about it, and then we went in on a day off with Jack Moore, the writer, and Justin Simien, who directed the episode. And, we all blocked it so that when we got to start filming on those three days, we knew exactly what story we were telling. Usually, you don’t block an entire episode. You block a few scenes a couple of minutes before you shoot it. Like you said, it was like a play, and that was so much fun. I said so many times I wanted to do a play, and I got it.
There was a part of it that was shot as one long take.
Yes, that part where I leave the radio booth and [that] ends when Sam tells Gabe about the email she got. That was a long, one-take shot. Justin just wanted it to flow. And for an actor it’s terrifying because it means you don’t cut. The concept is that you just use this one take. You have to be so committed, and so in the moment, not worrying about if you mess up a line because we’re still going.
That bonded the entire crew because the moving parts it requires to do a long take like that is unbelievable. You’ve got your boom operator running behind the cameraman. You’ve got a guy with a bounce light running beside the cameraman. The cameraman is going backwards and he’s got someone pulling him making sure he doesn’t trip on anything. You’ve got your guy who’s pulling focus hiding on the stairs while I walk up. So, while it appears that it’s just me and John Patrick in this space, there are so many people running around with us.
Was it hard to remember all your lines? The scene is almost the entire episode.
It’s weird. It wasn’t. And the strange part is the fact that John Patrick and I literally could just sit and do the entire episode for you sitting across from each other. I don’t know how that was possible but we did it. Before we shot that one long take, we had to perform it for the crew. They had to see exactly where we were going multiple times. So, we did this probably four times for them. If you can picture the radio station, there’s a wall of records opposite the radio booth. They all were standing right there as our audience, and just watched us go through the radio station on this little tear. Half the lights were on, half the lights were off. I’ll never forget it. We were really giving them a performance, and I think we were going at it even harder than we did on camera because you don’t have to worry about a camera being in your face, and what your face looks like. We were just performing. It’s why theater is so great — it exists, and either you were there or you weren’t. Luckily, there was a camera to record some of this so people can enjoy it.
It’s a powerful episode. They go into their relationship a lot, but Gabe also tells her what people think — that her show escalates tensions. And she goes into how he’s got a savior complex and whether white people should be leading conversations about racism. What did you think of their conversation?
Their particular relationship makes it difficult for Sam to see that Gabe is just trying to be an ally. But in the same breath, I think it’s important for anyone who wants to be a white ally to understand that when they get all of the attention for speaking up about something, not to forget to pay homage to the people of color who have been doing it who have not been listened to. Everyone wants to hear a message from someone more palatable. That’s partly, I would imagine, why a show like Dear White People is able to be honest, to transcend different audiences. You take a person who looks like a Sam, she’s somewhere in the middle, and so, she is, frankly, somewhat more palatable for some people. So, some people are able to see their likeness in her in a way that makes them comfortable, or in a way that’s less offensive [than] if it were coming from a darker-skinned black woman. That’s something Sam has to acknowledge, but that’s also something she wants Gabe to acknowledge. It’s literally what Coco says to Sam in season one — you get away with saying the things you do because you look more like them. That’s what Sam is trying to get across to Gabe, but at the same time, you don’t want to scare away your allies who aren’t black. Like, you want everyone to fight for injustice so it’s a slippery slope.
Talking about slippery slopes, I found the finale interesting but very confusing.
[Laughs.] Girl, we were confused reading it. Child, I’m sure they were confused writing it. They spit that finale out so fast.
The whole thing with the Order of X, and secret societies, and the investigation Sam and Lionel go on.
It comes out of nowhere!
And then, spoiler alert, Giancarlo Esposito walks in the room. The show’s narrator in flesh and blood!
Surprise! You never know with Dear White People.
Clear something up for me. The first time I watched it, I wasn’t sure when Giancarlo Esposito walks in, if Sam and Lionel can see him. Is he visible only to the audience? It felt like he was talking to the audience and they didn’t seem surprised.
Well, that’s the thing. We turn around ‘cause we hear a voice and then it’s funny that you say it feels like he’s talking to the audience, ‘cause I’ve heard someone say that he is talking to the audience. Like, I hope you’ve been watching closely. And so, in the beginning, they don’t hear him necessarily, because he’s still talking to the audience. He’s still just the narrator of these players. But, that moment when they turn around, that’s when the shift happens.
That’s when he materializes for them, and it’s just one of those moments of, you know, he’s the one. It’s his episode. He’s the one who breaks the fourth wall. He’s the one who’s got a message for the audience. Like, All of the stuff I’ve been saying has not been just to narrate these stories. I’ve been trying to teach and guide you.
And so who knows what it means for the future.
So who is he?
The big question, right? Why have you been voicing over our lives, and now you’re here? So scary, it’s weird.
And, of course, it happens in the bell tower.
I know! I love it. My favorite genre is sci-fi, and I like black Harry Potter shit. The fact that our show gets to be quirky and breaks its own rules, that makes me so happy.
What was the table read for this episode like?
They’re always a laugh. But this one, to be honest, just like you said, was confusing — because all the Order of X stuff had to be wrapped up in this episode, you know? They hinted Order of X throughout the season. But you’re like, “What is it? Why is it happening? Where is it going?” It felt like there was a lot of exposition put on Sam and Lionel, in terms of getting everybody to the point of, “Surprise, here’s Giancarlo, the narrator!” So that’s kind of what the table read was like. Everybody being like, Okay, so, let me just be clear, this is what Order of X is.
Was Giancarlo there?
I can’t remember. No, I don’t think he was there. He’s never at our table read. It’s actually Justin, and it’s so funny, because Justin’s voice is the perfect narrator, so he reads it exactly as Giancarlo does. He does the temp before Giancarlo does his voice-over. So he has Justin’s idea of how he wants it to be portrayed.
Do you believe Sam when she said that she’s done with Dear White People?
I forgot she said that. [Laughs.] I mean, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t think she can be done having a presence and a voice on campus. It could turn into something else for her. I do think Rikki Carter terrified her. I hadn’t thought about that. If Sam is not doing the radio show, what’s she doing? I guess she could try a different medium, a whole new platform.