It would be a mistake to typecast Bianca Lawson. Best known for playing the “cool Black girl,” Lawson has embodied the mean girl in Sister, Sister, the ex-girlfriend in Save the Last Dance, and a “handmaiden” who happens to be one of the most powerful witches ever in The Vampire Diaries. But for every part coded in the script as “second choice” to the white protagonists, Lawson has given the characters the dimension their writers couldn’t or, more likely, wouldn’t. When her role as the bisexual new girl in town, Maya St. Germain, on Pretty Little Liars was unceremoniously killed off in 2013 — murdered offscreen by a stalker and carted away in a body bag — Lawson became the face of another pervasive Hollywood trope: Bury Your Gays, where LGBT characters are murdered gratuitously. Maya’s death in season two of the Freeform teen drama was season three’s major mystery, until it’s revealed that the show’s villain, A, didn’t have anything to do with it. It was a jealous man. Go figure.
Maya remained a fan favorite, the subject of theories and OTPs with the girlfriend she left behind, Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell). Lawson moved on to projects like Teen Wolf, Witches of East End, and most recently OWN’s Queen Sugar, where she plays a main role only for the second time since wrapping PLL (in 2015, she joined Thandie Newton’s Rogue for a season). No matter how big or small the part, Lawson approaches it with the kind of humble tenacity required of the job when you never know how long you have to make your mark. Fortunately for the industry and audiences alike, everyone now seems to be giving Lawson her time. Vulture spoke to the timeless/ageless actress about playing 16-year-old Maya St. Germain at 31, the impact she’s had on pop culture, and shape-shifting as a character actor.
Do you remember how you were introduced to the role of Maya St. Germain and Pretty Little Liars?
I got an audition, but the audition originally was for Hanna. I didn’t know much about Maya and then once I went through the audition process and they offered [her to me instead], I read all the books.
What did you then learn about Maya?
There was a real complexity to the Maya in the book. It’s much more specific about all of the different things that she was going through. These characters, especially because she was a younger character or younger-skewing, sometimes aren’t always fully fleshed out or super layered. But I felt something different about her from what I was expecting and what you usually read in terms of younger kids. I understood her. There was something very visceral about her and something very brave. And I kind of just, I don’t know … I loved her, you know, I cared for her.
By that point, you played your fair share of high-schoolers. What did you want to get out of playing this particular one?
I’ve always kind of thought of myself as more of a character actor. It’s not necessarily the age of a character; I’ve done so many supernatural characters that were like, 106 years old, you know what I mean? There’s something nice about Maya being at that age, and in that liminal space, for her to feel very clear about who she was and to be so unafraid to be who she was. She’s at that age where you’re so worried about what people are going to think or if it’s true about me. I like her moxie, her strength in that sense. It felt like she had a very strong sense of identity. I think right before that, I played a witch or something. With any artists it’s just, Is this something new for me to explore? Can I bring something to the table? Can they bring something to me?
Maya was the only openly bisexual person in the fictional town of Rosewood that we’re aware of at the time, and she has strict parents, yet you play her with this effortless coolness. What was your view of Maya’s life and personality in your head?
God, I wish I could go back in my notes. Sometimes when I read characters, the first time I read them, I can hear their voice. I can hear the syncopation of the way they speak. I can see how they dress. I can be very indecisive or look at all the different sides of something, when I’m trying to make up my mind about something, but I didn’t feel that about her. She’s very decisive and has this kind of fearlessness about her where she’s just sort of moving in the world who she is. She always felt cool to me.
Did you and Shay Mitchell, and maybe the writers, have conversations about what it meant to be playing two gay teens at the time?
Not to my memory. I don’t recall having that conversation. I remember the interviews I did during that time, people would say, “Oh, are you worried about it?” and I was like, “God, no.” It was a fact of the character. It was sort of like, Okay, she’s in love with this other girl and that’s the truth. It was sort of like I was playing any character regardless of their sexual orientation or the object of their love.
What did it mean to you to be portraying their relationship?
For me, it was just kind of like, she’s this human that is in love with this other human and she’s not feeling insecure about that, or uncomfortable about that. There’s something nice about — if I were younger and maybe feeling not confident about certain things, when I get to see a character that’s going through and chewing on things that I’m chewing on, and they’re unafraid, it would make me feel unafraid. I think it’s always a great thing when you can do something that maybe goes against the stereotype, and is freeing for people and you’re allowed to do it in a way that’s honest and thoughtful. After the fact, other people told me like, “Oh my gosh, this is a very big deal,” and, “This is very moving to me and important to me.” When we do things, we don’t think about the real-world effects it’s having and then people tell you these stories, and it’s like, Oh, my God. That’s the highest kind of compliment.
Maya helps Emily accept who she is, and also sort of come to terms with Alison’s death. And then she disappears and we find out she’s killed. What did you make of Maya’s death?
I didn’t know she was gonna die. I was at an audition and I ran into an actress there that was also on the show. And she was like, “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry.” I’m like, “What do you mean? I haven’t read the script.” And she was like, “Oh, my God.” Because I wasn’t in that episode, technically, so I didn’t see that script. She goes, “Oh, no one told you? I’m so sorry!” and she felt really badly about it. So, I found out when I [watched it on TV]. But I mean, it’s a tough one because in life you never know what’s gonna happen the next day; you never know how much time you have with something or anything, right? All you can do is be present with whatever it is in the moment. That’s just the nature of life in the business. I do feel that there was something really lovely about what she was able to facilitate during her life, before she disappears. [Laughs]
Up until the end of the series, fans were spinning theories that Maya could be A or she could be coming back to save the day or something like that. Did you ever have your own suspicions or theories?
No, I mean, I was hoping they wouldn’t make her A. Once it was done, it was done.
One plot point that I just find funny looking back on the show is when Maya gets sent to rehab after Emily’s mom catches her with weed. It’s so tame compared to something like Euphoria. Playing teens across three decades, how would you say teen dramas have evolved?
I think it depends on the medium and what the audience is and who the sponsors are, quite honestly. [Laughs] In a general sense, it feels like things are [leaning] a bit more [toward] what younger people are going through, real experiences versus, like, a person who’s out of touch writing their experiences. It’s just a bit more realistic to the time. There’s open dialogue now. Things are a bit more not so hidden, like, Oh, we can really talk about this.
You’re one of the few Black women my generation got to see onscreen repeatedly playing the popular girl, the new girl, the ex. The strength you’ve brought to these different women has had more of an impact for representation and visibility for Black women than you might realize. Do you see it that way?
At the time, as you do as an actor, you audition for a bunch of things, and you get the things you get, and I was happy to be working. I had my own feelings about each character, but I wasn’t looking at it through the lens of, like, I’m making a social commentary. I was playing the characters as they presented themselves to me, when I read them and about them, and what would be interesting to me about getting to play them, embodying them in a certain way. How would this be fun for me to play it or make it worth it for me to play it? And so, over time, now that the future has happened and this has become my legacy in part, it wasn’t like [it was] some master plan, but I feel very grateful. It’s a blessing that it’s had that kind of impact.
You mentioned you see yourself as a character actor. Does that term mean something different to actors of color?
Well, this is an interesting thing. When I was younger I always felt the character actor has the more interesting thing and you weren’t, like, locked into the beautiful princess person. You get to be all these different things. You get to morph and you get to shape-shift and you get to transform, as opposed to always having to play the same sort of thing all the time. But I feel like now, a lot of times in a broader sense, people of color are mostly relegated to the character on the side. What’s fantastic is that there’s more of an opportunity to be lead, you’re seeing us more as leads. Look at someone like Viola Davis: She’s a leading woman and she completely transforms. Notoriously, they’ve kind of only been relegated to character actors or the side character. So, it takes on a completely different meaning within the sort of lens of race and opportunity.
Do you see them coming across your desk? Or do you find yourself having to go out and seek those roles?
I wish I could say I see a lot of them coming across my desk, but I do see a lot of them out there and I see a lot of other actors playing them and that’s great. What I’m loving about the character I’ve been playing now for the last few seasons is I get to do all kinds of things with her. I see a lot of my fellow actors doing extraordinary things, but for me, personally, no, I’m not getting these amazing parts. [Laughs] Just being 100 with you.
Right, what is that difference like now, playing a complex character like Darla on Queen Sugar?
Oh, oh my God. I mean, it’s just … it’s our creators [Ava DuVernay] and our directors. It’s just the caliber of people involved and the talent. What’s interesting about Darla is, because we’re in our sixth season, I’m getting to almost play someone’s whole life. When we met her, she was coming out of a dark space, that kind of fight for her life and the ups and downs of that, and then the good. Now she’s in a happy place and she has a family. Getting to do all of these things, it’s almost like I’m living a second life. And when they write her and the way they edit it and everything, I feel like they love her and care for her. So, it’s a very different experience. She wasn’t a regular when I started. I thought Darla was only going to be in a couple episodes like the other characters, you know? And she stuck around.
As a series regular now, what’s it like seeing your name higher up on the billing?
You know, I’m never watching [the credits]! I will say with this character, I feel like this is the first billboard I’ve ever been on. I mean, I’ve played leads before, God, I was in so many pilots that never got made or movies that nobody saw where I was a lead. I think, for me, it’s more the names you’re associated with. You could have your name high up on the billing on something you’re not proud of, and you can have not the highest name but mixed in with all these other names that you respect and admire. The company that you’re in, for me, is a bigger deal than having my name the highest up.
A previous version of this interview incorrectly stated how Lawson found out about her character’s death and has since been corrected.