Guest of Honor

‘Chi-Raq’ Star Teyonah Parris: ‘I Had No Clue Whether This Would Work’

The actor chats about studying women like Michelle Obama and Angela Davis to embody Lysistrata, and about not talking about her hair for once.

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(Photo Credit: Ben Miller)
(Photo Credit: Ben Miller)

Teyonah Parris made her breakthrough playing the first black employee of Sterling Cooper on the hit TV show “Mad Men.” And her latest starring role is in Spike Lee’s acclaimed film “Chi-Raq.”

It’s a satirical musical drama about gang violence on the South Side of Chicago. And it’s based on the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” in which women withhold sex from their husbands as punishment for fighting. Even some of the dialogue is in Greek-poem-style rhyme. Here’s a clip:

When Brendan met with Teyonah, he asked if, once she heard about the movie, she thought she could pull it off.

 

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Teyonah Parris: You know, I will be very honest. I had no clue whether this would work.

When you look at that film on paper, it is very hard to imagine what this translates to, cinematically. I’d never seen anything like it. I don’t think anything like that’s ever been done. Even within Spike’s own canon of work. So, yeah, I was not… I wasn’t confident. I was just… I didn’t know. I did not know whether it would work.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You are not from the South Side of Chicago. You’re from Hopkins, South Carolina.

Teyonah Parris: Yup. Hopkins! [Laughs.]

Brendan Francis Newnam: Which is pretty far away from the South Side of Chicago, right? It’s like a suburb of Columbia? Or is it further than that?

Teyonah Parris: No, it’s, it’s a part of Columbia. It’s like saying you’re from Harlem. It’s a part of Columbia.

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK. The greater metro Columbia area. How did you get… basically, it feels far from Chicago South Side to me.

Teyonah Parris: Yeah it is. What I did to study and get into the character of Lysistrata, I studied women — particularly women of color — who are powerful and are or were huge parts of movements in their time.

Michelle Obama, was certainly one. And she’s also from the South Side of Chicago. Angela Davis. And then, I also just studied what was happening in Chicago. I got to speak with mothers who were there. Community members who were there.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So it sounds like there was an immersion for you when you were there.

Teyonah Parris: Absolutely. We shot the entire thing on the South Side of Chicago. The community was so welcoming of us. We were on the streets, right there. They would gather around and as we would walk by, they would be like, “Thank you. We really appreciate you guys being here. Because this needs to get out.”

So, I felt nothing but love. And nothing but people willing to share their stories. Because, they’re hurt. They’re desperate. They want someone, whom they trust — Spike — to come in and be a voice for them.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You are a trained actor. You went to school at Julliard. So, I’m assuming, getting a good role regardless of what the story about is exciting, especially when it’s the lead role. But is part of the reason you were attracted to this role is because it took on a serious topic, like inner city violence?

Teyonah Parris: What I want to do with my art and with the talent God has given me is to illuminate issues in my community. To be a voice and a representation of the different aspects of the African diaspora, of what happens in our community.

So this is very… “Chi-Raq” was very much in line with who I am as an artist. And what I strive to be. So, it was certainly a blessing. I did a film, which is actually the film Spike saw me in, called “Dear White People.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: We had the director on our show.

Teyonah Parris: Yes, Justin Simien.

Brendan Francis Newnam: He’s fantastic.

Teyonah Parris: He is amazing. That’s another film that got a lot of… had a lot of talk about it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Started a lot of conversations.

Teyonah Parris: It started a lot of conversations. I enjoy being a part of stories like that. I think that’s what… what else would I do? What does anybody else wanna do? I don’t know.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, “Dear White People” is also a satire, centering around a group of African-Americans — in that case college students — kind of figuring out their identity.

And the conversations we were just referring to that happened around both these movies, kind of came up primarily in the black community. Some folks didn’t like how these two directors, both of whom were black, were portraying their community.

Teyonah Parris: I think that our stories, as African-Americans, so often get only one or two narratives. And to have someone like Justin Simien or Spike Lee come in and show, or offer, multiple…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Or just make more complex.

Teyonah Parris: Hello? More complex, nuanced, representations of what it is to be an African-American in today’s time. Not a 100 years ago, not 1,000 years ago, but today, I think is so special. And people aren’t quite used to it, I guess.

And so, I’m glad that it’s happening more and more. And people can begin to see just different versions of who we are as human beings It’s not one or two…. you don’t fall in A or B category as a black person. Just like, there are so many other sub-categories for every other race we have the same.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You were also in, the not very black “Mad Men”…

Teyonah Parris: Not at all [Laughs.]

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC)
(Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC)

Brendan Francis Newnam: But you did play the first black employee at Sterling Cooper. And that was a big break for you. That’s what launched your career. Now you’re in this. But what do your parents… how do they deal with your success? Do they have an acting background?

Teyonah Parris: No, my mom is an administrative assistant at a hospital. And my dad is an electrician at a big plant. So they’re not at all in the acting or entertainment world. And both of my brothers are military.

Brendan Francis Newnam: How do they feel about you going to Julliard?

Teyonah Parris: Honestly, I don’t even know that my brothers realize I went to Julliard. I don’t think they’ve seen anything I’ve done.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What?!? No!

Teyonah Parris: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s ridiculous.

Teyonah Parris: No, it’s just… that’s not their world. I mean, I’m exaggerating, but not really.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Right. They’re just living their own lives.

Teyonah Parris: This is the thing: My older brother called me one day, he was like, “T!” I go, “What?” He was like, “I’m watching this movie and you’re in it!” I said, “Well, what is it?” He said, “‘Dear White People.’ I think.”

“That was only the biggest thing that had happened to me this year. Yes! I’m in that.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow.

Teyonah Parris: They’re very supportive.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What did they think about “Chi-Raq”? There’s some pretty racy scenes in there.

Teyonah Parris: Oh yeah. My mom loved it [laughs]. My dad… he was really good about it. He said, “You know, this is, your job. You’re grown. At the end of the day, if you’re comfortable and happy and can live with the choices you’ve made, then I support you.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: He’s like, “But I think your clothes are a little small. You should talk to the costume designer.”

Teyonah Parris: Oh well, you know. He did have to deal with me when I was in middle and high school, so…

Brendan Francis Newnam: He’s already been through the real thing.

Teyonah Parris: Exactly. He’s like, “Well now you’re grown, I don’t have to lock you in your room!” But, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. Well, we have two standard questions we ask our guests of honor here. And the first one is: what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Teyonah Parris: Oh. Tired of being asked. I don’t want to say I’m tired of being asked it, but a question I could stand to not hear, and I didn’t hear it in this interview…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Woo-hoo!

Teyonah Parris: …Are any questions about my hair. So that’s awesome. Thank you.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes. You’re welcome. I did not ask questions about your hair.

Teyonah Parris: We actually talked work. That was exciting.

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Brendan Francis Newnam: I do have to say, your hair does look amazing.

Teyonah Parris: Thank you.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you do make a point of having your hair look amazing. You do lots of different kind of, situations with your hair.

Teyonah Parris: I love it. I love it. I mean I love talking hair, and make-up, and things like that. But a lot of the times, when you get these interviews, you have two minutes, you know, so.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes. Our second question is: tell us something we don’t know, and this can be a personal fact about you that you haven’t shared before in interviews. Or it could just be an interesting piece of trivia.

Teyonah Parris: Something you don’t know… OK. People who, my close friends who know me, my family, know that I have the worst memory. And, like, literally, I’ve forgotten my best friend’s birthday. Maybe 10 years in a row.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow.

Teyonah Parris: Until she finally said, “I will not be your friend anymore if you forget one more time!” I’m like, “You know, I don’t remember my own birthday!” I’m like, “Wait, how old am I?”

Yeah, so I have the worst memory. I am extremely clumsy. And extremely goofy.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your memory is so bad you may have already told someone that though. Maybe you said that and you forgot. How can I trust…?

Teyonah Parris: I don’t think so. They’re usually talking about my hair, I don’t have time to tell ’em anything like that.