Professional growth was always critical for actress Vanessa Williams. Going from supporting roles like gun moll Keisha in 1991’s crime thriller New Jack City and aerobics instructor Rhonda on Fox’s primetime soap opera “Melrose Place,” to the meatier role of mother Maxine on Showtime series “Soul Food,” she was always game to test her acting mettle.
But when it came time to portray Candice, a high-powered businesswoman in Sidra Smith’s A Luv Tale: The Series (playing June 27 at Frameline)—an eight-episode dramedy, examining the lives, loves, and careers of four girlfriends of color—she dove into something new.
“As an actor, I want to evolve and do things that I haven’t done before, so I’m always looking for characters with a twist,” she told 48 Hills. “Certainly, this character is a woman who’s nothing like any character I’ve played before.”
Unlike Williams, Candice follows the rules, doesn’t make waves, and allows her husband to lead. She’s also forced to grapple with her feelings for Taylor, a young artist whom she encounters at a Harlem bar. To complicate matters further, Taylor happens to be a woman.
Williams spoke with 48 Hills about playing gay for the first time, what she learned about herself in the process, and how a series like “A Luv Tale,” which screens at the Frameline film festival on June 27, can inspire cultural change.
48 HILLS Talk to me about your first experience playing a gay character.
VANESSA WILLIAMS When I first heard about it, I thought, “Oh, this is a very interesting and extremely provocative role for someone who doesn’t identify as a lesbian.” So it was a little bit scary in terms of how will I be seen and how the sex scenes might be represented on screen.
But once I read the project and got to know the roots of the storyline and what I could bring to it, I thought, “OK, this is an interesting and dynamic project to be involved with.”
48 HILLS Did playing the role of a closeted woman hiding in an unhappy marriage bring more of an understanding of what the LGBTQ community has to face?
VANESSA WILLIAMS What I learned from playing the role was that it wasn’t such a departure because love is love as is sexual energy and prowess because anyone can turn you on if you lay back and let it happen and vice versa.
So my whole thing was the letting down of the guard to be able to explore, and it was a nice way to explore a different kind of human connection without having to put a label on it. It was like a perk, like, “Oh, I get to be this person now who kisses girls and isn’t that fun?” It was a release to allow yourself to be in that situation, so it was beautiful. And I was like “Oh, I get this. It’s not my flavor, but I get it.”
48 HILLS What’s the value in bringing a story like this to light in 2019?
VANESSA WILLIAMS I was happy that the response we’ve gotten so far is that people who’ve seen me in other roles felt some sort of validation from having a straight actor shine a light on their experience.
I felt very honored to bring whatever value I have as an artist to this story because maybe some people who wouldn’t necessarily look at a story like this will now because I’m in it. So if I can bring my talents to tell this story about a part of my community that’s been ignored, marginalized, and not celebrated, then I’m down to do it, so others can take this ride with us.
48 HILLS A story about four black LGBTQ women seems so groundbreaking, even in 2019. But we’ve come so far since your breakout role on “Melrose Place,” playing a side character among an otherwise all-Caucasian cast, who was quickly written off after just one season.
VANESSA WILLIAMS It’s revolutionary and I’m really proud to have been a part of that forward-moving trajectory. I also played the love interest of a bisexual black man in the film Punks. So in terms of my advocacy for the LGBTQ community, both in my work as an actress and as 1st Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Black AIDS Institute, it’s about a love for my community and all the different ways that it lives and loves.
I re-watched Paris is Burning over the weekend and seeing those stars of the documentary talking about their pain, anguish, and longing to be loved and accepted is heartbreaking. But seeing how the needle has moved from being a pipe dream that can only be manufactured in the Elks Lodge in Harlem to being on the “Pose” show on FX and at the Met Ball, where Billy Porter comes out and slays, is amazing.
He and the other folks whose shoulders he stands on have been preparing for this moment all of their lives, so it’s just a victorious day to see that now we’re ready to have the whole kit and kaboodle.
48 HILLS You’ve said before that the reason your character was written off “Melrose Place” was that the show’s writers didn’t make the effort to hire a black writer or ask you things that would help them better write to the black experience. That seems to be happening less today.
VANESSA WILLIAMS Even when [Caucasian] people are trying to be inclusive, they can only tell that story from their experience of privilege and who their friends are, so certain things won’t occur to them.
What is certainly moving the trajectory forward with its being more authentic and people getting to truly see themselves is the inclusion of black and other people of color in the writer’s room saying how this story or character should play out.
48 HILLS In “A Luv Tale,” you play a woman on the down low, and as an actress working in the entertainment industry all these years, you must have encountered a lot of people in the same situation. Do you see a day when more prominent actors will feel comfortable enough to come out publicly?
VANESSA WILLIAMS As a woman of a certain age, of course I’ve experienced the down-low phenomenon as it relates to the African-American community.
So to the extent that people, particularly younger people, who’ve benefited from all this conversation and needle-moving, become more self-aware and feel the freedom to live honestly, it becomes a conversation that people are more willing to have.
I’ve been around to witness a bunch of cultural shifts and the kind of storytelling you’ll see in “A Luv Tale” is part of that vital cultural change.
“A LUV TALE: THE SERIES”
June 27, 6:45pm, $20
Castro Theatre, SF
Tickets and more info here.