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May 17, 2018

Into Infinity

An opportunity to work with two powerful women and a killer script piqued Dawn-Lyen Gardner's interest.

Paula Chin
  • Dimitry Loiseau

As soon as she saw the script for Queen Sugar hit her inbox, Dawn-Lyen Gardner wanted to know more.

"I get a lot of email, but when I saw it was written and created by Ava DuVernay, my interest went straight to an eight," she says. "Then I saw that Oprah Winfrey was executive producer, and it shot up to a 10. And once I started reading it, my interest went to infinity."

A contemporary drama set in rural Louisiana, Queen Sugar chronicles the lives of three estranged siblings. Unexpectedly reunited after inheriting their father's failing sugarcane farm, they struggle to fulfill his dying wish to keep the family business alive.

Gardner portrays Charley Bordelon West, who decamps from Los Angeles with her teenage son after discovering that her pro basketball player husband has been cheating on her. "This woman's world has been shattered and she's got to put the pieces back together," Gardner says. "Charley's at a crossroads, and the question was, where would she go from there? It was the most exciting storyline in a single episode that I've ever read."

An L.A. native and a Juilliard graduate who's appeared in numerous shows (most recently, Netflix's Luke Cage and NBC's The Mysteries of Laura), Gardner is grateful for her role in Queen Sugar, which has arrived at exactly the right cultural moment. The OWN series — season three debuts May 29 — tackles sexism, racism and police brutality, and in her journey of self-discovery, Charley both rediscovers her blackness and finds empowerment as a woman entrepreneur.

The chance to work with DuVernay, who directed the first two episodes, was a dream come true. The acclaimed Selma director "was already occupying hero status, which can be a tall order to fill," Gardner says. She didn't disappoint.

"Ava set the tone right away — not just the aesthetics and the mood, but also in terms of inclusion. There were so many women at all levels of production, which you never see. When you're not in the boys' club, your guard comes right down. As an actor, that's when the possibilities become endless."

The doors are wide open for Charley. "I'm still in the process of fleshing her out," Gardner says. "She's as fierce as she is fragile, and I'm excited to see who she becomes."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018

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