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June 23, 2016

Follow The Magic

Lorraine Toussaint is refining her black girl magic through wonderfully flawed characters with weaknesses that speak to the human condition.

Ny MaGee
  • Courtesy FOX
  • Courtesy FOX
  • Courtesy FOX
  • Courtesy FOX
  • Courtesy FOX

"The moment you add dimension to characters you find their strengths and their weaknesses and their weaknesses are the places that usually are to be minded. Those are interesting to me."

Lorraine Toussaint captivated audiences as the manipulative psychopathic inmate "Vee" on the smash hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, a role that earned her critical acclaim and a Critics Choice Award winner for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.

She currently stars as Donna Rosewood on the FOX drama series, Rosewood, and it's a role that the actress says gives her a chance to "revel in a kind of normalcy" because "I'm usually playing one extreme character or another."

"These characters I do on film are multidimensional, but oftentimes on television I'm large and in charge in some way or another — but not necessarily pivotal to the heart of the storyline. Playing Donna gives me the opportunity to sort of indulge in an aspect of myself that I have not really gotten to develop on film and that's the maternal, and not so maternal like Vee who eats her children, but one who really loves her children in a balanced, healthy way.

That's one of the reasons I love Donna. I get to play this mom and in life I am this mom. All the subtleties and all the frailties associated with motherhood is something I'm really loving exploring."

Rosewood centers on the brilliant Dr. Beaumont Rosewood, Jr., played by Morris Chestnut, {Nurse Jackie, The Best Man franchise), the top private pathologist in Miami. Toussaint said that while many see the series star as this "big hunkarooni," for her, Chestnut is simply a generous colleague who she is "having a wonderful time working and collaborating with."

"I love me some Morris Chestnut, that's my boy. As an actor, he is kind and generous and talented and available. He has an extraordinary work ethic. He magnifies cool and he's a problem solver."

Rosewood recently wrapped its first season, and Fox renewed the series in April. Toussaint admits that the renewal was surprising, considering how ratings throughout Season 1 were hit and miss. However, the award-winning actress explained that the uncertainty of the business has prepared her to "reserve judgement" because you truly never know how the game will play out.

"This ain't my first rodeo. I have bet on enough horses that have not gone the distance to know that I now just simply reserve judgement because at the end of the day, you really don't know," she said.

"I know that we were a bubble show for a minute, that it could have gone one way or the other, depending on how the network was structuring itself, and where they wanted to begin to lay claim.

"I had a suspicion that we would be one of the places that they could count on. We were steady. We're not gonna blow it out and then fizzle out. We were gonna have a nice solid, steady rise and sometimes networks get impatient with that but I'm really happy that FOX didn't."

The network "saw the value in" Rosewood's "steady rise." and now "they're using us to anchor a Thursday night which is a tough night in television," said Toussaint. "Lord have mercy, we're about to go up against Kerry, and can't nobody go up against Shonda and Kerry."

Rosewood is "building a very loyal audience" through DVR viewings, and Toussaint finds it "encouraging" that people are starting to recognize her on the street because of the series. The second season begins filming in a few weeks, and Donna Rosewood's primary motivation next season will be her "out of the box relationship" with a "man in prison."

"Donna seems to be getting involved with a man. At the end of last season, the sort of cliffhanger really suggested that it's going to be a very unexpected relationship that Donna gets involved in. She develops a relationship with a man in prison and I can't speak to the nature of that relationship but it is one that will concern her children. She will certainly get their attention."

Toussaint often praises the diverse writing team behind Rosewood because when it comes to nurturing the voice of black characters, the actress believes that it takes diverse writers to "unequivocally" nail it.

"I love characters weaknesses. It's very interesting because I often get cast for characters' strengths and the thing that actually interests me are characters' weaknesses, their frailties. I think people were taken aback by the Vee character that I created because I'm often cast as unflawed characters and those characters are often one-dimensional."

A character's weakness is often the first thing Toussaint looks for to help determine her interest in a project. "I'm rarely given the opportunity to explore that, and again, that's one of the reasons why I love Donna because she screws up. She's got to say sorry half the time, and she is well-meaning but oh God does she cross boundaries, and she is right as she is wrong. I love that because it really does reflect the human condition."

When her recent guest role on Chicago P.D. as defense attorney Shambala Green — a character she first played on Dick Wolfs Law & Order in 1990 — turned into a recurring character on Wolf's upcoming new series Chicago Justice, Toussaint was a bit surprised by the upgrade.

While she "suspected" the guest role would inevitably require her to divide her time between the Rosewood set and Wolf's Chicago set, the financial benefit of adding to her workload was not why she took on the challenge of juggling two series.

"That's not a challenge, that's high-class problems — as my mother would say. This is not a juggle. A juggle is when you can't pay the rent and can't put food on your table."

Shambala Green is a character that Toussaint describes as "near and dear," and she is grateful to Dick Wolf for asking her back to reprise the role 25 years later. "It's such a tribute to my work and to that character." Shambala is "wonderfully flawed," and "straight up wrong," but for righteous reasons that are "forgivable."

"She shares that with Lorraine," Toussaint said in comparing herself with Shambala Green. "For example, I have a terrible-terrible sense of direction. I get lost so much. I'm okay in the car but put me on a soundstage or something and I'm always going in the wrong direction. If my instincts says turn left, please turn right.

"But most people follow because I go in that wrong direction full force ahead, with such purpose and determination that you couldn't possibly imagine that I had no idea where I was going, and Shambala is like that."

Born in Trinidad and a graduate of Juilliard with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Toussaint began her career as a Shakespearean actress before tackling acting in television and film. With a career than now spans over two decades, Toussaint confesses that the one thing she wishes she had known early on is, "Los Angeles is for the young."

"I would have gotten out here much sooner. I wouldn't have believed the nonsense that, "Oh we theater thespians, we don't do television," she said. "I grew up in that era where there was a certain amount of that at play, and I swear to God I wish I just gotten here earlier. I think I would have done more."

However, Toussaint acknowledges that the industry wasn't so welcoming to women of color 25 years ago.

"It was such a different time, and there are so many doors that are open now to an actress of color, and a particular actress of color. I'm not light-skinned. I'm afro-centric. Mainstream doors are opening for young black women now that weren't necessarily open for me 25 year ago.

I think if I were to do anything different, I would come out to L.A. sooner and fresh out of school. But then all the experience I gained doing all the years of theater made me the actress that I am, so you can't ever go back really. The life is perfect the way it is."

If heaven exists, Toussaint said the one thing she would like to hear God say to her when she arrives at the pearly gates is, "You made me laugh."

In the meantime, she subscribes to the life motto of: "Be present."

"It never gets better when you're present. When you're present, presence is as good as it's going to get. Stay close to nature. I have a saying, "Forget the logic, follow the magic. That way lies your bliss."

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