Teyonah Parris Finds Truth in Chi-Raq and Her Career

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Teyonah Parris is one of the most talented up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood today—not to mention a predominant voice when it comes to playing some of the most progressive roles on television and in film. She portrayed the first major black character in Mad Men and impressed in Justin Simien’s indie study on race, Dear White People. In Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq she plays Lysistrata, a woman who leads a sex strike in order to end gang violence in the southside of Chicago.

Chi-Raq marks Parris’ first starring role—and she not only shows she can carry a movie, she proves she can carry a Spike Lee movie based on the 2,000-year-old Greek play Lysistrata.

The sex strike detail of her character may be the “hook” of the film, but for Parris, she hopes people take away more—something that has become relevant now more than ever.

“I hope that people take a look at this character, and will look at this movie, actually, and
realize that it only takes one person to effect a change, to spark a movement,” Parris told
Paste. “I hope that they look at this movie and start talking about what needs to be talked about and that’s these atrocities that are happening in Chicago and across the nation. We have to get real and stop talking around the issue, deal with the gun laws, deal with the economic and social aspects that are in these communities and are affecting the people of the communities, and really deal with that.”

We spoke with Parris more about the socially relevant story of Chi-Raq, and the trajectory of her career as a woman of color in Hollywood.

Paste: What do you remember most about seeing a Spike Lee movie for the first time?
Teyonah Parris: It was School Daze. I remember seeing all of these brown people on the screen, and I didn’t quite understand the messages then. I was a little young. Then, later, I understood what was happening, what was being said, and I just I loved it even more. Even now, every time you watch it, you feel like you’re seeing something new.

Paste: When did you first hear of Chi-Raq?
Parris: Well, I didn’t hear anything about it. Spike literally just sent the script, so I opened it cold. It took me a minute to realize what was happening. Then I saw that name, Lysistrata, and I said, “Is he retelling the story of Lysistrata?” Then as I kept reading I said, “Oh, wow. This is the modern retelling of the Greek play Lysistrata!” I was excited.

Paste: How familiar were you with the play?
Parris: I love that play. Actually, while I was at Juilliard, I did that play. I didn’t get to play the titular character, so the thought of being able to, I was like, “Heck, yeah!” Then, speaking to Spike, his whole thing was, “We have to save lives.” There’s some craziness and absolute mayhem happening in Chicago, and we have to be the ones to tell the story, shine light on what’s happening over there.

Paste: When did you film the movie? It seems very recent.
Parris: I would say from the time we started until now, it hasn’t even been six months.

Paste: That’s very fast—but really good though, because it’s so timely and relevant.
Parris: It’s timely, but it’s always been timely. What’s happening in Chicago didn’t just start happening. This play was written over 2,400 years ago. It’s still a classic because it’s still so relevant and so potent now.

Paste: How did you connect with a character like Lysistrata?
Parris: When we first meet her, she is a part of this gangster life. She’s in love with a man who’s head of a gang. She’s very much a part of that scene and we watch her find herself, through the help of a mentor like Miss Helen, played by Angela Bassett. She leads her to the story of [Leymah Gbowee], who was a woman that basically ended the second Civil War in Liberia through posing a sex strike. Lysistrata finds her strength, her power that’s always been in her but, because she’s had other aspirations, her attention was elsewhere. She’s never really tapped into it until the shooting with a young girl in her neighborhood. It sets off a spark in Lysistrata. She realizes that this isn’t right and we have to make a difference.

Paste: From Mad Men to Dear White People, you’ve had an amazing career trajectory. How do your choices, in terms of what you choose to play on TV and in film, reflect who you want to be as an actress?
Parris: Every time I get a role, or the opportunity to explore a role, I look at it and I think, “What is the story we’re trying to tell here?” I always want to tell the truth. It doesn’t have to be a pretty truth and it doesn’t have to be a life-changing and life-threatening truth like Chi-Raq. But I want to tell someone’s truth, in an effort to inspire people to see themselves reflected on the screen.

Paste: Definitely. As an Asian American growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I barely saw any people of color, let alone Asians in movies or television. That’s why I enjoyed Spike Lee films.
Parris: You gravitated towards something that’s close to you.

Paste: Exactly.
Parris: When we were growing up there was just a lack of color that was present. I want to, on a very simple level, be that for a young girl and for young people of color. I want people to say, “Oh, there’s someone who looks like me. I can do whatever it is I want to do because she’s doing it.” Then, on an artistic level, I just want to tell the truth and make sure that people can learn something from whatever it is I’m doing. It’s always about learning, growing and self-assessment.

Paste: What kind of progress have you noticed for women of color in Hollywood since you started acting?
Parris: I haven’t been here very long, but already I see changes. When you have filmmakers like Justin Simien, writers, producers, actresses like Lena Waithe, who are people of color, they’re creating their own content, and saying, “You know what? We’re not going to wait on someone else to tell our story. We’re going to do it ourselves. You can be a part of it or not.” I think the general population of those networks, companies, and those who are making the big decisions are beginning to see that there are so many stories to be told—people of all ethnicities who have nuanced experiences in this world—[stories that] are worthy of being shown and reflected on the screen or in a movie. They are slowly but surely are embracing that.

Chi-Raq opens in theaters December 4.