Teyonah Parris on the Singular Survivor’s Remorse and Complex Roles for Black Women

TV Features Survivor's Remorse
Teyonah Parris on the Singular Survivor’s Remorse and Complex Roles for Black Women

For three season now, Survivor’s Remorse fans have been dealing with the frustration that comes from knowing the entire world still isn’t watching one of the best things on TV. We try to be understanding, but when you’re bearing witness to incredible performances every week, like those from RonReaco Lee, and storylines that dare to tackle grief and feminist thought with a comedic bent, it’s difficult to understand why the series remains under many-a-radar. The good news is that Starz knows the worth of Mike O’Malley’s creation, and the series has been renewed for a fourth season, which means—among other things—Teyonah Parris will continue to light up the screen with her presentation of the great Missy Vaughn.

Season Three has been integral for this character’s development, and Parris’ incredible work (particularly in the episode on colorism in the black community) is proof that the show can only benefit from more screentime for this amazing talent (who many of us have been following since Mad Men, and many others started praising after her powerful turn in Chi-Raq). Paste caught up with Parris to talk about Missy’s evolution, the importance of varied and multi-dimensional black women characters and tonight’s can’t-miss season finale.

Paste Magazine: It’s safe to say that there is absolutely no one like Missy Vaughn on TV today. Can you talk a little about your early interactions with the script, and what initially drew you to this role?
Teyonah Parris: I remember looking at the pilot script, and just seeing this family that happens to be African-American. It’s a very unique set of circumstances that most families won’t find themselves experiencing, and I just thought it was fun. Looking at Missy and seeing what her role was in the family, and seeing her interactions with Reggie, I knew it was a very loving relationship and a supportive one. She was definitely his equal, and so intelligent and I loved what the possibilities were for this couple. Once I got in there and talked with [showrunner Mike] O’Malley and really discussed what his ideas were for her, I got even more excited.

There aren’t characters like Missy, and there are definitely no relationships like what Missy and Reggie have on TV—a young, professional, black couple in a healthy marriage. They go through their ups and downs, but it’s one of the most healthy marriages on TV. It’s very refreshing. I see it in real life, but I don’t see a reflection of those people that I know on TV. So I just love this relationship.

Paste: I like looking at where Missy is now, versus in Season One. Like you said, the possibilities for her were always there, but now we’re getting to see these other variations of her. How did you and the writers, and Mike talk about her growth this season?
Parris: We see Missy take a huge leap this season. We’ve seen her in action, we know about her degree, we’ve seen her helping Reggie and we know about the career she left. But now that she’s in Atlanta and the family is settled—and she has a firmer idea of who she is within this family—we see her taking on this role with Cam, helping with his publicity and branding. I was really excited, because we’ve heard her talk about this, but now we get to see her in action. I definitely had that conversation with O’Malley like, “Okay, what is Missy gonna do?” Because none of us wanted it to seem like she just stays at home, and wants to have kids, and shop. Neither of us saw that for her. And a lot of women feel the same way—they have careers, they’re young and they still want to pursue things. They have degrees they want to put to use.

That comes up this season with Missy and Reggie, when Reggie starts talking about kids, and Missy’s like, “Not right now—I have other things I want to do.” That’s an important voice to be heard, and a side that we don’t often get to see from women on television.

Paste: Absolutely. Your character, along with Tichina Arnold’s and Erica Ash’s are so important. None of you are alike, and none of you really remind me of any other women—especially black women—on TV. Can you talk about how you see the women of Survivor’s Remorse standing out among so many other great characters and performances on TV today?
Parris: Cassie, M-Chuck and Missy are so very, very different. I love that O’Malley and the writers have found a way to be very raw and authentic with these points of view. And they allow us to be a part of those conversations, and that helps because in life, all three of us are very, very different (laughs). You have these three women who have back stories, and who are nuanced, and have struggles and triumphs. And we all three get to explore that equally on this show—in half an hour! All of the women on the show are full-fledged human beings, with full experiences. As a woman in the industry, a lot of the time you feel like your story is one-dimensional, and it’s there to service someone else, generally a man. That’s just not the case on Survivor’s Remorse.

Paste: One of the reasons I’ve always loved the show is because you all tackle so many fascinating, complex subjects, and you do so without taking away from the specific kind of comedy that makes the show so entertaining. This season I was happy to see more people talking about the show, particularly around the time that the episode on colorism aired. Can you talk about how you felt when you saw that script, and what input you had on Missy’s narrative?
Parris: That script was written by Ali LeRoi, and I remember reading that and saying, “Whoo! We are going for it, aren’t we?!” Not that we don’t go for it every week, but this can be a very sensitive subject, particularly in our community. I was excited and I wanted to also make sure we did it with care. Everyone wanted to do that. At the same time, what makes our show so dynamic is that it is so raw, and it is so politically incorrect. You know people who have these very polarized opinions, and they stand by them and they’re not always right—and sometimes you identify with them. Our show doesn’t shy away from that, we really dig our heels all the way in there, and then find a way—or don’t—to come out of it.

With this episode, Missy had such a strong opinion, and I agreed with most all of what she said. “When does the responsibility fall on me?” And I also agreed with Reggie—”it’s done, don’t make a big deal about it.” And then there was Trina’s perspective. You sort of understand everyone, and even now trying to talk about it, I’m like, “Who was right?”

Paste: You were right! Missy was correct! I thought it was important that the other characters got to say their piece too, but Missy was right to fight for her dark-skinned model, in a world where we know light-skinned models will have way more opportunities. And I love at the end of the argument, Reggie invites you to bed and you’re still mad, but then you say, “Give me 15 minutes.”
Parris: (laughs) Right!

Paste: I think RonReaco Lee is such a force. What’s it been like working with him over the last few years? At this point, does he still manage to surprise you on set?
Parris: Oh, absolutely. I adore Reaco. He is so generous. And to handle as much language as he does on this show? I think Reaco says about two hours worth of words in a half-hour comedy (laughs). It’s amazing how focused he is, and yet, still, how much of a joy he is to be around. We’re an ensemble, but Reaco has a lot to do. He makes it look easy, but it’s not. I love what he’s done with Reggie. In that colorism episode particularly—that last scene—was difficult at first. The show is funny, but what we needed at that moment was complete focus, and silence and presence from everyone, something we don’t always need. So it was a group effort to get that done. But when we finished I called him and I was like, “I will remember this moment and this scene forever.” The words we got to say and the emotions we got to explore—you don’t always get that in a script, and to have a partner really be there. That’s a gift: intelligent language, capable directors, talented actors. It was amazing. I’ll never forget that experience.

Paste: That’s wonderful to hear, because the intimacy between the two of you really comes across.
Parris: Thank you.

Paste: Survivor’s Remorse is one of my favorite shows, in large part because of its boldness in storylines. This season alone we’re dealing with grief, colorism, religion, absentee fathers and redemption. What can we look forward to in the finale?
Parris: I don’t want to give too much away, but a theme that’s very quietly arisen throughout the season is fatherhood and fathers. Grief, and what it is to heal, is a big part of it too, and all that will certainly come crashing to the forefront of the final episode.

Paste: I’m excited! And it’s just been so great watching you over the years, in projects like Mad Men and Chi-Raq. What’s next for you?
Parris: I’m continuing to explore, and it’s really nice to be able to read scripts and be particular about how I want to move forward. It’s nice to be not so particular too, because you can really grow from anything. We have Season Four that we’ll be filming soon, but I have a few months to figure things out.

Paste: Something about your work makes me feel like you’d be great behind the camera too. Just throwing that out there.
Parris: Thank you! I jumped into some producing last year, and I’d definitely like to do that more in the future.

Paste: We need you! We need to see your face more, and we certainly need more faces like yours in front of and behind the camera. So I’m excited for whatever you do next.
Parris: Thank you so much!

The Survivor’s Remorse finale airs at 10PM ET on Starz.

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste, as well as a Script Consultant on Season Three of Transparent. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.

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