Three actresses reveal what they learned from playing their fearless and unbreakable personas on TV: "She absolutely knows what she's good at."
CHARACTER: HALEY FITZGERALD
To play the unceremoniously frank defense attorney Haley on HBO's The Undoing, Dumezweni realized she had to "dig deep" to tap the reserves of cool, steely assurance that fuels the character. "There were times it felt so intense," Dumezweni says with a laugh. "I remember thinking I was going to be fired at one point. I have my sense of confidence, but I still worry about my work. Haley absolutely knows what she's good at."
Dumezweni swiftly zeroed in on the fact that Haley's "fucking great at her job." She also realized that for a Black woman to operate at the top of her game in the wood-paneled environs of the Manhattan elite, she had to be unrestrained by niceties. "There's got to be something in her fierceness and her toughness," she says. "This is about the work. She gets paid shitloads of money, so therefore there's no point in sugarcoating stuff."
That hard-driving quality was fused with a crucial note from series director Susanne Bier. "She honed me in on getting stiller and quieter. And I was like, 'What? This feels really weird, because it's not Noma energy,'" says Dumezweni. "She explained how people in power can be very quiet and still to make other people come to them … Haley will sit there quietly. Haley does not need validation from other people. That was a learning moment."
CHARACTER: RUBY BAPTISTE
Mosaku wasn't prepared for the transformation she herself experienced as a result of playing the role of the blunt, straight-talking Ruby, whose ambitions are frustrated by the limitations 1950s society places on her race and gender until she accepts a costly bargain to mystically shapeshift into a less restricted identity on HBO's Lovecraft Country. "Until I met Ruby, I spent my whole life not being completely honest about my experience as a Black woman — I was scared," the British actress admits. "I always tried to be nice and play small in order to make other people feel comfortable."
Serving as a clear-eyed if sharp-tongued conscience to her sister Leti, Ruby simply wants to excel despite unjust cultural limitations. "If society would just stop interrupting others, we would actually have freedom to explore our own dreams, hopes and ambitions," says Mosaku. "But we don't get that, especially as Black people. The prejudice is real and the judgment is harsh." Mosaku credits Ruby's tough-loving nature — and that of similarly outspoken showrunner Misha Green — for empowering her to speak her own mind, regardless of comfort zones. "I became more involved and more confident, less likely to just let things slide and be nice for the sake of comfortability," she says. "Comfortability doesn't get things done. It doesn't inspire. … I really needed Ruby and especially Misha to realize that."
It has been quite an extraordinary journey, one I wasn't completely ready for," she adds. "It set me up for this moment as being bold and fearless, and speaking up now."
Stormfront, season two’s addition to the not-so-superheroic team The Seven on Amazon Prime’s The Boys, revels in take-no-prisoners barbs exposing personal and systemic flaws like misogyny and corporate overreach. But her acerbic “tough love” demeanor masks a more sinister agenda: She’s secretly a Nazi. “Yeah, she’s tough-hate,” says Cash with a chuckle. “Stormfront’s way in is this, ‘I’m going to tell it like it is, anti-big corporation, punk rock, say-what-I-mean empowerment.’ But she’s actually rallying the troops.”
Tapping the charisma that sweetens Stormfront’s vitriol was crucial, and Cash keyed in on the villainess’ playful yet eviscerating banter with The Seven’s leader, Homelander. “My entire goal is just to fuck with him, make him uncomfortable and throw him off balance.”
The character reflects the hate-fueled rhetoric that’s become all too consumable in the current sociopolitical climate. “There’s a lot of talk about why we should all be afraid of ‘the other,’” says Cash. “That polarization is represented in her ability to use people’s fears and give them an outlet. It’s sadly representative of what’s happening in our culture — we go back to really old, horrible ideas about hate.” Exploring that mindset was a valuable exercise in examining Cash’s own biases. “To have to go that deep into somebody you really don’t agree with is what makes acting interesting, what makes being humans interesting,” she says. “[And it’s] something that everyone should be doing anyway."
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.