Next Big Thing

From 'Insecure' to Sundance Debut: Elle Lorraine Poised to Break Out in Justin Simien's 'Bad Hair'

Emma McIntyre/BAFTA LA/Contour by Getty Images
Elle Lorraine, wearing vintage Valentino. She says her 'Bad Hair' co-star Vanessa Williams "and I talked a lot about longevity and not changing yourself for the industry just to have a moment."

After almost making it to Sundance in 2014, the actress heads to Park City in the 'Dear White People' director's sophomore feature as she launches a production company with 'Boomerang' co-EP Dime Davis.

With only a handful of Hollywood credits,Elle Lorraine has already worked with some of the industry's top talent. From Issa Rae("When I go to work, I am just like, 'I am enamored by you'") to Lena Waithe ("She's her own planet") to Regina King ("What is my life?"), Lorraine, 34, runs through the list over a plate of buffalo cauliflower at a restaurant in her Echo Park neighborhood.

A grad of Houston's rigorous High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the Texas native never considered a career outside of performance. "Starting at 14, you are treated like an adult," she says of her schooling. "You are given the freedom, but you are also given the criticism." Beyoncé was a student before she left to become, well, Beyoncé. Writer-director Justin Simien is another alum.

In 2013, Lorraine had auditioned for a supporting role — but failed to make the cut — in Simien's first feature, Dear White People, which stormed into the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, earning rave reviews and distribution from Lionsgate. But casting director Kim Coleman remembered the actress when the feature was being adapted as a Netflix series, casting her in a bit role in the second season. This led to an arc on the third season of Rae's HBO series Insecure.

In May 2018, she got a call from Simien about auditioning for a horror comedy titled Bad Hair. "I don't want to suck in front of someone I know," says Lorraine about the pressure she felt. But after six weeks of production in L.A. — and seven years after missing out on his debut film — Lorraine is heading to Sundance as the star of Simien's sophomore feature. One of the fest's hottest sales titles — it will premiere in the Midnight section on Jan. 23 — Bad Hair has a cast that includes Vanessa Williams, Laverne Cox and Lorraine in the lead as an aspiring music video jockey in 1989 L.A. coerced into getting a weave, which turns out to have a mind of its own.

Lorraine is acutely aware that Simien's previous Sundance swing launched the career of Tessa Thompson, now a go-to star for studio fare. "I feel like this is a beautiful opportunity," she says, adding, "I hope that doesn't sound too corny." And while she just signed with WME and upcoming projects include the fourth season of Insecure, Lorraine is looking beyond onscreen work, launching production company Three's a Crowd with Dime Davis, co-executive producer and lead director behind the Waithe-backed BET series Boomerang. She was inspired by the multihyphenates whom she now calls her colleagues. "There was a time in this industry where you had to be one thing, but that is never how I've seen myself."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.