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Interview: Actress Gabrielle Graham on the Fun ‘Twenties,’ Overcoming Racism, and Performing with Big Sean

Graham channeled racist experiences from her past, and the struggle of being an actress, to create authenticity.

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Still from BET's "Twenties" episode 105. (Photo: BET)

Actress Gabrielle Graham had to audition for “Twenties” from Canada. That didn’t stop her from winning the role of Nia on Lena Waithe‘s latest show. With Jonica T. Gibbs and Christina Elmore, the three make “Twenties” one of the most underrated series of the year.

For Graham, the role of Nia forced her to confront racism in her past, as well as the struggle to make it as an actress in Hollywood. She discussed her role with Awards Circuit, telling us about her audition process, working with Lena Waithe, and acting opposite Big Sean. Gabrielle Graham is eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

Twenties Gabrielle Graham
Still of Gabrielle Graham as Nia from BET’s “Twenties” episode 107. (Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/BET)

Alan French/AwardsCircuit: We have heard how your co-stars found their way onto the show. How did you first find yourself auditioning for “Twenties?”

Gabrielle Graham: My agent was able to find me a manager in the States. By the end of the year, I was auditioning for “Twenties,” which I thought was really cool. I had auditioned for Lena [Waithe] a few times and really wanted to work with her because the writing in her projects is always so good. I had auditioned for “The Chi” and got really close to booking the part.

For “Twenties,” I think I sent four or five self-tapes. I know there was a chemistry read, but I wasn’t able to make it at the time. They booked me off of the self-tapes, so that was amazing. I went to set without having met the girls and we got along pretty great.

Twenties Joanica Gibbs Christina Elmore Gabrielle Graham
Still of Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs as Hattie, Gabrielle Graham as Nia, and Christina Elmore as Marie from BET’s “Twenties” episode 101. (Photo: BET)

AF: The producers and casting team must really have liked those tapes! It feels like you all have been lifelong friends. From the very first scenes, the show is about friendship. When you were reading through the scripts, did any scenes stand out to you?  

GG: I loved the car scene from the first episode, where we sing Whitney Houston. That was so much fun to shoot, and it reminds me of my own friendships. We captured the special moments that make our friendships so close and tight-knit. I love that scene. I also loved the scenes where we were encouraging each other. I think that’s really what friendships are about, to not sugarcoat anything and give them the real truth. It’s for the betterment of your friend.

AF: It’s funny that you mentioned that scene because that’s the same one Jonica and Christina pointed out. 

GG: Yeah, the scene reminds me of my friendships. Those little special moments that you’ll never forget.

Twenties Gabrielle Graham

AF: Your character is very extroverted but is also extremely balanced. You lead yoga classes and you’re an actress. How do you go about portraying someone who has that balance?

GG: I pulled from my own experience. What I admire most about Nia is how spiritually sound she is, and I work so hard to do that. I’m naturally a very introverted person, like very introverted and very shy. However, when I’m around people that I’m comfortable with or I need to stand up for myself, that’s when I become more extroverted.

I think we have the same Zen and chill the majority of the time. But when she needs to call someone out or put someone in their place, there’s pent-up emotion that she needs to let out. She’s not afraid to reveal that side of herself, because she’s an artist and she’s very quirky. The fact that Nia and I are very similar in a lot of ways made it easier for me to reveal both sides of her character.

Twenties Gabrielle Graham
Still from BET’s “Twenties” episode 105. (Photo: BET)

AF: Nia is an actress, and she’s trying to restart her career. One of the things that really spoke to me watching it is the struggle to book a show, even after you’ve already made some headway. What was it like to see your character go through that process?

GG: It was very easy because I completely relate. Just having the feeling that you’re not good enough, even though you’ve already made a footprint or great leap into the industry. It was easy to get into that mindset because that’s what I was feeling at the time. The show is one of the biggest roles that I’ve gotten so far. Coming from Canada and moving to America, I very much felt Imposter Syndrome at the prospect.

I felt like I didn’t deserve it, even though I knew how hard I worked to get there. I think Nia was going through the same thing. She made strides, did great as a child actress, but she had this fear of getting back out there and failing. Obviously she needs someone that helps her get back into it. I felt how Nia felt, and we worked through it at the exact same time. It was fun, rewarding, and easy to get into that headspace.

Twenties Gabrielle Graham
Still of Kyle Jones as Matt and Gabrielle Graham as Nia from BET’s “Twenties” episode 107. (Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/BET)

AF: Your character gets put into some of the most stressful situations in the entire season. The one that springs to mind is the audition at your improv class. Your partner says some very racist things and you have to play into his ideas in order to grab the agents’ attention. What was your process as you approached that scene? 

GG: Anytime I approach anything hard like that, I have to embrace it as if it’s actually happening to me. That situation happened to me when I was in university. Someone made a comment about me being so black and ghetto because I was unapologetically myself. I did not stand up for myself in that moment. Reading the scene I realized this was my opportunity. This is my chance to live it out again through Nia, and stand up for myself in this moment. That was one of the hardest but most fun scenes filming the show.

AF: It was a killer scene and it’s one that has continued to stick with me. It was so heartfelt and raw you can tell that it mattered to you.

GG: Yeah, it did matter. It did matter for sure.

Twenties Gabrielle Graham
Still from BET’s “Twenties” episode 102. (Photo: BET)

AF: The show also had some very cool guest stars. Obviously you had a couple of episodes with Big Sean. Were there any other guest stars you were especially excited to work with?

GG: I was excited to work with Big Sean because he’s a really cool artist. I was also very nervous because I had never worked with a famous person before. When I met him, he was actually mad chill and super down-to-earth. It was his first acting job and so I think we just clicked right away because we both have that chill, cool vibe. We wanted to learn from each other and vibe off each other. So that was really fun.

It was also cool seeing Vanessa Williams and Rick Fox acting together. They’re really great. I got to sit beside Rick Fox was like, oh my God, this is so cool. It actually happened at the last minute. It was such a great reminder that they’re really normal, which is calming to know.

AF: In the last episode you deliver the monologue that lands Hattie in quite a bit of trouble. You deliver it so powerfully and it’s a cool moment of drama on a comedy series. What was it like to channel your theater background into that moment in a comedy series?

GG: Comedy people always tell me to never play up the comedy. Play it seriously and let the text speak for itself. It is a serious moment because it takes Ida (Sophina Brown) back. I was also putting a lot of pressure on myself to cry for some reason. It’s really deep and profound, but it was actually an audition. I just needed to play into that. I think it’s really important, even in comedy, to be as authentic as possible and let the words do the work.

Twenties Gabrielle Graham
Still of Gabrielle Graham as Nia from BET’s “Twenties” episode 108. (Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/BET)

AF: Obviously the last couple of months have forced a lot of people to open up and have honest conversations about race in entertainment. A show like “Twenties” being passed over multiple times before being picked up by BET was ridiculous. The show has a lot to say about the industry. What has resonated the most with you over this past month?

GG: The importance of representation. I remember someone commenting about the importance of making sure that the images that we see on screen and on film and television actually reflect the things that are happening in society. It allows us to have more empathy for one another. We need to be awake and not ignorant about what’s happening in the world. I think having a character like Hattie on screen, one that is so under-represented, is super important.

We can’t pretend that racism isn’t real, that homophobia isn’t real. We have be okay with being uncomfortable. I know with a lot of Lena’s work, she’s not looking to make people comfortable. She wants to open people’s minds. She wants to shift the ideologies and thoughts of the system. To do that, we need to put projects out there that are going to make people think and look outside of their bubble. I think we have seen the stories like that but we need a lot more.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Gabrielle Graham for speaking with us.

Season 1 of “Twenties” is available on Showtime and BET.

What do you think of “Twenties?” Do you believe Gabrielle Graham can break through in Comedy Supporting Actress? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.

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