The Creative Courage of Nicole Beharie
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What do Turquoise Jones, Rachel Robinson, and Dee Roberts have in common? Besides overcoming gargantuan odds, they’ve been brought to life on the big screen by a singular talent: Nicole Beharie. Trained by Julliard and critically acclaimed, it should come as no surprise that the BlogHer speaker is still booked and busy, most recently starring in the Amazon anthology series, Solos. Still, like most creatives, she has spent the past year reflecting on what comes next.
“There was the initial sort of downtime to really think about things,” the VOTY 100 honoree shared. “I had a lot of time to think about the environment; not just like the ecological environment, but also the mental and creative environment and what I’m putting into the environment myself.”
She also pondered pivoting, like so many others, but in a way that supports a more diverse range of storytelling; a refining process, if you will. But more than anything, she wants to stay courageous and curious.
“I know where I would like to see myself going but I don’t know necessarily where the entire landscape is going, if that makes sense. So I’m just sort of watching…this is a really powerful, interesting time.”
Ahead, more insights from our convo, including how to navigate the uncertainty (and excitement) of a creative career.
There are a lot of people who still consider the creative path a risk. Did you face any opposition from family and friends when you decided to become an actress?
Honestly, when I was in the process of figuring out what I wanted to do, exiting high school, I didn’t necessarily see this as a viable option. My family, though they love me, didn’t necessarily see it either. We didn’t know anyone who was in a creative vocation by any means. Everyone was either blue-collar, in the medical field, or working towards being a lawyer—things like that—because my mother’s an immigrant. So it was all about hard work. The notion of dreaming and doing something a little off the beaten path just seemed insane.
I knew that I loved [acting], but didn’t know if it made any sense. I went to Julliard and even after that, there’s no certainty that you’re going to work, or that you’ll be able to make a living. I remember just loving the people, loving the conversations, loving working in the theater. The spirit of the people I was working with kept me grounded and filled with wonder. So I knew that I needed that in my life, but I was like, I may do a little theater, regional things here and there, or have to work other jobs. And then I got fortunate to be able to make some films. It was definitely a step outside for me, and my family was very cautiously optimistic.
You’ve played such a wide range of characters but all of them have had to overcome big challenges. Is that an intentional choice?
It’s such a strange change job. Sometimes you can use what you know. All I have is what I know and also, what I see around me, to sort of turn into something and to create characters from. I think that’s probably some of what you’re seeing, but I also feel like I gravitate towards characters that—even if their situation is difficult—the story is somewhat uplifting or there’s something interesting about the way the person is being presented, that it’s not a sort of the run-of-the-mill kind of thing.
It’s not a calculated strategy. As you mature and just live, I think you have more experiences and continue to change. I do think that I’m interested in playing people who have something that they’re overcoming. I think it’s fun to watch those things and not be beaten over the head about that, but have an uplifting tilt to it. I suppose I’m just questioning our perspective about things.
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I think creatives and entrepreneurs of any industry often have trouble stepping away from the work. Have you ever struggled to let go of a character?
When I’m done, I’m done. That’s one of the things that’s actually been interesting this year. I’ve been doing press for things that were shot a while ago. The whole world shifted and we had months of experience that felt almost like years. 2020 was one year, but it felt like forever and so much happened. So to go back to 2019 and talk about a movie or character is almost like, what?!
I find that when I finish something, I generally am wrapped. I’m grateful for the experience and to be able to be of service with that community of people that made it, which I think is really important. But onward, you know what I mean? You have to actually come back to yourself because some of these characters have issues. You can’t keep it with you.
The pandemic has forced a lot of us to rethink our passions. Did you experience something similar?
I’m always questioning things. I’ve had periods of like, is this my purpose? Is this what I am supposed to be doing? Am I doing it the right way? Like I said, you know when you find your tribe, when something feeds you. I’ve tried other things and it still doesn’t give me that vibration. But how and why? Like, becoming more specific about the intention.
So I have had moments where I’ve had to pull back and be like, “Okay, so that isn’t working, and I need to be careful about this.” Or be more specific about who I’m working with, or the nature of the material. It’s always been a sense of refining but I really love the work. From action to cut is so much fun.
So the key is to do something you genuinely love?
It is important to stay open to other things that come in, too. Like, I do this but I also have other things that feed me and aren’t necessarily artistically creative but tactile things that use other parts of my brain and body. I think it’s essential. So you can also tap into that and have another thing that’s different from what you identify yourself as. It’ll either feed into what you’re doing or you might find yourself pivoting. I think a pivot is great, too.
As someone who knows not to bring the work home, how do you feed your creativity when you’re not on set?
I’m a little more selective, but I do consume some pretty good TV and old films that feed me. It takes you on a journey. I spend a lot of time outside.
I do feel the hustle, especially now that things are picking up. Everyone wants to get it going and I get it. I have a little bit of resistance to that but I’m also going with the flow. I love dancing, so you might see me at a drum circle outside. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a great book for inspiration and giving yourself the breadth and space to breathe creatively and mentally. One of the things it mentions is taking yourself on an artist date, so I would do that weekly.
I’d go to, like, a symposium on science, where I completely didn’t belong and just be there. I may not even absorb all of it, but it’s like, oh, this other thing exists. And it’s not any less important than the thing that I always do just to sort of change my perspective. It’s been difficult to do that during COVID, but these laptops are fantastic.
What has been the most surprising part of your creative journey so far?
I’m always surprised by what makes people tick, um, and the way we react to the trends and changes in our environment, especially with social media becoming more prominent in our lives. I was raised in a time where we didn’t have that, and I’ve been fortunate to see both versions. It’s really powerful how you can get on a wave of thought, and the wave can haphazardly change and everyone just sort of aligns with it.
It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s just very interesting, and how that affects what’s being green-lit, what kind of things are being made, how people are writing, how people are having conversations. Some of it has been positive, but some of it is almost like a fashion, or like a trend.
People used to hold on to ideals for lifetimes, you know, and would change their minds about core things if there was a massive conversion in their life. Something happened that rocked the bedrock of who they were as a person. But we’re flippin’ a lot in like a few years. That’s something creatively that I’m fascinated by. Sometimes it’s subtle and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of the examples I can give is seeing how people have become more aware of the way that women, Black people, Asian people, Native Americans, have been treated in the business. Those conversations are starting to happen with inclusion, and in the way that characters are being written and depicted.
What advice can you share with the creators in our community?
Keep going. I’ve had some serious hurdles and moments where I was like, this is not gonna work for me. I just kept going and not paying attention to all the distractions or doubts. Also, have sounding boards. You’ll know who you can really bounce things off of, and who will give you constructive criticism or realistic advice.
I look back and I really thought I was done there but I didn’t stop because I know that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I just had to change the way that I was going about it and make it more authentic to my own life.
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