From Yvonne "Vee" Parker in "Orange Is the New Black" to Bird Merriweather in "Friday Night Lights," from Kate Perry on "Saving Grace" to Rene Jackson on Lifetime's long-ago "Any Day Now," Lorraine Toussaint has been one of TV's finest actresses over a long and distinguished career.
This fall, she is back as Donna Rosewood on the new Fox series "Rosewood," starring Morris Chestnut as a Miami pathologist. Toussaint, who is 55, plays his mom in this hybrid procedural/family drama, which will air Tuesdays starting Sept. 22. Fox's part of the TV Critics Tour begins Thursday, but I spoke with Toussaint a few days ago. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
As you may or may not know, Toussaint's "Vee" Parker, an inmate at Litchfield Fed, was a standout character and fan favorite last season. Alas, dear malevolent Vee did not last -- she was mowed down outside the prison by Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), who was driving a van at the time. ("Always so rude, that one," said Rosa.)
To the chat!
VG: Is Vee really and truly dead and gone.
TOUSSAINT: As far as I know.
But she was this incredibly memorable character. Why end her after just one season.
TOUSSAINT: When I went in it, I knew it was a one-and-done, but somewhere in the middle [of the season], Jenji Kohan [showrunner] may have considered carrying her further. But at the end of the day, the decision was to not to. I don't think anyone of us anticipated her macabre popularity among viewers -- and so she's become this kind of strangely iconic marker in the life of the show.
No Emmy nod for the role -- another Emmy travesty obviously. Disappointed.
TOUSSAINT: You know, it would have been lovely, but you get what you get and when you don't "get," you don't get upset. You move on.
I didn't see you in the original "Rosewood" pilot -- when do you actually appear.
TOUSSAINT: They just put me into the pilot [and] we just finished a reshoot of the pilot -- I play Morris' mom ... who is soon to be a retired school principal. [The show] will be evenly divided between procedural and family drama. "... [His mom] is a woman who is quite lost as to who she is right now [with] grown children who no longer need a mommy to a great extent underfoot. [But] Morris' character begins to recognize there may be a place in his business for his mother, among others, as support. I think it's going to be a very good show -- I have a really good feeling about this one.
On ABC, and now on Fox, strong African-American leads have emerged on a number of shows -- many of them female. Is this the best of times for black actors.
TOUSSAINT: It's a little like "black is the new black." In my career I have seen this wave crest three or four times, but you know you have to ride that wave when it comes.
Does this indicate a lasting change in prime-time TV.
TOUSSAINT: Each step or wave heralds movement toward change, so I think it all does herald change but I don't think there is any point of arrival here. But are we getting closer to where this is less of an issue ... yes, I think we are, in terms of American television. And you know that with the advent of Shonda Rhimes [who will have four prime-time series on ABC during the 2015-16 season], that alone is a game-changer. She is a game-changer. But yes, this is a very fruitful time for us, [but] the more important part is not just the rise of more roles, but the content of the roles themselves. They are more rounded and multidimensional -- not merely showing up in service of the lead character and not subordinate to the main story either. We're now carrying crucial aspects of the narrative -- that didn't exist for the most part and it does now.
You've worked steadily for many years -- in theater, movies and on TV. Has there ever been a down cycle for you.
TOUSSAINT: Oh hell yes, The writers' strike [in the late '80s] came along, and when it ended I didn't work for three years. When it did end, I got hit with ageism for the first time: "Oh, we wanted a YOUNG Lorraine Toussaint." That went on for quite a few years where I would get "yeah, she's good, but ..." I seriously contemplated getting out of the business and went in search of something else, [but] I had an interesting conversation with the universe and thought, God, let's stop messing around and get back into this. But I did try to get out and it wasn't bad that I did because I'm one of those people who has had a great life and I'm passionate about a couple of other things like producing, writing and landscaping -- I could be in the yard all day, every day and forget to eat. But I am one of those long-distance runners. There is a price to be paid for that, and an economic price when you've been in the business as long as I have -- and it's an economic price. Many of us, including me, have been stone-cold broke -- scary stone-cold broke. It takes real courage to hang on in the moment when all you can do is hang on.
Is this an issue for all actors of color or more acutely for female actors of color.
TOUSSAINT: It's an actor issue -- but male actors have a longer life where they can get old and portly and more distinguished, but not so much for us. [But] somewhere in our brain we know we are in this for the long haul and we have quite possibly fewer illusions about what it's going to take to stay in the game, [and] because we aren't particularly selling sex, there is quite possibly a longer life for us [than white actresses]. But with anything you do and anything you love, you pick your poison. Everything has a consequence and I have zero regrets. I'd do it all over again, and at this moment in my life [it's] pretty damn thrilling. I've never felt stronger as an actor and more in my body as a woman. That's not a bad combination.