Tichina Arnold feels like family. Her quick wit, tongue-and-cheek delivery and around-the-way-girl sensibility reminds you of a favorite sister, auntie or girlfriend. Just ask devotees who've been following her since her days on Martin as Pam, Martin Payne's nemesis, or those who know her better as Rochelle, the intimidaing, stern mother on the critically-acclaimed series, Everybody Hates Chris. Despite her nearly 25 years in the biz, the Queens, New York, native is still refreshingly approachable. Essence.com chatted with Arnold about her upcoming dramatic lead role, raising her daughter, and why she loves blog-surfing and looking like Boy George.
Essence.com: Congrats on your NAACP nomination! Clearly, everybody loves them some Ms. Arnold!
Tichina Arnold: (Laughs) Thank you! We have a good show and a good group of people and I think that translates to every race, gender and religious background. Everyone can relate to the show on some level.
Essence.com: Well, how much are you in tune with your on-screen alter ego, Rochelle?
T.C.: Rochelle's my grandmother, mother and aunt all rolled into one, so I relate to her in so many ways. She's independent, stubborn and yet, through all of that, she still loves and cares for her family in her own special way.
Essence.com: What do you love most about the show?
T.C.: I have fun with the crew. Me and Terry crack on each other all day and the crew is our live audience. We always try to keep them laughing.
Essence.com: Well, your co-star Terry Crews says you know everyone and someone is always visiting you on the set.
T.C.: (Laughs) I've been acting since I was 11 and I guess I don't realize how many folks I know until someone else points it out.
Essence.com: And you've been about your business. Word on the street is you landed a dramatic leading role. Tell me about it.
T.A.: For years people have told me I needed to play a dramatic role so I've been contemplating it and now it's come my way. It's an indie film called The Lena Baker Story. Ironically, I was asked to play her in a play, but I'd already accepted the film role. I play Lena Baker, a Black woman who ends up having an affair with her white boss, some might even say his sex slave. Their relationship is dysfunctional and ends in tragedy for both of them—Baker is executed after killing him and then pardoned 60 years later.They had a love/hate relationship: they were both alcoholics but came from two different places and somehow found each other. This character is going to represent so many women who are between a rock and a hard place. The issues she faces transcends race.
Essence.com: So was this role a taxing undertaking for you?
T.A.: Physically I was tired and emotionally just drained. I cried real tears because I wanted the role to be as realistic as possible. I also mastered a southern accent—there were a lot of new experiences for me and it pushed me as an actress.
Essence.com: We can't wait to see it. We talking about your acting chops, but let's talk a bit about your parenting skills. How has motherhood changed your thinking?
T.C.: You're right. It's so funny after having Alijah, who's 3 going on 30, I said to myself, I'm a grown-ass woman, I don't have time for any kind of foolishness, it's all about her and my career.
Essence.com: I hear you. So is Ms. Alijah growing to fast for you?
T.A.: Chile , she's into dancing and just joined Debbie Allen's Academy for dance and Debbie loves her. My daughter is definitely going to be in the arts and surpass anything I ever achieved.
Essence.com: Well, she sees mommy is doing her thing and she caught the bug early. Children will keep you cracking up by the things they come up with. What has Alijah done recently that had you kee-keeing?
T.A.: (Laughs) She asked me the other day, 'Mom can I say ass?' I'm like, 'No you can't, it's a bad word. 'Then she says, 'Well can I sing it?'. I'm like, 'No you can't sing it, hum it, think it or speak it.'
Essence.com: Children are sponges and pick up everything; that's why you have to almost monitor their exposure.
T.A.: Yes, it's true. It taught me that we're at that point in our relationship where she questions everything with 'Why?' so I have to tell her what our mothers told us, 'Because I said so!' Now, she goes around telling her little friends the same thing—if she says no to them and when they ask why, she says, 'Because I said so!'
Essence.com: There was a while after Martin that we didn't see or hear from you. Where were you?
T.A.: I wasn't working! There was a minute when I wasn't working. I'm going to call it a 10-year span where I didn't book any other show. I made guest appearance on One on One, Jamie Foxx, and quite a few other shows, but I never got steady work. But I was moving and working. I did a lot of theater, I was in the studio—I did a little bit of everything.
Essence.com: So do you still keep in touch with Martin Lawrence?
T.A.: Yes, I still keep in touch with Martin. I haven't talked to him for a minute. I talk to his family.
Essence.com: Your best friend Tisha Campbell Martin and her hubby Duane Martin said the beef they had long ago with Martin Lawrence was squashed. Did you ever feel trapped in the middle of that past drama?
T.A.: Honestly, Tisha and Martin never put me in it. They did a great job of leaving it amongst themselves. Although it broke up a family because the entire cast—we were all very close. It was something that happened and we dealt with it, but it's long been squashed.
###PAGE###Essence.com: And what happened to your China Moon Rags fashionable headscarfs?
T.A.: I stopped producing China Moon Rags when I started Everybody Hates Chris. I couldn't run it anymore, so I just shut it down until I have time to devote to it. But I'm going to start it again.
Essence.com: I also hear you are singing again?
T.A.: Yeah, singing is my first love and it paid the bills before anything else.
Essence.com: I know and you can blow! I remember Little Shop of Horrors and a few times you sang on Martin. When is the album dropping?
T.A.: (Laughs) Thank you. I'm getting back into It, but Tisha [Campbell Martin] teases me all the time like, 'Girl stop talking about how you going to make an album because you been working on that album for 15 years!' And I was like, 'Shuddup!' But I'm into making sure that I give the right stuff, I'm not just going to give people anything. When I make an album, you damn skippy people gonna buy it 'cause if I don't believe in it, I'm not gonna do anything I don't believe it. It got to be right.
Essence.com: Just make sure you don't get corny material
T.A.: I know! It's very hard. People will give you b--------- and I'm like, 'Hold up this is my career!'
Essence.com: Well you have one great songwriter and that's your daughter's father, Carvin Haggins, who has written great stuff for Musiq and other artists.
T.A.: (Laughs) I know! Yep you know it's so crazy because that's how he and I got together; I was in the studio with him.
Essence.com: Awww shucks those late night studio sessions will hem you up every time…
T.A.: (Laughs) Okay! I was like, 'You know what? You tricked me all along and set me up and I didn't even see it coming!'
Essence.com: You two aren't together anymore, but you're still friends?
T.A.: (Laughs) Yes, I'm friends with all my ex-partners. My mother and my sister said, 'How is it that you remain friends with all your ex-boyfriends?' It's all good--ain't no hard feelings
Essence.com: So how long were you two together?
T.A.: Two-and-half years. The thing is, I'm extremely monogamous. I can only give my heart to one person at a time. I'm not a juggler at all.
Essence.com: Are you living single now or do you have a beau?
T.A.: (Laughs) I'm seeing someone, but I ain't sayin' who. I have so much respect for any man I date. I'm not going to drag him into the spotlight. You will never see me on the red carpet with anyone I'm dating. I see the red carpet as work and I don't bring my men to work. In fact, if you want to keep a relationship in Hollywood your best bet is not to appear on the red carpet together!
Essence.com: I respect that. So does that mean you and singer Norwood Young, are not an item?
T.A.: No! Hell to the naw. Norwood and I are good friends. The night of Tish and Duane's premiere for Seat Filler they invited him to go as well. He does not like being in crowds by himself and he asked if I would go with him. That's how that happened and everyone started saying, That's Tichina's new man.'
Essence.com: What's the craziest rumor you've heard about yourself?
T.A.: I just heard that I was dating a white man.
Essence.com: Well, have you ever?
T.A.: Yes, I've dated a white guy for about two years before (and for the record, it isn't the French actor I've been shot with a few times, he's just a friend) but Black men are my preference. It's just something about the Black man, he's just so… ooooh (laughs). I'm not downing any interracial relationships because you love who you love and I don't put limits on who I love. But I'm the type of person who needs an individual who understands all of me. It makes it a lot easier when you have someone from the same heritage.
Essence.com: A few Black actresses criticized the Black female bloggers regarding the comments and rumors they've made about them. Do you explore the blogosphere and read what they're saying about you?
T.A.: Yes, I love them! I think they are hilarious especially concreteloop.com. I really don't get offended by what they say. I remember one time I went to this event and I thought I was decked out. I think my stylist was unavailable and I dressed myself, I can't remember, but you couldn't tell me I wasn't looking good and they said something like, 'We love Tichina, but she looks like Boy George!' and I looked at the picture and thought, Damn, I do look like Boy George and I just fell out because to me it's all about comedy. Another blog said I had chest hairs and I'm like, They trippin'! I look good and I don't have no damn chest hairs (laughs)!' Most of the times when the media decides to talk about me I'm like, I don't care what the hell they say as long as my picture looks good. But it's only when the comments gets vicious that I can understand where folks are coming from about the negativity and hate, but I just don't take myself that seriously. I love reading the blogs!
Essence.com: You've also been under the same fire as Tisha and Duane regarding your sexuality. There have been silly rumors that you left your first husband for MC Lyte and dated her for a few years before hooking up with your daughter's father.
T.A.: (Laughs) No, not at all. You know you're not famous until someone accuses you of being gay. I know a lot of people in Hollywood so I can see them making up stuff like that. It doesn't bother me. I pay it no attention.
Essence.com: Why do you think everyone is so fascinated with what celebs are doing behind closed doors?
T.A.: Because it comes with the territory. It's our responsibility as public figures to be cognizant of how we're being seen. If you don't want to be accused of being an alcoholic, then don't be seen drunk. Unfortunately, creating rumors is a business. Unfortunately, you can't control rumors and I don't worry about dispelling any because to do that would mean I'm giving credence to any lies that might be out there about me.
Essence.com: If someone asked you to make a personal assessment about yourself what would it be?
T.A.: That I worked hard, I've made all the right choices in my life and even in my mistakes that people have and will learn something. I'm a realist not a sugar coater, so it's not easy. But I believe in always letting people know what their obstacles are. And at the end of the day, I just want to be respected for my hard work.
Photo Credit: Michael Muller/The CW