With Danielle Deadwyler’s name currently one of the most buzzed-about in Hollywood, the actress adamantly gives credit to the southern roots that nurtured her talent. “My journey as an artist began in Atlanta, Georgia,” she says. “I have been reared and loved, and my creativity has been fostered, by Black women—and by Black southerners, and by Black artists of that region. Everything about me has come from that space.”
Atlanta is where Deadwyler took her first steps and first stepped foot on a college campus, having attended Spelman College as an undergraduate. It’s also where she sharpened her talent on the stage, appearing in local productions of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf and Alliance Theatre’s The C.A. Lyons Project, before branching into television and film.
Her latest roles—Cuffee in the revisionist Western The Harder They Fall and Zora in the limited drama series From Scratch—have shown audiences the breadth of Deadwyler’s mastery on the screen. But it’s her portrayal of Mamie Till-Mobley in the Chinonye Chukwu–directed biographical drama Till that has brought Deadwyler critical acclaim. She says of her and Chukwu’s approach to the work, “We both knew we had a great mission, and we took every resource possible and every moment to dig into doing it right, to doing it justice.
Here, the 2023 Black Women in Hollywood honoree shares how art has always been a part of her life and how it’s Black women who have nurtured that creativity.
When did you know wanted to be an artist?
Danielle Deadwyler (DD): Goodness. I think it’s always been there. My mother always talks about me dancing in front of the TV at two or three years old. There’s a lot of discrepancy, sometimes it goes up to four. But alas, between two and four I was dancing in front of the TV to Soul Train, and my mom said, “she should be taking dance,” or “she should be being creative.” And that has just always been a part of my life.
I thought I was going to go into academia because I didn’t necessarily think that art as a profession was the financial way to go, or the thing that could provide the kind of life that you always see mirrored. But then I recall one of my mom’s best friends was a visual artist. That’s the first person I remember being of a personal relationship that made a life as an artist. So once I finished undergrad, that’s when it became, oh, this is the thing that you have to morph with this other point of view.
When you were earning your second master’s degree in creative writing was that you starting to lean into that?
DD: I took on the studying of writing, creative writing, whilst I was acting. I felt like I needed another notch of student loans because that’s what you do. But I felt like I needed another system of support to balance out the craft and working as an artist too. So the intention was to teach, but then things started to funnel into a more rapid pace of actually working and doing things that were creatively stimulating me. It was focused in poetry, but it began to drive the performance art aspect of my life, and those are the things that I was rearing and creating on my own as opposed to more commercial projects. It was a thing for me because poetry defines how I choose to step in the world, how I think, breathe, how I engage with people, how I engage with the various environments, nature, spirituality, it’s just the way I flow.
You’ve had a serious popular and ccritically acclaimed projects within the last two years between The Harder They Fall, From Scratch, and Till. Does it feel like this is your season to reap all you’ve sown?
DD: I feel like it’s still a slow boil. People like to talk about the season, but I feel like it’s all rolling together. Everything kind of hit around the end of 2021, but the things live with you longer. You’ve moved on in a way and having to go back, it’s this weird time traveling that you do as an actor, or an artist in general, to engage the way that the audience is now coming into it. And so you get a freshness in the way people receive the work.
But we’re going to take this harvest right now, and then we’re replanting. It’s not, oh, this is it. I have to go and continue the cycle. I can’t sit in this thing. What is the other kind of work that I can do? The, all right, time to sew again. Oh, we can reap, oh, now we can sew again.
Talk about landing the role of Mamie Till-Mobley. Were there any hesitations with taking on a portrayal of this significance?
DD: I tell people it’s not about hesitations, it’s about consideration and great reverence for the task and the service at hand. The role came to me the same way any other project does. Here’s the script, consider it, read it, let us know how you feel, submit your tapes. So I took a week to read it because I needed to. I was working on From Scratch at the time and wanted to give it its full depth and a full close read. And after having done so, understanding that it had this perspective, this precise lens of Mamie, I finally did the three scenes that were asked of me, and just gave it away.
And then Chinonye (Chukwu) had the audacity to ask for a director session. It was the funeral home scene where she witnesses Emmett’s body for the first time and we worked that through and had a lot of conversations about what it means to be this iconic woman, and yet give her greater complexity, reveal the flaws, reveal the challenges, reveal the confusion. So after having those two experiences of the audition and the director session, we had more conversation with other producers and learned they wanted to offer me the piece.
I, of course, want to carry something like that. You want to pay reverence, you want to honor where you come from. I am an Atlantan. I am a child of these civil rights institutions that have been critical in the freedoms that everybody in this country gets to receive. And Mamie is the progenitor of the Civil Rights Movement in this way. Those people were impacted by her. So that brilliance that she exuded and that she was able to make the choice to show at the time, that’s a birth from a Black woman.
How does it feel to have your work in Till recognized in the way that it’s been?
DD: It’s a beautiful thing to be received.We work in this kind of, at least for me, hermetic mode where you’re consumed by the work. And then to come out and to be talking about it with people — there’s levels to the creative process. You have this cocooning, which is what production is, and then it goes through another level that you aren’t necessarily a part unless you are a producer or director. And then it’s the sharing. The sharing, for me, in thinking about Till, that was a bigger responsibility. And that’s how I’ve been taking it. Having the conversation about the work, having the conversation about its impact, thinking of it across time. That’s the more significant aspect of what it means to carry a film of this magnitude.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about navigating the industry as a Black woman in Hollywood?
DD: The best piece of advice that I’ve talked about over and over again is the most valuable. Andrea Frye told me to elevate everything you do, and I think that’s something that comes from humanity, that comes from your art practice. You’re seeking the best part of yourself and sharing that with people, be it family, strangers or the larger community. And if you’re constantly seeking to do that, then you will always be giving your best self.
Photographed by Paul Mpagi Sepuya – @pagmi
Styled by Jason Rembert – @jasonrembert
Hair by Araxi Lindsey using Araxi Botanicals at A-Frame Agency – @iamaraxilindsey
Makeup by Autumn Moultrie using Pat McGrath Beauty at The Wall Group – @autumnmoultriebeauty
Nails by Emi Kudo using Dior Vernis at A-Frame Agency – @nailsbyemikudo
Photography Studio Manager: Nico Dregni
Florals: Sebastian Jamal
Styling Assistants: Kirsten McGovern
Tailor: Irina Tshartaryan
Production Coordinators: Gabriel Bruce, Benjamin Rigby, Alaura Wong
Production Assistant: Angie Mackay
Photography Direction by Michael Quinn – @_mq______
Production by The Morrison Group – @themorrisongroup
Special Thanks to Luxe Sprinter LA