When you receive an Emmy nomination for your first role out of college, people call you an overnight success. But that’s not the story of actress Moses Ingram. Before she donned that full afro as Jolene DeWitt in The Queen’s Gambit, became an action hero in the Star Wars spin-off Obi-Wan Kenobi or was cast alongside Denzel Washington in her latest project, Ingram put in “some solid hustle years.”
“I was working three jobs,” says the Baltimore native, who turns 28 in February, of her four years after high school. “I worked overnight on one job, and I was also teaching theater at the Boys & Girls Club. And I would save my money.” That grind was necessary after financial challenges prevented her from attending Howard University as she’d hoped. Instead, in 2012 she enrolled in Baltimore City Community College and started looking for her big opportunity.
“On the weekends, I would get a bus into New York,” she recalls. “I would get there at 4:30 A.M. and walk around until something opened.” After going to plays and getting advice from actors when they stepped offstage, Ingram did indeed see a door swing open: She was accepted into the master’s drama program at Yale University. This chance signaled a new direction not only for her career but for her identity. Ingram, who no longer goes by her birth-given name, decided to adopt a new moniker. “By the time I got to Yale, I had been through so much—I just felt like my name didn’t fit anymore,” she says. “So I prayed, and the next morning I woke up and God said, Moses. And that’s what I went with.”
Like her namesake, Ingram found that being plucked from the river and elevated to the palace that is the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University had its privileges. “Once I got into Yale, that’s when I got access,” she says. “I do fully believe that I was talented when I got there, but they gave me resources. It takes money to succeed. They paid my bills so that I could focus on just being an artist.”
With the freedom to pour herself into her creative pursuits, Ingram landed the role of DeWitt in The Queen’s Gambit. In turn, her scene-stealing portrayal of the orphaned teen in the Netflix hit landed her an Emmy nomination. “That was really insane,” the actress recalls of the honor. “Nobody, least of all me, expected that.”
Her career since then has shown no signs of slowing down, which means that Ingram should expect more accolades to come. Audiences will see her next in The Tragedy of Macbeth, an adaptation of the William Shakespeare classic. In the film, Ingram plays the role of Lady Macduff, whom she describes as regal and driven by love. After debuting at the New York Film Festival this past September, the feature streams on Apple TV+ beginning January 14. The production boasts a star-studded cast that includes Washington in the titular role.
It was during rehearsals for Macbeth that Ingram, in a throwback to her hustling days, approached Washington for advice. “I said, ‘Mr. Denzel…’ He was like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’ve been really professional this whole time. I didn’t want to get on your nerves. But I really have some questions.’” Washington was willing to oblige her curiosity and sat with Ingram for two hours, graciously answering every question she had. “He was so generous, open and willing to share and teach,” Ingram says. “I felt really blessed to be in that energy.”
Blessings are the central theme of Ingram’s career. For someone who always tried to think 10 steps ahead, that’s saying something. “Now, being in this place I’ve always dreamed of being, I really want to let myself be in the moment,” she says. “Everything that I’m experiencing now—the Emmy nomination, being taken care of—all of that feels like extra, because I really didn’t think that far.”
Ingram is open to continuing to be surprised. She doesn’t fantasize about a dream role for herself but, rather, prays that what is for her will find her. And now that she’s become one of the actors from whom her younger self might have sought counsel, she offers this bit of advice to those who are still out there hustling:
“As cliché as it sounds, anything really is truly possible,” she states with conviction. “This is not me saying I have all the answers, because I don’t. I still have to talk myself up to some things. But encouraging yourself is necessary. Write your dream down. Hold on to it.”
This article appears in the January/February issue of ESSENCE on newsstands January 18, 2022.