Teyonah Parris has been making waves as Dawn on AMC’s critically-acclaimed drama “Mad Men.” The South Carolina native is also doing big things on the big screen; she stars in the highly anticipated comedy Dear White People, hitting theaters Oct. 17. She spoke to rolling out about why she thinks this film is important and what attracted her to the project.
“I came across the trailer before I even came across the script, when it was still an idea that they were trying to get out to the masses and they didn’t even have distribution yet. So they put out a trailer to get it out there, and I feel in love with that. I said ‘Oh my gosh, I would love to be a part of that!’ That was my first experience with the movie.
“I thought it was necessary because I think it deals with identity and no matter who you are — our story deals with four African American students — but I think it doesn’t matter who you are, a lot of us have to deal with that; who you are and what the world wants you to be and how you fit in, period,” Parris says.
“It’s so universal and such a huge issue for teenagers, young adults, whomever — anyone that’s growing up and you don’t know who you are and where you fit,” she continues. “We deal with that, in a fun way.”
Parris attended the Juilliard School, and she says that she was glad to see a relatively broad range of people in her particular class.
“At Juilliard, their drama department actually was pretty diverse [that] year,” she shares. “Five of us were African American — that’s about a quarter of the class. You also had Asian Americans and other ethnicities. It’s a performing arts school, so you do — in general — deal with people that are a bit more open and accepting. We’re all different in our own way — we were all outcasts; the artsy, theater kids!”
For Parris and many of her classmates, the issue wasn’t a lack of diversity among the students; but there was a noticeably Eurocentric bias in terms of material.
“As far as the program at the school, it’s common in a lot of theater programs across the country that you don’t get to do enough work from playwrights of color,” Parris explains. “They don’t study playwrights of every ethnicity. We are all being asked to study Chekhov and Shakespeare, so why isn’t everyone as a group being asked to study August Wilson? Playwrights who haven’t just impacted African American theater, but American theater. Luckily, our director was open to it.”
* the story originally erroneously reported the release date for Dear White People as Oct. 3. It has been modified to include the accurate release date of Oct. 17.