Essence Atkins has one of the most recognizable faces in Black Hollywood. Since catching the acting bug as a young girl, we’ve seen Atkins do everything from television commercials to playing opposite former teen star Tahj Mowry in Disney’s hit sitcom, “Smart Guy,” and later starring in UPN’s “Half & Half.”
The model-turned-actress went on to land a starring role alongside Terry Cruz in the television adaptation of “Are We There Yet?” and is now appearing in Will Packer’s hot new soap opera, “Ambitions,” on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
“Ambitions” offers Atkins an opportunity to shed her often inexperienced, good girl character type to play a more layered role. When introduced, Atkins’ character, Amara Hughes, is in the process of attempting to revive her failing marriage. Instead of following the stereotypical script, this marriage is suffering from infidelity after a conflicted wife has a workplace affair.
Atkins shared with rolling out her thoughts on the roles for Black women showcased in television and film.
Did you enjoy playing a role where the woman was the one who cheated and destroyed the trust in the relationship instead of the typical cheating husband and wounded wife?
Absolutely. The thing is they are not one-dimensional [characters]. No one is all good or all bad. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone grows, learns, falls — it’s not exclusive to men or women. I loved being able to play a flawed woman who has all these layers and being able to introduce the audience to her journey to rebuild her marriage. … It’ll be intriguing to see how [they] restore that trust or even if they are able to do that.
Hollywood responded to the #MeToo movement, but many feel that Black women were left out of the conversation. Do you believe that’s true?
I think women of color have a harder time being heard, and the climate and culture are such that historically we’ve been treated as objects for sale. There is less of a “preciousness” when an infraction is committed against us. From the women that I know who have experienced sexual assault or misconduct, there is always this guilt or shame that they experience. One of my best friends, Gabrielle Union, is a sexual assault survivor, and even though she was raped at gunpoint in her uniform while on the job, there are still questions from people not familiar with the story like, “What was she wearing?” Like there is always an assumption of guilt rather than innocence.
When it comes to your body and the violation of it, that’s such a great travesty of justice to have your innocence questioned out [of] the gate. So I’m glad that we’ve seen a shift in positions of power so that now there are at least places to go to if a woman experiences something like that instead of being dismissed like in the past and even recently by 45, like it was just some type of locker-room talk that we have to accept.
Recently you praised the show for the unpredictable lesbian storyline and the reaction from other characters. What made it special?
I am going to give you guys the inside scoop on that ’cause when we read [the script] we were … all just really excited about the fact that that’s how they wrote Stephanie’s reaction [to finding out her daughter is a lesbian]. It was like, “It’s really not about you being gay. It really is about you can like girls — just not that girl.”
It’s really about the family … and the fact that they’re two women is not of concern to the players. So I’m really proud of that aspect of our storytelling.
What has kept you working and relevant in this business for more than 20 years?
I wouldn’t say that I haven’t been affected by any ups and downs, but I’m blessed to have been able to work consistently. I was taught to be professional at all times and you have to value your relationships. That goes a long way. You show up on time, you give your all and you hope for the best, and for me, that has worked.
If you could speak to your younger self in terms of your career, what advice would you give yourself?
You don’t have to be the hare; the tortoise wins the race. It’s OK that you’re not keeping up with the Joneses. … Run your own race, and that’s perfectly fine, and trust that because acceleration, when you are not prepared, is devastation.
Images by Nathan Pearcy Photography