Amber Stevens West experiences a lovely sort déjà vu whenever she reports to work on the set of CBS’ new sitcom Happy Together these days. “My dad was on a sitcom for CBS,” she explains of her father, actor Shadoe Stevens who appeared in the sitcom Dave’s World from 1993 to 1997. “It was on the same lot that I work on now, shooting Happy Together. I went every Friday and watched him do the live taping of his show.” Still, Stevens West did not want to be an actor back then. “At the time, I was more interested in music and having fun at school and not really interested in having or trying to start acting or anything.”
Yet, it was those times she spent on set with her father that deeply impacted her. “I didn’t realize at the time, but it was kind of going to inform the way that I wanted to spend my adulthood.”
Playing the character of Claire, Stevens West stars with Damon Wayans Jr. in the CBS sitcom about an adorable young married couple living in Southern California who take in a member of a famous boy band (played by Felix Mallard). Her husband Jake is his accountant. Claire, she says, “Is a very happy person. She’s happily married to the love of her life. They met in college. She is a creative type. She designs bars and restaurants.” During the course of the series, Claire, like many women, hits the glass ceiling. “She realizes that she works for kind of a jerk who doesn’t really appreciate all that she does and doesn’t value her creative ideas.” This includes routinely going over her head and not executing the things that she’s been hired to do. She finally just gets tired of it.” At first, Claire seeks out someone who she feels might be the ideal boss for her but in the midst of that pursuit has an epiphany. She eventually joins the ranks of the approximately 2.4 million African-American women-owned businesses in the United States. “She realizes,” Stevens West says, “‘I want to be my own boss.’”
Stevens West herself began working as a child model, something else that came along by happenstance. While on a trip with her mother to the supermarket she was approached by a modeling scout. “A woman came up to us and she was like, is your daughter interested in modeling? My mom was like, ‘Sure she’ll do it!’ I didn’t even really know what it was. I was like, ‘Well, all right then!’ But it was easy and it was fun. I had a good time and for a twelve-year-old, it was a great way to get out of class!” Modeling led to commercials, at the suggestion of her manager, and eventually to acting, with Stevens West landing her first series Greek, a few years later. “Acting was an easy fit and I’ve been riding the wave ever since,” she muses. “It wasn’t anything I thought I really wanted to do with my life but it was a path the universe knew I should take.”
In a television landscape with few depictions of women running their own businesses, this type of representation has the potential to be very impactful. “It’s inspiring,” Stevens West says about playing a business owner who is a woman. “It’s very important. When people see themselves reflected on television, they want to be better. I think we’re so used to seeing men on TV get what they want and it’s somehow not as surprising when they decide they want to go out on their own and start their own business. Everyone’s very supportive and it’s like no problem. When a woman wants to do it there’s this question of, ‘Well, do you have what it takes?’ So it’s nice to see a woman in a loving relationship with a supportive husband who believes in her.”
Stevens West hopes this will end up in life imitating art on a more regular basis. “The more we see of these types of characters on TV, the more hopefully we’ll see women in real life believing in themselves and thinking, “Yeah, I can do it too!”
She feels fortunate enough to have only worked on jobs where she was valued. Where she recalls feeling diminished and made to feel invisible was during her earlier acting days when she went out on a seemingly endless stream of auditions where she was asked too many times, “To just play the side character who is the funny Black friend and doesn’t have much beyond that to contribute. Those I had a hard time with,” the Los Angeles native recalls, with just the slightest hint of frustration in her voice.
Stevens West also often encountered casting people who were unable to see her as anything other than one particular type of stereotype. “I was often asked to act ‘more urban,’” she laughs. “And I was like “Hmm, I don’t know what you’re trying to say by that. And I would think in a way they were trying to say ‘Well she’s sassier and not the smart one.’ I’m really not into that. Definitely sometimes those characters add value to a story but what I’ve come across more often is that they’re more a caricature and I don’t find that interesting or necessary and I had a hard time with that.”
At this stage in her career, Stevens West reveals she is finding things easier. “I am a biracial woman. Before, they weren’t really giving the lead role to someone who looked like me. But I do have to say that a lot of that has changed as I’ve been doing this a long time and I have been given more opportunities. And Happy Together is not about a woman of color doing things. It’s just about a woman and her husband and the marriage they have and them loving each other and it’s all positivity. Race is not really discussed. Claire has a white mother and Black father on the show and we don’t need to really talk about it. It just is. I prefer that kind of storytelling.”
As the product of a biracial union (her mother is Black and her father is white), Stevens West feels particularly excited about being on a show where her character is also plainly biracial. Stephanie Weir (MADtv, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) plays her mother and Victor Williams (The Affair, King of Queens), plays her father. “I’m so happy I get to play a biracial woman and not just a Black woman because I’m not just Black. My mother is Black and my father is white. My parents have been together for thirty-two years and the community is supportive, my extended family has always been supportive so it’s never been an issue, so I love that on the show. It’s so refreshing and exciting to have that on Happy Together.”
Happy Together airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m on CBS.