Black Hollywood’s own iconic Erika Alexander has been thriving since the ’80s. Outside of her film and TV roles, she has expanded her craft to include writing, producing and directing. Aside from her work in front of and behind the camera, Alexander is also an activist fighting for many causes, including bringing awareness to the rise of missing Black women. Her latest project, Wildflower, premiered on June 23. And it tells a story that many haven’t seen before.
Wildflower is a coming-of-age story of a young girl with two intellectually disabled parents. The movie also stars Kiernan Shipka, Dash Mihok, Charlie Plummer, Alexandra Daddario, Brad Garrett, Reid Scott, Erika Alexander, Samantha Hyde, Jacki Weaver, and Jean Smart.
Shadow and Act spoke with Alexander about her new role, and while opening up about her long career, Alexander once again gave her two cents on a potential Living Single reboot and what she wants to do next.
How familiar were you with the events of the project, since it is based on a true story?
I wasn’t familiar at all. I was cast by a friend. One of the producers is named Jamie Patricof, and he inquired about whether I would be available or was interested. And certainly I was, because he’s involved with excellent films and I was glad I was. And with independent films, you don’t really have that much time to prepare. There’s usually very little time to meet and or rehearse, especially for people coming in for some of the supporting players. So I came in and then met them on set and then learned right in there that it was about his niece and that he was basing it off of a short he did– but nothing after that. Sometimes they throw you in the deep end, and that’s where I was.
With independent films, you can get a little grittier and a little deeper, and a lot of times, there aren’t as many restrictions. So what attracted you to Wildflower and your character specifically?
When I saw the role, I thought I could be helpful. Sometimes you’re there to help lift and close any gaps, and I feel like that is what I’m doing as a supporting player. I think they wanted to make that the cast, and every piece of the film, was strong in their own right. And it’s great because, again, I started in independent film and that’s what was my expectation when I was 14 going forward. But then things changed when corporations got involved and they wanted to manifest stars in a very sort of manufactured way. And you didn’t often get the sort of really great casting out of the ’70s and inside the ’80s and ’90s, it started to sort of fall apart and evolve. You just got the most popular person. So popularity versus impact has been what it’s been about for a long time in showbiz. And I think the impact is coming back because when people have a choice, they will cut you off. You need the unique sort of conversation or issue that might be involved, but it also is who’s making it. And when you have people like Jean Smart, Jacki Weaver, Dash Mihawk and Samantha Hyde, who is neurodivergent [and a] fantastic actress, and Kiernan Shipka doing things, you say ‘yes.’ You go, ‘I know I’ll be well taken care of. I’m very happy to be a part of it.’
This movie highlights individuals who have intellectual disabilities, and that’s not something that we see in film on a regular basis or on television. How are you expecting or hoping that this contributes to the dialog around people living with different disabilities?
Well, just what you said, it’s a shame is really unacceptable that we would wait this long to see things like this. And the roles have often been played by people who are performer actors and who are stars. And by the way, I’m not against that. I’m an actor. I’m not really an astronaut. But I do understand that we need to start finding and seeing actors who themselves have a disability or are disabled, especially when we can accommodate them. Often the films that were doing that didn’t have enough money to accommodate them. There are sometimes special needs and can only film for a certain amount of time and people ask: “Why didn’t you do that?” Sometimes it’s like that. And in other ways, it’s an excuse to find a reason not to use a newer face. No one really wants to invest in that, whether they have a disability or something that would be seen as an obstacle. But it forces us to create, again, more space for people who have a different. Way to go in life. And frankly, there are more people with disabilities and disabled than they are that are not. Whether it’s mental – many people have mental depression, things that are going on inside. There’s a huge swath of those who we are as a people. So, this is important, and I’m glad they’re doing it because we need more of it.
I love that it’s a coming-of-age story and it really follows the main character for quite a while. So what about coming-of-age stories? Do you feel audiences connect with [them] the most?
I think that we’re all in a coming-of-age story.
And it never stops.
Never stops. But there are significant times when we can point to say, “Oh, I moved forward” – or there was something that was a significant change within it, just making you get ready for the next peak. And if we think about life as being peaks and valleys and hills and whatever, at any point, we can have a new awareness about ourselves and our place in the world or our purpose, or we may overcome an obstacle, including our fears that puts us in a different lane. And so love coming-of-age stories, but I believe I’m in one right now myself.
Outside of the producer you knew on the film, how was it working alongside the rest of the cast, even though, as you said, you were in a supportive role? It is a great ensemble.
Terrific. We were all pinching ourselves. You can ask them. We were all pinching ourselves going, ‘Wow, this is deep.’ We all had a great attitude. It was filmed with a lot of respect in terms of knowing our time. Some people only had a certain amount of time before they had to go do other projects. But everybody, I think, really rallied to what we were doing because we all came from a place of dedication. They didn’t have a lot of resources. Certainly Jean Smart did and Jacki Weaver. As I said, I’ve worked with him and he’s amazing. But Kiernan Shipka, she’s newer, but she’s been since she was a baby since Mad Men. She started on top. But she works hard like she’s never been given a break in her life. So it was really a pleasure.
Now this is on Hulu. So how are you taking in the change in the industry in terms of all the content that’s available on traditional television versus cable and streaming? Because when you started out, it was primarily linear television and cable, whereas now there are so many options.
It’s a cage match. All I can say is that Hulu has found a way to place itself in the position to offer diverse content that has a very strong appeal to young people and to women. There are amazing things to be found on Hulu. I am currently on the Wu-Tang series. I think it’s Elisabeth Moss, the series that just did something with her last year, and you can be on a really great streamer and or channel or network and not get the support. That is not the case here with Hulu. They do a great job with branding, marketing, and advertising and make sure they’re getting out the word. And I’m really proud of that. You need people who understand who the audience is and where they can build on the audience and not take anything for granted. Because my audience could be different. Why? Because it’s a 40-year-old audience. Those people know me from The Cosby Show and other things I’ve done. There are people who know me now as a director-creator and people in the activist world and advocacy who would love this film and need to be told about it. Screening needs to have with them, and it would be some of the biggest supporters, but also the audience itself.
Now this project is a little different. You are funny. Naturally, you’re funny on screen. What type of roles are you looking to delve into at this stage in your career? What type of role do you think that your fans will be shocked to see you in?
Overall, I love a good gig. I am a person that needs more freedom with people who know what they’re doing. And they hired you because they have the confidence that you know what you’re doing and that you, you deliver. But also, at the time when I’m at the peak of my powers, I’m very confident about what I bring to something. I would love to do a biography, the life story of somebody really wonderful with every word.
I think when I saw Joaquin Phoenix playing Johnny Cash, I was like, ‘Oh, there’s that.’ And I think that we make a mistake when we see Black women, we think, ‘Oh, well, they’ve got to blow.’ So I never get offered roles or singers. I can sing. But there are really great singers, so I understand. I’m not trying to take anything from them, but I would love to play a biography of somebody and also an activist. There were wonderful activists in the ’50s and ’60s who suffered greatly because their stories, although they were phenomenal and key, stood in the shadows of greats like Martin Luther King – or even the white martyrs like JFK and all that. But we haven’t explored that. And I’m ready. I’m so ready to talk about this. People say we shouldn’t go back in the past and bring up slave trauma. That’s not true. That’s history. That’s American history. It should be treated with respect. But also it’s a fantastic place for us to learn about what really happened. And that’s traumatic. It’s not traumatic to go back to the Holocaust. It’s traumatic if we don’t go back to the Holocaust. What we’re talking about is asking ourselves to be empathetic for our country and what we were into so we can understand who we are now. And so I would like to do that. I would love to do things that are transcontinental because I can do excellent films. And I see that there are a lot of British Africans who are here so you can flip the script, you know, ‘So I’m going to be in that space now.’
We know that you obviously continue to work diligently behind the scenes in front of the camera, but it seems like you’re really in-demand now. And you mentioned being confident in your abilities and really feeling like you’re at your peak in your career. At this point, do you feel as if this is your moment where you’re getting more of a reinvention and people are finally giving you the flowers and the jobs that you deserve now?
I think two things are happening. There are people who understand and love and know me the most who have grown up and now they are executives and they say, ‘I’ve been waiting. I love you.’ They’re excited to see me. I don’t I believe that that was the case then. It’s just that there was nothing to absorb all this talent, not just me. There was a lot of talent that went fallow. So was it a matter of me getting a resurgence, or is it a matter of now there is all this new content that’s looking for the best. And unless we start to feed the pipeline – because there’s plenty of great people there. Sometimes they want more insurance that they’re that people will know what they’re doing because a lot of sense you go on and the writers and new the directors are new, the crew is new. They say to hire hiring actors who know what they’re doing and guarantee at least the material won’t be in hands that are just new. And that’s maybe the reason why.
But I also think it’s partly what you’re saying, that to be able to hang on this long into so-called get your flowers means that you have had to find growth and nurture yourself a long time, often within dry conditions. And I’ve tried to do it by becoming an entertainer all around, not only with performing but becoming a producer, director, and writer, also creating kind of media with art on which we produce Good Trouble about John Lewis. And then also Finding Topeka, which won a Dupont-Columbia Award. Good Trouble won for Best Documentary and was nominated for three Emmys. Thank you to Dawn Porter, who directed it. I’m also a collaborator that people trust. So now people are coming to me, really amazing people going, ‘You know what? I like your work. I like your commitment to the community and I like the way you roll and how you kept yourself. And I trust you.’ That’s huge.
We have to get into ‘Living Single’ before I let you go. So there are a lot of reboots and spin-offs. I will be the first to say that I don’t necessarily need a reboot, but I would love a Kyle Barker and Maxine Shawn series instead I loved you guys’ chemistry and banter. You really made the show. And seeing where the characters are at this stage in the game would be interesting. Are you open to that?
I have to say that I wasn’t necessarily a person who was that interested in a reboot. That’s true. But there are different ways to talk about perhaps doing something that allows the characters to breathe. And also respects what people love about it. That would be cool. Perhaps a film. A film is something that’s more capsule encapsulated. So you could sort of give up a nice sort of which would be but also. I think that if people always ask me, ‘How much of that is you as and a lot of that is not?’ There’s no doubt about it. And a lot of that is obviously from the person who created the show. But if you want to know the difference between what I do versus, just casting your mind on a different actor and you’d see how different it is, how I’m different from them. So what you’re seeing is me up there as Maxine Shaw.
I was very specific with handling that character. As a theater buff, I admired Red Fox and Michael J. Fox and Jack Lemmon. You see a lot of Professor Fate in there from The Great Race. I’d worked with Whoopi Goldberg, so you have the hair inspiration there with Maxine having braids. I was bolstered by the fact that I worked with Cicely Tyson. She told me, never to let anybody tell me to do what to do with my hair, so that when I went out there, I had that haircut. You should see everything that’s bringing me to that version. So, I would be interested to see who are these people now, 30 years later. That would be interesting.