For some people, being subtle is an art form. But for actress Lori Laing, living out loud is the only way to be. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens and currently residing in Harlem, the self-declared #QueerAF Jamaican-American actress has been steadily making a name for herself in Hollywood and beyond.
And if anyone has the brains, beauty and brawn to muscle her way through such an uncertain industry, this homegirl’s got it. A graduate of both Georgetown University (bachelor’s in diplomacy) and Columbia (master’s degree in fine arts, holla!), Lori eventually left her job at the US Agency for International Development in DC and decided to pursue acting because, as she says, “I knew there was no way I could realize my whole self in that environment.”
Since then, she’s been going non-stop. She first got audiences’ attention starring as Nala in the award-winning web series Giving Me Life (In the Land of the Deadass), a hilariously incisive look at six black and Latinx friends of diverse sexualities living in a swiftly gentrifying NYC neighborhood.
Next was her work on the second season of Marvel’s Iron Fist as one of the Crane Sisters, the multi-ethnic trio of tattoo artists. Although the Netflix show was recently canceled, Lori has other projects coming up including a stint on the sophomore season of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It as well as her first network television project.
I recently chatted with Lori for a scheduled 30-minute Homegirl Talk interview that turned into an hour-plus gabfest. (Shout-out to publicist extraordinaire Bradford for not cutting it short!)
In her spirited conversational style, Lori dished on what it’s really like switching careers in spite of expectations, why social media is empowering people of color and the LGBTQ community, and how getting comfortable with difficult feelings is always a good idea.
When you read about your character Avalon on “Iron Fist” and this comic book fantasy, were you already into that sort of thing?
Hell no! [Laughs] However, I really admired the work that Jessica Henwick did with her character in Iron Fist. I work with some dope-ass people on my team — my manager and my agent are women who are really on top of the pulse of the industry. And beyond that, they’re really sensitive about what we’re doing as a team and the types of roles I’m taking.
I didn’t know about the Marvel world, but my manager is well-versed in it, so she broke it down for me and then I did my own research. And then the showrunner, Raven Metzner, was really generous about giving the Crane Sisters a solid foundation and backstory, so that by the time we got on set we felt fully present in the story.
How important do you think it is to have women of color represented in TV shows, especially in comic-related and fantasy series?
Well, I’ll tell you … we happened to be filming the fight sequence in Episode 6 on International Women’s Day and we were looking around at this pivotal scene of this Marvel show featuring all women of color. All women of color!
As a black woman — as a black queer woman — I feel so empowered that there is so much visibility for us these days not only in television and film, but through social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. There is so much more space for people like me, and people like us.
Also, I feel like the amount of Asian representation now is extremely crucial. It’s not just for me as a black queer woman and other women of color, but the way that Asians are represented and have been historically represented in television and film is really due for a motherfuckin’ update!
So I really appreciated working on this Marvel show in this capacity, specifically with these women including Jessica Henwick, Jean Tree and Lauren Mary Kim, with whom I’ve very good friends outside of work.
Me and Jean are Harlem girls — we talk about the industry together, we talk about our position in the industry, we talk about being women of color, me as a black queer womxn and she as an Asian woman. And it really matters that we’re here and that we’re together and fighting together. That’s some representation that you don’t see everyday and it really makes a difference.
How does being a black queer woman influence the roles you take and the message you want to impart with your work?
It influences everything in a way that I did not expect. When you’re a person of color or queer or disabled, you might feel like you’ll get along easier if you just try to hide those differences. If you just try to blend in and don’t rock the boat.
For many of us, we might have taken this road or we may have watched our parents take this road. It’s been explained to us through that “talk” — you know, the universal talk that people of color have between parents and children to let us know what to expect and how to survive in this world.
A lot of us may take that message and think it’s best to blend into the furniture. And I’m not any different than those people who think like that now or have thought like that [in the past], because we all want to survive.
I’m 30 now and I feel like … basically, when I decided to be an artist is when I decided to really explore who I was authentically. And certainly it’s not always convenient. I don’t always talk to people who hear me like you might. Or like my manager or agent do, which is lucky for me because they’re white.
My team and I are so respectful of each other. Instead of [them saying] ‘here’s what we think would be best for your career’ we are collaborating and not thinking of each other in terms of what makes us different or what might divide us. I don’t think I’d feel as powerful if I did not find my authentic self and really hold fast to the vision of my authentic self.
What is that vision? You attended Georgetown University and got your degree in diplomacy and then had a change of heart. Would it have been easier to get a job and enjoy a career using that degree?
Well, I did get a job, girl! [Laughs] I worked at the US Agency for International Development and it was not easier. It was not easier for my spirit to blend into the furniture. No, it was not for me. I felt it every single day.
How long did that last?
I graduated in 2010 and I think I worked at the agency for about a year. But I knew there was no way I could realize my whole self in that environment. I wanted to be of use in my community and in the greater community, which is the world, but I did not feel like I could make a full contribution in that environment.
And honestly, I didn’t want to be like the people around me. Because when you’re working within an institution, either you agree with the ways and means of that institution or you don’t. And I did not.
You have to assimilate to a great degree in those environments.
Yeah. I felt like at best I could blend into the furniture. At worst, my soul would not survive. For me, there’s so much more space in the world of the arts to make a contribution.
And being that I am so different in so many ways — I am as black, as queer, as foreign as every other person in these United States because all of us are immigrants — I need space to explore. We all need that.
Were you scared?
No, I was more scared to stay. I was 21 or 22 at the time, so I just thought to myself there was no way I could spend my 20s there not being happy. I mean, I had taken the foreign officer test and passed, I was on my way to working in international relations and doing what I thought was what I wanted to do. And I figured I could always go back to it.
But I think that it’s important to explore your soul and artistic vision when you’re in your youth when you have little to no responsibilities and nothing but heart. I had nothing but heart, poor thing! [Laughs]
It’s not like being 30 is old.
Oh, no. I certainly don’t feel old at 30. I think there should be space for you to make mistakes and feel a little immature, but I think that aging is extremely glamorous and I’ve been waiting to get to 30 my whole life.
Well, wait til you get to 40, girl!
Oh, let me tell you. My best friend and I are ready! My best friend is an educator and she’s part of the answer to your earlier question about being scared. I wasn’t scared because I had my best friend. So while I’m out there hustling these streets, I always had my best friend to cheer me on and say that I can do anything.
She has been my biggest supporter since day one. Didn’t even do the whole, ‘Oh, so you’re gonna be an actor? Well, I’ve never seen you act but um…’ She was always like, ‘OK, you’re beautiful, you’re brilliant, that’s what you’re gonna do.’ Boom.
Oprah and Gail have taught us well, child. We already know!
You can’t underestimate the power of having good people around you.
It’s important in your personal relationships and I think social media has done so much for helping people to not feel alone. Sometimes social media gets a bad rap, because there’s all the humanity on social media — the good, the bad and the ugly.
But I think that millions of people all over the world want to be connected and want to show love and want to see each other thriving. That’s what I see and I thank God for it.
That’s refreshing and a little unexpected to hear, because even though people want to connect and cheer each other on, the irony is that being so connected can be terribly isolating.
I definitely think it’s about filtering influences. But that’s with everything in life. Filtering influences is what will inform your perspective.
Prior to Iron Fist you were on the web series Giving Me Life (In the Land of the Deadass), which follows six black and Latinx friends in NYC. Was that the role where you realized you were doing this acting thing?
I would say so. To this day, Giving Me Life was one of the projects that made me feel like a powerful collaborator. First of all, at the helm of this project was the incomparable Dafina Roberts and she was the writer, director and creator of the series.
I was so amazed and humbled by her vision as an Afro-Latina woman. At the time I was still in grad school at Columbia — I graduated in May 2017 — and I had done little projects here and there. But this one had such a powerful, contemporary message and it was something that I actually lived. I live in these Harlem streets and I know exactly what she’s talking about.
I don’t have enough words for Dafina Roberts and how she influenced me. Watching her do this, she looks like that fearless leader that you’ve always wanted. And I felt that she was so much like me, in that we’re both young women of color working in this industry that seems to be controlled by the white male capitalist patriarchy.
But then there are people like Dafina who are making their own way with a very clear vision and message that is for us and by us. And I really had not seen it done in this way where she was just so clear and was so efficient in the way that she ran her stuff. It made me take myself more seriously.
That project made me feel that I’m really doing this, not only as an actor and as an artist, but doing this together with all these other people. Our set was so queer and so New York and so black and so Latina and so Asian and … it was everything! Giving Me Life (In the Land of the Deadass) was everything I want to see in this industry going forward.
It was giving you life!
It gave me life everyday. It’s still giving me life! It’s actually still on the festival circuit and I’m hoping we get to move ahead with it and it becomes a bigger thing. It deserves to be and Dafina deserves some space.
I would like the industry to make some space for Dafina Motherfuckin’ Roberts because she’s amazing and she’s definitely that Afro-Latina we need to see on some motherfuckin’ magazine covers, thanks!
There we have it. I know you also recently did some work with Spike Lee on his Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It.
Yes, I did that over the summer! I can’t believe it. It was just amazing to work with people that I’ve admired for so long. I can’t say too much since season two isn’t out yet, but it was incredible.
That’s the thing with these huge projects that I’ve been working on — I always have a sister who’s there to help me out and show me the ropes and show me what’s what. And it’s all love. I go to work feeling so safe. I can’t even believe I’m talking about working with Marvel and Spike Lee in my life.
It’s oversimplifying, but it’s very encouraging that we are starting to see that what used to be a setback — being brown, black, female, gay, trans, old, disabled, plus size, whatever — is now an asset. It seems the more intersectional you can be, the better.
Girl, that’s real shit. We were talking earlier about my amazing team, the fact that I am able to have a conversation with them about the direction of my career and what roles I’m trying to take. It’s not like we get excited about every queer role or every black girl role or every role that might’ve gone to a white person but they’re interested in seeing me, but …. we don’t have to be hype for crumbs anymore.
Boom! You just said it.
We can have a conversation where say we want this, and we don’t want that. And that’s because there’s so much more space for “different.” There’s so much more space for humanity. It’s not about taking anything away from white people, we’re trying to give them more! We’re trying to give you a fuller palette.
Like I said earlier, I feel like a powerful collaborator in everything I do. I don’t even like to say that things are changing. As far as I’m concerned, because I’m here, things are changed.
And because you’re here, and because we have Homegirl Talk, and because we have Issa Rae and Awkwafina and because we have #fatshion bloggers, things are changed.
I mean, look at Janet Mock. OMG, because she’s here things have changed! It is not the same as it was before and it never, ever will be.
It goes back to what you said: We’re not excited about crumbs anymore. We’re beyond that point. We’re not just going to take whatever is being thrown our way. If we don’t like it, we’ll create it.
It might be white men who created these social media platforms, but we the people control it. When you see Megyn Kelly getting fired for some comments she made on Halloween, you already know what’s up. Things will never be the same.
Because our people have been left out the conversation for too long.
That’s right. And if it weren’t for social media, we’d still be left out of the conversation. [Megyn] would’ve gotten away with that comment. But we control social media and therefore we control popular media and popular culture.
Maybe we don’t control politics yet, but we’re working on it. Shout out to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez! It’s changed and it will never be the same.
It’s changed but it’s still a challenge. What’s your advice for other women who want to pursue a career in acting or any difficult industry?
Learn to get better at feeling scared. That’s it. You can feel scared and still do it and still go forth. I think it’s about learning to feel those difficult feelings. Get better at feeling the difficult feelings. Because they will always be there.
There will always be something to be scared of, there will always be something to challenge you, there will always be something that might make you feel foolish, make you feel ugly, make you feel insecure about your position.
Learn to feel those difficult feelings in a better way, in a way that can serve you. Just because you’re scared doesn’t mean that what you’re scared of is actually going to happen. See yourself feeling scared. See yourself feeling humiliated. Because that will happen. It’s happened to me. Multiple times.
Let me tell you something — I don’t dance. And when I started auditioning, Lord have mercy, I don’t know why I took myself to all these musical theatre auditions where I felt really insecure and uncomfortable singing and dancing!
But I did it anyway because I knew it would be useful to see myself and steel myself. Because if you can feel comfortable knowing that you can handle the difficult feelings when they come, then you will win. No matter what.
We also can’t take everything so seriously. We have to laugh. Life is short.
Girl, I feel like life is very long. [Laughs] I mean, there are many ways to look at it and you have to find the way that’s useful to you. If it’s not useful for you to feel scared, you need to look at feeling scared differently.
Over the years I’ve tried to find what will be most useful for me. I knew that feeling those difficult feelings and overcoming them would be extremely useful. It’s far more useful to go through it and feel scared and do it again and improve than to not do it at all.
That’s great advice you can apply to all aspects of your life no matter what you do. You have a lot of perspectives.
Thank you, I appreciate that. And so do you. I don’t exaggerate when I say that we are truly, actively making more space for ourselves in the world whether it’s there or not.
It’s not like someone came up to you and said, “Excuse me, we need a platform called Homegirl Talk. Would you be willing to help us with that because we need it?” No. You’re like, “I’m gonna show you what you wanted.” And that’s what we’re here for, girl. Show them what they didn’t know they want!
That’s right. I want to celebrate women of color from all walks of life so that we realize we’re not alone. Growing up, I wanted to be a writer, but I really only knew dead white writers. Dead white male writers. I thought that’s what I had to be. I didn’t know any Latino or Latina writers until I was like 17 years old.
It was a pivotal change for me, too. I like to read a lot, and this goes back to filtering influences.
I’m trying to be the best American that I can be, so I’m reading about all these people that we know that are celebrated by white patriarchal culture — the founding fathers, these robber-baron titans of industry — and not feeling any more empowered, OK?
So later in my 20s, I started thinking that if I’m going to be the person that I’m going to be, I’m going to have to read more people like me. I’m going to have to read women of color and that does not just mean black women either. I have to read about indigenous Americans, I have to read Latinas and Asian-American women writers.
Only reading white people is not serving me. That does not take away from their contribution, because let me tell you, I still love me some Ayn Rand. But I knew that I needed to read my Maya Angelou, my Toni Morrison, my Zadie Smith, my Lisa Ko. I needed to read more Americans like me — children of immigrants, women of color, queer people.
When I was growing up, everybody said that you need to read, but they did not emphasize that you need to read people of your same experience. They say reading is fundamental, but the influences of who you’re reading is fundamental in creating the person that you’re going to be — this authentic self that we’re always talking about.
It can become a role model for you and open your eyes to what’s possible.
And, as you were saying, it can give you the courage to feel important as your own voice instead of feeling like you needed to be an old white man to be a prolific author or to be a voice that millions will listen to.
Millions already need you. Millions are already are not hearing what they need to hear and they already need your voice. These platforms are so necessary, so I really thank you. I thank you for being a powerful collaborator, woman!
Get more Lori Laing by checking out her Insta feed, streaming Iron Fist on Netflix and watching all six episodes of Giving Me Life (In the Land of the Deadass).
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