DAWN-LYEN GARDNER [QUEEN SUGAR]
Actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner plays Charley Bordelon in the Oprah Winfrey Network drama QUEEN SUGAR. Produced and created by Ava Duvernay, the show’s story revolves around three estranged siblings who reunite to run their late father’s sugarcane farm.
Being a part of a show whose narratives spark conversations about a wide range of timely topics is no small feat. Gardner, much like her character Charley, is a force to be reckoned with. She exudes power, passion, and grace throughout her work and performances. Her mixed racial heritage provided her an opportunity to dig deep into herself and discover that there is power in vulnerability, and self-discovery having different cultural viewpoints.
In this exclusive interview, read through as the Queen Sugar star talks about her acting journey and the beauty of playing Charley. She also spoke of her own sense of personal activism, social media’s impact to today’s society, and the reason why she is a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book.
Hi Dawn! Thank you for the time in doing this interview.
What inspired you to act? How and when did it start?
In a way, it feels like I’ve had several starts. I began acting professionally when I was nine, but you could say the real start of it was when I was five, performing in these awesome little musicals that my school would put on. They weren’t traditional Broadway musicals - mainly, they were adaptations of fairy tales injected with choreographed pop songs. But for five year olds, they were very involved shows! We were singing and dancing and acting, and we had rehearsals everyday and costumes and so on. In addition, the feeling that I remember wasn’t just excitement -- I remember being onstage and it feeling like the most normal thing in the world. So that was the true start.
A few years later I started doing it professionally after a family friend who happened to be a casting director asked if I was interested in it. Later, I ended up at an arts high school and then an arts conservatory. That is when I started pursuing it for real.
Where do you get your inspirations?
Everywhere is my first answer. Family is my second answer. My family is something of my muse in all of it - my parents in particular. I think I’ve always heard an innate heroism in the stories of their families. My parents also chose each other at a time when doing so was a serious break with convention for both of them. There’s just a lot in their coming together that fascinates me. A lot of my forming happened at that intersection: a Southern Black family on my Dad’s side and an immigrant Chinese family on my Mom’s. I think it gave me an understanding of what it is to be deeply involved in the messy story of this country and to be left out of the mainstream narrative of it — I witnessed that experience from two totally different cultural viewpoints. All of that has definitely informed my work.
Let’s talk about Queen Sugar. To those who haven’t seen the show yet, what can you tell them about the show and why should they watch it?
I’m just honored to be a part of it, and I’m really proud of what the audience has shared with me about their experience of watching it. The story revolves around three estranged siblings who reunite to run their late father’s sugarcane farm, in a fictional farming parish in rural Louisiana called St Josephine. So right from jump, we’re not in typical TV land. It’s a story and a world steeped in Black life, especially in the South, and it’s that cultural specificity that I think invites everyone in.
I think what audiences discover in watching Queen Sugar, is that it is a place to have conversations that are complicated; conversations about ourselves and our world. There is a settling into oneself that I think happens through the characters, the images of the land and the visual style is a huge part of this. It encourages a kind of reflection and relating. The show feels like sitting down at the kitchen table after the kids have gone to bed, when the grown-ups talk about what’s really happening in the world over grown-up drinks.
There’s also this spirit of revolution at the center of the show, when it comes to inclusion within the industry. We’ve had four seasons of only women directors - a mandate initiated by show creator and producer Ava DuVernay. That’s 35 women in the television directing pool, the vast majority of whom had never directed an episode of television before. Deeply proud to be a part of that.
Tell us a bit about your character Charley Bordelon West. What is the best part about playing Charley?
Charley is the middle of the Bordelon siblings, and when the show starts, she’s a bit of an outsider to the family and to St. Jo, having spent summers there but growing up mainly in Los Angeles. She is a complicated, brilliant, unapologetically masterful businesswoman. A strategist to her core. When we met her in Season 1, she had built an empire as the manager of her basketball-playing husband in a seeming “perfect life,” which crumbles by the end of the first episode. She returns to St. Jo with her teenage son Micah and soon discovers exploitative business practices that in some ways contributed to her father’s death, prompting her to professionally reinvent herself and become the first Black woman to own a sugar mill in Louisiana - thus taking on the most powerful and corrupt family in the region. She plays a big game.
I think the best part of playing Charley, and this is in thanks to the writers, is that as hard as she runs outwardly, she ends up running right into herself and having to face herself. And the heroic thing about her is that she is willing to do so. She digs. She asks into why she is who she is, where she’s been, who she’s becoming. She has demanded such an honest inventory of who I am, as an actor. Her biggest lesson to me has been about making room for all of me - including the parts that don’t fit as comfortably. And the discovery has been that those very parts may be where my power comes from.
What can you say about Charley’s character evolution in Queen Sugar since Season 1?
It’s been major! By the time we meet her in Season 4, I think her whole sense of self has shifted fundamentally. Back in Season 1, Charley was pretty defined by her professional success. Now, I think her sense of self is much more connected to her family and pursuing justice for the farming community in St. Josephine. I think she has a different sense of purpose, more and more moving from the “me” to the “we.”
“A lot of my forming happened at that intersection: a Southern Black family on my Dad’s side and an immigrant Chinese family on my Mom’s. I think it gave me an understanding of what it is to be deeply involved in the messy story of this country and to be left out of the mainstream narrative of it — I witnessed that experience from two totally different cultural viewpoints.”
In relation to Charley, how do you think someone can manage people’s expectations if you are seen as someone with a “Superwoman” persona?
I think it’s tough, especially as a woman of color, because it can feel like that label and that weight lands in your lap whether you want it or not. I’ve said in the past that Charley can be both superhero and kryptonite in her life, in that her genius boss abilities can save the day in one situation and be a wrecking ball in the next. And she certainly doesn’t see herself as a hero -- she’s just doing what Charley does. But with all of her strategy, she’s also operates with an honest vulnerability underneath and I think that that’s actually key- to be willing, to be vulnerable, to reach out and ask for help. We’ve literally watched Charley learn to do that. To be able to say, “I cannot do this alone. I need help. I’m scared. I don’t have an answer.” I think that that willingness to admit those things can help to create spaces of intimacy and trust with others and it cues folks to step in when we need them. It also may help to retrain the superwomen among us to recognize that we are more dimensional than what a superhero is (sometimes) allowed to be- that we need and deserve to be supported. I think there’s power and healing in that.
How is it to be an artist in this age of social media where you can voice out your truths and activism?
I’m of two minds about it. Social media has provided such an amazing platform to build power and visibility for movements like never before. It is phenomenal; but I also feel that the medium itself can be limiting and isolating in some ways. For me, many of the social justice issues that I care about, by their nature they demand committed and brave conversation, and they are often interconnected. I have found that that kind of conversation often needs the anchor of being in community with each other, physically- something happens in shared space that doesn’t happen anywhere else. But in terms of awareness-building, taking action and creating that community, the power of social media is unprecedented.
Can you talk to us a little bit about your engagement and participation in social justice and racial related works.
I think there had always been a push-pull dynamic for me when it comes to social justice and acting- it felt like I had these separate expressions of myself out in the world, and that those worlds did not meet except within me. And I really did struggle to reconcile that. I think at one point, I looked around my family and I realized just how much social justice was a part of my family culture -- a lot of people in my family have worked in non-profit work, social work and other helping professions. That combined with my experience of race and culture from my upbringing, what I witnessed within my communities, all of that resulted in me naturally leaning into racial and social justice spaces. Even acting at its core, for me, is this deep-dive into my relationship with myself and the world I live in. Reconciling where I am free and where I am not. Where we are healed and where we are not.
Does activism have anything to do with the roles that you choose to play?
That’s an interesting question. I think sometimes we think about activism as looking like one thing, either a fist in the air at rallies or marches and this righteous stance that must accompany it. But I don’t hold it only that way. I participate in those activities and I believe in them, but my own activism is really intertwined with my approach to being an artist, to the point that I would have a hard time separating them.
It’s still weird for me to name activism as something I do, because it doesn’t feel like something separate from my other work. Especially as an actor- what I’m evaluating, looking at; the questions I’m asking about a potential role or a project- I don’t really view that process as having to do with activism or not, I view it as assessing the kind of conversations that I want to engage in as an artist.
Where I think I thrive in the social justice realm, is in facilitating conversations, either directly or within my work. I’m much more interested in imagining a world that works for all and I’m interested in how humans move through the world and what they find out about themselves in the midst of our systems that work and our systems that don’t. I’m interested in the societal questions of who we think we are and who we really are, and how story and narrative can offer transformative change as we answer those questions. That to me is its own activism.
Out of all the roles that you portrayed, is there anyone that remains close to your heart?
Outside of Charley, there are a couple of characters that I really do hold in my heart, from totally different mediums, actually! One character is from a play, whose name was Sophie- she opened the play having survived a brutal rape, and I marveled at her resilience and ability to hold onto a sense of hope through music.
The other role that remains close to my heart is from the voiceover world -- she was a character from The Clone Wars animated series, named Steela Guerrera. She was a leader of a rebellion and a mission-driven bad-ass, but she had a scrappiness to her like all great Star Wars rebels do. Every now and then, someone will bring her up online or at an event, and my heart will scream, “Steela lives!”
If you were a book, what book would you be and why?
My guess is that friends of mine would say that I’d be like a non-fiction self-help book or something, but I honestly feel like a CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE book. I really love epic journeys, and I love the idea of choosing in to them -- you can choose to go safe or you can choose to risk it all at any moment. And the story would definitely have to involve flying.
Catch Dawn and the cast of Queen Sugar now in season 4 only on the Oprah Winfrey Network.