The Equalizer's Lorraine Toussaint on the 'Exciting' Roles Being Made Available for Women of Color

CUL_PS_Lorraine Toussaint
Maarten de Boer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty

"At this point in my career, if I'm not paying a price to play the role then it's really not worth it."

One thing is certain about great actors, they can't be pigeonholed. "I may indeed be perceived as a character actor, but I just think of myself as an actress that serves the work," says Lorraine Toussaint, who co-stars with Queen Latifah in the new drama series The Equalizer, premiering February 7 on CBS. A reboot of the '80s series and film franchise starring Denzel Washington, this version reimagines the role of McCall as a Black female spy who uses her skills to help others. "I've been an actress for quite a long time, so it's exciting to see these roles available to Black women." Toussaint's resume reads like that of an actress who refuses to be defined: from the evil prison boss on Orange is the New Black ("I went really far out there psychologically as an actor on that one") to the groundbreaking series about race relations in the new South on Any Day Now, Toussaint is the definition of range no matter how difficult the material. But to her, that's part of the job. "At this point in my career, if I'm not paying a price to play the role, then it's really not worth it."

How does the show differ from the original series and film franchise?

It does jump off from the original series and the films. I've revisited the films recently and the one thing is that the main character, the McCall character, is a loner, highly isolated, and very much operates on the fringes of society. Whereas our McCall is very much a part of society, she's maybe not very well-practiced anymore in the day-to-day aspects of it. She's really struggling with that. But at the core, she has a family, and she has people who love her and she's invested in that home with her daughter. The character I play, her young—might I add—aunt is sort of holding down the homefront while she's been gone, and now she's gonna try to do it herself and be a part of it.

With the level of action in the series, do you ever hope to be part of it?

I keep wishing and hoping that the writers will add a True Lies kind of element, where it turns out Aunt Viola was trained in the Israeli army or something [laughs]. You never know, we go three or four years, you just never know. I've done some of that in my career, and it's very fun, but good grief, I'm not sure I've got action star in me at the moment [laughs].

The Equalizer is a great example of Hollywood reimagining a character in diverse ways, with the lead character previously portrayed by a white man, a Black man and now a Black woman. Do you think that's happening more?

I think the way they are reinterpreting it is really clever and timely. The McCall character being played by a strong and complex, sometimes brooding, conflicted Black woman, that's exciting to me because it speaks to a level of complexity that we're arriving at in the industry for women of color. Queen has done such a beautiful job, she's proving that it can be done. I completely believe that she's ex-black ops and that she's essentially a spy. There are Black women in the world who are spies and there are Black women in the world who are black ops, so we're expanding into so many areas. I've been an actress for quite a long time so it's exciting to see these roles available to Black women and being a part of a show doing that is lovely.

What was it like filming under the coronavirus pandemic restrictions?

So much of what I loved about being on set is gone. A lot of the camaraderie, the sense of real family, feeling like everyone is in this together, you really do become a family. I feel like I'm on some kind of weird cinema graphic death row because when the actors enter, there's literally a barker ahead of us shouting, 'Actor walking, actor walking.' So we really are quite segregated from the crew, everyone is segregated. It's a learning curve. We're all struggling with it, but the power of artists and the resilience of artists, we are continuing to create art, in spite of it and because of it.

You're one of Hollywood's best character actors. Do you think of yourself like a character actor?

You know, even hearing you say "character actor," I sort of jumped at that because I didn't set out to be a character actor. I set out to be an actor that was true to the character that I was playing. I set out to be an actor that could transform. I intended to be the kind of actor that physically, emotionally, psychologically transformed into a character. I wasn't interested in playing myself. I also came up in an era where that was revered. It was before the time when celebrity was the goal. Part of celebrity is the branding of yourself, and I've never been particularly strong at branding Lorraine. I couldn't imagine why: Lorraine cooks dinner and takes out the garbage and does homework and struggles with algebra. I saw myself as being an actor. And I think the definition of actor has changed dramatically since I started out. So I may indeed be perceived as a character actor, but I don't think of myself as a character actress. I just think of myself as an actress that serves the work.

A couple of years ago you had a season-long run on Orange Is the New Black that defined the season. What was it like playing such a villainous character?

I will do whatever that character demands. It's hard in this town to continue to reinvent yourself and push the envelope as to the way you are seen in order to be offered more diverse kinds of characters. Was it fun? Yes, it was very fun in many, many ways. I loved working with those actresses. It was an incredibly creative process. It was the best of being in the sandbox, you really go to work to play. Everyone brought their A-game. We had an incredible level of trust, which is really crucial to take the kinds of emotional, physical and psychological chances that we took because I sort of went really far out there psychologically as an actor. There's a price to be paid for that, but at this point in my career, if I'm not paying a price to play the role then it's really not worth it. That one was worth it.

Your first big break was on the 1998 Lifetime TV original series Any Day Now, which broke new ground for original programming on basic cable, long before shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Did that feel like you were doing something new and bold?

It was new territory. We put Lifetime original programming on the map. That show, in particular, is one of the high points of my career. It was an incredibly brave show and the creator Nancy Miller pushed the envelope on race in ways that no one has touched since. There we were [shooting] in Santa Clarita, away from prying eyes, writing and creating and collaborating on racial issues in America that were so raw and poignant and brave. We were able to address subject matter that America is still struggling with today. I've run into many South Africans who said that they used that show as part of reparations in South Africa. We could use a touch of reparations right about now in the United States. I collaborated enormously on that show. I saw my job on that show, besides being an actress, as outing the Black community. And Annie Potts saw hers as outing the white community. And we were committed to outing our own communities and demonstrating that in a loving and safe environment, we could begin to heal this awful scourge of racism in this country. So I love that show, and I'm very proud of it. It also showed that a Black woman could be a lead of a show. We're now seeing that with Queen Latifah and I getting together on a network show, and it's happily on the backs of shows like Any Day Now. So it's nice to be part of my own history [laughs].