A Self Made Actor
Aug 06, 2020
I have had the pleasure of working with Anne Thornley-Brown for many years. Not only is she an inspirational go-getter, she is also a strong advocate for Black voices & Black stories on our screens and someone who has experienced racism throughout her career as an actor.
I really enjoy having her in class and she is someone I am honoured to consider a close friend.
As part of IYA's new initiative to empower BIPOC actors, share their stories, and enhance their visibility, we will be featuring a BIPOC actor each month on our blog! Here is my interview with Anne.
TB: Tell me about you & your acting career.
ATB: Well, I have been acting professionally for longer than I am willing to own considering I have a grown son. My first gig was an industrial. I did a number of industrials and then started doing some TV. Degrassi was one of my first appearances on a TV series. As Spike's counsellor, I gave her Eggbert to babysit. I worked hard at it. Took tons of classes. Promoted myself heavily to casting directors.
I auditioned for commercials more than anything and yet I did not do as well in getting commercials.
TB: What is it like being a black woman in the industry?
ATB:For me, it means being made to feel "less than". I left Jamaica at age 2 and grew up in a community where there were few Caribbean or Black people. Since age 11, I have been made to feel like I am just never good enough. I have a ton of pride so it is hard for me to admit this publicly.
Take the issue of hair. I missed out on a lot of opportunities in the early days because I refused to straighten my hair. Also, there is a huge preference for curvy blondes in many segments of the industry.
That is not me.
Do you know how it feels to continually be passed over? It hurts. It triggers unpleasant memories of junior high and high school. There were very few Black kids in junior high. When you are never asked to dance and later not deemed worthy of notice, even asked to your prom, do you know what that does to your self-esteem? I did not find out why until years later.
I broke my silence and posted about a particularly humiliating experience at a networking session for actors. Is this really how people see me?https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/anne-thornleybrown/racial-stereotypes_b_4684175.html
Then there was the time in a Meisner class when, during the repetition exercise, a White actress giggled, looked at me, and said "You look just like the lady on the pancake box."
My acting coach who was a White woman was horrified. I don't normally swear as I am a born again Christian but that day it was "Beep, beep, beep." I am not proud of it but I am human and one human being can only take so much humiliation.
Jacqueline McLintock was truly an angel. She took the opportunity to school the class about stereotyping. God bless her heart. She is missed, may she rest in peace.
TB: You recently worked with Octavia Spencer on the limited series Self Made. What was that experience like?
ATB: It was absolutely amazing. It was shot in Hamilton. I live in Stouffville. I had a 7:30 call time.
I wasn't going to take any chances so I drove down the afternoon before, check into a BNB for 2 nights in case the shoot went late (it did) and got plenty of rest. Everyone on set was really kind and giving. Octavia Spencer was PHENOMENAL to work with. I thought "how am I going to introduce myself to Blair Underwood? I found out a couple of years ago he is married to my cousin. I tried to get ahold of her but she was travelling. I didn't have to. When I was introduced to him as "Anne" in the hair and make-up trailer, he said, "Oh Anne Thornley-Brown. My wife has been telling me about you for years. You're doing a great job with the family tree." Later between set-ups he said to Octavia Spener, "Anne is family you know." Man that was great. He remembered everybody's name and he had a way of making everyone feel special.
When lockdown started just as the series was released, I thought "Oh no." It turned out to be a blessing. SO many people were watching Netflix. I have heard from people all over the world who saw me.
Photos from Netflix Inc.
TB: What a blessing indeed! You’ve been a long-time student of min and of IYA, what keeps you coming back?
ATB: What I liked the most is that the classes are really hands-on. One of the first classes I did was the conservatory. I decided to devote quality time to my craft so I let all of my corporate clients know I wouldn't be available on Fridays. I found so many personal and professional benefits that I also did the summer conservatory. We ended both conservatories with a performance.
I loved the masterclass where we created and shot our own movie. I even got to create a character and do a Jamaican accent, something I am constantly working on. You emphasized focusing on not picking up emails, etc. on breaks. There is something about carving out space for your art that opens up the door to release creativity in other areas.
For example, I have been working on my family tree since age 18. I knew nothing about my grandfather's family as he died when my Dad was only 5 months old. Suddenly, I made breakthroughs. I found out that I am descended from a man from Lancashire and an enslaved mulatto woman. Remember, this is the side of my family I assumed was pure African. I was able to trace through and determine that my 3X great grandmothers on that side were both 100% African. While I was doing the first conservatory, I am sure you remember the day I came in and said I had discovered that Bram Stoker is my cousin. DNA eventually confirmed all of this.
I found over 100 cousins on that side of the family where I knew no one, I wrote about it for HuffPost to help others. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/genealogy-tips-finding-lost-family-members-not-just_b_5812a715e4b08301d33e07ab
It didn't end there. I was blessed to receive Jacqueline McLintock's copy of the Actor's Way. I worked my way through it twice. Next thing I know, I was writing. I have written scripts for a TV series tracing the Thornley branch of my family over 6 generations. I have also written a historical romance novel covering the first 30 years of the same story
On my Mom's side I was able to identify a 2X great grandfather from Mali. DNA matches me to 3 cousins who are full Igbo and 2 of them are royalty. Yet, I have been made to feel unworthy for so much of my life.
TB: I can't even begin to imagine how you feel, Anne. I think you are such a lovely person and I am sorry to hear you have felt this and continue to sometimes. How can we all make the industry a more inclusive place for BIPOC actors?
ATB: First, knock off the stereotyping. I am a very educated person with not one but two master's degrees, an MSW from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MBA from York University's Schulich School of business. I feel I have to say that as people without even half my education see me as maid, nanny, and ghetto. I do not even sound remotely ghetto.
Next producers and showrunners need to consider Black performers for a broader range of roles. I was a professional therapist and social worker. I had to go to court and represent the agency three times a week at one job. So, why am I not considered worthy enough to play a lawyer?
I have traveled to 14 countries and served corporate clients from 19 countries. If I can work with corporate executives in real life, why can't I be in the boardroom on a TV series or in a commercial? Why can I play a nurse but never be deemed worthy enough to play a doctor? My sister is a doctor, my uncle was a doctor, and a number of my cousins from various branches of my family are doctors.
Sponsors need to put their money where their mouth is in their own advertising and also refusing to support programmes that perpetuate stereotypes. I applaud Nike and Dove for their efforts.
Most important, stop trying to silence Black performers when we finally break our silence about hurts and disappointments that have been pressing on us forever. We need to heal. We need allies to support and encourage us in that process, not silence us by saying, "She has attitude." or "She's an angry Black woman." when we finally have the courage to speak." Do you think it is easy to open and be vulnerable? I have kept this side of me well hidden. I don't want people to know I hurt, bleed, and feel pain.
TB: Anne, thank you so much for your time and for being so candid. I hope you know you always have a safe space with me & with IYA. We will watch for you on screen but where else can you be found when you are not acting?