Addressing the issues

Confronting colourism with Love, Simon actor Alexandra Shipp
By Lindsey Okubo | Film+TV | 6 April 2018
Photography Daniel King

Alexandra Shipp loves to see you squirm. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, the 26 year-old actor, who has most recently played Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse and appeared in Straight Outta Compton before that, cites her art school days learning about agitprop theatre as a defining influence. Whether it was hurling vicious insults or bumping someone on the shoulder, Shipp found herself drawn towards that confrontational ethos of making audiences feel uncomfortable enough to the point where they might actually start a conversation with each other. Discovering the power of performance at an early age, Alexandra has been giving people something to talk about ever since.

Continuing to set the agenda, Alexandra’s latest role sees her starring alongside HERO 19 cover star Nick Robinson in Love, Simon – the first major-studio release centred on a gay teenager.

Lindsey Okubo: Growing up biracial is such a loaded experience and entering Hollywood on top of that? It must’ve been pretty jarring coming from Arizona.
Alexandra Shipp: It was a shock, it’s not necessarily where you’re from but it’s definitely who raised you. I was lucky to be raised by a two-time breast cancer survivor, this powerhouse woman who doesn’t take slack from anybody, my mother. She always taught me to have true, real compassion, not pity, not anything where you feel more than or less than.

LO: How old were you when your mom was going through her treatments?
AS: The first time my mom got breast cancer she was 35 so I was about four or five years old.

LO: Wow.
AS: And then the second time she got, it she was in her mid-to-late 40s. It’s true what they say, when one person in the family gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer. You expect your parents to be superheroes and when they’re in a place where they can’t help themselves and they need you, or people around you, it really does affect you and change your perception on life and why we’re actually here. It’s not like my mom got cancer and I was like, “I need to become an artist,” but it definitely made me want what I do to mean something. Acting allowed me to have the types of conversations I wanted to have because I can represent an idea, an opinion, I can open people’s minds to a viewpoint that they thought was never possible.

LO: Yeah and in the past couple days people have been coming at you, especially on Twitter, about not understanding colourism in regards to you playing Storm. How did you come to terms with your own identity as a biracial, black and white woman?
AS: Being biracial, we walk this weird silver lining that extends from slavery and the systemic racism instilled in America. In my opinion, colourism is a derivative of racism. It’s this caste system that’s been created to keep black people divided and, personally, I don’t like to play in that world because no one is going to tell me that I’m not black. There’s no time in my life where I haven’t acknowledged that when it comes to my appearance, it’s not as if someone’s like, “Oh wow, what a beautiful white woman,” no one has ever said that to me [laughs]. The roles that I choose are roles where women are powerful and they don’t stop being powerful.

LO: Absolutely.
AS: What I experienced on Twitter, I was speaking on personal experience and I feel like I was this metaphorical straw that broke this interracial camel’s back. I wasn’t trying to offend anyone, but at the same time, if my work offends you, let’s take a step back and ask why my personal experience is offensive to you? When we’re talking about the reality of the situation, I’m not wearing black face, I’m not putting on a prosthetic nose or lips, I’m not trying to kink my hair up so that I can have a fro. I have a fro, I wake up with it every morning and I go to bed with it every night. But if someone said, “Alex, we want you to play this historical figure but we’re going to have to darken you up,” I would respectfully decline. I’d tell them that there are so many incredible actors that don’t have to alter their appearances that would do this job justice, but as a woman of colour, you can’t tell me that I can’t play a woman of colour because I don’t match the Crayola marker from 1975 when they drew the comic, that makes no sense.

Photography by Daniel King; fashion by Taryn + Lauren Bensky; top by ALEXANDER WANG SS18

LO: Right. As an actor, how are you working to empower those people around you?
AS: Any advice that I’ve gotten from an older actor or someone in this business is that you get good enough to where you’re a part of the rules and you change those rules. You look at people like Lena Dunham and Issa Rae, they have been given a platform to uplift people of every race, sexuality and denomination and that’s what I strive for, that’s the only route towards real inclusion that I’ve seen. The way I see that I can affect social change within my industry is by working really hard and taking on roles that make people uncomfortable, that’s the whole point of theatre. It’s getting those roles and saying, “I’m not playing a black woman, I’m playing a woman.” That’s how you move the conversation and change the way people look at women of colour in film. The way to true understanding is to start a conversation. That’s why I love film, because within that one to four hours you can start a real conversation that changes the narrative, and doing so means I’ve done my job as a performer.

LO: Is that the way you feel about the discussions of colourism and the roles you’ve played?
AS: Every time I get a job I’m happy that I’m starting a conversation. I wish I wasn’t the conduit, but if that’s the role that I’m being put in by God or this universe, then I’m the type of person who will rise to the occasion. If this keeps becoming a conversation about my skin tone rather than my artistry, then I’m willing to have that conversation respectfully, but the majority of the time it’s like, “Oh you should give up the role in order to allow other actors” and I’m like, “You guys know that if I don’t take it, there’s a girl below me and if she doesn’t take it, there’s a girl below her.” If all of us banded together in a perfect world and said, “No, this is meant for a dark-skinned actor,” the studio would say you’ve lost your damn mind and hire a younger, light skinned actor. The only way we can create social change is not by denying ourselves roles but taking the roles, changing the way that people see those roles and making them our own; saying not only am I a black woman, I’m my own black woman, I’m my own person in these socially constructed confines and I’m not going to let anyone define that for me but myself.

Love, Simon is out 6th April.

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