Interview: ‘P-Valley’ star Brandee Evans talks about being Mercedes and the safety of working with female directors
All eyes are on Brandee Evans.
Starring as Mercedes in the Starz’s breakout summer hit, Evans embodies a woman trying to leave a legacy behind at the strip club she dances at while looking toward a new future for herself. Mercedes is a complicated woman that Evans seems to understand thoroughly as her performance is layered and complex, making sure the audience understands that she’s more than her job.
A dancer herself, Evans walks the line of confidence and vulnerability in the role she moves through the Pynk and performs tricks on the pole. I sat down to talk to Evans about her role, doing her own stunts, the “slanguage” of the show and what initially attracted her to the role.
Tyler Doster: Hi! How are you today?
Brandee Evans: I’m amazing, how are you?
I’m great! My name’s Tyler, I’m with AwardsWatch. It’s so nice to be talking to you, I’m such a fan of the show.
How are you keeping sane during the pandemic?
I am making it. If I do one more workout in this living room… I’m just working out and catching up on all the shows on tv.
What are you currently watching?
Oh, so many things. First of all, Grey’s Anatomy, that’s on pause right now so we could talk [laughs]. So I’m catching up on Grey’s Anatomy, I finished Lovecraft Country, all the Netflix shows, I’m on ‘em. And now I’m about to start my Christmas binge watch of all the Christmas movies and stuff, I love that.
Oh, you’ve got to! There’s so many to watch. So, my first question is how did you become involved with P-Valley?
By the grace of God, first of all, because they told me that I didn’t fit any of the descriptions when I was first trying to get in the door. So my producer, Patrik-Ian Polk, texted and said “Hey, we’re looking for a girl that can act and do pole [dancing],” so I tried to send him my friend at first. Then I was like “Wait, I’m taking acting classes, maybe I could do it.” He said, “well, yeah, you should try to get an audition.” And my agent was like “I have tried, Brandee.” So then I was like, “maybe it’s that they can’t see past this afro, I’m gonna get a wig.” So then I went and got a wig, did a photoshoot on credit and still couldn’t in the door. So then months later I got a manager, my friend had sent me a script and she’s like, “There’s a role,” and I was like “That little dancing show? They don’t want me.” Now I got the attitude, you know. And she’s like “I think you should really try it, this girl sounds like you, some of the things you do.” So I pushed it out of my way for a minute and then I was like “let me call my manager” and she got me the audition and the rest is history.
So when you read the script, were you immediately drawn to Mercedes? What attracted you to the role?
Absolutely! The dialogue first of all attracted me because the “slanguage”, as Katori [Hall] likes to say, sounded just like back home in Memphis, so I was like “Oh this girl talks like how all of my family talks and how I grew up talking,” so that drove me immediately and then I realized it’s not just a show about strippers, which was the part that was scary for me. And I talked to my dad about it, who’s a preacher, and he was like, “I see the stories, I don’t see the problem; aren’t you an actor?” And I was like “Yeah, daddy, I am,” and so we moved on from there.
Now you are from Memphis, so it’s interesting to me that you have to use an even more southern accent. I’m from Alabama, myself, so it sounds very realistic. Did you have to practice even more or is the accent something natural to you?
And I love your country accent! It makes me feel like home. You know what, I had to call my friends because they were like, “you sound like you’re from North Hollywood or something, girl” so I would read my lines with them. I’d call my friend Tia and I’d be like “okay, this is the first line, this and that” and we started that during the audition process. So I started trying to talk back in that – I don’t want to say “accent”, but it is, you know – that accent in everything I did even out here in L.A.
When you guys started filming, did you know that you were filming something special? And are you surprised about the ever-growing popularity of this show? It seems everywhere I look, people are talking about P-Valley and Mercedes and I just wanted to know if you were surprised by that.
You just gave me chills. Yes! I knew it was good, but I didn’t know it was life-changing. You know? I just didn’t know. Like, every day I’m still in shock. I mean, my make-up artist today was telling me his mom is a fan of the show and I was like “your mama watches P-Valley?!” I just never know and I’m very grateful that it’s touching the world like it is.
I was actually talking about it out loud in a store the other day and another customer overheard me and came over to start talking about it with me, so that’s how big this show has gotten.
Wow. I know I can’t go anywhere and with the mask on, they know these eyes. So I can’t imagine if the world was really open what would happen. It’s beautiful, but overwhelming.
Oh I’m sure once these masks are off, people are going to notice you more and give you a lot of attention.
Yeah, it’s crazy. Someone told me, “I know you by your walk!” and I’m like “What?!” (Laughs). And then my voice is very distinct, so a lot of people catch me when I talk.
Now, in the show, Mercedes has some complicated relationships with people. She has a complicated relationship with her mom, with her daughter, and she even has a relationship with Autumn Night where they first aren’t friends and become friends over the course of the season. My question is: do you have a favorite on-screen relationship to portray out of all of these? They seem so much fun to do.
Yes, they’re all so fun because I love the moments where me and Elarica [Johnson], who plays Autumn Night, get to have our fighting mode. Like in episode 3 when we go back in the back and we have that tussle, she’s like “Girl, you know if this was real life, we’d be fighting.” All the relationships are so fun. I love the relationship between Uncle Clifford and Mercedes, but that’s just so genuine too because Nicco [Annan] and I are so close. So it just feels natural. But I love them all. And Gidget? I mean, I’ve known Skyler [Joy] from coaching her dance team in Alaska back in the day, so it’s just a whirlwind of emotions.
Now I’ve read that you’ve taught dancing before. Did that make your connection to Mercedes a little stronger?
Yes, I will say that so many things, from being a preacher’s daughter to being a real dance coach who’s probably – I know I’m crazier than Mercedes when it comes to my girls and my guys on my dance team – so that part made it very authentic. That’s the moment in those scenes where I truly feel at home.
Is there any other part of Mercedes that you identify with or relate to other than the dancing?
The mama-bear-isms that Mercedes has and sometimes she’s not the most gentle with it, but her heart is gentle. She means it. She has so much love in her. And it might come off as, “Dang, that’s a little harsh.” Brandee does that, too, sometimes, but it’s all love because you want the best for people. Mercedes means things from love, so I’m very similar to her in that.
So I’ve also read that you did a lot of your own stunts which is so impressive. What was that like and was it important to you to do them yourself?
Yes, that was very important for me. While we did have amazing doubles that were there to do the head drops and things of that sort, I just wanted to really embody this character and being a former dancer, the dancer in me was just like “Oh you need me to climb to the top? I can do that myself.” I wanted to really do that and be that girl and it feels good knowing I know how it feels to leave the club, or it felt like working the club on P-Valley, after working all day long, going up and down with the bruises and the callouses to truly feel what this woman feels. So I did enjoy that.
Since you’re already a dancer, did you have to train more to get ready for these scenes or were you already kind of prepared?
Oh no, I was not prepared! Jamaica Craft, our amazing choreographer, and she brought Spyda and other teachers and doubles for us. It was a lot of hard work because it’s one thing to just do it one take, but you have to train really hard to go, “Okay, episode 3, Brandee, I need you to stay at the top and we’re gonna swap out down below you while you’re still holding on with those thigh muscles.” Jamaica really made sure we were trained for those moments.
So, Mercedes is probably one of the most confident characters I’ve ever gotten to see on TV. Do you have any pre-filming rituals that helped you bring out this confidence or is that just natural Brandee?
Oh, Tasha Smith might kill me if I give away her secret. So I’m just gonna say, my episode six director Tasha Smith taught me some warm up tricks in acting class. I’m just gonna say it’s call “I’m the ish” but it’s the other word (laughs). I do that exercise before going in to play Mercedes.
Speaking of Tasha Smith, this show is directed solely by women directors. Can you tell me how that felt and did that make it different from other projects that you’ve worked on?
Yes! You just felt comfortable, having female directors, you just felt like they understood you. And they have that Mama-bear love to them, if you’re having a bad day, an emotional day, you know all these things us women can go through. It just felt really good to have them on set. Like on episode 1, [director] Karena Evans told me, “I’ll never shoot you in a way that I wouldn’t shoot my own body.” She understands, and she can only understand that because she’s a woman. I thought that was beautiful, comforting, and to have for the first time any woman in charge be able to say to her actress, “Hey, don’t worry about if you gain weight, but please don’t try to lose weight.” I’ve never had a job tell me not to lose weight because everything else in my career had been about what I look like and shape and body and they were always like, “really watch your weight,” and Katori’s like, “You can actually gain a few.” You know? So that was actually beautiful to know that if you work out, you work out because you want to, not because you’re trying to keep your job.
It sounds like that would make the environment much more comfortable to you as actors.
We never got to see Mercedes last dance in the show, but I wanted to know if Brandee was performing her last dance, what would be your go-to song?
You know what, I’m going to go back to the song that got me that I think got me in the door for P-Valley which was “Mirror” by Ne-Yo. If y’all google it, y’all can find it! That’s the routine I did for my first audition for P-Valley and it was slow and sexy. (laughs)
For my last question, I really just want to know if there’s anything you can tell me about season 2.
Get ready for the rollercoaster. Katori likes to keep us in hiding, which I love because I’m learning and it’s so authentic in the moment, so I don’t know what she’s going to do. I only know a few secrets that she’s dropped here and there in the press. I know she’s going to address the social unrest and the pandemic. I don’t know what else from that, I just know that’s what Katori said. I don’t know what else is gonna happen but I’m excited.
Well, I am so thankful to be able to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time, congrats on the show’s success and I cannot wait for y’all to come back for season 2.
Thank you so much and thank you for the support!
P-Valley is currently available to stream on Starz and On Demand.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Image courtesy of Starz