Lorraine Toussaint: ‘acting has always been like breathing’

Trinidad-born, US-based actress Lorraine Toussaint opens up to Caroline Taylor about her illustrious career on stage and screen

Lorraine Toussaint, left, as Captain Kate Perry with her co-stars Holly Hunter and Kenneth Johnson in the squad room. Photograph courtesy TNT/Erik Heinila

Right now, I’m doing a film called The Soloist. It’s directed by Joe Wright, who I love, and who directed Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice. It’s about a young black man, played by Jamie Foxx, who in his youth was a child prodigy and virtuoso violinist who had gone to Juilliard, but began having schizophrenic episodes and ended up on the streets. A reporter, played by Robert Downey Jr, discovers him and begins writing articles on him, and tries to bring him off the streets. I play Jamie’s mother from about 12 to 25, and we just started principal shooting on that. If we’re lucky, it’ll be released at the end of this year, maybe Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I’ve also been producing on and off, and there’s one project in the pipeline ready to go, called An Accidental Friendship. It’s based on an article I found in the LA Times with my partner, Chris Rose. It’s about a homeless woman who has developed a very intimate friendship with a police officer, based on the fact that the homeless woman was spending most of her resources and most of her day collecting bottles and trying to get money to take care of her dog! The police officer noticed that she was neglecting herself but taking really exquisite care of her dog, so she started helping her and literally took her into her home. Chris and I have developed a lovely story around these two extraordinary women. Hallmark has purchased it, so hopefully we’ll get it shot in the next few months.

I’ve done acting since I was 11 years old, and it has always been like breathing. I loved the discipline of the curricula at the High School of the Performing Arts and Juilliard, eating and breathing it from nine in the morning to 11 at night. It was effortless to me.

And this—being an artist—is one of the purposes I was born to. And when I say purposes, I mean acts of service in the highest sense, where I am in service to the infinite. Another of them is being a mother, the charge to love, gently guide and create an environment where my daughter remembers who and what she is and why she has come to this planet, where that reveals itself and blossoms in ways that are non-violent, creative, loving, joyous, peaceful, responsible—to herself and to her planet. That’s my gift, and how I perceive parenting with her.

It’s really important to me to bring my daughter home to Trinidad too, to have her identify herself partly as a Caribbean woman. It has served me in the world.

It’s an empowering perspective on the world, to be from a place where being a person of colour does not render you a minority. This is going to sound so weird, but it wasn’t until I got to Juilliard that I realised I actually might be “black”—that there might actually be restrictions placed on me because I was the colour that I am…I had no frame of reference for racism. People were probably being hateful to me and I didn’t even know it or put it in that category. Most white people in the western world do not wake up and think, “I am a white man going into the world to do battle as a white man.” And I didn’t say, “Good morning, you’re black, going out into the world where you are a minority and you will be battling as a black person.” And that is the power of growing up in the Caribbean.

But there were specific incidents at Juilliard that began to awaken me. Reviews…in my early career were excellent, but always littered with terms like “dusky,” “exotic,” and other odd words. I was young and firm and fine, and when I went in for television, there were a lot of prostitute roles coming my way. But very early on, I decided to be very discerning about what I wanted to do and the things I would be proud to have my mother see me do. Now I would play a ho in a minute!

It was odd, though, because when I tried to do things like get in to the Negro Ensemble Company, in its heyday in New York City at the time, I was this black actress trained up the wazoo, and wasn’t black enough! There I was, sort of straddling two worlds, one where I was too black, and the other where I wasn’t black enough.

It wasn’t a problem. It just gave rise to an interesting career, and showed me early on that I was to go my own way, write my own ticket and create my own niche. Because I was odd! I did speak well. I did have that Caribbean thing. I did have this quality they couldn’t quite recognise, that I felt would serve me. And it has.

I learned very early on too that what you do matters. Especially on television, when you’re reaching millions of people, you must be responsible in the roles you do and how you do them. The level of excellence you bring. And that’s my mother—she used to say, whatever you do, do it well. And I really took that to heart.

As I’m getting older I’m so much more unselfconscious, and have so little investment any more in how I’m perceived that it’s very freeing. I had so much fun doing “Yoga” in Ugly Betty, because it’s not a character people think I’m even capable of, and it was just so outrageous. I usually play these uppity, dicty [classy] black women who have been well bred and properly brought up. And that is certainly a part of who and what I am, but good lord, there’s so much more in there and so many more fun aspects of me that I don’t usually get called upon to portray. I have a great deal of fun now. It’s lovely. I enjoy being the terrific hybrid Caribbean-American-European that I am, and knowing that at 48, Mama’s still got it!

Notable screen appearances

Saving Grace: Captain Kate Perry (2007–2008)

Ugly Betty: Yoga (six episodes, 2007)

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Marla James (three episodes, 2006–2007)

Oprah Winfrey presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005)

(TV mini series): Pearl Stone

Law & Order: Shambala Green (seven episodes, 1990–2003)

Crossing Jordan: Dr Elaine Duchamps (six episodes, 2002–2003)

Any Day Now: Rene Jackson (1998–2002)

The Cherokee Kid (1996) (TV): Mama Turner

If These Walls Could Talk (1996) (TV): Shameeka Webb (segment “1996”)

Dangerous Minds (1995): Irene Roberts

Alex Haley’s Queen (1993) TV mini-series: Joyce