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Sundance report: Tichina Arnold reflects on ‘Martin’ and black women in Hollywood

Co-starring in the Brad Pitt-produced ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco,’ Arnold says, ‘I can play anything.’

Tichina Arnold is going to make a way. She did it more than two decades ago as Pam James in Martin. In a talk before the premiere of The Last Black Man in San Francisco — a new film produced by Brad Pitt in which she co-stars that is already being hailed as a “haunting triumph” — Arnold talks about the impact of the sitcom and why she was never supposed to get the role in the first place.

“Originally, the role of Pam was a more heavyset a role. All the jokes were fat jokes … and so I’m like, ‘Whoa! This is weird.’ You know? How am I going to go in and audition for this? But … I wanted it,” she said. Arnold hoped something in her audition would get the casting directors to change the direction of the character. She paused for effect before cracking: “Obviously, they did — because my body was banging back then!”

“Very rarely do I get a script written for black women.”

Reflecting on Martin, which aired for five seasons in the ’90s on Fox, she said that while the cast members were creating the show they had no idea how impactful it would be.

“Martin did not get any recognition, really, until we were in syndication. … We did about 25 episodes a season, and by the time we made it to the hundredth episode, we were pretty worn down,” said Arnold. “[But] once [Martin] became syndicated, it was exposed to a lot of different genres of people.”

And as a result, her career took off. Arnold is a television series queen — she’s portrayed a fictionalized version of comedian Chris Rock’s mother in Everybody Hates Chris, and most recently she portrayed the mom of a superstar basketball player in LeBron James’ Survivor’s Remorse. Currently, she stars in CBS’ The Neighborhood. Arnold, who has worked regularly since she was 15 and was cast in 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors, says the key to her consistency is kindness.

That and tenacity. “My father made me work,” she said. “He had a snack truck and then he had an Icee wagon. Other than that, I’ve never had a regular job. Never. Never had to wait tables. This is all I’ve done. When something is your bread and butter, you put it in high regard. So as much fun as I have, I take it very seriously.” She says that everything is a relationship.

“I make sure that I’m not an a–h—. I can be an a–h— if you want me to be, but I don’t think a–h—s survive long. It’s nice to be nice to people even when they’re not nice to you. People that used to deliver my scripts are now major, major directors and producers.”

“Originally, the role of Pam was a more heavyset a role. All the jokes were fat jokes.”

But as long and as consistently as she’s worked — she says success is all relative — she’s hoping to see more opportunities for black women. She’s hopeful that this current environment, one that is welcoming to authentically black experiences on film, will push the needle of progression even further.

“Very rarely do I get a script written for black women. Very rarely,” Arnold said. “Last Black Man in San Francisco, this was a role written for a black woman. But the opposite side of that is we as black women want more opportunity, roles that we can … sink our teeth into. That’s why I wanna be able to go out for white girl roles. Why can’t I play a white woman? Not a white woman, but figuratively. Because we come in all different colors, creeds, sizes. We’re everything. We really are. And I know that I can play anything.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.