Up Next

Fall TV: The Undefeated Guide

The creative freedom of Rutina Wesley

From ‘True Blood’ to ‘Queen Sugar,’ she is in her truth and jumping off cliffs

Most people know Rutina Wesley for playing Tara Thornton on HBO’s True Blood. Now, Wesley is starring as Nova Bordelon in the OWN family drama Queen Sugar from executive producers Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey. This is Wesley’s second major role playing a contemporary black woman living in Louisiana, but they could not be more different. True Blood creator Alan Ball’s treatment of Tara was the source of much online consternation because the character was constantly put through the wringer without much consideration for emotional development. Some posited that Ball’s adaptation of Tara from the True Blood books was arguably racist. But in Queen Sugar, Wesley plays a layered, imperfect journalist with deep ties to her community and family. And while Nova experiences heartache, fans needn’t be worried about the character being subjected to trauma and little else.

[Tara and Nova] do have some similarities in the sense of just being human, beautiful and just women in general. Tara was a beautiful mess and I kind of like Nova to be a beautiful mess, too. Tara was incredibly layered. Not everybody saw all the layers. They saw a lot of her anger. I noticed that she didn’t smile a lot. So I think what happened was when people would see me glammed up, smiling, they would go, ‘Oh, my, God! She’s really nice and stuff.’ Tara … had a lot of defenses and insecurities.

“In Hollywood, it’s so easy to get typed into a box, into the angry black woman — and that’s all you can do.”

With Nova … she’s very comfortable in her own skin. She’s got a sense of confidence even with her own insecurity. She wears her confidence, and her womanness, her blackness, her worldliness, all over herself. She walks well in that. I love that about her because it forces me to get out of my comfort zone, out of my fears. I always say, ‘Nova’s five things that I am and 15 things I’ve always wanted to be.’ Now, it’s not that I’m not those things. I’m afraid to be too opinionated and I’m afraid to think that I’m smart enough to answer that question or that I’m beautiful enough. All these things, it’s forced me out of those fears. This show is the first I’ve been on where … I’m really in my truth and I’m walking around like, ‘This is who I am.’ … This is who I am in the full flesh. It’s a gift to be able to really be in yourself and be OK with it.

“Queen Sugar is the first show I’ve been on where … I’m really in my truth and I’m walking around like, ‘This is who I am.’ “

In Hollywood, it’s so easy to get typed into a box, into the angry black woman — and that’s all you can do. So I’m really excited for people to see a whole ‘nother range and go, ‘Oh, she may be funny!’ or ‘She smiles,’ or ‘Oh, she’s fly! She’s not so mad all the time!’ I feel a huge responsibility to Nova and to sort of bring a … vision to life. To do that, I have to jump. I have to jump off the cliff and, just hopefully, I will fall on my feet … and I have, luckily, with this wonderful cast that I’ve had. They’ve caught me every time I’ve thought I was going to fall. Not every show is built on a strong foundation. Sometimes, as actors, we have to come in and … work miracles. … Here [on Queen Sugar], it was like, ‘Oh, we get to play? We get to just saysome lines and play with each other and create? Right. Let’s do that!’ You can’t help but be at your best in this situation. It’s not that they demand it — you just can’t help it … the foundation built for you to be at your best. So you just go from there.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.