The Mad Men schedule clash also taught her the necessity of balancing her personal life with an increasingly busy professional career. “The nature of being an actor, performer or entertainer is that we’re always looking for work. We’re always trying to figure out what’s next. Everything is a variable: ‘Well if this goes well, then I might be in this city.’ Everything is up in the air and you find yourself never feeling settled, never going to your niece’s birthday because you might miss an audition, never going to sit with your family because maybe they’ll call you back. You never really get to live. We need to take time for ourselves, to nurture relationships with family, friends and loved ones. That reflects in your work.” Parris’ most recent role is as Ernestine Rivers in Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of the James Baldwin classic If Beale Street Could Talk—a project that fills her with pride. “I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin. Just being able to get up there and say his words and bring his story to life was a blessing,” she says. The film follows the story of Ernestine’s pregnant sister Tish (Kiki Layne) and her fiancé Alonzo (Stephan James) as Alonzo is wrongfully accused and jailed for rape in the 1970s. Tish and Ernestine, along with their mother Sharon (Regina King), are forced to utilize their respective strengths to prove his innocence during what was a particularly racist period in United States history—one marked by police brutality, housing discrimination and mass incarceration.
The film bears even greater significance for Parris when she reflects on its parallels with the current political climate. “It’s crazy because [Baldwin] wrote this over 40 years ago and—looking at what we’re dealing with now—you would not know any difference, which is heartbreaking,” she says. “I think it’s important for black people to be seen in many different capacities and walks of life. That goes back to what I was saying about choosing things I want to be a part of. What does this say to the masses about who we are as a people and our different facets and ways in which you can be black and female in the world? I think this film deals with all of that.”
When it comes to responding to situations of social and racial injustice (and if you follow her on social media, you know that she will always respond) Parris’ passion is evident, albeit inflected with a politeness that reflects her South Carolina roots. In a 2016 interview with The Huffington Post, after the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers, Parris implored white Americans to stand with black Americans in the fight against injustice: “Dear white people, when your black brothers and sisters are in pain and hurting, it also affects you. It would behoove you to help, be a voice, and stand in solidarity with them [against] these awful injustices, that are so clear to everyone via cell phone videos, and know that it matters.”
Today, when asked whether she feels there’s been any progress galvanizing white allies in the struggle for equality in Hollywood in the wake of the #TimesUp movement, when issues like the gender pay gap are at the forefront of many women’s minds, she offers another characteristically considered response: “I think that it is important in the struggle—the struggle being pay equality, racial equality, gender equality—that white people position themselves as allies. What does that look like? That means amplifying the voice of those in need, learning about whatever their struggles are and asking how they can be of assistance.”
There has been some improvement, she feels. “I do find it happening more. Specifically, when you see roles that were originally for actors of color or based on a book in which that character was Asian or black or whatever and somehow it got cast white. Those actors are now saying, ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t take this. Let me step out of the way so that I can be an ally to my fellow artists who may be more appropriate for the role as it was written or who don’t typically have as much opportunity as someone like me’—typically a white man or a white female.”
It’s something Parris hopes will only get better. Already in 2018, there have been unprecedented options to see people of color on the big screen—which excited Parris. “I will be there for Crazy Rich Asians,” she said at the time. “I will, and I should, and I hope that others will support them and their stories, and make sure that Hollywood and entertainment is not a monolith. It can’t be one single story being told, or one group of people being able to tell their stories all the time. I’ll also be there for BlacKkKlansman. I think it’s important for us all to find a way to become an ally to those who need it.”
She holds herself personally accountable: “I think that it’s important for not only white allies, but for all people of color to be allies. Like my Asian and Hispanic brothers and sisters and artists, they all need more space and representation,” she says. “They have even less than we as black people typically are given, less space to be seen and less stories that are told. So, I find myself making sure I’m an ally to them.”
At 31 years old, Parris has become the role model she set out to be when watching Berry’s iconic Oscar moment. Now she is hoping to find a new way to leave her mark—producing. “I want to be a part of getting those stories out,” she says. “I want to find like-minded artists who have stories to tell and need a place to amplify their vision.”