Even with an uneven release of content the past year thanks to pandemic delays there’s simply too much television for anyone to reasonably watch. And the fact the U.S. has mostly reopened (or is about to) makes the prospect of trying to keep up with even buzzworthy shows like “Mare of Easttown” difficult. One program that deserves your attention and, frankly, Emmy consideration, is Starz’s underground hit, “P-Valley.”
One of the most lauded new shows of 2020, the breakout centers on the employees of The Pynk, a rowdy strip club in a fictional Mississippi town. That provocative setting is just a tease, however, for some powerful storytelling involving characters such as Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), the gender-nonconforming owner of the establishment, Autumn (Elarica Johnson), a new dancer in town with a very large bag of secrets, and Mercedes (Brandee Evans), the headliner of the venue who dreams of opening up her own dance studio and reuniting with a daughter she lost custody of long ago. All three of the aforementioned artists are awards-worthy, but as the series progresses Evans notably delivers a startling and heartbreaking turn as creator Katori Hall and her writing staff fling one realistic roadblock after another in Mercedes’ path.
Evans jumped on the phone last week to share her incredible story of landing the part (a long response worth savoring), her reaction to the show’s critical acclaim, whether she’ll keep dancing in Season 2 (those stunt doubles are looking really good about now) and, based on her insight on season two, Mercedes may still be in a world of hurt.
Oh, and yeah, do yourself a favor and make it a priority to check “P-Valley” out. Don’t worry, you’ve got a bit more time to mix it in with your summer beach reading. The second season won’t arrive until 2022.
The Playlist: Belated congratulations on “P-Valley.”
Brandee Evans: Oh, thank you. Oh my gosh. It’s still so surreal. Thank you.
I talked to Katori earlier this week and she said you guys are about to start shooting season two right?
Yes, that is correct mm-hmm.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did this role come your way?
Oh my gosh. Well, the funny part of it is I couldn’t get an audition in the beginning. Our co-executive producer Patrik-Ian Polk, he actually had texted me and said he was about to start working on this project based in Mississippi and looking for a black girl that could do pole and act. I tried to send him my friend, and then I said, “Well I’m taking acting classes with Tasha Smith.” He was like, “Well you should read for it.” I was like, “Oh cool.” So I hit my agent, and my agent’s like, “Oh yeah Brandee, we’ve heard about the project, but they said you don’t fit any of the descriptions of any of the roles that they’re currently casting.” This was on Valentine’s Day. Way to crush my heart on Valentine’s Day, oh my gosh. So I was just like, “O.K.” So I let it go. Then I was thinking, “Well, wait, maybe it’s because of my hair. So I’m going to get a wig made.” I called my homegirl from Memphis. She literally I have a tape measure that you use for housing needs on my head sending her a FaceTime video. She’s like, “I can make you a wig.” We get a wig made. I get a photoshoot on credit. I go, “Well what about now?” She’s like, “Sorry Brandee, we tried.” So that was Valentine’s Day.
Evans continues: Come June my friend Marlene sends me a message. She’s like, “Listen, my sister’s auditioning for something that she thinks is you.” I was like, “Girl, is it that little stripper show?” Of course, I have an attitude now. I’m mad because I couldn’t get in. I’m like, “They don’t want me.” She’s like, “No I really think this is you. Your dad’s a preacher. This girl’s mom’s a preacher. You’ve done dance teams your whole life. She’s a dance coach. You have Hip Hop in Heels. She dances in the club.” I’m just like, “We’ll see.” Then the mom, she’s like, “And this momma issue. You know you and your momma issues.” I’m just like, “I don’t know girl.” I told her no. She sent me the script anyway. I refused to read it. She calls the next day stalking me. I was like, “Thank you friend forever for this.” She’s like, “Did you read it?” I was like, “No they don’t want me.” She’s like, “Well don’t you have a manager now? Ask them.” So the managers sent a pitch and somehow we got in the door. I had an audition within 24 hours. I hadn’t read a script. Nothing. I literally googled myself to find Hip Hop in Heels Brandee Evans. I was like, “Everybody else is going to twerk. I’m going to use a chair and be sexy and slow.” I did this routine to Ne-Yo’s song called “Mirror.” The rest has been history. I got the callback, and its changed my life.
So you get this gig after this amazing story you’ve just told me, which is by the way, again, amazing.
When did you realize how interesting and unique that Mercedes’ character was? Which script was it?
You know what? It was actually [the first] one. I knew immediately. By the time we got to three, I really knew. But one, that scene where you have Mercedes and her mom outside, first just the beginning of it, it sounded like home because I’m from Memphis, and the original name [of the show,] Pussy Valley, is actually a neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. So, all of this was just too surreal, the language, the situations that I could relate to with Mercedes. Then to find out everything that she was going through, I was like, “This isn’t even about the dance. This is way beyond. That just happens to be where they work, but this is about these women’s hearts and souls. I’m going to reach so many women.” Then it came out, and that’s when I was just floored. The amount of messages from girls that do this for a profession or have done it just saying, “Thank you for getting it right. Katori did this right. She did her research.” I’m just like, “Wow.” I get stopped every day. I got stopped three times already today. It’s crazy. People aren’t crazy fans. They truly are like, “We can relate to you. I have this issue with my mom,” or, “I dance. I know Uncle Clifford in my life.” It’s just beautiful to know how relatable this story is.
When you did the audition, was there anything in it that would have foretold how deep they needed you to be able to go with the character, or was it pretty standard? I would assume it would matter considering that incredible moment where Mercedes finds out that her mother has betrayed her.
Yes, episode four. And I knew none of that. I remember episode three when I found out I had a daughter, Mercedes has a daughter I cried. I called Uncle Clifford Nicco and I’m like, “Mercedes has a child?” I lost it because that’s when I started realizing how deep and how serious and truthful I was going to have to go with this character as well. Then we get to four and a similar thing has happened to me in my life where the exact amount of money in fact was stolen from me. I’m just like to Katori at this point, “O.K., what type of FBI agent are you because why do you know things that have happened in my life and I’m going to have to pretty much face on this screen?” So, then it became therapy.
You are so fantastic in that scene. I wanted to ask about it in particular. Was there any rehearsal?
There was no rehearsal actually. I remember because it’s such a sensitive scene, we wanted to play it authentic. I remember Harriett who plays Patrice Woodbine us just saying, “Let’s just go for it.” Right before they were about to say, “Action,” I was like, “Are you O.K. with this? Are you O.K. with that,” she asked me the same, and we’re like, “Let’s just go for it.” So, when you see us fall off the curb, that was actually a mistake. When I tell you production lost it because they were like, “Oh my God. Are you all O.K.?,” because they tried their best to keep us safe of course, and now they have two actors that have fallen on concrete. Those were not our doubles at the time. So, we jumped right back up and we were like, “We’re fine. Let’s do another take.” It was like you could hear a pin drop because they were like, “Wait are you all okay,” because we were supposed to fall on the concrete, but we weren’t supposed to fall at all kind of. It was supposed to be like an arch. Then I must have gone too aggressive, and she fell too, and it just got real. We fell and tumbled, and then we both got up and fixed each others’ hair and were like, “I’m O.K. You okay? All right. That was a great take, huh?” That’s the one that they actually used.
When you auditioned for the show did they tell you they expected you to do most of the dancing or did they say body doubles would be involved?
From the beginning, they’ve always had body doubles for us and said, “Whatever you’re not comfortable with, or feeling fake with, these girls are here to do that for you.” I was an overachiever in season one. I can promise you I will not be an overachiever in season two. [Laughs.] She is two years older. In season one I was absolutely the one that was like, “I can do this, surfboard. I want to be on the top of those three girls. I can do it Katori.” Thank God they allowed me to do it, and I enjoyed it, but it was hard. Oh my gosh, these women are athletes, the bruises, the hard work, the time. But I still feel proud. I would do it all over again for season one. But they were definitely not forcing us to do it, but the former dancer in me was just like, “I can do that. I can do that. I want to do it all.”
Your character goes through a lot of heartache in season one, and I had to ask Katori”Is there a happy ending at some point for Mercedes? And she’s paused and cryptically replied, “Her story keeps going,” and that made me think, “Oh no.”
Listen, you have no idea. I still have no idea. I just know about episodes one through three [of season two]. When I tell you Mercedes is going to need therapy. Mercedes is going to need therapy this season. I’m so excited to play with her. I’m actually so happy that Katori did that. The first thing I did when I saw episodes one through three was call my acting coach, and I said, “We got to get to work” and I was like “because Katori is not playing this season at all, and Mercedes goes deep.” It is going to be a very traumatic and yet beautiful road for Mercedes to journey this season.
As an actor, is it easy for you to deal with all of that on set and then just go home and disassociate? Or does it stick with you?
Absolutely, and thank God for my acting coaches like Tasha Smith, Richard Lawson teaching me to let it go, to give it all on set, but you can’t take it home with you, because it would be a lot. You’re filming six-seven months, you could really take that home. I also am in therapy. All actors have therapists too, make sure that I keep that mind right.
You all make this show, and it was a little bit I think delayed a bit because of the pandemic in terms of when it came out, or was that because of the editing…?
Yeah it just took a while, and one thing about Katori, she’s not going to release anything until it’s right, and the way that she needs it so it can stand truthful in her storyline, and I think that stands true even for season two right now. I’m very grateful that we have not started yet because what I’ve seen, it’s even better than season one, and I didn’t think that was possible. So I’m very excited about whatever time it takes to get it. We shot the pilot in 2018, and it didn’t hit the air until 2020. We all used to be so anxious like, “Oh my gosh. We wish it would come out.” We are so glad it came out when it did. I think it was the perfect time for everyone, for the world to see.
So, you start this whole journey in 2018. The show is on Starz. Starz is a little bit of an underdog network in terms of getting attention, and the program ended up being one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the past year and landing on a ton of year-end top 10 lists. What did that mean to you considering all the work you put in?
I just got chills when you said that. Oh man, just it feels so good because we all worked so hard in every department. We’ve just really wanted people to just give us a chance. That was a thing because in the beginning just from our beginning trailers if I’m honest. People didn’t know how to take it. People were saying certain things, and like, “Oh it’s just another stripper show. We’ve seen this before.” “Actually you haven’t.” So, I remember doing press in the beginning and people would say, “What would you tell people?” I would say, “Just give it a chance.” I feel like everyone that has given “P-Valley” a chance has not been disappointed.
“P-Valley” season one is available on Starz and iTunes.