Resonating Roles

An interview with Blindspotting’s Rolanda D. Bell

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Rolanda D. Bell is an actress and singer from Oakland. Recently, she was featured as Nak in the film Blindspotting (created by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs). Outside of being very excited about this film, I was pleasantly shocked to see Bell, a plus-sized black woman, in an industry that tends to favor standard size, fair-skinned women of color. I had the opportunity to speak with Bell about what inspired her to start acting, the difference between working in theater verses working in film, and presentations of plus-sized black women in film. She will also appear in the Netflix film, All Day and a Night (created by the cowriter of Black Panther, Joe Robert Cole) coming Summer 2019. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Byshera Williams: I just wanted to start with a more general question. What was the moment you decided you wanted to act?

Rolanda D. Bell: Okay, we going right into it. Okay.

BW: We can talk about like random stuff first, if you’d like.

RDB: No, I didn’t know. I didn’t know how, because I’ve never been interviewed. I don’t know.

Let’s see. I took a theater class in 2010 at a community school over here in Oakland. At that time, in high school, I didn’t have anything. In high school I didn’t think anything of acting. I just knew I always liked watching the Tyler Perry plays and all that stuff. I just never realized that I would like catch on to the lines from watching it like maybe two or three times. I used to watch family videos and I would remember the moments that happened in the videos. It was just little stuff like that that I never realized were like small tokens that would go into the acting career or even wanting to act.

When I really realized, it was probably 2012. It was either 2012 or 2013. I was doing The Farm, an adaptation by Jon Tracy at Laney College. Which, by the way, that’s where I started with Fusion Theater Project in Oakland at Laney College. We were in a rehearsal, and the main guy was in there with us talking with us who played the character that I played, which was Old Major.

It was a moment where the boar was being taken to be slaughtered. I had to leave a message with the animals to stay together and remember, you are all one. It was a moment where I had really thought about this is kind of like slavery probably was, to be taken away from your family and trying to leave a part of you with them. It had me thinking about that. Even though it was just an adaptation of The Farm, it still was a message. It really tapped in at that moment and I broke down, but I was still in character. I didn’t do anything, but a tear fell from my eye. It was an intense moment and we had to pause for a minute.

That was when I realized it was like, “wow, I got an effect off of it, like from just really just letting go and being in the moment.” That was when I knew I felt like, “Okay, this is what I need to do for myself as an outlet.” I looked at it as an outlet. Then that was when I knew. I know that was a little long answer.

BW: No!

RDB: That was when I first felt that. Yeah.

BW: That’s really interesting. You said you used to watch the Tyler Perry plays and things like that. Did you ever feel that connection to actors or plays just watching them, or was it just that moment of like doing it?

RDB: No, it was just like I just enjoyed watching movies. It wasn’t like critic thing or anything like that. It was just watching plays and movies and not really realizing like, “Oh, this could be a job.”

I wouldn’t even say a job. It could be a career. It’s like people who are into that are into it for different reasons. People think about the money or people really have those moments where it’s like, no, this is actually something that can heal and motivate and inspire other people.

It was that moment when I knew for myself. And then that moment when I had . . . my father came to see my show. I think I sent you the link for that documentary on that one.

BW: Yeah.

RDB: That is more backstory on that part. It was a healing thing for me, that situation. I really had a couple of moments in theater that really had me be committed to it. I felt like it chose me rather than me choose it. It began to be like from a coat into being a skin, like being my skin instead of like, “Okay, let me try this on.” It was like, no, it became a skin.

BW: Were you in college in 2013 or were you just at an acting program?

RDB: Yeah. No, I took theater classes at Laney College here in Oakland. I graduated high school 2009, and I took a semester off and went to Laney. My school, we didn’t have any theater program. If they did, I never knew about it.

We had talent showcase and things like that, but I was always singing or doing something in band. We didn’t have that choice to do acting. It was when we had a talent showcase, and we were just like, “Let’s just do a skit.” Somebody wanted to do something, but they didn’t know what. I was like, “I don’t know. Let’s just do a skit from Madea or something. I don’t know.” I threw out Tyler Perry. We did that and I didn’t even think nothing of it. It was just that I knew the play and I was like, “Okay, let’s do it.”

I played Madea because I was tall. I’ve been the tallest one as long as I can remember, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll be Madea.” It was just like okay.
I had a friend that just reminded me about that moment, too. It was like, “I knew you would always do something with acting when I remember you doing the talent showcase.” I was like, “What?” I’d didn’t even think of it. It was never like something I thought to do in high school. If I had the option, I would go for it, but time had other plans.

BW: Did you want to go to school for singing? I’ve seen some of your music on your Instagram and your Twitter and you have a great voice.

RDB: No. I grew up in the church, and it’s just in my family singing and music. Anything with music is pretty much in my family, whether it’s like dancing, singing. Somebody in my family has some kind of connection with music. It’s just something that I just never thought to pursue.

I’ve always been open to trying stuff and being okay with being a plus-sized woman. I’ve always been the big girl, like elementary school on up, even college. I never thought about it, because I’m me. Growing up with my mother and her showing that type of love and knowing what love is and self love. I just felt like that’s probably what helped me to really be open to trying stuff. I’m just taking my theater class. A lot of people are like, “Oh my God, how can you do that in front of all these people?” I’m like, “What? Oh no, I just . . . What? I don’t even think about it.” It’s like I just try it. I just go for it.

BW: Yeah, it’s just doing it as early as you possibly can. You said your mom was all about love and teaching you self love, and that you just never thought about as something to be worried about. I guess like does that make it easier for you to audition for things even if it doesn’t necessarily play to your body type?

RDB: Not really. When I say my mom taught me self love, it’s just because she taught me without even having to tell me. I saw her, how she looked herself, and it was just like “I love my mama.” That’s my mom, and I’m a part of her and she’s a part of me. That’s me and her.

It’s just that love in general from my mom and my family is just like how I know what love is. And being a Christian, it’s just something that I’m covered with. I’m still learning. I’m still growing, I’m still learning, and I’m still just like loving.

Going into auditions, I’ve learned that most of the time people can audition for things that they’re not even comparable to, unless there’s like certain things you absolutely have to do. If you know you can do it, then okay, yes, go for it.

Sometimes you can go into an audition and change their whole mind about what they want to do with a character, and they can build a character. You just never know just going into a room and just learning a script or learning whatever, the song, whatever you need to learn. Going in and just being you, people will see that. People will cast you just on the way you walk in a room.

It’s crazy saying that out loud.

BW: Rafael Casal, I interviewed him. He said you’re an amazing actor, and it was undeniable for them to include you in the film.

RDB: AWWWW

BW: Clearly, you’re right, like you can walk into a space and make people realize, like, “Oh, this is the right person to do this,” even if it wasn’t the thing that they were initially thinking. Do you think that’s easier to do in theater or on film? I know you’re newer to film.

RDB: Yeah. It’s funny because there was something most recently about Zendaya. She said she would go for roles meant for white women. She can try to change their minds about the character. Seeing that, it was just like, “That’s something that I’ve put into my jar of golden nuggets.”

As long as you can come with it and you put your all into it and you look and you do your research, of course, of what the character has to do in the process and all that stuff. That’s something that’s so good. That you benefit from because you’re going in and you’re challenging yourself and you’re being bold.

The worst that can happen is they say no. It’s about the fact that you even took that on as a challenge. That’s something that is a part of the process of being a good actor, I think, too.

BW: Is it easy to deal with that level of rejection? Is it easy to be like, “Oh well. I tried it and it didn’t work out because I didn’t fit the type or whatever,” or do you just kind of think like, “Oh, it didn’t work out. Whatever,” and next thing?

RDB: Yeah, it was a little bit of both but mostly the second one. The recent one when I felt like, “Dang, I thought I had it.” It was an African-American Shakespeare theater in the Bay in San Francisco, and they were doing their annual show of Cinderella. They always do a twist to all of their productions. I was in the process of callbacks for the evil stepmother. I was so excited because I’m like, “Oh, this is something out of like what I’m used to being cast as.”

I’m used to being cast as the mom, the nurturer, the person that’s always happy, or the comedy, but never the person to be like mean or the villain. I’ve always wondered how that would take on, which I’m so happy about with this next thing I’m working on that actually I get a taste of that, so I’m excited about that. I was held in the process for that.

Then they said they ended up going with the other actress, and I was like, “Dang.” It would’ve been so close to something that I never been able to do before, but at the same time it was like what’s for you won’t pass you.

It just wasn’t what I needed to do. I’ve learned how to just go, “Okay,” especially if I really wanted it. I try to keep calm in the process. Keep my mind on doing other stuff and not focused on that one thing. Because putting all my energy and focus into one thing tends to be more heartbreaking.

BW: Yeah.

RDB: I’m just like, “Okay, I did this. I’m going to leave it in God’s hands. Let me go here and audition, try to get an audition over somewhere else.” It’s like you’re constantly trying to just keep it moving, so that way you’re always working. It’s like even when you’re not working, you’re working. That’s just what I’ve been coaching myself and remembering things that I learned from theater classes and my workshops with my theater company that I’m in up here in Oakland.

That’s another thing that’s helped me. My theater company I’m in. I’m a company member with Ubuntu Theater Projects, and we’re based in Oakland. Being involved with them definitely helped me a lot to learn how to be comfortable with myself and be comfortable being uncomfortable. Learning how to just be in the moment and use what’s going on outside, use it inside.

For example, like if we were in a circle and we were just breathing and a siren happens to go by, take it in, don’t be sidetracked. That taught me how to really take everything in and just like, “Okay, what are you focused on?” It’s like that type of training that really helps me in life even, not just on stage or on camera, but in life. I have to remind myself sometimes, because it’ll get hard. It’s like, “Let me just breathe.” You just keep moving.

BW: You said that you’re usually cast as like the mom or somebody who’s nurturing and happy. Do you think that’s because of like the way that darker skin plus-sized women are usually represented in media, or do you think that’s just because of an energy that you bring to your roles?

RDB: I think it’s a little bit of both, actually, or maybe just both. Because being me, I’m just I’m always energy, hype, and just always positive as much as I can be. It’s just like something that just is, and I think it’s just because of the blood in me. It’s just something that it comes with the genes.

I don’t know. A lot of times I do think that people in the industry get cast like who are plus-sized women of color. I’ve always thought of Hattie McDaniel as like the first person to really be like, “Okay, she’s going to play the nurse or the mama, the nanny.” That’s one thing that I had to keep in mind when I first found out about who she was, who Hattie McDaniel was, and not to let the industry typecast me.

When that time comes, I don’t want it to be, “Oh, you’re always playing the good person or you’re always playing the friend and not the wife.” You don’t see a lot of plus-sized roles for women of color who are playing the wife or who are playing the love interest, the person that’s sexy. I don’t even know how to really tap into that, because I’m used to just doing theater, so I’m like learning it.

Even in theater, it could be the same. I think a lot of women of color who are costars are starting to get a lot of recognition. I don’t know what, but I’m fine with it.
It’s really remembering that people will put that over your head, like, “But you’re a plus-sized woman. They might not want you because being on camera is different from . . . ” whatever excuse they have for why we can’t have those roles. It just makes me want it even more. Not to prove anybody wrong, but just to go for it. You never know what could happen.

BW: Yeah, I totally . . . I 100% agree. I would love to see more plus-sized women of color playing like the love interest or being in even just like rom-coms because there’s so few representations of that where they’re not, kind of the best friend or the comic relief. Which is why I was so excited when I saw you in Blindspotting, because I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s someone who looks like me and she’s just a regular person, a part of this friend group who’s like hanging out and talking and has all these character things that are not necessarily tied to her body and like limiting her,” and I thought that was just a really amazing choice to have you. Because again, there wasn’t really anyone who looked like you in the film up until that point.

RDB: Thank you so much. It’s so crazy. I didn’t even realize it until people threw it out there. That then makes me even more honored. It just makes me even more humbled. I’ve seen the movie five times now and I still find something new not even about my scene, but just the movie in general. I’m always finding something that I attach to or that I connect with.

I’m still Rolanda from Oakland. I’ll always be that. This movie is a reminder. This is the beginning of being that person who inspires the next person. Because that was me being inspired by seeing Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls . . .

BW: Yes!

RDB: When I saw her in Dreamgirls, that was when I was like, “Okay. Wait a minute. I kind of want to try that role.” I wanted to try that role because of her. It was just like seeing that and feeling that. When you reached out and messaged me, that’s when I felt that moment. That did something for me. It’s like, “Okay, I’m really doing something that’s not just for me.” That’s always been like a part of my aim, my target, my goal, to inspire.

BW: I was so emotional when I saw you. I was just like, “Yes! finally!” Because it’s so rare. You’re right. Seeing Jennifer Hudson as Effie in Dreamgirls was another moment where I was like, “Oh my gosh, someone who looks like me in like a movie who, again, is like not the comedic best friend, but is a whole character.” It’s just so rare that I was like, “I have to talk to her.” I’m so excited about this. Was Effie the first character you were like, “I see myself in that person?”

RDB: Yeah, I think so. I feel like that’s probably . . . actually no. When I first saw The Color Purple and Ms. Sofia. When I saw Oprah playing Ms. Sofia. To this day, I’m still trying to find a way to audition for The Color Purple. I’m like I’m still trying to find my way for that. It was that moment when I saw her. I actually saw The Color Purple when they were out here in San Francisco years ago. It was when Michelle Williams was playing Shug Avery . . .

BW: Oh wow.

RDB: Yeah, that was awhile ago. It’s a very powerful role. It has so many layers to it where you see different moments of her broken, her intense, her in love, so many different layers to it. I felt like it’s one thing that I would love to try to take on.

That’s one thing I’m aiming for in the future and that I’m seeing and I’m visualizing.

BW: I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but you’re working on two new projects. Is that right?

RDB: I’m understudying for Cal Shakes [California Shakespeare Company]. It’s called Black Odyssey by Marcus Gardley, who’s actually from Oakland as well.

The other one is the Netflix movie that’s coming out. I don’t know when it’s coming out, but it’s called All Day and a Night, written and directed by Joe Robert Cole. He’s one of the writers for Black Panther and this is his first director debut with Netflix, so that’s a blessing.

I actually shoot this month, I mean not this month, this week, like in two days I start. I’m excited. I’m excited because I was able to be on set with him earlier this month. It’s another Oakland movie. It seems like everyone’s coming to Oakland and trying to find that talent out here . . .

BW: Yeah, Oakland’s having a moment.

RDB: Yeah, we getting some love and it’s like, finally, because all these years all this talent has been here. It’s like yeah, we had our moments back in the day before I was born.

It’s not fully like hit me yet. I’m just so focused on making sure I got to do what I got to do to be ready, because like I said, I’m not represented. I’m a free agent. I don’t have a manager. I’ve been doing everything on my own.

Even finding this gig [All Day and a Night]. Let me tell you what happened.

I was having some financial situations happening and I was like, “I need to make sure I get some money so I can cover the car so I can keep driving for Lyft,” so I could keep my car and be mobile. Now all this was going on, I still want to see if I can get an audition doing some kind of commercial or something, like something. I just want to be seen so I can like just try to get help.

I called what I thought was the office for Nina Henninger Casting in San Francisco. They’re the people who cast for Blindspotting, actually. I had a made a really good connection with one of the people who was in the room with me. I thought it was an office, but it was his personal phone. I was like, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Is this your personal number?” It sounded like he was asleep. I was like, “I’m so sorry, but since I have you on the phone, I’m sorry, do you know if you have any auditions or anything coming up because I’m just like I’m just trying to work at this point. I really want to work. I’m ready to work.”

He told me about All Day and a Night. I got an audition in less than 24 hours. Went and printed out my sides and went in the next day, auditioned. A little over a week after that, I got called in for a callback and met JR Cole. He had me in there for a while. It felt like I claimed it. I was like, “It’s mine.” It felt like it was something I could really relate to, because it’s an Oakland script, too.

Most of the people who are a part of this production, behind the scenes and on camera, are from the Bay, from Oakland.

That’s something that a lot of people don’t really think about. We just want to hire people who can do it and get the job done, but at the same time what are you really representing at that point? You don’t get the real representation of what the town Oakland, what the Bay Area, what we stand for, if you don’t have the authenticity with it. To be a part of this production and knowing that information is something that I’m like so blessed with and grateful for.

BW: Is that why you pursued this film, because it was based in Oakland or you were just interested in the character?

RDB: At first, I was just trying to work. Then I found more and more information. I just printed out my sides and I saw the language in the script, and I was like, “This is Oakland.”

It was a blessing enough that it was for Netflix, but now it’s a Netflix production that’s in Oakland. I was hyped.

BW: Yeah, I’m very excited to see it. I feel like you’re just going to . . . I think you’re going to be everywhere in the next two years. I can feel it. You just have such presence onscreen. You’re going to be like the next Winston Duke where you’re just everywhere.

RDB: Man, man. Thank you. Thank you so much. I never know how to react to words like that, because I’m just . . . It’s humbling. It’s so humbling, to be honest. To hear that is confirmation.

BW: Thank you for talking to me. I’m sure you have plenty of things you need to prep for and all of that, and we’ve been talking for a while so I will let you go. Again, thank you so much for taking time to do this. When I saw you in Blindspotting, I was like, “If she’s willing to talk to me, I have to make that happen.”

RDB: Thank you, I appreciate that. This might be a nice friendship that’s blossoming.

BW: Listen, I am always here. I’m always on Twitter.

RDB: Got you. •

Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.

Byshera Williams is a Senior English Major at Drexel University and the current Associate Editor for The Smart Set.

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