How Cleopatra Coleman Transformed Into V. Stiviano for Clipped

The Australian actress talks finding compassion for the woman at the center of one of the NBA’s biggest scandals.

cleopatra coleman
Photograph by Dana Boulos

In 2014, TMZ Sports released a recording of a private conversation between Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, and his mistress and former assistant, V. Stiviano (née María Vanessa Perez). “It bothers me that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with Black people,” Sterling could be heard saying to Stiviano, who is herself of Black heritage. What followed became a piece of pop-culture history: a misogynistic, bigoted, power-drunk man’s public cancellation, and a lifelong ban from the organization that once earned him millions of dollars.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this story. FX has released a limited series based on the dramatic and salacious details behind Sterling, the Clippers players, and coach Doc Rivers—and, most importantly, Stiviano, who leaked the tapes to TMZ. In Clipped, airing on Hulu every Tuesday, Stiviano is played by the Australian actress Cleopatra Coleman, who nails her character’s complexities and nuances. She is absolutely the most compelling role, alongside an excellent Laurence Fishburne as Rivers, Ed O’Neill as Sterling, and Jacki Weaver as Shelly, Sterling’s wife. Obsessed with reality TV, the Kardashians, and becoming famous, Stiviano uses her quick wit and business acumen to get ahead, giving Mr. Sterling foot rubs in exchange for meetings with Hollywood bigwigs and accepting a Ferrari as compensation for being in her company. The show, created by Gina Welch, captures the paparazzi frenzy of the 2010s and provides cheeky commentary on the cult of celebrity, greed, and the pervasiveness of everyday racism. “There’s a version of this show where V. is as flat as the media’s representation of her,” Coleman tells W. “There was so much to her, so much vulnerability,” but also, Coleman notes, “She can be ruthless.”

From left: Jacki Weaver as Shelly Sterling, Ed O’Neill as Donald Sterling, and Coleman as V. Stiviano in a scene from Clipped.

Courtesy of FX

V. is the kind of character one could easily judge: She’s a clout chaser and has this relationship with a problematic, married man. How were you able to reserve that judgment?

During the news cycle of this scandal, there was a very limited idea of who V. was. She, like all of us, is more than one thing. So I’ve been examining her humanity and not shying away from the less likable sides of her. I tried to understand what’s fueling her behavior and what her motivations are—approaching her with compassion. When I got to the first table read with Laurence, Ed, and Jacki, I wasn’t just feeling nervous because I was reading in front of these legends, I felt unsafe playing someone people enjoyed not liking. I had to unpack that feeling. What I ended up with, I think, speaks to what it means, as a woman, to be openly ambitious, to take up space, and not be afraid to be unlikable. It enriched my perspective on her.

Coleman as V. Stiviano in Clipped.

Courtesy of FX

In the fourth episode viewers receive some insight into V.’s origin story. How did you prepare for that?

Going back in time to explore the roots of this character required me to tap into a lot of the prep that I’d done. I found myself going back to my original notes. I saw her as a survivor, and as someone who required safety and security. This is someone who’s come from poverty. This is someone who had to steal to eat. So it was about finding out what that turned into, and how she went about surviving. Physically speaking, it was a hair change and some prosthetics.

V.’s look is so unique to her and so 2010s: the ripped skinny jeans, bedazzled baseball caps, and pleather moto jackets.

[Our costume designer] Catherine Adair was wonderful. I didn’t need to steer her too much—she brought all the jeans, she brought the belt with the fuzzy tail attached, a little nod to the character being Mr. Sterling’s “silly rabbit.” She brought the glittering Chanel bag with the chain, and those bizarre wedge sneakers. We got to be really specific and were able to recreate her exact outfits at times, because there were paparazzi images that we could reference.

Courtesy of FX

Like the turtle photo shoot.

Yes! That is 100 percent real. She’s wearing 10 Chanel necklaces with a sheer top and she’s holding a tortoise. She’s going to 1 Oak with a visor. That actually happened. This is why I love V., because she showed an intelligence and a sense of humor about fame at that time. She’s doing all this on purpose. People were like, what? That’s so weird. But it’s more than weird. I think it’s her having fun.

Her beauty look is also very much of that time.

It’s a full beat. I loved the heavy liner, the contouring, and the big lashes. We used surgical glue to create skin texture and acne scars, these little dots on my cheeks that would pucker the skin. That was really effective. However, it ruined my skin barrier; I had to work on that for a full year after filming. But I was so committed! And it speaks to the character. It looked so real that there was one makeup artist on set who I’d worked with on Rebel Moon. He asked, “Damn, what’s going on with Cleo's skin?” She was like, “It’s makeup!”

Courtesy of FX

Let’s get into the Beauty Notes questions. What is the best beauty tip that you picked up on set?

Through playing this character, I actually discovered and fell in love with my favorite new lip liner: MAC’s Lip Pencil in Stone, a kind of grayish-brown. I use it every day.

Overall, you can never prep your skin enough, especially when you’re wearing a lot of makeup. I always remember to take my face off at work, even if I’m going home to wash my face again. You just don’t want to sleep in that much makeup. Plus, it feels good to take it all off and become yourself again.

What is the biggest skincare rule that you abide by?

Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen: a tinted sunscreen or a moisturizer with SPF. It’s not a joke, especially in L.A. I grew up in Australia, never thinking about it—I was at the beach every day, in the sun all the time. I got sunburnt so many times, where you’re peeling your skin off your shoulders, and that was proof you’d had a good summer. But we can’t be playing with that now. No matter what your skin tone, you’ve got to slap on some sunscreen.