In the past year, you may have felt like you’ve seen Noma Dumezweni, the decorated stage actress known for her Tony-nominated turn as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, everywhere on television. After a few guest spots on British TV over the last 20 years, Dumezweni appeared opposite Michaela Coel in Black Earth Rising, Netflix’s mystery drama series about post-genocide Rwanda in 2018, and since then, has steadily built up a small handful of series regular roles. Everything changed last fall when she popped up on HBO’s The Undoing as the matter-of-fact attorney hired to defend accused murderer Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) and stole nearly every scene in which she appeared. This year, she showed up on the sci-fi rom-com Made For Love as Fiffany, a marine biologist, and now, she has landed a guest spot on Pose, as Elektra Wintour’s mother, Tasha Jackson.
In the third episode of Pose’s third season titled “The Trunk,” fans were given a treat long in the making: an Elektra-centered backstory. While the episode shows that the hijinks of her more recent past may be coming back to bite her, audiences are given a peek at Elektra all the way back in 1978. Long before she became a House Mother, she was sneaking out of her own mother’s house in a Halston ensemble to work the piers at night. Tasha Jackson, unable to accept her daughter as a woman, kicks Elektra out and demands to keep the trunk of designer goods hidden in her closet.
Dumezweni spoke to W about the final season of Pose, the learning curve of moving from the stage to the screen, and her banner year as a television character actor.
You seem to be showing up all over television this year, and yet it was still a pleasant surprise to see you pop up on Pose as Elektra’s mother. Were you a fan of the show before you signed on for the episode?
Absolutely and totally. When I heard they’d like to give me this role, I was like, “Shut the fuck up!” And then when I found out whose mother I was going to play, I was like, “Shut the fuck up!” After saying yes to the gig and reading the script, I got very scared because it was really emotional, and I found out at that point it was based on Dominique’s story. And then they said I would have to play an American with a bit of an island accent and I was like, “Oh, shit!” It was a quick turnaround, and I had just come back from finishing Made For Love. The first person I met of the producers was Janet Mock, and I just basically fangirled and screamed, “You’re amazing!” [Laughs.]
What was it like meeting Dominique Jackson for the first time, and knowing you would have to play her mother and portray her in a bit of harsh light?
She is amazing because she is a singular character and actress—the style and the commitment! I did a couple of Zooms with her beforehand to say hi, and the first filming day I was really nervous. I told Dominique, “I am very nervous this morning and I think it’s better to be honest. Let’s see where we are and do the best that we can. I’m not your mother, but we are actors together and we are going to create a story together.” And god bless her, it was great!
Until this point in the series, we had not seen much of a backstory for Elektra, and I think a lot of people had been wondering, “Why is she always so hard on everyone else?”
That was interesting. I would watch the show and see a deep anger in Elektra and go, “What is that?” When I got the script I was like, “How are we going to do this?” I was trying to figure out, where is the heart of this woman, her mother? I go, “What do I know in my life?” and the answer is, well, I’m a mother. But now I’ve got to transpose myself into being a mother in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and with this grown child who is not the child I wanted. You go, “I can’t imagine that.” But that’s the joy of acting. And there is always love there—no matter how mixed up or messed up it is—and vulnerability.
Was it ever difficult going toe to toe with someone like Dominique, especially in those darker scenes between Elektra and her mother, who rejects her as a woman?
It was great because she trusted me and I trusted her. It was like, let’s play. Let’s see how far we can push it, and then it’s up to [director] Tina Mabry and the producers to shape the episode.
It’s always interesting watching a cut of something that you’ve done. This is a big learning curve from me doing more TV, because what I have in my head with what we’ve done is not what I see up there. I loved seeing Dominique’s Elektra being so vulnerable, that child needing the mother. But at the end of the episode, when Tasha is feeling scared and vulnerable and says she needed to just be who she was to be there for her child, you realize we are talking about different timescales. She sacrificed some things as a woman, and is a single mom.
Do you think that loneliness is informing some of her animosity and inability to accept her own daughter?
Age mellows us but it hardens us in a different way. I’m always surprised at how many old people can be stupid—I mean, emotionally. There is a lack of emotional intelligence that is surprising to me. Age does not mean wise. Every individual is trying to figure out who the fuck they are, and if they’re not, that’s where the cutoff is. When you realize that even at her age, Tasha doesn’t know people because she was expecting a son to look after her, you go, “Oh god, that’s painful.”
In the past year you’ve played no-nonsense lawyer on The Undoing, a marine biologist specializing in dolphins on Made For Love, and now a lonely single mother finding it impossible to accept her own child on Pose. These are all very different characters—what’s your process for approaching how to represent them on screen?
This is so basic, but I’m going to say it: I loved playing Tasha because of those eyelashes she has. The costume designer was amazing and we just played. But with all of those different parts, it starts with me. I ask myself, “What is my version of this human? What can my version of that person be?” That’s what my acting is.
With Haley Fitzgerald on The Undoing, first and foremost, you got it in the script—she’s fascinating. That name, Haley Fitzgerald, could be anybody. And I’m a Black woman. What’s the story? For me, it’s the struggle in achieving the work that she’s done. There’s a lot of compartmentalization in who she is, and what she knows in herself is that she is absolutely brilliant at her job, and she has got the mind for this job. There’s also a choice of working for a a very old and quiet law firm who represents Franklin, Donald Sutherland’s character, and looking after his daughter, Grace Fraser.
You mentioned that you experienced a learning curve in working on television with your time on Pose, but what sort of other challenges have you faced in the last couple of years as someone who primarily works in a different medium?
I still find TV scary, but The Undoing allowed me to break that fear and therefore walk into Made For Love, and be more confident and present, not worrying that I’m not good enough. I’ve got this thing about practice, and you see it in Pose. My mentor, my acting coach Tony, he’s going to be 85 this year and he’s just started watching Pose. I told him to push through the first three or four episodes, because what you’re going to see is something quite extraordinary—the five trans actresses who are our leads in that show, you watch them learning and getting confident. They’ve been given a space. We all grew up looking up and aspiring to great white actresses—like Doris Day and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—but feeling kind of off kilter because we couldn’t be that. What Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals were able to create with Janet Mock is these extraordinary women getting the practice, because they’ve never had the practice. Even Billy Porter was known in the industry and was and is a theater human in and out, the way that he ate that moment—he got practice.
Do you have ambitions to do more television?
Yes! Sweet mud-hugging Jesus, yes! Doing theater for so long, I’d say after 25 years I finally have the confidence to know I can walk on stage and know where to send the energy in the room. With TV and film, with that camera, I am not in control. All I can be in control of is my work. With theater, you can’t see yourself each night, but you do have a chance to rewrite and reset it each night.
I realized my life is about new experiences, and not just with the acting work, but the experience of playing with loads of different people and putting something together. I’ve always been like that, even on the playground when I was little. This job suits me because I get very bored very quickly, and anything that makes my internal engine go, “Let’s try it!,” that’s where I’m going to be.