It’s nearing the end of an unusual October in New York, where the temperatures are still in the 60s and there are far fewer people in the streets due to quarantine. But for Kindred star Tamara Lawrance, things are starting to look a little more normal. She’s in Morocco, where production on her next film has finally resumed after being delayed in the wake of Covid-19. It’s around 90 degrees there and even I can hear the warm breeze cutting through our Zoom session. “There are worse places to be,” Lawrance, 26, says into the camera as she flashes a big smile and a white strapless top with her hair pulled up in a scarf.
That’s an understatement. Protests for social justice continue to rip through the world, including her native United Kingdom, the pandemic has claimed numerous other lives, and at the time of our conversation, we are exactly two weeks away from one of the most important elections in American history. “It’s been a strange year, hard and painful in some ways,” Lawrance adds. “But it’s also provided space for reflection and restoration and clarity, which I am grateful for.”
This sense of meditation is the perfect state to catch her in as we dive into Kindred, which releases on November 6. It’s a multilayered horror that, in many ways, overthrows expectations of the genre and experiences of female characters, particularly Black women, on screen. For one thing, Lawrance is the star of the film that is set in the U.K., and is the only Black person in it. Charlotte, her character, learns at the top of the film that she is pregnant and totally turned off by the idea of motherhood. “I don’t want to be stuck being a mom,” Charlotte tells her friend, after puffing on a cigarette. “I don’t even know what being a mom looks like.”
Kindred provides much to chew on, including how the roles of women and the subject of race are subverted—the topics are never once mentioned in the film. There’s certainly a lot of other things happening: Charlotte, who plans to move to Australia with her boyfriend (Edward Holcroft), succumbs to fits of paranoia after his sudden death. Even worse, she’s left all alone with his increasingly obsessive family and forced to keep her unborn child.
The fact that Kindred defies so many assumptions is exactly what attracted Lawrance, who rails against any boxes she may be placed in—both on and off screen. “I am interested in showing the heterogeneousness of Black people and of myself,” she says.
Here, the actress discusses eschewing racial and social norms in Kindred, cinema and social media in the age of resistance, and working with director Steve McQueen in the upcoming Small Axe.
You haven’t done a horror before. What attracted you Kindred?
[Laughs] I’m actually a big wuss. I watch horror with the lights on in the middle of the day. I think it was something that was new, something I’ve never done before. And I love drama in terms of film and was intrigued by picturing someone like myself in that genre, which, especially on British television, there are not so many examples of. It was a definitely a challenge. I like the fact that it was a piece that would potentially be divisive or surprising and make people think.
What drew you to Charlotte?
What I initially enjoyed about the script and the way Charlotte was written is that she felt quite, I guess, subversive; especially picturing myself in that role, as you try to when you read. Like, she’s not maternal. She’s chosen to live in a predominantly white country with a white boyfriend in a very isolated way. She just seems to not pay mind to things that other people might be bogged down by. Even the desire to move to Australia, as far away as you could go from England. Pretty much, she’s very brave and anti-tradition, which are things that resonate with me. This script is curious in that it’s not clear—it’s open to interpretation, which I like, in terms of what she’s going through in conflation with the situation that she’s in.
To your point, Charlotte is the only Black person in the movie, from a largely white country and moving to another largely white country. I wondered: Had she not seen Get Out? Interestingly, race is never mentioned in the film.
Yeah, which is another thing I thought was cool about it. I think Get Out doesn’t exist in the world that Charlotte lives in, clearly. The character wasn’t racialized Black in the writing. I auditioned among a whole range of people and just got the role in the way that you normally would. But obviously, I was aware that she was a Black woman in a relationship with a white man. But I don’t think that needs to be justified because you can love anyone. I justified her being so far away from home or community or familiarity as being symptomatic of running away from her past, leaving behind everything that reminds her of her traumatic childhood and experiences that she had with her mom.
[For] some people, sometimes when they have abandonment complexes, there’s a way of taking the reins on that by isolating yourself, taking propriety of your own isolation. So it’s like, nobody can abandon me again because I choose to put myself far away, if that makes sense.
I remember listening to a podcast of a guy—I can’t remember his name now—[who] does extreme stints in the Amazon. He did a really long period in the jungle by himself. It was only after spending time there that he realized a lot of his desire to do these extreme things comes from the fact that he was an orphan. So the extreme abandonment of his own years made him take control of that in his adult life, choosing to abandon himself over and over again.
But I also think what brings Ben [Holcroft] and Charlotte together, which supersedes the racial differences, was a difference in privilege and upbringing. It’s the fact that they are both very anti-establishment. Ben is also really trying to run away from everything that his family represents. They found a mutual ground in Australia to start a new life. She was interesting because she doesn’t seem to be very committed to anything except Ben. She’s very spontaneous. I imagine that they met and fell in love and she was like, I don’t have anything to stay here for, so I’m going to come with you. And that’s how she lives her life.
It’s interesting that she rejects the things that, as you said, many care very much about, including race as well as motherhood, a large theme in the film. As soon as she learns that she’s pregnant, she asks for an abortion and is horrifyingly turned down. What kind of preparation did you do to get into that headspace?
There was a lot of research in term of peri- and postnatal depression. I was really alarmed to realize that it’s much more common than it’s ever spoken about; postnatal depression is something about one in ten women experience for up to a year afterward. I tapped into some of my own experiences and talked to friends and people I know that have had fraught relationships with their family members.
You know, there’s a stereotype that maternity is this benevolent archetype that can do no wrong and always wants the best for you, and blah, blah, blah. Everyone thanks their moms in their Oscar speeches. But that’s just not everyone’s experience. Some people have a really, really shit time and spend their whole adult life trying to undo all the things that happened to them in their early years. I tried to keep that as an emotional undercurrent; sometimes people don’t want to have children because they have a fear of genetic predisposition. Maybe being a bad mom is hereditary. I think that’s a subconscious fear of Charlotte’s. She doesn’t want to be [that] mirror reflection, especially if she had a daughter. It’d be like a nightmare.
[I] also looked into abortion rules. There were interesting forums online [that exposed] people who hated their kids.
It was so funny! People were like, One of my biggest regrets in life is ever having a child. And these are people [whose] child is 18. They’ve done the slog, but they hated it. I was astounded. it’s a real experience and [motherhood] is romanticized. Actually, a lot of people don’t want that. I had a single mom. Seeing how hard it is and witnessing your own mom sometimes regret the things that she lost because of you. My mom had me at 18. Especially now, sometimes I think, “Oh my god, imagine I had a child that was this old at this age.” How did she do that? A lot of her angst actually makes sense, the more I looked into that stuff.
I was also raised by a single Black mom, who had me at 18. And sometimes I totally felt how hard it was.
Yes! Especially alone, and in a society that is not welcoming. It’s just not easy at all.
Do you generally find yourself drawn to characters who are outside this monolithic Blackness or femininity that we often see on screen?
[It’s] not that I’m drawn to them. I’ve been lucky enough to play a decent spread of very different characters from all social backgrounds. I am just interested in showing the heterogeneousness of Black people and of myself; how I exist and see myself in so many different iterations. I try not to limit who I can be in my own mind, which isn’t always easy because there’s not often established examples to look up to or reference, not as many as my white counterparts may have, [of] a diverse range of characters.
I’m conscious of not creating barriers in my own mind, so that moving forward, there are more things for other young Black actresses and actors to be inspired by. That’s the space my friends and I are all in at the moment; we need to push the boat and crack the ceiling.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an actor?
I did, funnily enough—maybe because it was fun. I know it sounds quite simplistic. When you’re a child and there’s something that brings you so much joy, it just made sense for me to want my life to be about that joy, especially if you don’t have it in other places in your life. If doing this thing, not being yourself, makes you feel good, then of course you would want to do that. Maybe that’s linked to other things, subconscious things. As I grew, I had a lot of mentors and teachers and brilliant guidance along the way that helped to consolidate the fact that, Oh, it could be a career or actually it’s deeper than this. Then you learn more [and] recognize that storytelling is an art form. It’s a real blessing to be part of this line of work. That’s how I feel now.
Especially these days, when there is so much going on politically. Storytelling is also a space to interrogate or reflect the status quo.
Exactly. People are doing it in really interesting ways, even on Tik Tok. I don’t personally have the app on my phone, because I know I will spend hours and hours [on it]. But my friends send me things every now and again. I’m like, Okay, young people! I’m still young, but [they’re] ingenious about putting a spotlight on something in a humorous way—in a truncated, ten-second, one-minute video. I think people are recognizing that—in light of all this exposure we have, which can be very toxic, if you stay true to yourself and have integrity and can make yourself laugh and not take yourself too seriously but know that your voice is important, whatever you say will be heard.
What can you tell me about your role in Small Axe: Education?
I play a character called Stephanie, who is the older sister of Kingsley [Kenyah Sandy], a bright young boy in school. But he’s messing around, as young kids do. He struggles to read, and his teachers make out that he has learning difficulties. He gets sent to what they call a special school. But the gag is that that was something called Schools for the Educationally Subnormal, [which] were set up by British society in the 1970s and 1980s to inhibit Black and brown children.
The episode follows Kingsley, but Stephanie is in college and wants to go to art school. She represents a generation of people who are first generation: born here, of immigrant parents, who are trying to upend the status quo and cast their net wider. So, she has a lot of vision, which emulates the energy that [writer-director] Steve McQueen has himself. Stephanie is loosely based on his older sister.
The story is really upsetting, in light of everything that happened subsequently in British society. The plan was, if you put these people in these schools and deprive them of proper education, they are more likely to end up in crime and poverty and violence, and be incarcerated, which serves that system. Obviously, we’ve seen the fallout of that, which is why it’s so heartbreaking.
But what was interesting was the whole culture of Saturday schools, which really came alive in Britain during that time [due to] Black parents realizing what they were doing and setting up schools of their own to teach their kids African-Caribbean history and create a sense of community. [They provided] food and a level of education that was far superior to what people were learning in traditional schools.
Steve McQueen seems like the perfect filmmaker for the project, since he’s close to the story and has been outspoken about the reality of Black British experiences.
I’ve never worked at that pace as I did with Steve before. He’s so specific and vigilant, that when he’s happy, you just move on. The [director of photography] and everyone was so skilled; the communication between the crew was so on point that there was room for instinct and room to play. But there was so much trust that if he was happy in one, two takes, you’d move on. Sometimes as an actor it’s really scary, because you want to do it five times, because the first two times were a warm-up. You’re like, Oh, no, if I’d known that you were going to trust me, I would have done something more exciting. [Laughs].
It was a great learning curve for me, in terms of going with my instincts and resting on the shoulders of a fantastic director. We finished two to three hours early. Friends would be like, “When do you finish work?” And I’m like, “It says eight, but I’ll meet you at six.”