published in Heroine Mag, print March 2018
Alexandra Shipp loves to see you squirm. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, the 26 year old actress who has most recently played Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse, and has also appeared in Straight Outta Compton and as Aaliyah in the controversial Lifetime movie, cites “agitation propaganda”, a form of outdoor theatre practiced by she and her peers from art school, as her favorite type of performance. Whether it was hurling vicious insults or bumping someone on the shoulder, the interactions (totally scripted) were designed to make onlookers feel uncomfortable enough to the point where they might actually start a conversation with each other. Discovering the power of performance at an early age, Alex has been giving people something to talk about ever since.
As a biracial, white and black woman, she oscillates between the poles of privilege and marginalization, having to defend herself, her career and her skin tone against those who view her from behind tinted glasses. Having recently been in a rather heated exchange on Twitter about Colorism in relation to her playing of Storm, Alex does not shy away from the topic during our chat but instead approaches it with a reinforced sense of purpose. She wants the world to see her the way she would like to see herself, as a woman who is more than enough, who is not solely defined by her skin tone but by her character and the quality of her artistry, who knows that empowerment begins with understanding and that her voice can be used to speak for those without one.
L: Growing up biracial is such a loaded experience and entering Hollywood on top of that? It must’ve been pretty jarring coming from Arizona.
A: It was a shock, it’s not necessarily where you’re from but it’s definitely who raised you. I was lucky to be raised by a two-time, breast cancer survivor, this powerhouse woman who doesn’t take slack from anybody, my mother. She always taught me to have true, real compassion, not pity, not anything where you feel more than or less than.
L: How old were you when your mom was going through her treatments?
A: The first time my mom got breast cancer she was 35 so I was about 4 or 5 years old
A: And then the second time she got it, she was in her mid to late 40s. It’s true what they say, when one person in the family gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer.You expect your parents to be superheroes and when they’re in a place where they can’t help themselves and they need you, or people around you, it really does affect you and change your perception on life and why we’re actually here. It’s not like my mom got cancer and I was like, I need to become an artist, but it definitely was like I want what I do on this planet to mean something. Acting allowed me to have the types of conversations I wanted to have because I can represent an idea, an opinion, I can open people’s minds to a viewpoint that they thought was never possible.
L: Yeah and in the past couple days people have been coming at you, especially on Twitter, about not understanding colorism in regards to your playing Storm. How did you come to terms with your own identity as a biracial, black and white woman?
A: Being biracial we walk this weird silver lining that extends from slavery and the systemic racism instilled in America. In my opinion, colorism is a derivative of racism. It’s this caste system that’s been created to keep black people divided and personally I don’t like to play in that world because no one is going to tell me that I’m not black. There’s no time in my life where I haven’t acknowledged that when it comes to my appearance, it’s not someone’s like, oh wow, what a beautiful white woman, no one has ever said that to me [laughs].
What I experienced on Twitter which I personally, had no idea the grandiose of speaking on it, I was speaking on a personal experience and I feel like I was this metaphorical straw that broke this interracial camel’s back. I wasn’t trying to offend anyone, but at the same time if my work offends you, let’s take a step back and ask why my personal experience is offensive to you? When we’re talking about the reality of the situation, I’m not wearing black face, I’m not putting on a prosthetic nose or lips, I’m not trying to kink my hair up so that I can have a fro, I have a fro. I wake up with it every morning and I go to bed with it every night. But if someone said, 'Alex, we want you to play this historical figure but we’re going to have to darken you up’, I would respectfully decline. I would be like there are so many incredible actresses that don’t have to alter their appearances that would do this job justice, but as a woman of color, you can’t tell me that I can’t play a woman of color because I don’t match the Crayola marker from 1975 when they drew the comic, that makes no sense.
L: Right but maybe you’ve been afforded certain opportunities that someone else who is a shade darker than you wouldn’t have gotten and I’m wondering, how you’re also working to empower those people around you?
A: The reality of this business we’re told to work hard and get to a point in a career where we can actually do something and there’s no way for me -- or no one has shown me a way -- because any advice that I’ve gotten from an older actress or someone in this business is that you wanna know how you change this business? You get good enough to where you’re a part of the rules and you change those rules.
You look at people like Lena Dunham and Issa Rae, they have been given a platform to uplift people of every race, sexuality and denomination and that’s what I strive for, that’s the only route towards real inclusion that I’ve seen. The way I see that I can affect social change within my industry is by working really hard and taking on roles that make people uncomfortable, that’s the whole point of theatre. It’s getting those roles and saying, I’m not playing a black woman, I’m playing a woman, that’s how you move the conversation and change the way people look at women of color in film. The way to true understanding is to start a conversation, that’s why I love film is because within that hour to four hours you can start a real conversation that changes the narrative and doing so means I’ve done my job as a performer.
L: Is that the way you feel about the discussions of colorism and the roles you’ve played, especially Aaliyah?
A: Every time I get a job it’s a conversation, I’m happy that I’m starting a conversation and I wish I wasn’t the conduit, but if that’s the role that I’m being put in via God or this universe then I’m the type of person who will rise to the occasion. If this keeps becoming a conversation about my skin tone rather than my artistry, then I’m willing to have that conversation respectfully, but majority of the time it’s like, oh you should give up the role in order to allow other actresses and I’m like, you guys know that if I don’t take it, there’s a girl below me and if she doesn’t take it, there’s a girl below her. If all of us banned together in a perfect world and say no, this is meant for a dark-skinned actress, the studio would say you’ve lost your damn mind and hire a younger, light skinned actress. The only way we can create social change is not by denying ourselves roles but taking the roles, changing the way that people see those roles and making them our own; saying not only am I a black woman, I’m my own black woman, I’m my own person in these socially constructed confines and I’m not going to let anyone define that for me but myself
L: Do you sort of feel like a martyr?
A: I understand that I have a certain amount of privilege that my skin affords me and everyone wants to be on the 25th floor with the rich, white man of America and if black people are on the first floor and people of lighter skin tones are on the second floor, I understand that we’re a little bit closer but there’s still strife. I need to set foot on the path that lies ahead, otherwise if I’m sitting here worrying about how my actions are going to affect everybody else, I’m never going to leave my house. An older, fellow actress told me, you have to focus on yourself and not pay attention to the trolls because you’ll never be enough for them. I was like, it’s not just trolls, it’s an audience. How will I ever be enough for my audience when it’s hard enough to be enough for myself everyday as a woman? How can I be enough for the people who watch and follow me when it’s hard enough for me to wake up everyday and look in the mirror and say you are enough, let alone for a mass group of people?
L: What have you really been forced to learn from these discussions about yourself and how your audience perceives you?
A: This has been a conversation my entire life whether I’ve been in the limelight or not, the only next step is to heed the advice of the older more successful actresses who are women of color which is make sure that you’re staying true to the type of artist that you want to be. I used to shy away from these conversations, but I can see 30, I’m seeing the type of woman that I want to be and I’m working towards her. She is not a color, she is not a gender, and she is not a religion, she is an individual, she is a human being who has faults. I want to stay in this mindset otherwise I’ll drive myself crazy and no one needs to see that [laughs] I got my crazy, trust me, and no one needs to see that.