For Chanté Adams, Love’s Got Everything To Do With It
“I stepped out of the room for what felt like an hour, but it was probably, I don’t know, 45 seconds,” Adams tells Unbothered over Zoom from Manhattan. She’s nervously remembering the moment like she doesn’t know how it ends. When Adams returned to the room, Washington gave her a taste of his legendary acting prowess. “Denzel starts telling me this story [about] how he really wanted this role one time and the director kept saying that he was amazing but that, ‘We don’t know if we can hire you.’” Adams says she thought that was it; this was Washington’s way of thanking her for coming in and sending her home with a rejection. “[Denzel] goes, ‘Yeah, we’re looking at a couple other people, so we’ll see what happens.’” Adams pauses with a smile. “And then he says, ‘I’m just kidding. There are no other people.’”
From there, Adams burst into uncontrollable laughter which turned into audible sobs and “hysterical crying.” Through tears, she and Washington FaceTimed her parents, Edna and Gregory. Edna was proud of her daughter, but she wasn’t outfit-ready to meet Denzel Thee Washington — even through a screen. “The first thing [my mom] says is, ‘I’m going to kill her.’ And Denzel is like, ‘You can’t kill her yet. She’s got to star in my new movie.’”
It’s an adorable story, and one Adams will probably be telling for the rest of her career. The moment you get cast opposite one of the most in-demand actors of your generation (Michael B. Jordan) in a film directed by one of your heroes is one of those surreal, once-in-a-lifetime memories. The thing is, in just a few years of being a professional actor, Adams has already had a few of those moments.
The 27-year-old (today is her birthday) auditioned for her first major movie Roxanne Roxanne for the titular role just two weeks after she graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s drama school. Her magnetic turn as hip-hop pioneer Roxanne Shanté is an exhilarating debut. It doesn’t make any sense that Adams was able to pull off the vulnerability and simultaneous bravado the role required while freshly into her twenties, the ink barely dry on her diploma. It’s a performance many actors could only dream of delivering, let alone bodying with the confidence of Roxanne Shanté freestyling at a battle in Queens. The role earned Adams a Special Jury Prize at The Sundance Film Festival in 2017, critical acclaim, and an official spot as Hollywood’s latest breakout star.
“You could have given me a toothpaste commercial and I would've been like, ‘That’s my breakout role!’” Adams laughs. “So there were a lot of emotions all at once.” Considering her first role was not a toothpaste commercial but an instant-classic film also starring Mahershala Ali and Nia Long, I ask Adams if any of those emotions was pressure — does starting your career on such a high come with an acute awareness of the potential lows? And especially when you are young, gifted and Black in Hollywood, is the standard you set for yourself even higher?
“I definitely had a period after [Roxanne Roxanne] came out where I felt like living up to that pressure of ‘What’s going to be next? How do I top this?’” Adams says. “After a while I had to realize it’s just about doing what I’m meant to do and stepping into the spaces that I know that I’m supposed to be in. I can’t focus on topping the last thing.” Adams is makeup-free, sitting in front of her Zoom screen on the floor, dressed casually in a red t-shirt, grey beanie and clear-rimmed glasses, and talking to her feels like hanging with an old friend. She’s taking the time to chat on her only day off from rehearsals for her Broadway debut in Skeleton Crew, a play about a family of auto factory workers facing an impending foreclosure, also starring Brandon J. Dirden and Phylicia Rashad. Adams may not be focused on “topping the last thing,” but looking from the outside of her meteoric rise, it feels like she’s on track to succeed. She is going from a Denzel Washington production to starring opposite Phylicia Rashad on Broadway, after all. But with Skeleton Crew, it wasn’t just the chance to work with Rashad that drew Adams to the project.
Christopher John Rogers pant; Vintage top; Vintage shoes; Mara Paris earrings.
“Skeleton Crew is based on four auto workers in Detroit, which is my hometown,” Adams lights up as soon as I mention her city. “I get to go back to my roots of theatre, but also tell the story of my people and my community. I’m really excited to do that. Everything I do, I do for [Detroit]. Everything I do is with my city in mind, for my people. It’s for the little Black girls that look like me, that I hope will see me and know that they can do anything that they want to do.”
Adams was born and raised in Detroit, the youngest of four, by a medical executive (mom) and mortgage consultant (dad). Her parents have always been supportive. A few days before we speak, they threw Adams a small birthday dinner. She tells me what her dad said in his speech that night and it takes everything in me not to cry on the spot at the sweet story. “Me and [Chanté’s] mom met at a play,” she says, reenacting the speech as her father. “And she was born while I was producing a play. She was born in the middle of the run. So, I say that to say that she’s had no choice but to do what she does. It was destined for her. She’s supposed to be doing this.” That destiny is apparent in the talent radiating from every pore in Adams’ body during every frame and every scene she’s ever starred in, but it’s also playing out in real time as the roles and accolades roll in.
“My parents have always seen the value in being an artist. And I’ve always been very grateful for that,” Adams says. You can tell she’s as proud of her mom and dad as they are of her. “They’ve been front row at every show. At every movie premiere. They don’t miss a thing.”
Sure enough, at the New York premiere of A Journal For Jordan (in theatres Christmas Day), Edna and Gregory were beaming beside their daughter on the red carpet as she stunned in a fuchsia Greta Constantine dress. It doesn’t surprise me that Adams had, and still has, a solid example of Black love in her life, considering the stories she’s chosen to tell onscreen. In 2020, Adams starred opposite Y’lan Noel, Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in the Stella Meghie-directed romantic drama The Photograph. The biggest criticism the film drew was that it was too nice and boring. But a “boring” (I disagree with this assessment; The Photograph is perfect, no notes), nice Black love story is exactly what audiences have been asking for for years. The film didn’t use trauma as a crutch or pain as its purpose. Like A Journal For Jordan, it’s about Black love, period.
Both films are reminiscent of the movies Adams grew up watching, the ones that gave her permission to feel worthy of love, and later, of being the object of affection onscreen, a position Black women are often excluded from in Hollywood. “The only reason that I knew that I could do something like this is that I grew up watching Nia Long and Jada Pinkett Smith and Sanaa Lathan and Regina Hall and Regina King in Black love stories,” Adams says. “I knew that I was beautiful and that I could be desired because of them. And I hope that I can be that for another little Black girl who is watching love stories and wants to fall in love and needs to see herself represented onscreen.” Like so many of Adams’ dreams, this one has already come true. There will be little Black girls who believe in themselves, their beauty and their brilliance a little harder because of The Photograph, Journal For Jordan, and simply because of Adams’ public presence.
“[There’s] this new renaissance of Black love stories,” Adams says. “It’s so beautiful to see because we, as a people, need to be able to feel like we are loved and to see us loving on each other, especially when we're living in a world that's very questionable on if it loves us.” It’s true that when we’re constantly inundated with proof that our governments, institutions, and workplaces won’t protect us, when hate is written into legislation instead of love, a simple story can mean so much more. Black love narratives can remind us that loving on each other is a radical act; that joy is resistance.
And that’s what Adams hopes people will take away from A Journal For Jordan. Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Canedy’s memoir, the film follows Dana and her late fiancé Charles, a soldier who was deployed to Iraq and never came home. He left behind advice for their infant son in journal entries. Despite its heart-wrenching premise, Journal For Jordan is full of joy — thanks in large part to Adams, her co-star Jordan, and their undeniable chemistry.
“It was natural from our first chemistry read. We clicked immediately,” Adams says of her co-star, who just had to give up his Sexiest Man Alive title to his successor, Paul Rudd. Adams and Jordan had to not only fall in love on screen, but make love on screen (a lot, we thank them for their service). “Throughout the process, Michael was very gracious and just so supportive. From the first day on set, he was like, ‘this is your story. I’m supporting you, whatever you need.’ And so having that energy around me made me feel comfortable. I knew that this was somebody that I could trust. ‘We can do this together.’” Adams says part of how they built that trust was through food (Jordan cooked her vegan pesto pasta, brought to set one night in a tupperware container) and through inside jokes.
“Michael’s so silly. He’s such a goofball,” Adams laughs. “Everyone sees People’s Sexiest Man Alive and [for me], that’s just Michael, who’s like your annoying cousin.”
A supportive and trustworthy set is important for Adams, who is now very intentional about who she works with. “If you look at my resume, it’s mainly been Black work. I’ve mainly worked with Black directors and done Black stories. That’s what I want to continue to do because I also know the difference.” The difference, Adams says, is that on a white-run set, everything from sitting in the hair-and-makeup chair (“they pretend like they know what they’re doing and then [I have to] go back in my trailer and fix it all”) to running through lines in a scene where a white male co-star’s suggestions to a director were met with collaboration, and hers with contention, is frustrating.
Calvin Klein dress; Zara strappy heels, $59.90, available at zara.com; Mara Paris earrings; Games earrings; Patricia von Muslin ring.
“It was the first time I realized that I was a Black woman on set and what that meant. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay. You don’t see me and him the same. That’s fine. Don’t call me again.’” Adams’ voice is unwavering. It’s her “f*ck around and find out” tone. And it’s at this point in our conversation, where Adams is displaying how clear her convictions are on what she will and will not accept at work, that I realize she embodies everything we’ve been hoping for in this industry. “I think I came into the industry at a very pivotal moment,” Adams explains that she knows she doesn’t have to play the same game as her predecessors who would think “In order to be popular in what I do, I also have to do white work,” she says. “Girls Trip made a hundred million dollars. [There’s also] the fact that this really big movie that’s coming out on Christmas Day is a love story. And quite frankly it could be about any race, but the fact that it’s two Black people falling in love and starring in this really big Christmas movie with a Black director? I feel very grateful to be in this new renaissance of Black art.”
It’s a renaissance that has enabled Adams to become one of the biggest rising stars in the world, all while keeping her morals and ideals intact. “What’s most important to me is being in stories that center complex and layered Black women,” she tells me. Adams is of the generation in Hollywood where sharing your personal life on social media can be as important to the gig as studying your lines. In 2021, you may not even get the part if your follower count isn’t high enough. If you peruse Adams’ accounts, she’ll post a quick outfit pic or promo for whatever film she’s promoting, but that’s it. On Instagram, she has just over 70 thousand followers. “If you’re out here booking jobs based on how many followers you have, then I tip my hat off to you. But for the jobs I want? Your follower count doesn’t matter,” she says defiantly. Adams also promises that she’ll go the Issa Rae route if and when she’s ever in a relationship with somebody serious: we won’t know for sure until the wedding. All of that, of course, could change as Adams continues to ascend.
But she’s got a plan in place to keep her grounded (“My village is the plan, [they] won’t let me be anything but humble”) and her hope is to remain the same girl who used to skip class to sneak into another whenever Phylicia Rashad was guest speaking at her college just to hear her wisdom. Now, she gets to learn from her in person, every day. And every day, Rashad asks her one question. “She sees everything that’s happening with A Journal for Jordan and me making my Broadway debut. And every day she’s like, ‘Are you ready?’ And then she says, ‘No, you’re not ready. You don’t know what’s about to happen, I’m so excited for you.’”
I ask Adams if she’s really taken in that question. After Broadway, the first season of her highly-anticipated Amazon series A League Of Their Own (a spin on the classic film) will drop in 2022. So, seriously, is she ready for what’s next?
“I don’t know,” Adams says slowly. “I’m ready for tomorrow. I know that. I’m ready for the next day. I’m trying to take it one day at a time. But am I ready? We gon’ see.”