Typically, when actors finish playing the same character for nearly a decade, they mostly seek out projects that put distance between themselves and their well-known roles. For actress Kat Graham, it wasn’t that simple. After playing Bonnie Bennett on The Vampire Diaries for eight seasons, Graham made the conscious decision to only sign onto projects where characters of colour are featured and genuinely empowered. This month, she starred in Netflix’s Operation Christmas Drop as the rom-com's lead character — a Black government official with the power to determine whether or not an entire military base should shutter.
“It’s really important that people, young people especially, are able to see themselves as a lead and not a token or not a side character,” Graham told Refinery29, a week after the Netflix film dropped. “I’ve gotten approached for projects that I don’t feel elevate multi-dimensional characters of colour. That’s not something that I’m interested in being a part of. I just don’t do it.”
Since TVD ended, Graham has done most of her work on Netflix, in another rom-com called The Holiday Calendar and 2018 action thriller How It Ends. She also voices the first Black April O’Neil in the streaming giant’s series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Netflix has been her biggest supporter, so it’s no wonder she credits the streamer with being at the forefront of casting diverse talent in its productions while she asserts other companies are attempting to “hop on the bandwagon.” She says Netflix has “consistently been focused on elevating the voices and the narrative of Black women,” pointing to 2020’s Jingle Jangle, a big-budget Christmas musical featuring a Black cast and produced by John Legend, which premiered on the platform a week after Operation Christmas Drop.
I wasn’t interested in toning myself down. I wasn’t interested in a watered down version of myself.
Her recent roles seem to be a stark contrast to Graham’s longtime TVD character Bonnie Bennett, who is, to this day, heavily criticised for being underdeveloped. Despite being the only person of colour in the main cast, Bonnie was overlooked by both the fans and the writers alike. Viewers of the show debated their dislike for the character on fan threads and Bustle published an article after the season 5 finale detailing all the reasons why Bonnie was not needed on the show. When the last episode aired in 2017, Black Girl Nerds posted an essay breaking down how Bonnie’s character could not grow because her entire storyline revolved around protecting the white characters. However, Graham was not bothered by Bonnie’s conclusion in the series finale.
“For me, I personally am happy with it. But I also know and respect, love, hear, and validate that there were a lot of fans that wanted a couple different things within the entire show that they felt deserved exploration.” She added that she does not feel the need to reprise the role. “[The writers] had all the opportunity to explore everything and every way that they wanted to.”
Graham’s focus on uplifting people of colour isn’t limited to her on-screen choices. This summer, while productions were shut down and the Black Lives Matter movement continued to grow, Black actresses started posting about set stylists not knowing how to style Black hair, particularly natural hair. The Bold Type actress Aisha Dee revealed that the show waited three seasons to hire someone who had experience working with textured hair. Ryan Michelle Bathe who stars on BET’s The First Wives Club said on Twitter that she had to pay to get her hair done every week because a union stylist would not do it. Shortly after this trend emerged, Graham shared an Instagram video in August showing off her natural hair for Vogue’s beauty routine series.
“My hair hasn’t ever been like a conversation, but most of the time I’ve worn my hair not curly.” She said there have been multiple instances where “deliberate choices” were made to not showcase her curly hair in a film or show after seeing what it looked like naturally. So when Vogue asked her to make a video, she agreed on the condition that she would participate by celebrating her natural hair — “the fluff” as she calls it. “I said ‘if I can’t do a thing about my fro and my natural hair I’m actually going to pass.’”
Graham and other Black women in Hollywood have had to deal with playing secondary characters and being treated differently from their white co-stars for years. They are pushing for creators to finally write leading characters with substance for Black actresses that allow them to be themselves. Graham refuses to accept anything less — and so far, it’s working.
“I wasn’t interested in toning myself down. I wasn’t interested in a watered-down version of myself. I realised, seeing the systematic racism that exists in America, I couldn’t afford to anymore.”