Dawn-Lyen Gardner is currently participating in what she likes to call the “press Olympics.” Since wrapping Queen Sugar in late June, she’s been on a nonstop tour talking up the new OWN drama, which focuses on three siblings who inherit their father’s ailing 800-acre sugarcane farm. “It’s definitely been a whirlwind,” Gardner tells Refinery29 over the phone. “It feels like it never quite wrapped, we just transitioned.” Gardner isn’t complaining, though. In fact, the transition has been an easy one for the actress, who is more than happy to talk about the show, which kicks off September 6 with a two-night premiere. She’s excited to celebrate her on-screen sister, True Blood’s Rutina Wesley. The two were classmates at Juilliard, where they shared the stage in a student production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow is Enuf. Gardner happily retells the story of the first time she met the show’s producer, Oprah Winfrey, at the initial Queen Sugar table read. “When we finally shook hands, I just couldn’t take it and I started crying,” she recalls, laughing. But Gardner’s most excited to gush over the series' director and creator, Ava DuVernay. “She’s been a bit of my hero for a long time, unbeknownst to her until we met,” Gardner says. “I so, so, so admire everything she’s done in her career and her multi-hyphenate role.” It was DuVernay’s script for the show, based on Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel of the same name, that convinced Gardner she had to play Charley Bordelon.
Baszile’s Charley is a widow struggling to keep things afloat for her young daughter. When her dad leaves her his sugarcane farm, she sees it as a chance. Or, more accurately, an escape. DuVernay’s Charley is a little different. While she also sees the farm as an opportunity, she’s more equipped to take advantage of it. With her MBA, Charley has been managing her basketball husband’s superstar career. She’s been living the glamorous life in Los Angeles, but after her husband finds himself embroiled in scandal, she begins to realize that she’s been living her life for him. Her late dad’s farm offers her a chance to be the master strategist she’s always been. More importantly, it’s a chance to reconnect with her sister, Nova, and her brother, Ralph Angel, whom she left behind in Louisiana. “I was just so in love with where she was going at the end of the first episode,” Gardner says. “I didn’t know where she was going, and that’s what’s so exciting about it. I loved how fearless she was to take on her own life.” A lot of that, Gardner says, comes from DuVernay, who “really used a lot of herself in creating this Charley, a lot of elements of her life and personality and experiences. So I really feel honored and privileged to play this woman who has traveled through the minds of two other brilliant women.” Queen Sugar, at its core, is a story about Black women, thanklessly holding things together for everyone else, often at their own expense. Even Charley’s success comes at a price. “I think there’s underlying reasons why she’s invested so much of her identity in the success of her husband,” Gardner says. “Layers of avoidance that I think we’re all eternally struggling with. But how do we stop and quietly ask, ‘What’s important to me? Who do I value?’ I think that’s what you see in the show, people confronting that question.”
And the characters are given the time to do so. There’s a majestic quality to Queen Sugar that it’s hard not to get caught up in, from the opening shots of Wesley’s Nova undressing in the early morning light to the closeup of Gardner’s face when Charley realizes her husband’s misdeeds. Nothing is rushed. It moves at its own pace, letting you breathe in each languid shot of a New Orleans that hasn’t been seen on TV before. It just doesn’t look like other shows, and this may be because it wasn’t filmed like other shows. DuVernay directed the first two episodes of the series and recruited a roster of seven talented women to direct the remaining 11 — many of whom are new to TV and a majority of whom are women of color. DuVernay is the first female director Gardner has ever worked with, which is saying something — born and raised in Los Angeles, the actress has been appearing in commercials and on television for over 20 years. “It was like a paradigm shift in that, it’s possible,” Gardner says. “That this can happen. That that many women can be employed in a single season of a television show. Game changing.” It’s true: While the Directors Guild reported that the 2015-2016 TV season saw more female directors, it was only a “slight” improvement, increasing from 15.8% of episodes in the 2014-15 season, to 17.1% the following season. But already, The Hollywood Reporter found that six of the directors who worked on Queen Sugar have lined up more TV projects, including an episode of Transparent, ABC’s American Crime, and an American Girl movie for Amazon. Back in May, DuVernay posted a photo of herself with fellow Queen Sugar directors Tanya Hamilton (Episode 6) and Victoria Mahoney (Episode 5) on Instagram, writing, “There are more women directors in the Queen Sugar edit suites right now than at most studios all year long. Jus sayin’.” Studios may want to take note, since Gardner felt there was a difference between having a woman at the helm rather than a man. One she thinks actually helped the show.
“Working with so many women, it allowed us to explore aspects of the story that in a way I think it just would have been different working with a man,” she explains. “Because so much of these stories are women-led, there were details that we could talk about, questions we could explore that I don’t know if a man would have asked us.” Gardner says she is a “pretty nerdy actor” who likes to ask a lot of questions about her character's background. She even warned DuVernay that she would ask 700 questions, and the director told her to bring it. So Gardner did, asking things like, Where did Charley go to high school? Did she have boyfriends before her husband? Where did she live in Los Angeles, exactly?
DuVernay answered every single question. “Ava invites all of you to the table and she asks you to bring your heart and your soul and your opinion and your pain and your feelings, just all of you. And she doesn’t necessarily say that,“ Gardner says. “It’s the tone that she sets and it’s the permission that she gives for people to be joyful. It’s her intention of a set culture that’s supportive. It’s in all of that, that this incredible intimacy is created.” That intimacy finds its way onto the screen, allowing the viewer to connect with the Bordelons, especially Charley. You feel her pain and want to see her succeed. You’re willing to take that journey with her, and it stems from the care Gardner put into creating this character. Gardner changed her voice for the role, bringing it down an octave or two to something that sounds much more serious and calculated. On Queen Sugar, Gardner — who has lent her voice to McDonald’s commercials and Stars Wars: The Clone Wars — sounds like a woman who doesn’t let her emotions get the best of her. It's believable — she comes from a business world where she isn’t always welcome. While preparing for Queen Sugar, Gardner watched documentaries about powerful women in business — her favorite being one about Indra Nooyi, the first female president of PepsiCo and the company’s first Indian-born chief executive. Gardner knows that Queen Sugar, which has already been renewed for season 2, is a show that’s bigger than anyone involved. It’s a drama with a mostly Black cast that is looking to contribute to a larger conversation about race and gender, and then push it forward. (A theme for Gardner's career as of late, since her next role is in Marvel's Luke Cage, the first African-American superhero to get his own show.) Queen Sugar is isn't aiming for a specific audience, but for everyone who realizes we aren’t that different after all. “I think we’re starting to see ourselves as bigger than just our own cultural backgrounds," Gardner explains. "I think the ‘we’ is beginning to shift, and the ‘we’ is beginning to expand. I think there’s a larger movement happening and I think we’re all ready and wanting it.”