Unpopular Culture: Pushing The Envelope with Iman N. Milner

Interview by LaChelle Chrysanne

Actress, Writer and Producer Iman N. Milner, doesn’t ask for permission. And rightfully so-- she doesn’t need it. She didn’t need it when she co-produced, co-wrote and starred in her own short film or when she wrote and self-published a book of poetry inspired by a really bad breakup. She didn’t even need it when she wrote one of her first short stories as a child about an Elmo toothbrush. Beyond achieving creative accomplishments without asking for permission or waiting for someone to give her a big break, what stands out most about her is that in a world full of fame-hungry opportunists and Instagram clones she is her authentic self. An underlying attitude of living her truth shines through in the work she has done including writing about deeply personal experiences, creating a platform for women to celebrate the beauty of imperfection and pushing the envelope of what it means to be a Black actress in the rapidly changing yet persistently unsettled culture of Hollywood.  

UC: You’ve been a part of a lot of independent projects such as Chef Julian on Black&Sexy TV and Awkward Black Girl. You’ve also produced and co-written your own short film Love Escapes Us which you won the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Discovery Award for. We’re starting to see a lot of actors and actresses write and produce their own content, especially women of color who often are afforded the least opportunities in Hollywood. Could you tell me a bit about how that has affected the culture of auditioning for roles versus creating your own opportunities, how do you balance the two?

INM:  Well I think it's hard to figure out what to put first. You definitely don't want to cut yourself off from any opportunities. Most of us have decided to create our own opportunities instead of waiting for people to get to know you through seeing you audition because there's no way to know if Mara [Brock Akil] sees your tape if you go in for Being Mary Jane or something. If you can make your own work and somehow get a platform like Essence to promote you or do what Issa [Rae] did with YouTube, you’re able to put yourself in a position where people feel like they have something to gain from hiring you and that's something that you have to become comfortable with. I think it was Karen Civil who told me you're not of use unless someone can use you.

UC: That’s so true.

INM: Everybody wants to have an even exchange. People may want to work with you because you seem cool or they see you've taken one of step for yourself so they’re willing to now take the rest of the steps for you. You're not just auditioning, coming off the street and getting noticed like your Denzel’s and Angela Bassett’s. You have to have put in a lot of work and a lot of time on your own. Even the work of agents and managers is not as easy as it used to be. If you want to get a new manager or agent you really have to have done something already to even get that first step---but managers and agents are how you're supposed to get the work.. So you either sit around waiting for it to happen or you’re gonna do something.

I think this part of the entertainment industry was kind of late on that. Rappers did that first. They can make a mixtape and its dope. When you already have a following, you can walk into a label and say 'you need to sign me because I already have 1 billion people who like my music'. With acting it's different because it's such a team thing. You can go and sit on Garageband and make a whole album whereas when you're shooting a movie or a TV show there's a lot of moving parts. You have to have either the money or the resources to get all those moving parts in order to make something. I was privileged in that way to be able to make something, to have resources and friends who were willing to show up for me. I recognize a lot of people don't have that. They're just figuring out how to do it from ground level and it's 20 times harder now than it used to be to do it from ground level. I think for any actor but definitely actors of color it’s just a whole different ball game.

UC: Speaking of actors of color, as a Black actress specifically it’s very easy to get typecast and it seems through working on independent projects you've been able to avoid this. You’re working with people who are passionate about providing wider representation of Black people and Black women. For example, I really loved your character Yasmin on Chef Julian because she just had no fucks to give for anybody. But your character in Love Escapes Us is a completely different very emotional type of person. What are some of your favorite roles that you've played or what are some of your favorite types of genres to act in?

INM: I wanna do it all. I went to school for classical theater, I'd like to do that at some point. It's just very different now getting into theater on a level in which you can provide for yourself. When I first started getting work here it was mostly comedy. I did House of Lies and some Funny or Die stuff. I was Netflix’s spokeswoman last year and that was comedy. I like ingenue type of things just because I don't think you get to see Black women like that a lot. Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan and Jada Pinkett got to be the ingenue women in films in the 90s. I don't really think we've had like a real resurgence of that.

"PEOPLE ARE REALLY COMFORTABLE TALKING ABOUT ALL THE WAYS THEY COULD HAVE OVERCOME THINGS AND NOT VERY MUCH INTERESTED IN TALKING ABOUT WHAT THEY OVERCAME AND I THINK THAT THAT DOES A DISSERVICE."


Read the full interview on Unpopular Culture.

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