As the FBI drama Quantico heats up with a second season, Aunjanue Ellis chats about being a new kind of leading lady.
As Miranda Shaw, the assistant director of the FBI Academy, actress Aunjanue Ellis says she’s thrilled to be part of a show that’s moving the sociocultural needle.
Quantico takes a daring look at the world. “It is going there and being unapologetic about it, and I think that’s the kind of television that people respond to and want to watch.”
Priyanka Chopra plays the main character. “People speak to having casts that reflect the world, but often these are just stock characters. Quantico gives them lives. We have this view of what an American heroine looks like, and then you have Priyanka Chopra, who’s redefining that. I love how she is becoming this cultural influencer.”
Along those lines, you play a powerful African-American woman leading a team in the FBI. “When we see an African-American [woman] playing a role like this, we normalize it. That’s what happened with the inclusion of gay characters in popular television shows. Doing these things on film and television gives us perhaps permission to do it as citizens, which I think is the best kind of work any writer or producer can do in this age…I think there’s a great deal of emotional responsibility.”
You love Washington—you even did an internship here! “It’s always been special to me. Whenever I’m driving through, I think, ‘Why doesn’t the world pause for how beautiful this city is?’ It’s a work of art. [This job] makes me live in the fantasy I have of actually living here.”
You grew up on a farm in Mississippi, and then you went to Brown. Did you know you’d become an actress? “No. Growing up in certain communities, you don't get the social permission to have those kinds of dreams. It may be different now, because of things like American Idol, where people are plucked from obscurity and made into stars… but when I was growing up, that was unheard of. [Coming from Mississippi] I had people like Morgan Freeman and Sela Ward, Oprah Winfrey, my God. Some of the best talent in the world comes from Mississippi. But in terms of myself feeling I could do that, I've never felt that way.”
How do you choose your roles? “I heard Halle Berry say one of the most important things I've heard anybody say about acting, which is "acting is not an avocation. It is a vocation." So you take jobs because that is how you make your living. I take jobs because I need to take care of my family. There's also those times when I don't have to calculate that into my choices. So what I am attracted to are roles that aren't easy. That are as hard as heck. I love speaking for women that don't often get spoken for. I guess I could do safer stuff, but who needs that?”
What are your favorite shows right now? “I watch a lot of Netflix, Hulu, a lot of things on Seeso, which streams comedy on television. There's this series called Flowers. It's a British television show, and it was Olivia Colman, who's one of my favorite actors in the world now. She's one of the leads on it, and I love that. It's so good. I'm a total Stranger Things fan. I loved Wallander. I loved Fleabag on Amazon. I love Transparent.”
Who would you like to work with? “I'd love to work with the women in The Help again. Octavia, Viola…. I'd love to work with Taraji P. Henson; Sophie Okonedo, who I think is spectacular. I love those women. I think they are raw and brave and they have all my respect and admiration in every way. Jill Scott, Audra McDonald, I love her, I love her. In my mind, they're all titans.”