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    Angela Lewis’ Rise in Hollywood and Maternal Health Advocacy

    Some stars shoot to the top like they have stepped into an express elevator. For Angela Lewis, whose breakout performance as scheming drug queen-pin Aunt Louie in the gritty drama Snowfall won her admiring reviews and ardent fans, the way up in Hollywood has been more a step at a time.

     “I look at my life as like a stairwell,” says the Detroit-born actor whose early career included guest spots on shows like Law & Order: SVU and The Good Wife. “In this stairwell, there are different floors, so the minute I get to the top of floor two, that means I’m at the bottom of floor three.”

    When she reaches the next level, “Now I’m at the bottom of floor four. So, there’s always an element of the unknown. There’s always the element of, ‘Oh my God, there’s more.’ But then there’s always the celebration of, ‘Oh, that thing that I was reaching for, I accomplished that.’”

    Playing Aunt Louie over Snowfall’s six seasons, which concluded earlier this year, has been a success worth pausing to enjoy. Lewis’ character grew in impact as she wrestled for control of the South Central Los Angeles gang exploiting the 1980s crack epidemic. Critics described the series (whose cast included Damson Idris) as “criminally underrated” and “complex and intelligent, but sometimes hard to watch.”

    For all of Aunt Louie’s flaws, Lewis sees something in her that she believes viewers could relate to. “I think we are all fighting, especially as Black people, especially as Black women, for an opportunity to be seen, an opportunity to be autonomous, an opportunity to have the life that you have envisioned for yourself,” she says. “And I think Louie has had big dreams and has seen herself in a much larger way than the world has allowed her to be, so when she encounters this opportunity, she goes for it. And along the way, she has discovered her worth. She has discovered, ‘Oh, I’m good at this. Oh, I’m smart. Oh, I know how to strategize.’”

    Portraying Aunt Louie wasn’t always hard, Lewis says. “I think I brought a lot of myself to the character, which allowed for her to be more rounded and more human. But I did know if I got too laid back or if I got too soft and feminine, [I had to ask], ‘Is that really how Louie is walking through her life?’ Because Louie and I, we lead from different places, and so I knew I had to be more on my toes. I had to be more direct.”

    Facing the fear

    Lewis speaks appreciatively of how Snowfall creator John Singleton—the celebrated director of Boyz in the Hood who died in 2019—helped draw her performance out of her. “He was extremely influential in me understanding how to walk in my power,” she says, recalling how she would get mad when he would watch playbacks of scenes and tell her, “Be more Detroit, Angela, be more Detroit.” Not everyone from Motor City had the same experience, she reasoned when he pushed her: “I was so resistant.”

    Then, one day, she figured out what he was really saying: “Where is your grit? Where is your power?” “And then it hit me,” Lewis adds, “I can’t play Louie from a place of fear. No, I’ve never held a gun. No, I’ve never cooked crack. No, I don’t be beating people up. But this character does, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to make yourself feel like you can do this.”

    So, Lewis worked with the props and stunt crew to learn how to hold a gun more realistically and stepped up for her scenes with Amin Joseph (“How do I play them and not be intimidated by all of his power?”). “That’s what John was trying to tell me, and once I got it, I got it, and that bled over a lot into my life.”

    Lewis discusses how playing Louie shaped her offscreen: “The biggest thing I learned is how to walk my life with less fear. You can’t play Aunt Louie from a fearful place. It is impossible: I tried, and you can’t do it.” In embodying the tough character, Lewis learned that “it’s OK to say what you don’t want, and it’s OK to not have things all the way worked out and still express the vision that you have. You can’t have a life fulfilling big dreams from a fearful place.”

    Lewis says she has learned to be comfortable with the unknown by acknowledging when fear is speaking to her and listening to what it’s telling her. “I can’t let fear stop me. I can’t let fear paralyze me, but I can let fear let me know, ‘Oh, this is something that my brain is telling me is new.’ In listening to my gut, I know whether or not I should move forward or if I should stay where I am and be still.”

    Lewis fell in love with performing at an early age. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in theater performance, she moved to New York City. A role in the award-winning play Milk Like Sugar raised her profile and introduced her to actor J. Mallory McCree, whom she married in 2014.

    An early break came when she won a role in the Showtime series The Big C, starring Laura Linney. Guest star appearances have included The Last Ship and Code Black.

    Changing the narrative
    In addition to more acting, Lewis’ big dream includes a role behind the camera. Together with her husband and several others, she has formed a production company, BlüRemedi Media, to develop stories “that we don’t always hear about our people.”

    Projects include MC Kid: A Dream Never Deferred, about Marilyn McCormick (see sidebar), a longtime theater teacher at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, where Lewis was a student. Winner of the 2016 Tony Award’s Excellence in Theater Education honor, McCormick has been credited with launching the careers of many Broadway and Hollywood talents, including playwright Dominique Morisseau and actor Chanté Adams (A League of Their Own), among others.

     “We talk a lot about diversity,” Lewis says of the vision for the production company, “[and] we’ve got a lot of Black people on the screen, but they’re kind of doing the same things that we see them doing all the time. And so we are about the diversity within the diversity. We say all the time, Black people are not a monolith, but then we get scared to see them in ways that are not traditional or common, and so we are really wanting to tell stories that show us in different lights and alternative ways.”

    Lewis is managing her expanding career along with a growing family; baby No. 2 due in the summer. How does she cope with all the competing opportunities and demands? “I must admit that my life is amazing right now,” she says before emphasizing the importance of attitude. “And I must admit that because I expect for my life to be even more amazing, it won’t get more amazing if I’m, ‘Oh, my life sucks.’ So, yeah, my life is amazing, but that doesn’t mean I have it all, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t experience challenges.”

    Lewis is trying to “figure it out every day, every moment,” by asking lots of questions. What is going to fulfill her in this moment? What is going to bring her joy in this moment? What is going to serve her family in this moment? “I have found that, so far, there is no formula to make it all happen,” she admits. “There is no way for me to have this perfect work-life balance. I don’t even know what balance is. It’s like, ‘In this moment, this is the thing that needs to get done, and that’s what I’m gonna do.’”

    That doesn’t mean she won’t make mistakes, she adds. But when that happens, “I’m gonna pick myself up.” It is also important to remember that time is relative. “When somebody is looking at your life and they’re seeing the culmination of five years, 10 years, 20 years of work, and it feels like a second, those two things are not equal, you know? So, can I have everything at the same time? Depends on what timeframe you’re looking at.”

    Doing the work

    Motherhood is another part of Lewis’ dream, and not just for herself. Concerned at the high rate of maternal deaths among Black women—they die at three to five times the rate of white moms, she says—Lewis founded the nonprofit Birth Village to provide educational support and champion the work of doulas and midwives.

    In an Instagram (@luvangelalewis) message posted to her 133,000 followers celebrating World Doula Week, in March, Lewis said, “Black birthwork is an act of resistance… Black mothers deserve the care and services of a trained advocate who can provide the nurturing and healing benefits required for a successful pregnancy.”

    Giving birth to her first child in 2019 was a joyful experience, “but not without the unexpected,” she tells WayMaker Journal. So “I just want to use my platform to be a megaphone for those who are already doing the work and to help provide access to resources and funding and education and all the things that can help.”

    RELATED: The Transformation of Charles Jenkins

    For all of her upward career trajectory, Lewis knows she’s working in an industry with great highs and lows. With that in mind, she reminds herself that “I have always been supported, and I am always supported, by life itself, and that this life is for me. Even when things get hard, life is still for me. So, the more I get shaky and scared and beat up by things that didn’t go my way or things that didn’t come to fruition… the more I get off my center, I look at it as like static: I’m creating this field of static around me which then prevents the good that’s trying to get to me from getting to me faster.”

    The movie world is all about money, but that’s not the most important thing to her. “Money is great,” she says. “Money allows me access and privileges and experiences that are above my wildest dreams. I’m like, ‘This is nice, but it is not me.’ And so I have to find the things that are about me, and that support me, and that fulfill me. And knowing that I am supported by life itself is one of the things that keeps me centered and grounded and able to withstand whatever storms and challenges are coming my way.”

    Lewis’ career advice for anyone starting out is to remember that it’s all about giving it your best effort. “It’s about the hard work, right? Hard work beats talent any day and every day, and so, as talented as I know I am or think I am or feel I am, or as talented as anybody might view me, I have got to put in the hard work because you best believe that there is somebody who arguably is not as talented who’s working their butt off, and they’re gonna get it because hard work beats talent every day. ”

    ANGELA LEWIS: MY WAYMAKERS

    First would be my parents and my family, because they have been extremely supportive of me over the years. Then there is my high school drama teacher, Marilyn McCormick. She was the first person to help me know and understand that my passion for the arts could be more than just a passion: “This can be a career path for you, but you’ve got to put in the work, and you’ve got to be serious about it.”

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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