'South Side' Actor Chandra Russell On Why Black Women Are The Funniest People Alive

The actor, who plays Officer Turner, shared how the HBO Max series shines a light on hair insecurities, Chicago hood staples and the magic of Black women comedians.
Chandra Russell wants to help show "that Black women have 1,000,023 ways to be silly."
Chandra Russell wants to help show "that Black women have 1,000,023 ways to be silly."
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Getty

“I Run This” is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Danai Gurira interview here.

Chandra Russell agrees that Black women are the funniest people alive. She’s one of them.

The “South Side” actor got her first jokes off playing the dozens while growing up in Chicago. But she didn’t always know her path would lead her to playing Officer Turner, the real-ass, many-wigged cop with a propensity for switching up her hair and clowning her partner, Officer Goodnight.

Initially, comedy wasn’t on her mind. She had her sights set on drama. But she said comedy found her.

The third season of “South Side” premiered on HBO Max on Dec. 8, and Russell said she’s especially proud of what the show was able to accomplish this season. And for good reason.

“This was the first year where the women in the room ― and all of our women are Black women ― but the women writers, we outweighed the men, which is so rare in a writer’s room,” said Russell, who also writes for the show. “And to be in a room where people respect our voices, and where we really get to make changes, and be in charge of the women narratives.”

Russell said this season delves deeper into the stories of the women of the series. She created Turner and has a routine she follows to get into character.

“Before we shoot, I have to eat a Peppermint Pickle, which is a Chicago hood snack,” she said. “I have to clean my house very thoroughly. I know it’s very strange, but Officer Turner is a very clean person. So, I have to scrub everything down to just get in the proper spirit.”

For Russell, who’s also working on the comedy series “Black Girl Magic” with Gabrielle Union, Turner has been a place to rest her insecurities and find healing through comedy. Her writing is a relatable space for other Black women to see their stories told.

Bashir Salahuddin, the show’s executive producer and Russell’s husband, said it was important this season to follow the lead of the women in the room. He sang Russell’s praises for the care she puts into not only her character, but all of the characters.

“Obviously, she really created her own character. I mean we had some ideas, but ultimately she’s the one who really figured out what that character has to be, and that’s why I think why it’s so good and so resonant,” said Salahuddin, who plays Officer Goodnight. “But she’s not saving that passion just for her own character. So whenever she’s writing for Diallo [Riddle’s] character, my character, other people’s character, it’s that same level of compassion and commitment that she has for her own character.”

For “I Run This,” Russell talks about pouring her experiences ― insecurities included ― into “South Side,” how she picks out the perfect wigs for Officer Turner and the comedic gold Black women can naturally mine.

Chandra Russell said she referred to real women in her life when creating Officer Turner.
Chandra Russell said she referred to real women in her life when creating Officer Turner.
Jean Whiteside/HBO Max

How did your journey, from growing up in Chicago to attending New York University, help inform your path and what you wanted to do with comedy?

I actually initially did not intend to do comedy. I wanted to be a dramatic actress. I wanted to cry; I wanted to be a character actress. But comedy just came to me because Chicago is just a naturally very funny city. Everybody in Chicago is sure that they are the funniest person you ever met.

We’re a really Black city, and Black women are the funniest people alive. Black people are just funny. And I think it’s the way we get through a lot of things that are not so fun in our lives. So, we just figure out ways to celebrate and be joyful and to laugh about it.

As a young child, we used to play this game: “I bet you I could make you say what.” And basically, everybody would just sit out on the porch, and one person would go to the bottom of the porch, which we used as a stage — it was the performative area. And you would have to keep doing stuff until the whole porch of people laughed, and that’s how you would win.

And I loved that game so much as a kid. I used to do this thing where I would do Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” but I would do it in this fake British accent, this really performative thing. And everybody would just die. And it just would make me feel so good. I was a very shy child. Only in these performative spaces do I feel comfortable opening up. And something about making people laugh, and making people feel good, even if it’s for a minute, it makes me feel good.

Something about that reminds me of back in the day at my grandma’s house. Which is funny because that’s what “South Side” feels like. I feel like I’m sitting in the living room watching my aunties and uncles cut up.

I love that. And I think that is the goal.

Coming from Chicago to NYU, I think that was always one of the things that was very helpful for me, the way I performed always needed to feel personal to me because that’s how I really relate to people. If you meet me on a regular day, I’m so quiet. You’d be like, “Is that really her?” Like damn. I do, I talk. But it is like I said, it’s my way to open up.

And so at NYU, I received wonderful training and I enjoyed myself. But I think one of the things that I’ve carried with me from Chicago was I need to be a person that people can identify with. And if when you look at me perform, you don’t see somebody you know, then it’s not as satisfying for me. It’s wonderful to learn all the voice and speech and the accents and dialects, but if it doesn’t make you feel anything, then I don’t know what I’m up here for.

What real-life experiences did you have to tap into, especially when first creating Officer Turner?

I definitely thought a lot about women that I had grown up around, that I went to high school with. I thought about my godsister. I thought about my mother. I thought about my aunts. And I first just journaled and took pieces of them that I always enjoyed. And what I always love about Black women is the complexity of us. It’s a part of our magic. And I love that Black women can be so strong, but yet so vulnerable. Can be so mean and so nice. And sometimes within the same sentence.

In terms of life experiences, I tap into them primarily by writing. In season one, my whole episode that I write is about hair. And that was a big thing for me growing up because I have never had a lot of hair, and I wanted hair. And just even in watching TV when I was younger, everybody had so much. I didn’t realize people were wearing wigs and weaves. I just really thought I was the only baldhead person in the world. And I just felt like if I had hair, my whole life would be better, things would be easier for me. And that was some stuff I carried with me for years until my late 20s where if I didn’t have a weave, sometimes I didn’t even want to go out of the house because I felt so crippled by baldheadedness. And I wasn’t bald, I was exaggerating.

And so, I think each time I touch the page, I try to bring my personal experience into it. I try to bring in the things that have bothered me throughout my life or things that have given me joy. Even in season two about the pompom girls. I tried out for the pompom team when I was in kindergarten because they were going to perform at the Bud Billiken, which is a very big parade on the south side of Chicago. It’s very Black, it’s the back-to-school parade. And I wanted to do it, and I knew all the dance moves, but I was so shy at the tryouts, I froze. I couldn’t move. Physically, nothing was happening, and I knew every move.

And so, that was what started us to talk about a pompom team, whatever. And I was like, “I want a redo.” I put a version of myself doing this dance, being successful at pompoms. And so, the episode, obviously, it mutates and becomes its own thing. But I always try to bring as much of myself and my lived experiences, which are, obviously, based in Chicago.

Gary Anthony Williams guest starred as Officer Turner's father in a recent episode.
Gary Anthony Williams guest starred as Officer Turner's father in a recent episode.
Adrian S. Burrows Sr./HBO Max

It sounds like that is very healing, and restorative, too. The fact that you’re able to create your own redo or even get vulnerable about your insecurities through hair, through this character. How has that impacted you not only on a personal level, but also professionally and through your career in comedy?

Well, I would say it definitely is therapeutic. After we did that hair episode, I felt better because this thing that I was so even ashamed to feel like that, to be an adult thinking about hair, without, in the open. And yes, people are attaching that to a character, but I know that it’s rooted in me. And so, to just say it just felt better. I felt lifted from it. I was like, “Well, it’s out. Shit. People know.” And then, also, to get the response from other women just being like, “Oh my God, I feel seen. Yes, that’s it.” And I was like, “Oh, we all together.”

When we were filming the hair episode, at the point where Stacy is braiding my hair, that is my real hair. And I had some anxiety over it. The last time I had shown my real hair, I did this web series for a friend of mine and it got a lot of views. And in the comments, people were tearing my edges up because the character that I was playing was kind of villainous. They were mostly talking about my edges. And so, I was like, “Oh, I’ll never do that again.” I will never be on television with my real hair because the internet is cruel.

Yeah, that’s nasty.

The internet is nasty.

And so, here we were, we were doing it. And I was like, “Girl, just go for it. You’ve been using your oils, let’s see what happens.” And when I watched it, I was like, “Girl, it’s fine.” It looks just fine. And you know what? This is real. You are a real Black woman. And it is OK to be on TV in all of our realness, and with all of our imperfections. We don’t have to be these constructive versions of ourselves that are perfect and unnatural. And I just feel like it’s Black women, sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves because other people put pressure on us.

And so, even just doing that felt good. And I’ll say in my personal life, once everybody sees you on TV looking like you, it’s easier. I was tired of being uncomfortable in my own skin. And I do think having children actually kind of helped with that because I would look at my children, and I see things that I think are so beautiful in them. I’m like, “Oh my God. My son. His eyes are so beautiful.” And I’m like, “Well, his eyes are my eyes.” So, if his eyes are, then my eyes must be beautiful.

And I just got tired of being really hard on myself in every way. And the more I started to accomplish the things that I wanted in my life, I wanted to act, I wanted to be on TV. I did that. I wanted to write, I’m writing all these things. I was like, “Girl, you have to start being kinder to yourself.” You have to start celebrating your wins. And so, I think that just became the pervasive energy across the board. Celebrate how you look, celebrate how you feel, celebrate what you’re doing. Celebrate yourself.

That’s so beautiful. I love that you were able to take yourself on that journey, and eventually end up giving yourself a soft place to land.

I have to know. What are your top three wigs that Officer Turner has worn?

OK, how hard. Now, season two in the play episode, the tornado episode where we do a play with Lil Rel. I loved that wig. And that wig was synthetic, so I was very impressed. And usually, those place a little lower on my list sometimes. It’s just me being bougie because some of those synthetics get the job done. But yeah, that one was, I’ll put that in top three.

There’s a wig this year. It is blue. It is everything. And it’s an edgy haircut. It doesn’t get enough time on the episode, which always bothers me because sometimes I feel like the wigs that I end up liking the most, get the least time.

It might be my No. 1 choice actually, but I have to watch the episode and see myself in it. But when I was wearing it, I felt very good. And then I’m going to choose one from season one so that every season has a wig.

In season one, there’s like a red shoulder-length wig, and the roots are dark. I really like that wig, too, because I love that color. I like red on me.

Giving a little Kelly Roland, early 2000s.

Yes. Yes. Our first season press pictures I requested, I was like, “Can we get that wig?” And they let me have that one. They let me keep that wig.

Rukey Styles works with Russell to figure out the perfect wigs for Officer Turner.
Rukey Styles works with Russell to figure out the perfect wigs for Officer Turner.
Jean Whiteside/HBO Max

I know that’s right. Who does your hair for the show?

Rukey Styles. She is incredible. She is such a talent, and she’s such an artist. Working with her on hair is such a joy and it really is a process. We start to talk months before, pretty much as soon as we have the framework for the episodes, I’ll tell her and then she’ll be like, “All right, what are we thinking?” And we’ll just start shooting each other pictures back and forth, putting together a kind of a vision board type thing, discussing things that we think will look good, trying to figure out stuff we haven’t done.

But also we try to figure out things that are funny. In the “Laughter” episode, there’s a moment where me and my friend, we are trying to be in disguises and so we are wearing these braid wigs. And the one I’m wearing, I mean, it is very much not my color. I would not do that. But we just thought they were so funny. It’s way too many braids on the wig. It’s like, no head should have that many braids. It’s too much. And so we definitely try to find stuff like that.

We think about the other girls in the scene too, ’cause we don’t want too many people having the same hair color. So, we think about balance and length. Yeah. So, Rukey. She’s a star.

I love that. Also, a braid wig will never not make me laugh because it just reminds me of Shemar Moore in that Tyler Perry movie when he was the bus driver.

Yes. When he hit them with them straight backs.

We had one of the guys do that in a flashback episode on “South Side.” It’s funny because season one, you notice only the women are playing, only the girls are playing in the wigs. After, I notice some men’s getting up in them wigs. I was like, “Ooh, y’all so jealous.”

They always trying to be like us.

Oh my God. Can’t have nothing. Jesus.

Speaking of, how is it having your work husband be your actual husband?

It’s nice because we have a really good chemistry when we work, and there’s such a trust between us that I feel like we can get a lot out of each other. [Bashir] knows what buttons to push to get the reaction that he wants from me, comedically. And because we spend so much time together, we have a language between us. He’s the executive producer, and also he directs some of the episodes. And so, when he wants me to understand something, if I’m not getting something, he always is able to find a way to explain it to me. And then, I also know how to get under his skin, which is very important for the Goodnight and Turner relationship. Because Turner knows how to get under Goodnight’s skin.

And so, it’s very helpful that I know the things that bother Bashir. If I need to, I’ll fight dirty. I’ll bring up what I need to. I’ll say what I need to say.

One of Officer Turner's main roles in "South Side" is to get on her partner Officer Goodnight's nerves.
One of Officer Turner's main roles in "South Side" is to get on her partner Officer Goodnight's nerves.
Adrian S. Burrows Sr./HBO Max

I’m pretty sure y’all have some really lively conversations in the writer’s room.

We do. We do. But it’s really fun, and it’s cool to be able to talk about a show that we both love so much at home. And it’s also really tender to be going on this journey together because Bashir, obviously, has done so much in this industry and has a wonderful resume and is extremely talented. And obviously, I’m a big fan of the man and the talent. But this show is really special to him because, in a lot of ways, it’s the show that he’s always wanted to make.

And for us, as Chicagoans, it’s our love letter to our city. It’s the Chicago show we’ve always wanted to give the people of Chicago. And so to be doing this together, it definitely is a tender journey to be on as husband and wife, and as creators.

What are some things that you would like to do that you haven’t done or stories that you would like to tell that you haven’t?

So, I had mentioned the Bud Billiken parade, and we didn’t get do that because the year that we were there in time, it got canceled for COVID. So we still haven’t been able to do Bud Billiken, which is such a Chicago thing that it must be done, and just have so many good memories there.

I really want to do something in a skating rink. We used to go to the skating rink on Saturdays. They would have juke nights, and so some people were skating, some people were juking. You’d essentially just bend over, and grind on a guy. It was filthy, but it was fun in childhood.

I definitely want to explore more of the Mexican south side because, unfortunately, Chicago is a very racially segregated city, historically. And things have improved drastically. But there are so many different versions of the south side, which are now bleeding into each other, and it’s a really nice cultural exchange.

So, there’s just certain nuances of the city like that that I would really like to explore because I think that they do exist in every metropolitan area that is diverse. And so, I think, like we were saying earlier, I think it’s something that anyone can identify. Yeah.

How do you want to ultimately have an impact on comedy?

I think the impact that I would want to make, that I would want to leave, is that Black women can be all different types of funny. We can be quirky, too. We can be Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.” We can be goofy.

I think for so long, there was this perception that there was only one way for Black women to be funny. And it was sassy and it was loud and it was in your face, and your head moving, and your fingers snapping. And we can be beautiful and funny, too. We are so diverse in our humor and so talented. And if people would just get out of our way, and let us be in charge of our own stories, and our own images, the complexities that you’ll see Black women bring to comedy and humor, are endless.

And it’s certainly, you’re seeing all different versions. But I would just like to be a part of that legacy showing that Black women have 1,000,023 ways to be silly.

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