Gail Bean is in her stride on television right now. She hasn’t peaked yet, but she wants viewers to know it’s coming, brick by brick.
The Atlanta-raised actor has stolen scenes and had the internet talking since she made her TV debut in a two-episode arc on “Insecure” as Rasheeda, the Black intern who Molly wants to tone down at her unbearably white law firm. Since then, Bean has appeared in “Chicago P.D.,” “Games People Play” and “Atlanta.”
One of her more popular roles, however, is Wanda on “Snowfall.” Wanda develops an addiction to the same drug her ex-boyfriend Leon (Isaiah John) sells: crack. Set in 1980s South Central Los Angeles, the show uses Wanda to paint the picture of addiction, recovery and what love looks like through it all. It’s a story that isn’t often told with this much depth, pain and beauty, and it surely isn’t always given as much care as Bean has brought to the character since Wanda was introduced in season two.
As “Snowfall” gears up to begin its final season on Feb. 22, Bean has been feeling reflective on her journey to get here. And though this role put her on the map, she’s still reaching for her breakout moment.
“I don’t think I’ve had my breakout role. I’ve had breaks,” she said. “I feel a breakout role is your role where everybody knows you. Not knows you, but knows your work. Notoriety. That’s breakout. I feel like each role has been a good break where it gets me more work.”
While Bean works her way to the top, she remains grounded in her faith and humility as her driving force. That’s landed her a recurring role as Roulette in “P-Valley” and a launching pad for her own production company, Mitchell’s Are Born Winners Productions.
“I think it’s like right now, God is just shining a light on me, so I’m glowing,” she said. “I’m glowing in ‘P-Valley’ as Roulette, I’m glowing in Snowfall as ‘Wanda.’ I definitely feel like I’m on the way and I know what this career is. There’s highs, there’s lows. But I think highs and lows are a state of mind.”
For “I Run This,” Bean discusses her acting journey, her hopes for Wanda and Leon’s relationship as “Snowfall” ends, and finding community in Hollywood.
Congratulations on the final season of “Snowfall” coming up. You and the cast have come a long way. How do you feel about the show coming to an end?
It’s bittersweet. Someone just asked me, “Do you smile because it happened or cry because it’s over?” And I had to say, “You smile because it happened.” Because it could have not. It is a story that could have easily went untold in its fullness. I’m just happy that I was able to experience this. I know that I’m blessed to experience it at such a younger age, early on in my career.
Everybody from in front of the camera, behind the camera, poured into this story, this project, this being as perfect as it was. Not one single person ― I mean, whether it be someone who worked security at base camp, to someone who worked an extra, to a writer who may have wrote one line ― everybody cared and everybody saw John Singleton’s vision and wanted to see it through even long after his death. So I’m just honored. I’m happy to have been along for the ride.
You brought such delicacy and depth to your character, Wanda. She was battling addiction on so many different levels. We see her discover crack and become someone who I think a lot of people ― and particularly the U.S. government and media historically ― have villainized: Black women, Black people in general, especially Black women who are dealing with addiction. And so to see you come into and bring that fullness to Wanda has been really beautiful.
I’m wondering what it means for you to be able to play a character like Wanda, and how you approached the sensitivity of portraying addiction and healing while giving her room to evolve over the course of five seasons.
I was told early on in my career there is no room for judgment in art. So do not judge your characters. Do not judge what they’ve been through, what they’re going through, where they come from nor where they’re going. And Wanda opened my eyes, as it did the audience. It allowed me to empathize and see people who battle addiction as more human than I had before. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know their story. I didn’t even know, not even knowing their story ― I didn’t even know how they became a victim of the circumstance to drugs. And it having that hold and it being equally a disease.
So it helps me to grow and understand. And it meant so much to me to be able to still learn, to be open to changing my mindset on certain things. Because even now, the world that we see, the world that we live in, some people are so close-minded. And stepping into Wanda taught me so much that I did not know about life, about addiction. I mean, I knew a lot about crack, but it taught me so much more about people, about humans. It’s something about brokenness. And then it also showed me the beauty of the resilience of us, the strength; Black women just in general. So just stepping into that meant heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Can we get a hint of what we should expect from Wanda’s storyline this upcoming season? Is she going to continue to rekindle with Leon?
She is going to revisit the conversation that it left off on where he asked her to go to Africa. You’re going to find out where they go or whether they don’t go. You’re going to find out who Wanda is on her own without the drugs, post-addiction, because she was basically reborn again. I mean, when you’re an addict or when we go through hardships in life, on the other side of that, we are not the same person. When you live through something very devastating to your mind and your mental and your emotional, sometimes even your physical ― you are not the same person. So we get to see a renewed Wanda, and what it’s like living in this world, having to deal with her mistakes.
If you could give John Singleton a message today, what would it be?
I would say I’m forever grateful. Nothing you said has ever fallen on deaf ears, and I am going to make you proud. And I’m going to put a little bit of John in everything I do.
What advice would you give young Gail Bean who was just stepping on the set of “Snowfall” on day one?
Wow, you just took me back. First day of “Snowfall.” Season two, episode one. Young Gail Bean: Live in the moment. Cherish this moment. Each and every moment. Because now in hindsight, at the end, it seems like it all went by so fast. There are moments where I see now why on both sides to it, why people take out their phones a lot to record it. And then I see why people don’t at all. But truly being present, I would go back and tell Gail Bean: Breathe and be present in the moment, because this is history.
Would you call this your breakout role, or would you call “Unexpected” your breakout role? Do you think you’ve had your breakout role yet?
I don’t think I’ve had my breakout role. I’ve had breaks. I feel a breakout role is your role where everybody knows you. Not knows you, but knows your work. Notoriety. That’s breakout. I feel like each role has been a good break where it gets me more work. But you know when you get that Viola or that Denzel where it’s like, “No, your entire calendar is booked up. You’re always working. You’re the most sought-out.” That’s my breakout where it’s just the phones won’t stop ringing. When my reps no longer have to work but I’m actually receiving the invitations to audition on the regular ― that’s my breakout.
I’m always grateful any time that I do get a straight offer. But I think each project that I do breaks me out of some box that I have been placed in as a Black woman. So I’m always grateful for every single project. Technically, every project is a breakout. “Unexpected” went to Sundance and introduced me to a lot of people. It got my name out there. It put me on a level of being able to work with some very serious heavy-hitter actors.
“Insecure” was my very first TV show. That was another breakout. I got to work with James Gunn on “The Belko Experiment.” That’s a breakout. Him, Peter Safran, Tony Goldwyn, all of these amazing, great people. Rusty [Schwimmer], James Earl. All of these things did something to break me out of the box that sometimes we put ourselves in and sometimes that society puts us in. So everything has been a breakout in a way, but I don’t think I’ve got my Viola yet.
You can be as graceful and fierce as a Roulette on “P-Valley,” and also be soft. And I love that you mentioned specifically the “Insecure” role because that was a role that got a lot of people talking. That storyline and how sometimes we water ourselves down because of what we believe the rooms that we’re walking into, how they’re going to perceive us.
I want to talk to you specifically about how you’ve been able to consistently be not only authentic but also vulnerable in your voice and story throughout your career and what that balance looked like. Has that ever been hard for you?
So early on in my acting classes, Lalanya Abner, she would really push for us to be vulnerable. And for me, vulnerability was not something that I was comfortable with. I didn’t see my mother cry for the first time until her dad passed in 2017. And I didn’t know what to do. I’m always on a high, happy-go-lucky, try to stay in a positive space. So negative spaces for me are the anger of Roulette. So I just wasn’t tapped in with vulnerability. It would make me uncomfortable.
That was one of the challenges for me that my acting teacher really pushed to, where she was like, “I want you to get comfortable in vulnerability. I want you to get comfortable in authenticity. So anything that doesn’t feel genuine makes you feel disgusting.” So there was that practice where it’s uncomfortable for a long time, I literally felt like, when I would do a scene and if it called for crying. Because for a long time, I didn’t cry in front of nobody. I didn’t want people to see that.
Acting training was like therapy. I think that’s the closest thing I can compare it to. I had a therapist once, but that was not a good one. It was not successful. But for me, I believe that this is the euphoric feeling and understanding and awareness that a person would go through in therapy. That is what acting taught me and does for my personal self. And I feel something that is as amazing as art is going to grow you in all ways. And it grew me in my career professionally, and it grew me in my personal life. So that’s how I got comfortable with being vulnerable and authentic.
What’s on the rubric for the kind of characters that you like to play? What are you looking for in your next characters that you want to play going forward?
I base my decision on whether I’m going to take on a project or not if I have two out of the three things. And this is something that Rusty Schwimmer ― another actor from Chicago, amazing woman ― told me, and I just stole it from her. Two out of three: The script is good, the money is good, or I really want to work with the people. So it has to be two out of three. I really wanted to work with Issa Rae and the script was good, you see? So it varied, and that was early in my career. So for me, it wasn’t about money. For me, I feel like there are plenty of ways we get paid for things. Payment is not always monetary. What “Insecure” did for my career, what Issa Rae did for my career — she was the first person to put me on TV. There’s so many ways that people have to look at the bigger picture, and that’s what I do when I choose a project.
When I choose a character, I’m always like, “God, just give me a character of quality.” That’s all I ever ask for. “Give me a character of quality. Let me have fun.” And if we really look at it, I mean, everybody’s life is of quality. So I’ll take any character. No character am I judging to where I’m just like, “I don’t want to play this character.” Even if somebody writes it flat, I can round it out myself. We have the choice to make a character multidimensional, and sometimes we’re just so honored and blessed that the writers say, “You know what? Let me do a little work and make this character well fleshed-out, multidimensional.” But as an actor, we still have to do the work to give life to the voice.
Do you have a dream role?
I’ve been wanting to do Marvel forever. I always wanted to play Storm. I feel like that time might have passed. They’ve had so many Storms. I don’t know if they’re trying to open that back up. But anything in Marvel films, whether it be a villain or superhero, or just an amazing mother like Angela Bassett plays, I definitely want to do Marvel and work with everybody over there. I have 17 nieces and nephews, I want to do something the youth in my family can watch. I also have always wanted to be an action figure in one way or another.
Outside of Marvel, I’m not looking for a particular character that I want to play. I haven’t found one yet, but I do know what I’m looking for is my next producer, writer, director that I continue to do project after project after project with. Michael B. Jordan has Ryan Coogler, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo [DiCaprio]. I want to continue to work with a director or a producer. I want to continue to do that. I want to grow with someone. Our careers exceed expectations and we just hit trajectory after trajectory. That’s what I want.
I think a lot about community and about Issa’s comment of networking horizontally, and working with your peers and looking up to your peers. What does that look like for you right now? Who are you linking up with and who’s in your support circle?
My support circle is Danielle Deadwyler. She’s one of my favorite actresses of our generation. She’s also from Atlanta, and that’s my sister. We did “Atlanta” together, and then we turned around and did “Paradise Lost” together. Latasha Gillespie, she’s with Amazon. She’s definitely community. The folks from “Harlem”: Jerrie Johnson, Meagan Good, all of them ― love them. Isaiah John, who plays Leon on “Snowfall”: community. When it comes to directors, Logan Kibens: phenomenal. Phenomenal, amazing human being, and just so sweet and so talented. Christine Swanson, Carl Seaton, Thomas Maddox: really amazing people who I care for deeply. Katori Hall has taken me in and just been a gift. Every project there is someone, and sometimes multiple people, who have been heaven-sent. And Vicki Thomas has rooted for me since day one. She’s who cast me in “Insecure.”
Then I’ve made community with Dormtainment, they’re this amazing comedy group. Trevor Engelson over at FX. I have a cousin, his name is William P. Miller. William does events for so many different celebrities and non-celebrities. And every time, he mentions my name in the room, simply off of just love. But it’s people who just genuinely root for you and want nothing in return. And for that, I have been so grateful.
Has it been hard building those relationships?
Aunjanue Ellis spoke on it at her Black Women Essence in Hollywood luncheon speech on how you are invited in the room, but you do not have a seat at the table. That is what it’s like for a long time. Moses Ingram, Karena Evans and I spoke about it at length and we’re just like, “This is sad. We work so hard to be here and it seems like we’re not welcome.”
So you have to be OK with that. Move past that and know that your people will find you, and you’ll find your people. And when you get that community, it ain’t nothing but up. For a long time, I had to have just God and the ancestors. I was going off a hope and a prayer. But now I have a community and just ― it’s beautiful, because it’s hard. It is hard. Everybody sees the glitz and the glam, but it’s work. It’s worth it too, though. And then there’s days where it feels lonely and there’s solitude, but that always passes. I had to tell myself, “This too shall pass.” It passed, and you get through it.
Congratulations on launching your own production company. What kind of stories are you hoping to tell through it?
Yes. I have my own production company, Mitchell’s Are Born Winners Productions. Some things are in the works, so hoping and praying that it’ll be real public on people’s slate by the end of the year.
Back in the day, there used to be stories that had messages. You ever heard of the term allegory? I want to put out films that have messages, but also make you feel good, make you think, make you laugh, make you cry. So there’s no particular genre that we’ll stick to. I want my production company to have a range, and I want people to ― regardless of what content we put out, to be quality, and it to be great and it to be well-received.
So when people do any project that MABW Productions puts out, people say, “Oh, that’s a...” You go to the movies if it’s a Jordan Peele film. You go to the movies if it’s a Denzel Washington film. I want them to say, “We’re going, because that’s a Mitchell’s Are Born Winners film.” You going to go to the movies for a Quentin Tarantino film. I want my production company to be that household name where you don’t know where it’s going, but it’s going to be good.
What would you call the era that you’re in right now?
I would call this era the Godly Glow. I would have to say that, because I’m on a trajectory, but I’m not at the peak. I think it’s like right now, God is just shining a light on me, so I’m glowing. I’m glowing in “P-Valley” as Roulette, I’m glowing in Snowfall as “Wanda.” I definitely feel like I’m on the way and I know what this career is. There’s highs, there’s lows. But I think highs and lows are a state of mind. Just because I’m not working doesn’t mean I’m in a low, so I don’t see myself having a low. I feel like my low was when I started. Even if I’m not working, I can still write. I could still create. I could still spend time with my family. I could still have a family of my own during that break, but I think I’m in my Godly Glow right now.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I would want my legacy to be that I helped advance Black people’s way of life. That when I die, they will be proud of me, and the world will be a better place than the one I was born into.