For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
What do Brandee Evans, her mother, Diana Harrington, and Angela Bassett have in common? Lots, as Evans will tell you—a lifetime, in fact, of resemblance. The breakout star plays Mercedes in P-Valley. She’s a preacher’s daughter, a stone-cold hustler, and a stripper at the Pynk, a fictional club in Memphis’s real-life “Dirty Delta” region. Although Evans has never worked in the latter occupation, she knows a thing or two about the former two identities. Evans, who herself is a Memphis native, got her start as a professional dancer, performing for NBA teams and opening for musicians including Lil Wayne. When she happened upon an acting class with the renowned coach Tasha Smith, she found she had a knack for the craft—and made a quick pivot to Hollywood, pursuing auditions and whatever work she could get. But while her career blossomed, her personal life grew tough—her mother has multiple sclerosis, and in recent years also developed Alzheimer’s.
Since 2016, Evans has juggled an acting career while taking care of her mom. In 2018, she snagged the part on P-Valley, affording her the ability to hire caregivers. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, the actress found her work stalled. Production halted, and she had a bunch of time on her hands. She decided to dedicate more time to taking care of her mother, and that included—what else?—watching television together. “I have never watched this much TV in my life, until the pandemic,” Evans said on the phone one recent afternoon, while filming P-Valley. It was also an opportunity for her and her mother to be entertained by their all-time favorite actress: Angela Bassett, whose role as Athena Grant on 9-1-1 Evans chose to re-create for this year’s TV Portfolio. “When my mom was in her truest self, she truly resembled Angela Bassett,” Evans recalled. “I would hear that a lot growing up: ‘You and your mom, you’re giving me a little Angela Bassett vibes.’”
Besides working on season 2 of P-Valley, Evans will soon star in B-Boy Blues, a film directed by Jussie Smollett, as well as the holiday film A Rich Christmas. Below, the actress discusses fangirling over meeting Bassett in real life, and why her character, Mercedes, will have quite the narrative arc on this upcoming season of P-Valley.
You’ve just started filming the second season of P-Valley in Atlanta. How will Mercedes’s story line be different this upcoming season?
I can’t say too, too much, but just know that she is going on an insane journey this season. Whew! Get your mind right for what you’re about to see. There will be a lot more vulnerability. [Showrunner] Katori Hall doesn’t shy away from difficult situations. You’re going to see a lot more of what’s happening outside of the club. I can’t relate to a dancer who does exotic dance in the club, but I can relate to someone who’s a preacher’s child, because I am one too, or someone who wants to be a mother to a child—all these things that make us as women and men go, I know how that feels. So there’s a lot of that happening, bringing it to the forefront, touching your hearts and souls this season.
I know you took some time to take care of your mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Did you start being a caregiver to her full-time during the pandemic?
No, it was actually December 21, 2016, when I brought her from a nursing home in Memphis, Tennessee. She had a fall that took her walking ability away. She never recovered, and ended up in a rehabilitation center slash nursing facility. The promise I made her as a little girl is that I would never do that. I don’t judge anyone that has to do that. But for my family, I really wanted to honor my mother and take care of her myself. So when that happened, it was really hard, but I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have a job. I made a GoFundMe, and we moved my mom out of that nursing home. She was there almost two years. I just hustled and did what I had to do.
Did you start watching 9-1-1 during lockdown?
Oh no, no. I started watching in the beginning, like when Athena Grant was still married [to her first husband, Michael]. First of all, I’m a diehard Angela Bassett fan. So if she’s in it, I’m watching it. I started before, but then had time. So Mama, today, we binge-watching Angela. We would have our movie days and it’s like, okay, we’re going to watch a movie or we’re going to watch a whole series until we’re sick of it.
Did you watch Angela Bassett films with your mom during these marathon movie days?
Oh God. Yeah. We’re watching Black Panther. We’re watching What’s Love Got to Do With It. We’re watching How Stella Got Her Groove Back. We’re watching Waiting to Exhale. Anytime anybody asks me in the press, they’re like, whom do you want to work with? I’m like, Angela Bassett. I am putting it out there, I really am. I’m not going to be shy about it. They say a closed mouth doesn’t get fed.
Have you ever met her in person?
I’ve met her a few times. I don’t think that she knows how much I love her, because I try to downplay it when I see her when I’m out. I’m just like, stay calm, stay calm, and I’m gagging inside. Tina Turner was the turning point for me. There’s something I can’t say. But when season 2 [of P-Valley] comes out, you’re going to know exactly why I’m excited about this mental relationship that I feel that I have with Angela Bassett. We’ve actually spoken at Tina Knowles’s birthday party, because there were some job opportunities that Angela and I were going to possibly be a part of together. And she’s a member of my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. We took a sorority picture together.
Do you see any similarities between Athena Grant and your character on P-Valley?
The strength and the resilience. I believe Mercedes and Athena Grant don’t back down from tough situations. They’re at the forefront of it, and I love that. I feel like Angela always chooses very strong roles. And now that my career is starting to take off, I try to think of that. I say that to people sometimes. I’m like, would Angela Bassett do that? Would Angela Bassett do this role? Or how would she handle this situation? Because I truly respect her as a woman and an actress. And you couldn’t tell me anything. When they told me that I was nominated for an NAACP award with Angela Bassett, I was like, I don’t care who wins. I have won. I am on the ballot with Angela Bassett. Win!
What’s one of your biggest ambitions?
I really want to be on Black Panther. I keep telling the world. Beyond Angela Bassett, it’s just an amazing, amazing story line. So I really want to be a part of that, and it will make it even better to be beside Angela.
And you’ve been doing your fair share of studying, because you’ve been watching Black Panther with your mom.
I am so ready. And I’ve been training. Angela has the body of a 30-year-old woman. She is in shape. Those arms are poppin’. It’s so funny: I took a picture of her arms—and this was before I even booked P-Valley—and I put that picture on my refrigerator. It says, “Would Angela eat this? Angela’s drinking water right now.” Which would make me not go to the refrigerator and have [sugary drinks]. I remember her being at Tasha Smith’s house once, and I saw her with her green juice prepped. Now I take my green juice prepped. My friends laugh at me, but I’m like, I’m trying to have a career like Angela.