Yvette Nicole Brown got into the entertainment business to make people happy. More than getting famous (“it seems like a whole lot of work!”) or getting rich (“I’m happy living a small life,” she has said, though there really is nothing small about doing good work), her mission has always been to “uplift everyone,” regardless of gender, race, or physical type. Yet in an industry as focused on “types” as Hollywood, Brown has surely come up against stereotyping and attempted pigeonholing. What makes her such a unique, respectable artist, though, is her refusal to settle for what anyone else wanted her to be.
“Everybody kind of fits in a box, and I get it. Sometimes you have to start in the stereotype of this industry and then get to branch out as you’ve proven your ability to be able to do it,” Brown, our latest Inspirational Woman in the Entertainment Industry, admitted. “I’ve been very careful about what I’ve chosen, but that being said, there’s not a lot of roles that allow portrayals of things to be positive."
While many actors fall into the routine of just taking whatever work comes their way, Brown is strong enough to steadfastly stick to her morals and values. And this comes into play when choosing her representatives, as well. Agents and managers make money when their clients do, so many will just want them to work, regardless of the material. As important as Brown feels it is to choose projects as carefully as one can, she said it was just as important to choose one’s team the same way-- and to be as upfront and honest about it to not waste anyone’s time and to weed through those who don’t share your interest in making the industry a little bit better.
“Even in the beginning, I always made it very clear the things I may or may not be able to do. And I’d let them know, ‘I know you guys are saying it’s okay now, but if we work together for six months, and I’m passing on more than you’re comfortable with, then I’m okay if you drop me.’ I literally have said that to every agent or manager I’ve had. I understand if they can’t do it; if it gets to the point where they can’t keep their lights on, let me know, and we’ll part ways, and I’ll go to an agent that understand what I’m trying to do here,” she explained.
Brown, who has been with her theatrical agent for a decade and her commercial agent for just a few years past a decade, has proven success with this way of working, though it might not always be the easiest road. Brown acknowledged there is still quite a large gap between some of the roles she can play and the ones for which executives will see her in an audition.
“Where is this generation’s Norman Lear!?” Brown exclaimed, but did not bemoan, referencing all of the great, diverse programs of television’s yesteryear, and the lack thereof today.
“Shows like The Jeffersons, they showed every type of black character…but it wasn’t just for black audiences…What is inherently black or inherently white? I wish they would cut that mess out and just cast the best actor, no matter what the color or race. May the best actor get the role. That would be so refreshing. They’re not black-- or white or Hispanic or Latina or whatever; they’re just women who happen to be played by black women. That’s the thing that I’ve always been…screaming from the rooftops. You don’t have to change a line to cast a black actor.”
Perhaps fittingly, it wasn’t until the role of Shirley on NBC’s comedy Community that Brown felt like she had truly pushed past a stereotypical barrier of playing ancillary characters-- meter maids, store clerks, security agents-- who were always “in pants up to their necks-- and the pants were always Polyester!”). And the credit, she was humble enough to say, is all because the show’s creator, the studio, and the network was able to look past an assumption for the role and ultimately honor the best woman for the job.
“[Shirley] wasn’t written for a black woman; it wasn’t written for a chubby woman or a curvy woman; it was written for a woman,” Brown shared.
“I tested with three other ridiculously talented white women, and I was the one alternative choice. But it was the first role that I’ve played where I didn’t have to be a stereotypical version of what a black woman was. I remember there was one time during the pilot where Dan Harmon said, ‘Yvette, can you try this-- and I hate to ask-- can you do this more urban?’ He hated just having to ask, but we were still trying to find the character, and I didn’t want to do it; he didn’t want to make me do it, but we had to try it. So I did one of the lines in one of the scenes in a stereotypical way, and he came over to me and said, ‘I cannot thank you enough for even humoring me in that. It’s a hundred percent wrong of who this character is, and we’ll never do it again.’ And we never have.”
Brown feels that until there are more people of color in the “upper echelon of entertainment,” chances like the one she was given with Shirley may be the exception, rather than the rule. While she does credit Shonda Rhimes for championing the cause as much as one person can ("she could have cast an all white cast of Grey's Anatomy, but she didn't"), Brown couldn’t help but point to her own career and the three pilots she has tested for in the past (she got two of them, including Community) and then to the average Caucasian woman, who can go out for up to three pilots a day.
“Loni Love has this bit about pilot season for black people or people of color not start[ing] until the end of March,” Brown recalled. “That’s when they have cast every other, main, character, and they look at their cast and go ‘Oh no. It’s all white. We need a black guy or something.’ And that’s when the auditions for the “all ethnicities” role of the security guard or meter maid go out, and you’ll see one little spec of color in the show.”
It’s a great imbalance that behind-the-scenes also affects the performers’ livelihoods because every time you test, your quote will go up (“you could be fresh off the bus from Peoria, it’s your first pilot season, and you could be making more than people who have been toiling in this industry for years”), and the mathematical discrepancies can be sobering. In part this is because people often more comfortable, and therefore more subconsciously likely to gravitate towards, what they see and know best. But Brown is determined to make a difference and a dent in that line of thinking, starting with sharing her story, experiences, and reasoning for making the business decisions she does and hoping others will learn from them and be inspired to think a little bit more carefully about how they are representing themselves, rather than allowing themselves to be represented, in this business.
“I just feel like every actor has to make a decision as to what they want to embody and what they want to represent,” she said. “When I look back on the roles I’ve played, you can say ‘Yvette never took a role that she didn’t see a positive part of how it’d affect the people viewing [it].”
And the types of roles offered to "minority performers-- whether they're black or Latina or women," Brown pointed out, are also imbalanced. So many times the "sassy black best friend" of the white female lead is there to help the girl through her problems, but "black girls have problems, too!" Brown punctuated. "Black girls stand in front of the mirror and decide what to wear on a date; black girls call up their friends to dissect the relationship later, too."
“With every industry, you get very clear on the parameters of your industry, and you learn how to live within them,” she continued. “You have to find a way to not become bitter and live within the parameters of the situation and laugh your way through it…and you hope for a better day for the next generation.”
Clearly Brown is not simply sitting back and saying ‘Oh well!’ or passively accepting the harsh realities of Hollywood, though. Nor is she content to let her more mainstream success on Community be her legacy, or the only example to which other women struggling to book jobs can strive. Brown already has plans in the works to create opportunities-- and not just for people of color-- through her own original material because as she puts it she just wants “to create good shows for everybody!”
You can catch Brown in Community on NBC on Thursday nights at 8pm.