Teyonah Parris is splayed on a rug, embarrassed about the raunchiness of the rap verse streaming from her playlist. The flurry of “fucks” is a little bit of a shock when compared to her appearance—along with her supreme poise, the structural wig she’s wearing lends her a regal air, like a modern Queen Nefertiti—but she can’t move. The photographer has placed a bouquet of blushing Stargazer Lilies in her hand and the spindly legs of her stilettos would make getting up a scramble. Quickly and discreetly, she directs someone to skip the song. 

Make no mistake, the actor is a Southern Lady at her core, so much so that you can almost feel the stern looks her mama burned into her as a child growing up in South Carolina. After wrapping the photo shoot, she smiles as she scoots back onto a settee in a Los Angeles loft, sun flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The apartment is situated on a high enough floor that it offers a stunning, if parched-looking and sun-bleached, vista of the city. Having slipped out of her sleek black shift and heels into a striped romper and sandals, she looks younger, maybe, but just as classy. Unfailingly polite, she doesn’t chew the berries in her fruit cup with her mouth open, makes a point to mention both the Lord and me by name and doesn’t curse during the interview, substituting “shoot” and “oh, gosh” for the typical twentysomething slang—except when I mention this summer’s highly publicized incident of an older white man who interrupted her tea date to touch her hair. 

As she documented in a series of incredulous Tweets, the man first asked if her hair was “hers or an add-on.” Even after she replied, “Sir, that’s rude,” he pressed on, telling her it was “stimulating” before actually grabbing it. 

“Let that be a black man walk up to a white woman and decide he’s gonna touch her hair. His ass might be dead right now,” she says, heat flushing her cheeks. “There are black men dying for a lot less offensive things than that.”

That she was fetishized so brazenly in 2015 only reinforces her strategy regarding the roles she’s chosen in her burgeoning career, a strategy that aims to entertain, sure, but also to offer portrayals of complex, multi-layered black people. So far, it’s been successful. She first attracted attention as Dawn, Don Draper’s secretary, the first African-American hired in the Mad Men office. Last fall, she starred in the provocative satire Dear White People. Recently, she wrapped the film Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s very clever reimagining of the Greek play Lysistrata in current-day, gang-ravaged Chicago. And on August 22, she returns to Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse as Missy, a born-into-money former sorority sister with ever-laid and slayed hair whose first lines include a jab at her husband for moving her to Atlanta, “a city our ancestors came to in chains and lived like mules.”