You know Bianca Lawson. If you were a teenager at any point in the last 30 years—or consumed any teen-oriented content in the same period—you’ve seen her. If you’d like to challenge that theory, here’s an abbreviated checklist, decade by decade:
In the ’90s the actress played Megan on Saved by the Bell: The New Class and Rhonda on Sister, Sister. She closed out the decade in Sunnyvale as Slayer™ Kendra on Buffy the Vampire Slayer before heading to Capeside via Dawson’s Creek. In the early aughts, she hit the big screen as Julia Stiles hater Nikki in Save the Last Dance, en route to playing Shawna on a series literally titled The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
Have you checked off your favorite show yet? If not, keep going: In the 2010s she made her presence felt on Pretty Little Liars as Maya St. Germain, girlfriend of Shay Mitchell’s character Emily Fields. Later, she aged up a bit (but stayed in high school) as a werewolf-fighting guidance counselor and French teacher Ms. Morrell in Teen Wolf.
Much has been made of Lawson’s ability to play a teen for three decades, but her agelessness is not the high note in this song. The emphasis belongs on the fact that Bianca Lawson has what other entertainers lie, cheat, and (publicity) stunt for: longevity.
This week she returns as Darla on the Ava DuVernay-produced series Queen Sugar. With the character, it’s as though Lawson graduated from high school, bypassed college, and went straight to the real world. Her stunning performance as a recovering addict is one of the most multidimensional portrayals television has seen. We grew up with Bianca Lawson; now we actually get to see her grow.
When Lawson calls Complex from L.A. one afternoon in early May, her voice sounds like the embodiment of Willy Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting Drink. As she gets going, the words tumble over each other with an exuberance that feels like talking to an old friend and a warmth that feels like said friend has leaned in to share a juicy secret. The first secret we learn is that, even in a notoriously volatile industry, being an actress has been the most consistent part of Lawson’s life. In fact, she was 6 when she announced her career goal to her parents.
“It's interesting because, on the one hand, it's like, oh my God, I can't believe I've been doing this for so long. It was an idea that a kid had. You know what I mean? It was just a thought that a 6-year-old had. I didn’t foresee—I didn’t know that it was going to be this. People would be like, oh, God, you know the business—art and stuff is so unstable. Why would you want to do that? It’s so hard to work, and, weirdly, even though I’ve had massively challenging years, it’s been the most stable thing in my life after school.”
Along her path, Lawson frequently appeared in ensemble casts in which she was The Only black person, or The First. Her presence throughout these mainstream projects is her legacy—proof you don’t need top billing to open doors. But while she racked up IMDB credits, some of her moves started to feel lateral, until she landed the part of Darla in 2016. It’s a role that rightfully highlights Lawson’s talent over her youth and beauty. And it’s only been 30 years in the making.
“I really always wanted to play a person like this. I wanted to play something that I had never played before, material that was more mature, and deeper,” she says. “It’s been four seasons of this show, and so I’ve got to really explore all the different phases of this person’s life. And, yeah, I would say this is probably my meatiest role, most complex role, and she’s always evolving.”
Bianca Jasmine Lawson was born March 20, 1979, in Los Angeles to father Richard Lawson, an actor (now married to Tina Lawson) known for roles in soap operas like Dynasty and All My Children, and mother Denise Gordy, an actress whose uncle is Motown founder Berry Gordy. It might seem like show business was in her blood, but Lawson explains her aspirations were shaped by having grown up amid what we’d now call #BlackExcellence.
“I don’t feel like I had a Hollywood childhood. My aunts on my mom’s side, they had a record label in Detroit. They owned grocery stores and cleaners and things like that. At that time black women weren’t necessarily owning these things, so it wasn’t just ‘the business’—they all were business owners—and it wasn’t necessarily Hollywood. It was all kinds of things. More than anything, I really think I saw that you could achieve anything if you believed in yourself and worked really hard.”
If that sounds hokey to you, as the conversation unfolds, the next secret learned is that Lawson really believes this—that if she puts something in her mind’s eye, it will manifest. There are so many instances of this bearing true that it’s hard not to believe it, too.
After her parents reluctantly agreed to let her get into entertainment, they instilled in her that it wasn’t all fun and games. “Both my mom and my dad were very clear about this is a vocation, this is a job. You have to take it very seriously, but your grades have to be kept up to a certain standard,” she recalls. “They were very serious about it. My mother was like, ‘If you keep your grades up, if you do all the things you need to do independent of this, then we’ll think about letting you do it.’”
She landed a couple of music videos before her parents decided that a kid shouldn’t face the rejection the industry was sure to bring. But young Lawson wasn’t having it. She decided that her first “real job” was going to be a Barbie commercial.
“I used to watch Barbie commercials on Saturday mornings, and I was like, ‘I really want to be in a Barbie commercial.’ They just looked happy. It looks like you’re having fun; it looks like a great time,” she says, excitement bubbling in her voice even all these years later. “And I think, like, a year in, my first job was a Barbie commercial. I did a couple and both my parents were on set, and I was so excited I would break character and go over to them like, ‘Can you believe this is happening?’ And they were like, ‘Bianca, this thing is still rolling!’”
As her career progressed, she went to school full time and worked full time, until her freshman year at the University of Southern California. That was when writers from a previous show created a vehicle for her to star in, casting her as Bianca Goode in a series called Goode Behavior. When it became too hard to balance the UPN show and her studies, Lawson left USC; the series was canceled after one season. However, she laments dropping out of school more than the show’s short run.
“I feel like it’s grounding to have other obligations,” she says. “It’s grounding to be around all different kinds of people. I’m someone that loves learning, and it just keeps your mind going.”
Her sense of groundedness is palpable. Consider how often actors spiral out of control as they try to transition out of life as a child star. Lawson never hit that bump. Credit goes to her parents for emphasizing a strong work ethic and balance, but credit also goes toward the fact that she didn’t get into the business chasing stardom.
It was frustrating because there would be parts that I really wanted and they would say, ‘Oh, Bianca looks too young.’ I’m like, ‘Right, but I really am this age.’
“I feel in a way my approach is still a little bit similar as it was when I was younger—I’m just going to do what moves me right now. What’s the next thing that’s exciting? What’s the part that’s interesting? I don’t know how I’m going to conquer it, I don’t know how I’m going to get to where I need to get to, but I’m going to jump in and I’m going to try to be open and see what happens.” If a person can be strong-willed yet go with the flow at the same time, Lawson lives at that intersection.
So what did happen after Goode Behavior was canceled? Many of the teen roles for which she is known, some typecasting, and some dry valleys as well.
“I definitely went through years I would audition for things, not get anything, or not even be able to get in the room for things that were not even that big of a deal after I’d done a lot of work already,” Lawson recalls. “Or I would hear other people say, ‘Yeah, I was looking at the breakdown and it was like a Bianca Lawson type.’ I'm like, ‘Why don’t they just call me? I would kill to do that part!’”
Then came a period when her age, or seeming lack thereof, kept her sidelined as well.
“It was frustrating because there would be parts that I really wanted and they would say, ‘Oh, Bianca looks too young.’ I’m like, ‘Right, but I really am this age.’ It was a weird thing because people wanted to cast me for certain things all the time, and I was like, but I want to keep progressing. I want things to be meatier and challenging. I think this is kind of boring, you know?”
And while she stresses that she was grateful to be working, at one point she made a decision to not “keep acting in a circle,” she says. Lawson decided that she wanted to, well, grow up. She said no to projects that felt familiar and limiting, and this is when she attracted the role she both wanted and needed to play.
We got our first glimpse of Darla in the pilot episode of Queen Sugar, which airs on OWN. She’s seeking to make amends for abandoning her 6-year-old son Blue while she got clean, but quickly finds that it’s hard to move forward when everyone holds her hostage to her past.
“I read it and I was just like, I had never played a part like this before, I’ve never gotten a chance to have a part like this before, so there’s all these things I want to express as an actor that I haven’t gotten a chance to express, and I can do that through her,” says Lawson. “And there was something, even though she’s a layered character, a complex character, there’s also a simplicity about her that came off to me.”
This again is where you believe in the synchronicity of her career. The traits that resonate with her regarding Darla are ones Lawson’s co-stars appreciate in her. Kofi Siriboe—who plays Ralph Angel Bordelon, the father of Darla’s child—is Lawson’s most frequent scene partner in Queen Sugar. He describes her thusly:
“I think you’ll be surprised at how simple she is in every aspect, and I say that as a compliment. She’s so bright and funny, just simply who she is, and because she is that, it seems to be dynamic. I guess it’s like hiding in plain sight,” says Siriboe. “She ain’t thinking ’bout Instagram; she ain’t thinking ’bout that other stuff. She’s just actually rooted in real life.”
Now that she’s gotten to settle into four seasons on the same project, not having to chase the next job has given Lawson time to reflect, something the actress admits she rarely does. She’s been so busy doing the work that she’s failed to take stock of the wins, she says.
“I forgot so many things because I tend to be so forward-looking that I never think about it, but maybe it’s a good thing to look back on your life and where you’ve been, and remembering how much you wanted something, how hard you fought for something.” Perhaps if she looks back far enough, she’ll see a 6-year-old Bianca proud that she never gave up the fight.