'I Thought Wanda Was Going to Die': 'Snowfall' Star Gail Bean Reflects on Wanda's Evolution

'Snowfall' star Gail Bean, who portrays the recovering addict Wanda, talks her character's evolution, who she'd play in a biopic, and much, much more!

Gail Bean

Image via Detavio Samuels

Gail Bean

Right now, in 2021, there isn’t a better show on television than Snowfall. That could be my opinion, but looking at the current television landscape? It feels like a fact. Part of the beauty of the show, which John Singleton built the foundation of before he passed away, is the work the cast puts into make this really feel like the beginnings of the crack epidemic in South Central Los Angeles. From series lead Damson Idris to the Atlanta-reppin’ Gail Bean, who has spent the last three seasons taking us on a whirlwind as Wanda, the life of the party who becomes seriously addicted to crack, Snowfall has a talented group telling one of the more important American stories of our time.

Wanda’s journey has been an intriguing one; during Snowfall’s acclaimed fourth season, we saw Wanda get shot and give up the rock. Seeing Wanda clean has been great for those of us who appreciate those stories, but it shook Bean, who thought it was the end for her character. “I was so uncertain about where it was going,” Bean admits to Complex during a recent conversation via Zoom. “I’m going to be honest: I thought Wanda was going to die, up until she didn’t die.” Finding new life hasn’t been easy for Wanda, but in Snowfall (and IRL), who’s life is easy?

Bean’s truly a rising star; this month marks a decade that she’s been in the game, touching down everywhere from Atlanta and Insecure to The Belko Experiment, among other places. During our conversation about her latest work, Bean not only fills us in on what her time with Wanda has been like thus far, but she breaks down the levels of Method acting on the Snowfall set, her extremely busy 2020—including the appreciation she had for the at-home acting work she was able to do on Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona. Bean also speaks candidly about what she got from Amazon Prime Video’s Them, what she’d want from a Nipsey Hussle biopic, and why she has to tone down her Snowfall live-tweeting.

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I was looking at your IMDb and realized that this month marks a decade since you’ve been acting.
Oh wow.

Yeah, 2011’s Diamonds Aren’t Forever-
Oh my God, yes.

April 5, 2011 is the release date, at least on IMDb.
I didn’t know that, oh my God,

Does it feel like it’s been a decade?
Oh my goodness, no. It doesn’t. Oh, am I still a rookie? I know I’m not a vet.

You’re definitely not a rookie; you’ve been doing your thing, we’ve seen you in Insecure, and things like that. You know what I mean? But Snowfall is a show that people are really starting to take notice of and really be like, “Yeah, this is that show.” Because of that, people are starting to really take notice of you.
I’ll take that.

Also looking at your IMDb, I noticed how many 2020 releases you had. Were you working a lot during the pandemic?
It’s so weird because I always feel like I’m just doing everything everybody else is doing, and then I’ll hit up a friend and they’ll say, “Of course you’re working.” I’m like, “Are we not all working? Are we not all trying to work? It’s a pandemic, but shit! I got to work.”

Still got to pay the rent.
Yeah. So 2020 was just beautiful because, one, I’ve made the easiest money ever ‘cause I worked from home. Like that was my first time; it was a little scary. Freeform sent me an iPhone with a thing that went over my laptop and then I called them on Zoom and I recorded myself with my phone. I was a little nervous about how that was going to come out. And then I just sent the phone back to them, they edited it and everything. I was nervous, but it was good. I mean, like I said, that was some nice money. I also did the Jackie Robinson Table Read Documentary; I know that it’s coming up on the one-year anniversary for that.

I was busy during quarantine, but it didn’t feel busy because I was at home with family. That was the first time being able to do what I want and love all at the same time and having to kind of figure out that balance.

When we spoke with Karena Evans last summer, she mentioned how Snowfall was just underway when the quarantine hit, and then Damson let me know that you all came back around September?
We stopped the day before I was supposed to shoot Episode 4. I was supposed to shoot on March 12 and they called it quits on March 11. We didn’t go back until September and when we came back, we normally shoot [in succession]—Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4. When we came back, it was like, “All right, we got to try to shoot four through 10 and get it in wherever, whenever,” so we were shooting here [and] there. I literally had a moment where I just felt so self-conscious, so unsure, so discombobulated. I didn’t know where we were at in the scene, in the script, in the story because we shot me getting shot before I got shot. It was just so much stuff that was happening. The director looked at me and said, “Everything okay, Gail?” We weren’t even rolling, it was just behind the scenes. I was like, “I’m just confused. And I just don’t feel confident.” He said, “Gail, you a star. You ain’t got nothing to worry about.” He said, “You been giving it.” He said, “And you feeling unsure. It just further confirms that it’s good. There should be moments where you’re a little nervous. You’re a little scared. You don’t know if you’re giving enough, you want to make sure that you deliver and the audience is full when they watch.” So he was like, “You’re killing it. You a star, you got this. Like, don’t even trip, you doing great. I’m watching you.”

He’s definitely right. Nothing got realer than when Wanda pulled out a whole tooth from her mouth, leading her to get up out of the life. Talk about Wanda’s journey.
It’s beautiful because people are actually seeing this Wanda transform and have so many arcs. I’m grateful for the opportunity—thank you to John Singleton for even creating such a platform, such a well-rounded character, such a fleshed-out series. He’s forever a legend, RIP to him. For even just putting the Black story on display for people to be educated and have an understanding of one another because I’m telling you, I look at an addict differently. After playing Wanda, I look at it differently.

Being able to come full circle with it is definitely something where you got to go all in. You got to be willing to commit and understand that you’re learning as you’re growing. And this will not only change people that watch it, but it’ll also change yourself. It’s literally a role of a lifetime that I’m so grateful for.

I was recently reading about the physical transformation you go through to become Wanda, and in speaking with different people who work on Snowfall, it feels like a very Method-heavy set. Now when y’all get on that set, is it weird being in that environment? Like, “I know you as this person, but right now we beefing in the show,” does it get that real behind the scenes?
You have different people that approach their craft differently. I’m not really a Method actor, so I don’t have to have beef with you outside of the show. Observing Damson, I think he’s more so a Method actor, but that’s probably also because he has to drop into the character and then also drop into the accent. I’m in prep for a role right now and I’m literally trying to drop into so many different things. And then I also have to drop into the character.

For me, I can be cool with you, be talking, laughing, and then when they say, “Alright, camera rolling,” I’m like, “I’m there.”

Getting into the head of someone like Wanda and where she has to go, I can’t imagine where you’d have to pull from to get some of those performances out. When you started getting scripts for Season 4 and saw that she gets out of that, were you feeling better? Being able to not have stuff on your teeth all day?
I was so uncertain about where it was going. I’m going to be honest: I thought Wanda was going to die, up until she didn’t die. I didn’t get the script for Episode 10, then I was like, “Oh, I’m not in 10.” In nine I was like, “They still going to kill her.” Even after nine, I was like, “They’re going to kill her.”

This is the thing, we already took a huge gap. She had already done so much dirt and I kind of was like, “Hmm, this is a completely different character now that we’re seeing.” ‘Cause now with Wanda, it’s stuck with her. We know her for Season 2, Season 3; she’s cool, she’s a good time. Now it’s like, “Shit ain’t funny no more.” You know what I’m saying? This is a different character. I was like, “They going to kill me.” Because she’s no longer the comedic relief, she’s no longer the happy moment. She’s making people sad, she’s going out harsher. And I was like, “They’re going to kill her, they’re going to kill me. I’m dead.”

Snowfall Season 4

I was glad to see Wanda pull through. I was glad to see Leon made the decision to sit with you in the hospital and seriously loving to see the fact that Wanda was at least in the shelter, trying to really figure out what life is outside of the streets. Where do you think both Wanda and the show could go for a fifth season?
Okay, I’m going to be honest: I have no idea. And this season is mind-blowing; I thought there’s no way we can top Season 3. So I knew with Season 4, we were going to have to bring it because for one, we lost our foundation. We lost John. You know what I’m saying? Where do you go when your leader is gone? But thankfully he built a strong enough foundation to where we could continue to build on top of that.

When the show’s airing, are you watching with the people?
Oh yeah. I’m watching when people watch it, I’m tweeting. Some people have started telling me like, “Look, I got to put you on mute for the weekend.” Because some people watch on FX live and then some people watch the next day on Hulu. I’ve decided I’ll wait for the weekend and then I’ll go back and tweet. So sometimes I’ll still tweet while it’s on, but I won’t give too much away. I’m in Atlanta, so I tweet East Coast. I’m also a viewer, I like the show. So any show that I like, I love conversing. I will converse about television and film and theater all day.

What else have you been watching lately?
So I just binged Them in one night. I could not go to sleep without the victory.

Were you able to sleep? That show really takes it there.
I was able to get to sleep because at the end of the day, what black person ain’t going to go through hardships? But I took the good out of it. [Ed note: Spoiler alert] The bag thing? That broke me—my heart, my stomach, my mind, everything was in pain for her because although they embellish them, a lot of that is true. A lot of that, this was in the ‘50s, a lot of this is true. Our ancestors went through a lot worse than what we can even imagine. Our worst day ain’t nowhere near there’s, but what I did love about them is that yes, they were struggling. They were going through hardship, they were going through the mistreatment as being Black, but they went through it as a family. There are few projects that give us the man, the woman, the child in the household, going through something. Staying strong and being resilient and remaining a family. They gave us gems in small victories that had me say, “I got to keep watching it.” Cause ain’t no way she didn’t fail—so many stories we see the failure. We know so many bad stories. What’s the movie with Nate Parker, American Skin? He did all of that, [and] in the end, he got shot in the head. That movie made me mad. I was grateful, I was happy about it, but then I was like, “What the hell? I literally just wasted my life to watch something that I watch every day.” Where’s our win? When I’m here, I’m going to win. I know the pain and the hardship, so if you’re going to give me that, give me the gold at the end.

I do know people are tearing them up, but I’m for it. I’m for Them, I loved it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think people need to watch it all the way through. It is hard. I think people need to discuss it because when you sit with that pain, you sit with that trauma and it festers, it’s not good for you. So I think people need to discuss it and get it out and release that pain. You go to Africa and you go look at the slave dungeons in Cape Coast and you hear the history, you go on a tour, that sits with you. It festers and it makes you make you hate non-Black people because of the mistreatment. But you got to release it, you know what I’m saying? You got to use it to motivate you and be like, “I’m going to do good. I’m going to try to build, I’m going to give back. I’m going to give opportunities.” I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sorry, I took so long on that.

No, I love it. It made me think of something. You mentioned two things that I don’t want to say are opposites, but you’re a creative and seem like somebody who might be thinking about what your next role is saying or grounded in. Are you looking to do projects that make more statements about what’s going on today, or are you trying to chase some of these wins and do things that aren’t so nested in deeper social issues?
I’m open to a lot of things when it comes to acting. Only thing I am not open to participating in in this life is a slave project. That’s just been one of my things I will not [do]. That narrative is not something I want to push forward. I don’t even want to put that on folks’ minds to make them think we can go back.

I want to do Marvel. The reason I want to do Marvel or something along that realm is that I do have nieces and nephews and younger people in my family. I want them to be able to watch something on it. I also want to do a biopic, [but] I haven’t decided who yet. My favorite actress is Ruby Dee, but I thoroughly believe in casting someone who is talented, but also looks like them just to give 100 percent. I haven’t decided yet who in a biopic. I toyed with the idea of Taraji P. Henson, turning her book Around the Way Girl into a movie.

That’s smart. I can see that.
I would really like that because I love her, she is my favorite living actress. Ruby Dee is my favorite deceased actress.

I want to do some fantasy stuff because like you said, I want people to know that we’re not here to just shuck and jive and we’re not here to just reminisce on our pain. We also are scientists. We also are people who love comics. We also are people who do animation. We also like fantasy [and] sci-fi. I’m not really going to put myself in a box and say, “Okay, I only want to do this.” I’m open for anything, as long as it is a quality project.

I’m also transitioning. I’m also trying to get more exposure with my writing and producing. I love the way Jordan Peele puts a different perspective on certain things. I love how you have a Black Spider-Man. I love what Matthew Cherry did with Hair Love. Different things where it’s positive and giving and, if it is pain-based, turning our pain into beauty. Showing how to use it and make it work for us and inspire us and motivate us.

Gail Bean

You mentioned biopics, and since his death, I’ve been trying to figure who’s going to play DMX. He’s a complex figure, a very complicated man.
I don’t know. I’ll have to think on that. I don’t think there’s nobody out that I know.

That’s kind of where me and my homies ended up saying. “It’s probably somebody we’ve not seen yet.”
Yeah. It’s nobody known cause like I said, for me, I’m a need you to look like them, too.

It’s hard to get the look.
They say we all got twins, so there’s somebody who looks like him. And then they’ll just have to do the work to embody the physicality, the characteristics, the tone, you know what I’m saying? The cadence and how you speak, his mind, they’ll get that.

It’s a tough one.
I got a question for you.

What’s up?
Who would play Nipsey Hussle in a biopic?

Wow. That’s hard. That’s a hard one.
I want to see that.

It would be dope if there was an Eritrean actor who could do that.
You’re on to something. With a biopic on Nip, I want them to of course show his transition from the streets to legit money, but I also want them to show how he bonded the hood, how his transition from being 60s to being about Black men and Black unity. But I also really want them to showcase what he was about to do. I really wanted them to hit on all the great stuff that he had set up and really touch on that, ‘cause some movies will just straight give you the gang-banging stuff and you’re like, “Oh, okay.”

This is why shows like FX’s Snowfall—which you can watch Wednesday nights on FX and is available via FX on Hulu on Thursdays—to give us the humanity behind the headlines.

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