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During a recent conversation with Amber Stevens West, who portrays Whitney on the new Starz series Run the World, my ‘90s-Black sitcom-addicted brain had to ask what it was like working with Yvette Lee Bowser. I imagined that the quartet of Black women that lead Living Single understand the importance of Bowser executive producing another series focusing on four Black women, but West admits that she wasn’t a big Living Single fan. (That makes sense, as West would’ve been five or six when Living Single premiered in 1993.) “Super familiar with it, though,” West proclaims, “and it totally holds up if you watch it now.” West was more impressed by the script she read from Leigh Davenport, the creator-writer behind Run the World, who recently shared that the inspiration of Sex and the City on the series. Mentioning two classic series focusing on women, with the right people working in the writer’s room? It’s a recipe for your favorite new summer show.
West, who you may remember as playing Jerrod Carmichael’s girlfriend Maxine on The Carmichael Show, does admit that she was anxious about taking on the role, but in embracing the role of Whitney, who herself is looking to broaden her horizons, it allowed West to learn more about herself than she anticipated. She talks about that, building chemistry with her castmates during quarantine, and her plans for the future.
I grew up watching a lot of Black sitcoms, especially shows like Living Single, so when I hear that people like Yvette Lee Bowser are working on new projects, especially for Starz, I get excited. Were you a fan of shows like Living Single?
I wasn’t, like, the biggest Living Single fan. I obviously knew what the show was and watched a little bit of it, but it was a little too old for me when it was out so I didn’t relate to the show very much at the time. Super familiar with it, though, and it totally holds up if you watch it now. So I was familiar with her and her contributions to comedy and to Black television, so I was certainly excited to see what she was involved in now. And then I also watched Dear White People, and I loved that and she was a part of that show. I knew that whatever she was going to be doing was going to be interesting. And then Leigh, I wasn’t familiar with at all, but they sent me [the] script and they were like, “Hey, do you want to check this out? We’re interested in you for one of these characters on the show, just read it.”
Because it was Starz, I was a little anxious about it, because I come from mostly network TV, and I’m chewing bubble gum, and everything’s PG-13. And so it was like, “OK, am I ready to do something like this? But like girl, I’m in my 30s, let’s grow up, let’s try to expand art world.” So I read it thinking, “OK, maybe this is something I should be doing in my career, I should take that next step.” And I read it and I was obsessed with it. It was so funny, and it was so sexy, and it was so smart. And it was for women, [a] female-centric show; that’s my favorite genre. I love watching female friendships. And it just had all of the things that I would want to watch in a show. So I was like, “If I’m going to watch the show, let me just try to be in it, too.”
You spoke about this series being on Starz, being a little edgier. How did you handle those moments in production?
I was a little anxious about those kinds of things. Not really for the doing of it, it was just like, “Is that the kind of show that I want to be on?” Because I’m just not used to that world. But no, I was never really anxious when it actually came down to doing any of it, because what’s so wonderful about our show is that none of it’s gratuitous; it’s not just to be hot. The show’s a comedy. If there’s going to be intimacy that you [see in] the show, it’s for the humor of it, or it’s for the authenticity of the moment in these adult relationships. People have sex with each other, we’re adults, we acknowledge that.
Also, the show’s from the female lens, and women like sex, too. We also enjoy ourselves and we don’t have to conform to what a man might need in order for something to be sexy, and that’s really highlighted in our show. So when it did come to the point where my character would have those kinds of scenes it was always, it felt authentic, it didn’t feel like gross.
It’s done artistically. Not too revealing, although it can be. But it’s-
They serve the story. It’s not just to show people doing it to turn people on.
What’s your favorite part about playing Whitney?
There was the challenge of me doing something that was different, which was what excited me about taking the project. Everything I [had] done before has been really lighthearted and really fun. This was going to have a level of depth to it that I hadn’t really explored in a lot of my roles that I’ve played before, so that made me a little anxious. I was like, “Can I do this?” Because I’m also a pretty lighthearted person in real life too, I was like, “Can I go there?” So I enjoyed the challenge of that. I really liked that I had a lot of people behind me who believed in me, who encouraged me, Yvette and Lee being the main people. To offer me this job and say, we think that you can do this, was super validating.
But also just being a Black woman on this show. Them asking me to be a part of it when that was such a big part of what the show was going to be was huge for me. I didn’t even really realize how heavy and important that was, like how much gravity that held until like halfway through shooting the season. I knew telling a story like this and highlighting the Black female experience in Harlem and stuff was going to be important and cool, but I didn’t realize how much it meant to me personally until I was really involved in it. And then we were doing press, they would sit us down and have us answer questions about how the experience was going. Someone asked me, “What’s it mean to you to be on a show that’s highlighting the Black experience?” I just burst into tears. And I didn’t even realize I felt that way. But what it was is in that moment I realized how validating it was for me.
I’ve always struggled with not feeling like I was Black enough for anything as an actor, but also even in my real life. I am actually biracial, and I grew up in this bubble where we didn’t really discuss race. But when I stepped into the real world, the older I got, the more I realized how I struggled with me being a Black person. So to have been asked to be a part of a show that was just, that was the most important part of it. I got to just be myself and be seen for who I am. That was so validating, and that’s what brought me to tears. I was like, “Wow, this means a lot to me. And because it means so much to me I know that this is going to mean a lot to other people who look and feel like I do.”
Talk about your chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially when you’re working during a pandemic as well as in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The chemistry between us is authentic and real, and very comfortable from right off the bat. We leaned on each other a lot. We would get on Zoom together and catch up with each other and try to keep our friendship as alive as we could because we. Bresha [Webb] and I have been friends for many, many years, but Corbin [Reid] and Andrea [Bordeaux] were newer friends. Our chemistry with each other was real and we all became instant friends, but we had to maintain that throughout this quarantine.
Are you thinking about what your next projects could be?
No, I’m not.
That’s awesome. (Laughs)
I loved working on this show and that’s kind of all I’m focused on right now. I look forward to getting a chance to go back to New York and seeing where these characters go. I’ve seen the series already, we binge watched it together over a couple of days, the whole cast, and it’s so good. I can’t wait for people to see it.