Black.

Primetime just got Brighter

A conversation with Alana K. Bright, USC student and star on Fox’s Our Kind of People

[One-sentence description of what this media is: "A photo of a vaccine site on USC campus" or "Gif of dancing banana". Important for accessibility/people who use screen readers.]

USC sophomore turned primetime television actress Alana Bright made her breakout performance in Fox’s “Our Kind of People.” The drama series premiered Tuesday and follows single mother Angela Vaughn on her journey to reclaim her family’s name amongst America’s Black elite.

Bright plays the role of 17-year-old Nikki Vaughn, daughter of Angela, a spoken word poet with a deep passion for the arts. Nikki finds herself adjusting to and navigating her new life in the elite society of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts after the death of her grandmother.

The T.V. newcomer first graced the screen in HBO Max’s “Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020,” after the social media challenge, #SunshineSongs, by Tony Award-winning actress Laura Benanti went viral. The mid-pandemic song challenge became a documentary in December of last year.

Once the documentary premiered, Bright secured an agent — and after months of self-tapes and self-discovery, she was cast in “Our Kind of People”

I had the chance to speak with Alana Bright about where she started, how she connects with her character and the power of Black representation on screen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Marlize Duncan: I’m just gonna go straight into it. We’re gonna start from the beginning. Where did your journey begin?

Alana Bright: I’ve always been a little creative. As a kid, I liked to sing and dance… be all over the place. I always loved to cut up things, do arts and crafts and make little stop motions with my Barbies. I think I’ve had a passion for film and cinematography since I was little. I watched a lot of movies as a kid. And I was like, “I like to do this. I like to watch this. Why can’t I be in it?”

I wanted to dance really [badly] when I was little, but my mom couldn’t afford it. So instead, she put me in a theater camp. I think the first theater camp I did was in elementary school, and I was like, “This is so fun.” Then [my mom] took me to see my first Broadway show when I was in elementary school — [it] was, “The Lion King.” Then I was like, “F--k, this is my s--t,” and ever since then I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

MD: I love the whole creative kid to actor pipeline.

AB: I know! A really interesting pipeline for sure.

MD: Now, where were you when you found out about your breakout role for “Our Kind of People?”

AB: Yeah, I was in [Los Angeles]. So my second semester, I decided I’m gonna move out to LA, [get an] off-campus apartment [and] see what opportunities happen there. I was doing little self-tapes here and there, not really thinking anything of it, and then I got to self-tape for “Our Kind of People.” I didn’t hear back until maybe two months later, and I was like, “Oh a callback. Wow, cool. What— what do I do?”

Then I made it past that round, and I got to the final callback, and I [asked], “Whoa, how many girls now?” and [my agent said], “Three,” and I was like, “Oh! Fighting chance.” Okay, but I was still [thinking I needed to] stay humble. So I was doing other things, and I just felt super great about it — super connected to the script. It was oddly similar to my own personal life. So something felt right about it. Long story short… I was in LA when I found the news. There you go.

MD: But we love an origin story, you have to build the context!

AB: Build up the skin!

When I’m on set with these incredible [people], it still doesn’t feel real. I’m in the same room with these people, working with these people. It’s like all the emotions are happening at once. I feel super, super blessed to say the least.

MD: Exactly! What are your feelings about your breakout role?

AB: Ah, wow, it doesn’t feel real when people are [saying] “your breakout role” ‘cause it all happened super fast. I was just a student and now I’m in the workforce. So it’s a really weird thing. I’m juggling a lot of different things like learning how to adult, paying bills, and being in an apartment. Also getting to work on time [and] learning what it’s like to be on set because I come from the stage. The last thing on my mind has been “this is your breakout role and fame,” [and instead] it’s been like, “Oh, s--t, am I juggling this good? Is this good?”

MD: Yeah, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I just became an adult. Don’t push me out here y’all. Wait, let me figure this out first!”

AB: Yeah! Oh, my god. Not to say that I haven’t been feeling all the other things. I’m super excited every day. It still doesn’t feel real. When I’m on set with these incredible [people] — it still doesn’t feel real. I’m in the same room with these people, working with these people. It’s like all the emotions are happening at once. I feel super, super blessed to say the least.

MD: I want to go back to what you were saying about how you went from stage to screen. What was that shift like, going from “Homeschool musical,” a documentary kind of thing, to this scripted sort of show?

AB: Right? I mean I’m a little theater nerd. I come from the musical theater world, a little tap dance here, a little sing-song there, all live. And I went to a performing arts school in high school … but it’s just a different medium. I didn’t really notice or understand how different stage is from screen [acting], and how different musical theater is from straight acting.

Every scene takes about 30 times to do over and over because you got to take it from every single different angle, and you have to be in it every single time. So it’s not like the stage where I’m going to go and this is a special intimate performance with the audience and I’m going to give it to y’all one time and that’s it.

It’s take after take after take. You’ve got to make it authentic. It’s just a different kind of skill in that I’ve been learning to articulate a lot more being on set.

MD: [That’s] really interesting to hear about because, honestly, I know nothing about this kind of stuff. I know a little bit about theater because of high school, but the screen is very interesting to hear about.

AB: To you and me both. I’m still learning.

Even though my truth aligns with Nikki’s, I really wanted to be giving Nikki’s truth. The more scripts I got, [I found and highlighted] all the differences between her and [me]. I really [highlighted] those differences so that her personality was brought to the forefront.

MD: I do want to get into more of the show and your character. Can you tell me a bit about your character, Nikki Vaughn, and how you put your own self as Alana into your character?

AB: I read the script [thinking] this is weird. God. This is like me. It wasn’t a mistake. I read the script and I kid you not girl, I was like, “These n----s in here following me or something.”

MD: Where are the cameras?

AB: Cut the roll. When I first read it, the similarities were jarring. Growing up … being really close with my grandmother [and] just having lost a grandmother; having that same similar relationship with a young teenage daughter and a young single mom moving to a new place, which I did in high school. It made me feel like some fate kind of action was taking place.

When you’re acting [and] becoming someone who’s different from you, you really have to craft that character for yourself... So in a way, it was helpful because it felt so natural. It just came very easily out of me, but it was also a challenge to find [out] what makes Nikki different, and what makes Nikki who Nikki is?

MD: What was that process like trying to find those differences?

AB: Acting is just using yourself as a catalyst to tell someone else’s story. I had to tell all that truth, and my truth, and [those] aligned exactly. Perfect. I could just be me.

Even though my truth aligns with Nikki’s, I really wanted to be giving Nikki’s truth. The more scripts I got, [I found and highlighted] all the differences between her and [me]. I really [highlighted] those differences so that her personality was brought to the forefront.

MD: To get a bit more into the show and the whole premise of it: as an audience, [we] don’t really get to see shows that are about the Black elite or shows that are very Black female-led. So, I just want to get your thoughts on that and what it’s like being a part of a production like that.

AB: It’s freakin incredible. A lot of people have told me that this show is an anomaly for how the industry is set up. This is very rare and I’m lucky to have this all-Black cast, crew, hair, makeup, stylists be my first experience because a lot of Black women don’t have that in the industry.

Having a Black female-led show is something so powerful. It’s addressing so many intersections of struggles and disenfranchisement… being a Black woman… fighting for voice, power [and] assertion. Sometimes it’s [fighting against a] misogynistic community — which the Black community can be — and finding a space to uplift Black women and their excellence, essence, power [and the] ability to assert themselves without stigma.

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MD: As an outsider or someone in the audience, I read a whole bunch of stories about nightmarish first times on set, being a Black woman … So it’s awesome to hear you say that, and for us to witness that as an audience. I can only imagine the representation that younger people are going to [feel] seeing you on screen and being able to see themselves. How do you feel about that?

AB: That’s one of the reasons I’m having such trouble digesting it now, because I think as Black women, sometimes we tend to try to shrink ourselves or shrink our abilities or our goals.

My passion deep down inside has always been to have little Black girls see themselves the way they want to be seen: in their entirety, their vulnerability, their strength… their passion and [their] softness. That’s what I saw growing up. I grew up around strong matriarchs in my family and always wanted to see them on screen; see all of their complexity, and not just the monolith and stigma. So, being in this position right now with a character like Nikki, who is so complex, who has so many layers, so many sides, she has this grit and hardness, but she’s not angry. She’s soft and timid at times. It’s just incredible.

MD: I’m so glad that you get to experience this. I’m living through you!

AB: Thank you. Yes! Let’s all live it!

MD: You’re welcome. I do want to ask, as an audience, what can we expect from Nikki throughout the rest of the series without spoiling too much?

AB: [Nikki] starts in this place of just rejection, sadness and mourning, and she flourishes. She really does go through a big ass roller coaster.

I think it will be unexpected to the audience how her love life turns out, who she ends up with, who she ends up befriending and who she ends up growing close to — including herself.

MD: I love a good self-love moment and not having to have others around to feel that kind of love. I’m really glad that we could explore that and your character. One last question for you. The show premiered yesterday, I want to know, how have your friends, family and others reacted to seeing you on screen? I know that they were doing all sorts of watch parties around USC. Everybody was talking about it. I just need to know what you’ve been seeing.

AB: Oh, my goodness, I feel so grateful to have a village. Everywhere that I’ve been blessed to go in, [and] every space I’ve been in, I’ve found a little bit more of my tribe.

My family [and] my friends are excited about this. They’re just as excited as me and they really cherish my joy … I logged on to Zoom and my mom had like 50 people there to say congrats. I was like, “Whoa.” My friends in L.A. all had a watch party at USC. And I [thought], “Oh, you’re so f-----g cool.” Just the most genuine people. I feel so happy to say that I have that.

MD: We were all rooting for you. I was watching on my computer last night.

AB: Thank you! Thank you so much.

MD: You’re welcome. Congratulations a thousand times over!