[Interview] Candace Nicholas-Lippman From ‘Blindspotting’ Talks Janelle’s Mysterious Side, How She Got Into Acting, Plus I Sort Her Into Her Hogwarts House

Every chosen family needs its maternal figure, and Janelle takes on this role on Blindspotting. She’s the supportive friend who can always tell you something philosophical to change your whole perspective. But even though she’s kind, everyone on the block knows not to cross her. I talked to Candace Nicholas-Lippman about her similarities and differences to Janelle, how seventh-grade changed her entire life, and I sort her into her Hogwarts house because apparently, I gave myself that authority.

How would you describe Janelle? She’s a pretty mysterious character.

Everyone keeps saying that. They’re like “who is this Janelle person?” Janelle is someone who is a very multi-dimensional person. She’s multifaceted. She’s the type of friend that’s like “I will lay hands on you if you keep talking your mess, but I also go to the ancestors and pray on your behalf.” She’s extremely loyal. She’s very protective of people that she loves. She has a very pure heart. Most importantly she is someone who is extremely unapologetic. Which is one of my favorite parts about her, that she is who she is and you’re just going to have to accept that. Or not. But she’s not going to change. And lastly, she’s someone who I think is really trying to find herself. She’s been gone in Bali for five years, and I’m not going to give away anything, but some things transpired in Bali where she thought she had found herself, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. So now she’s returning home and starting over again. Like “who am I? What do I really want?” She’s trying to really rediscover herself and returning home, to a place that is not really the home she remembers before she left. Yes, she’s complex.

How do you relate to Janelle? How are you alike and how are you different?

Janelle and I are alike in so many ways. Even some of the attributes that I just listed of her: of someone who’s extremely loyal, her being extremely protective, her having a good heart. I believe I possess all those kinds of qualities. Also, her being this woman that’s trying to exist in two worlds. I’m the same way. I was raised in Sacramento. I was raised in what we call “the hood.” Very underprivileged background. Even as a child I always said “there has to be more to life than what I’m living in. There has to be a better life.” And I would see these images through the Cosbys and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and see these Black families that are thriving, which wasn’t what I was accustomed to when I was growing up. And I was like “oh my goodness there is a different life. There is a better life. I want to see the world. I want to travel. I want to experience different cultures. I want to see how other people worship God and their beliefs systems.” That’s how I think Janelle and I are very much the same, that we’re trying to step outside of our comfort zones and not be limited to what we grew up around. We were born in a certain environment. But we’re not a product of our environment. We strive to want more out of life. And that’s how Janelle and I are alike. But I want to be as unapologetic as Janelle. Because Janelle literally does not care what people think about her. I have a little bit where I kind of care. Like “why doesn’t this person like me? That sucks.” But with Janelle it’s like “whatever, if you don’t like me, then keep it stepping.” But in that sense, I’m very unapologetic as well where I’ve always had this joy and energy. Some people love it. Some people are like “what’s wrong with her? She’s weird.” But it’s like “hey, this is who I am. And I can’t change myself. So you’re going to get all this bubbly personality. I don’t know what else to do with it.” In ways that we are different, I would definitely say that Janelle is way more turnt than I am. I know we don’t really see that really in this season. As you said, Janelle is very mysterious and we don’t have much on the backstory of her life. But Janelle has this side of her that’s a lot more aggressive than my personality. Janelle curses a lot. In my real life, I don’t say the n-word, I don’t curse like that. But Janelle will come out and call you a straight-up b-word to your face. Janelle is a lot more raw in her presentation and how she speaks. While I’m not aggressive in that manner. That’s where we differ. But other than that I feel like we’re very much the same. And also the spiritual component. She’s a very spiritual person, I’m a spiritual person, so even though Janelle’s faith isn’t my faith in real life, she still has a belief system. And I definitely have a belief system so that’s something that we share in common. We want to be good people and make people happy. I feel like she’s that way too. It’s like this nurturing, motherly figure in people’s lives. And people who’ve seen the show say that to me. That I’m so much like Janelle in the sense that Janelle is almost like this maternal figure to everyone. She comes with “be a beetle that lives in a flower garden.” She’s that person, and I’m that person. And with my friends, people will be like “Candace, we need encouragement. Can you pray? Can you give me a word today?” So I feel like Janelle is that person as well and that’s another way that we are similar.

Janelle is into astrology and charts. What’s your sign?

I’m a Sagittarius.

Me too! I could tell! What’s your Hogwarts house?

Oh my gosh Ariana, don’t judge me. I don’t know Harry Potter like that. I don’t know. It’s funny one of my friends literally sat me down and was like “Candace, you have to watch Harry Potter. It’s so amazing.” And I’m just like “Nah, I’m just not really into it.” And he was kind of watching it, so I saw bits and pieces of the scenes. And I’m like “oh that’s Slytherin” or these are the different houses. But I was like “what are they doing? What’s happening?” So it was very interesting when we were on set and it was Rafael who was like “hey, ask something about Harry Potter.” And I was like, “I don’t know anything about Harry Potter.” He said something about the Slytherin and all this stuff, so I was like “okay.” And it was interesting once we wrapped, I spoke with his assistant, Allison, and I told her I actually didn’t know anything about Harry Potter and she said “when you delivered those lines it seemed like you knew exactly what you were talking about.” And I said I used context clues, like “Slytherin…something negative.”

I thought you were going to say you were in Hufflepuff. Because they’re kind.

People say that to me, that I would be in Hufflepuff. And I’m like “cool, I don’t know what that means.”

What made you get into acting?

I always thought I was going to change the world through law. One courtroom at a time. I was going to be a lawyer. But then in seventh-grade drama class with Ms. Clark, I’ll never forget the drama teacher, I did a monologue. I know this sounds so cliche, but it changed my entire life. The feedback I got from my peers, the response I got from my teacher. She said, “you’re so talented.” So I realized “God, I was meant to be an artist and I’m going to change the world through my art. That’s what I’m going to do.” So literally the monologue was the catalyst. I started writing my own plays. When I was in high school, our school couldn’t afford a drama department, so being the person that I am, an overachiever, I initiated a drama program on campus with the English teacher who, bless her heart, was willing to be the English teacher and the drama teacher. So I started directing and writing plays. Then I went to Sac State majoring in theatre, then I transferred out here to Los Angeles. Got my B.A. in Theatre Arts and Dance from CSULA. Then I got on the grind of auditioning and making my own content, as well as serving and teaching the babies. I have such a heart for kids. I love the babies so much. So inspiring them and having them change their life through art, [helping them] find their potential and find out what they were meant to be through the arts. So seventh grade was the moment for me, where I realized that this is what I’m meant to do.

I was talking to Jaylen about the scene where your characters are talking about being Black and the Black experience. How could you relate to that conversation?

I felt like at that moment I literally morphed as one with Janelle. Because of everything Janelle was saying, I was like “oh my gosh, this is what I’ve lived throughout my life as a dark-skin Black woman.” Especially when it comes to my hair and skin tone. I’m the oldest of six, my siblings and I are all different shades. I have super light-skin sisters who are as light as Jaylen. And people growing up are like “you aren’t really sisters, why does she look like she’s half-white?” And then I had really pretty hair, which is also such a thing in the Black community, like “oh, you must be mixed with something because you have really pretty hair for a dark-skin girl.” Going through the whole thing of having your hair permed because that was the Eurocentric ideal standard of beauty that was accepted. I wasn’t allowed to wear my natural curls or my afro. That was deemed not properly groomed attire when I would go to work when I would wear my hair in natural styles. And it was really difficult for me to shoot that scene, and Rafael can attest to this because all he had to do was give me one note to shift my perspective. Because every take I was emotional. The take you guys see was after his note because that whole conversation could have gone a different way because I was reliving my trauma every time we were doing the take. I remember him giving the note and saying “yes Candace, I know this is really personal to you and I just want to give you a note that this is a conversation that you guys (the characters) have all the time. It’s not the first time you guys are expressing this. This is just another day the family is talking and it’s just conversations that happen and you’re all hanging out.” And I was like “oh, okay.” And that was hard. But it’s really difficult. And this is one of the main things when people ask me about why am I most excited about playing Janelle or what I’m looking forward to the viewers seeing and I always tell them the thing I’m most proud about being blessed and cast in this role is the fact that I get to represent a dark-skin Black woman that we rarely see on television. Janelle is not some uneducated, single-baby mama on welfare that is hateful and bitter and has all this sassiness. That’s the stereotypical Black woman [you see on TV]. That’s not Janelle. We get to see a dark-skin Black woman that is on television rocking her locs, who is unapologetic in who she is and will turn up when she needs to but at the same time is extremely spiritual, meditative, calming, reflective, and wise. It’s a beautiful thing to see this. And I want every little Black and brown girl and woman to see Janelle and see themselves. That’s what I’m so proud of and hoping for the most when it comes to people when they’re watching Janelle. I want them to be like “oh my gosh, that’s my cousin, or that’s me, or my sister.” I want to see that. And I’m so grateful for being part of a show with people like Rafael and Daveed who allow such freedom and offer a place of collaboration and creative control in a sense. I was able to go to Rafael during that episode and say “I see Janelle with a head wrap in Episode six. She’s at home, she’s chilling.” Janelle doesn’t wear that much makeup on the show. That was a choice. I said that Janelle isn’t the type to have the big eyelashes. I want her to be natural. And I want it to be authentic. Episode Six, she’s at home all day chilling. Why would she have a face beat? I want her to be as authentic as possible. And Black women, we change our hair all the time, wear head wraps, wear bonnets. I want that to really be represented on screen so our sisters can see themselves.

What was it like to film during the pandemic and in the Bay area?

It was fast filming in the Bay area, we were only out there for a week for the exterior scenes. Because of the pandemic, we had to bring Oakland to LA. Oakland was beautiful. I got to go to the lake for the first time and see all the artwork. Shooting during the pandemic was interesting. It was difficult because it took away the opportunity that we as actors get to connect and build relationships before we start shooting. We didn’t get to hang out, we didn’t get to know each other. The first scene I do is with Jasmine where I pull up on her and I’m just back in town: Jasmine and I hadn’t even met each other. We had no idea who each other was. And we had to make up years of history of us being best friends in that short amount of time. And working with Jasmine was amazing. We both knew coming in that “I don’t know you, you don’t know me but we’re in this together and we just got to trust each other.” And that’s all we had to do throughout the process of filming, because it is so difficult when you have to mask, and the PPE shield and being six feet away. We would be trying to have conversations in between takes and we would be like “what? I can’t hear you with the mask, and you’re so far away. I’m sorry.” That part made it difficult for all of us. But what we said we were going to jump in and know “I got you, you got me. Let’s trust. We already did our individual work so let’s go in and go for it” and that’s what we had to do.

What was your favorite scene to film?

My favorite is definitely Episode Eight when we find out the truth about Janelle and what happened in Bali. That’s my favorite because it’s the first time through the whole season where you get to see this different side of Janelle. That’s the first time her guard comes down a little bit. She’s guarded through the whole season. And as an actor, I love drama. I come from theatre. So doing more of the serious and emotional type of things. Doing more of that character work is something that I love. I would say that was my favorite thing to shoot because we finally get an inside look on what’s really going on with Janelle. And even with that happening she’s not even doing it for herself. Janelle’s not opening up for herself. She’s still nurturing: “I’m here for you, I’m supporting you.” She’s opening up to help Ashley. So she’s still giving. She’s like “I’m going to serve at this moment.” She has her own shame and embarrassment when it comes to the thing that she feels failed when she was in Bali. But she chose that moment to open up, and it’s not even serving herself. It’s for someone else. That gives so much to who Janelle is. I really love that moment. That’s probably my favorite moment. And my other favorite is Episode Six and the whole conversation about the Black experience. That for sure is one of my favorites.

What would you like to see for your character in Season 2?

I would love to see just more [Janelle], because that’s one of the biggest things I keep getting from people. Like “man, are we going to get more of Janelle?” Because like you said, she’s so mysterious. There are even questions I have as an actor about Janelle. I’m asking Rafael like “she was just gone for five years? And Ashley’s momma died, baby boy is growing up. I’ve missed birthdays. My brother went to jail and now he’s in Montana. Can we get what’s going on with that? Where’s my dad? Did I talk to my mom at all when I was in Bali? Did I just cut everyone off?” I would love to know what her life was like in Bali. Who was this guy? Who was this family? What was the thing that broke it? I would love to know what happens with her and Earl. I feel like Janelle is an extremely guarded person and she’s very much about protecting her peace and mental health, and she’s very selective on who she decides to open up to. I would love to see if [Earl] is a possibility for her. But what does that look like? This guy is living in her house where her brother would be staying in the old room. Would that complicate things? I don’t know what a relationship would look like. Is she ready to get into another relationship after what she just endured in Bali? I feel like there’s a huge elephant in the room with Ashley and Janelle. Janelle pops back up, and Ashley’s life is completely altered. And she’s like “hey sis, I know I left, but I’m back now and I’m here and loyal and you still trust me.” I feel like there is so much to unpack there that Janelle and Ashley haven’t been giving the space yet [to do so]. How was it for Ashley when Janelle left? Does Ashley feel like Janelle abandoned her? And how does Janelle feel about it because Janelle wanted Ashley to come with her. Ashley was supposed to go to Bali. Is Janelle supposed to stop her life and what she wants to do because Ashley wants to settle down and have the domestic life and be married? There’s so much I would love to see with Janelle. I hope we get to see more of her backstory, what makes her her. And really truthfully shows what it is like to find yourself and what it looks like for someone. Because a lot of time we walk around in life like “I don’t know why I’m here, what’s my purpose?” And that’s where Janelle is right now. She’s like “I went to Bali, I went to all these different countries to try to find myself. And I thought I did. I thought I had it together.” And why did she keep it a secret that she got married and had a step-kid? Did she not talk to Ashley at all? Did her mom not know she got married?

Yes, I’m excited for a Season 2!

You can read my interview with Jaylen Barron, who plays Trish, here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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