“Acting just gives me the opportunity to extend being a kid for another 10-15 years—or until I get tired of it!”
Aunjanue Ellis, seen as FBI Academy director Miranda Shaw on ABC Sunday’s breakout thrill ride Quantico, chuckles her deep laugh as she talks about her acting passion rooted in a rich childhood memory—a memory as deep as her love of family and their native Mississippi, where the San Francisco native has long since called home .
But there’s noting childish about her turn as authority-figure-gone-rogue Miranda. The role follows on her Critics Choice TV nomination this year for best actress in the CBC/BET mini-series The Book of Negroes, based on logs of Revolutionary-era Southern slaves seeking freedom via “enemy” British and relocating to Canada.
Next up for her is Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation —not a D.W. Griffith remake, but the story of Nat Turner’s heroic attempt to spark a Southern slave uprising 30 years before the Civil War.
Speaking from Quantico’s Montreal production digs some eight episodes into filming, Aunjanue’s easy laugh is by turns tickled and thoughtful about her dizzying ride on this show—already picked up for a full season with an audience gaining each week — as well her love of period roles, the history they can uncover, and how it all fuels her personal passion for justice that sparked headlines last summer back home in Mississippi.
Starting a new series is always a wild ride for an actor, but the flash-forward/flashback whiplash of Quantico’s storytelling is a whole new level, right?
Well, I get to spend a lot of time with my niece and nephews, and their lives are so much about ‘Let’s pretend’ and ‘Let’s make up stories!’—it’s always intriguing, it’s always secretive, it’s always about the prize.
That’s something that's almost basic and primal for me. And that's what Quantico satisfies. It’s not predictable!
Now fess up: Did they sit you all down and say ‘Here's the arc of the story,’ or of your characters—or are you getting surprised with the scripts each week?
I’m not being coy or keeping secrets—but we really do not know. We do not know! I read the new episode last night, and I was in my trailer and I literally screamed "OH MY GOD—Are you kidding me?" My other castmates have had the same reaction.
We are just as in the dark as the viewer!
So when the development of the story and characters is so non-linear, how do you cope as an actor?
At first it really felt like free-floating—like I'd been pushed off a plane! And I’m grasping at clouds, to get some sort of stability!
But I feel better now, and I think all of us are a little stronger about where we are. But the writers are mercenary about protecting the story, and where it’s going, and how they want it to go.
So what I've had to do—and I’m sure I’m a reflection of my castmates--is just to find a center for ourselves with our characters, and be able to connect it to all these places that these puppetmasters have decided to put us!
I just have to ensure that we're building this person of Miranda, and trying to keep that impact as much as I can.
At least in the first few episodes we've seen, most of your scenes are with Josh Hopkins’ Liam O’Connor, who is the other “senior” level agent over the FBI trainees.
Aside from the big classroom scenes, we rarely see you interacting with any of the other agents yet, aside from Priyanka Chopra’s “Alex” in the flash-forwards, and your alliance with Yasmine Al Masrih’s “twin” “Nimah”. Do you ever start to get to interact with more of the trainee group?
As opposed to having these Shakespearean monologs? (A big laugh)
Josh and I, we bonded on that! Like, man, gosh, Lord—can they write less? Have you ever heard an actor say that?: "PLEASE write less for me!"
But now I’m embracing that part of it and enjoying it more. And thankfully, what you will see is her having more interactions with the ‘NATs,’ the trainees.
The cast is just chockful of good actors—beyond them all being beautiful, they're really good actors and good people.
What’s been your experience in birthing the pilot and then evolving the show going into production?
It felt like the show has had several different lives: We shot the pilot in Atlanta, and then it was shooting in French Canada—Montreal. And we originally had Dougray Scott playing Liam, and now Josh is playing Liam—so it’s a different dynamic there.
Also, the work that we did inside of Quantico was relatively straight-forward. It’s what we did when we got to New York that it gets crazy.
The “future” timeline scene where Alex escapes: We shot it with the pilot, and then when we got picked up and actually went to New York to shoot some of it again, and we shot it on the lot.
So we shot those scenes over and over and over again, from all different kinds of angles. And then we shot it another day—and that's just me; I know that Priyanka shot it a whole lot more, and Josh did a lot more as well.
So a lot of work went into just that one scene, and I think that's where it got loopy! Because that's when you first see that side of Miranda that you are not expecting to see.
Now, if you ask me the same question a few weeks from now...I’ll have different answers for you. Every day I walk in, I’m like: Okay what is this? What is this going to be? And how do we make this work? It’s like we’re all mad scientists!
In that kind of situation, do you see any difference between how you cope with that and the younger actors, given your head-start in career? Or is everyone pretty much in the same boat?
It's really created an egalitarian thing. The role that I’m playing, it works that we're in this dynamic of teacher/trainees...but in terms of what we are offering as actors, we are all very well balanced.
And I’m certainly learning from them: I did a scene last week with Tate Sullivan, who plays Simon, and I'm SO excited for people to see the level of work that he brings. I feel that way about all of them.
Hey, I’m just excited that you get to turn on the television and see Priyanka Chopra having a lead in an American television show. I’m excited for her, but also excited for this country that it gets to have somebody like her reflected in themselves.
I love the idea that this is not just about diversity for ABC, but they are excited about this kind of casting and they feel that it’s not just "responsible," but that it’s good television.
Such great roles you’ve had, from your hard-working stage background, to The Help and The Book of Negroes.... but television seems to love you as the confident woman in charge where you play police officers, agents, investigators—the recurring roles on The Mentalist and NCIS-LA, and now here you are directing the FBI Training Academy!
Well, I had a very explicit conversation with Josh Safran and Nick (Pepper, producers) that I didn’t want to be behind a desk, screaming riot acts at people every week. I’ve done that in the movies that I’ve done, playing people who are not in control of their lives at all.
And they promised me it’s not going to be that; so you see this woman who you think is in authority, but then all of your perceptions get completely undermined in the first episode. So, I don’t want to play archetypes; I have no interest in that.
There's so much more interesting and fun and exciting about these characters that can be explored and mined—to take the prototype of what this woman's supposed to be, and just redefine that.
Now you’ve got the "day job" going on, I get the sense that you see The Book of Negroes and then Birth of a Nation as great ways to shine a light on little-known corners of history that people should know about.
Plus, as an actor, in both of those you get to dress up and do something that’s NOT in a suit! Or sitting behind a desk.
If I could, that's ALL I would do! (another contagious chuckle) I would always be in a corset and long skirt, with some uncomfortable shoes on. Or no shoes on!
That's the Mississippi girl in you talking.
Absolutely, absolutely! You know I come from a family with a long tradition— my grandfather was a pastor whose church was bombed in the early 1960s by people who were mad at him because he let the early civil rights Freedom Riders have meetings at his church.
So I feel like I have my grandaddy's voice inside me, and all my cousins feel that way too.
But, for a long time, I had no purpose in my acting—it was just about getting a job: I want to be in movies, I want to be on television, I want to be like these other women, and men, I want to be like them.
I made large amounts of money sometimes, and I would be able to do things for my family with these large amounts of money that I made at the time.
But then, maybe a couple of years before The Help, I started having a real conversation with myself: ‘Okay, I cannot take this for granted anymore. Why am I doing this, beyond supporting my family?’ And I just started realizing that not everybody gets to do this, and so when you DO get to do this, you can’t make light of it.
So, now, I look at it like I have a responsibility to everybody who helped put me in this position—all those people who grew up under circumstances that I am privileged to NOT have right now. And I say that very humbly, but I mean that. Because when they were toiling in the fields, and being businessmen, and all these things that were happening to them—no one could speak for them. And now I get to do that.
And so when I get to do The Book of Negroes, and I get to do Birth of a Nation, I feel like, ‘Okay, NOW I’m doing what I’m supposed to do!’— humanizing those people. On both sides, black and white, we make them out to be heroes, and that’s not ultimately real human beings — or we can make them out to be characters who we vilify, because we just refuse to understand them.
But they are all a reflection of the human experience. And even though The Help is fiction, what it did was get conversations started —especially in Mississippi—about that way of life: what that meant to the women who were the homeowners, and the women who worked in those homes. So that's the stuff that excites me, and that's what I feel is my purpose.
And some of that purpose took to Twitter this summer when you weighed in on the Mississippi state flag Star and Bars, after the South Carolina Confederate battle flag national uproar in the wake of the Charleston mass shootings there.
Yeah! This is my day job, but when I leave the studio, that’s all I do—working with the Mississippi Human Rights Collective, and it is not easy. South Carolina got rid of its flag—and that wasn’t even the official flag of the state; it was just essentially some decoration on top of the statehouse!
But that’s not the case in Mississippi: that Confederate flag, the flag of the KKK, is the official emblem of the state of Mississippi. And we just sort of allow that, as a nation—we just permit that—and I think that 's unacceptable.
Now, I’m certainly not naive enough to think that taking down a flag will change the course of the very real hard work that we need to do in this country about race and violence and so on. But what it will change this notion that Mississippi can enjoy a secessionism of its own, you know?
And I believe that we can’t allow that anymore. We cant just let Mississippi get away with it.
Your op-ed in TIME got a lot of attention, but I know that's painful for anyone who’s a native and resident to say that you’ll not act in nor help produce any film or TV in Mississippi until it changes. You want to bring attention and jobs back home— but that's one bit of leverage you feel you have in that struggle.
That 's absolutely right. I see it as someone giving drugs to a drug-addicted person: Why am I going to support something in you that is destroying you? I still shop in Mississippi, I still have to live there. But in the way that I can, the one way on my little acre that I can say I’m not participating in this—I have to do that.
And meanwhile, back in Hollywood, we’ve seen a great awakening for black women featured on the small screen—yes?
Black women are enjoying great success now on television — with Viola [Davis], Kerry Washington, Regina King, so many women I could name right now. But the reality is (and this time the laugh is rueful) if you watch television, you’ll see, girl: these are exceptions! They’re not the rule.
They’re wonderful exceptions, but it’s not just enough to be a black person, or an Asian person, or an Indian person. Now, what’s exciting to me, particularly about Quantico: Yasmine and I had a conversation last night, she had a lot of work that day, a lot of scenes, a lot of lines, and said (laughing) "I’m not used to this! I’m used to just standing in the corner, being an “exotic” woman!"
I love that, because I know exactly what she means: it’s like she’s a PERSON, you know? She's not just a "let’s plug in this ethnicity here" character—and she knows: She is a human being! And that is the other great attraction about Quantico. I love that part of it!