Lyndie Greenwood and a World Without Tokens

The Hollywood Race, Part II

TV Features Lyndie Greenwood
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In The Hollywood Race, Shannon Houston examines the dynamics of race and culture as they play out in the film world—on and off the screen.

In part two of our series, we chat with Lyndie Greenwood of FOX’s acclaimed series Sleepy Hollow. Like Tessa Thompson (the subject of our first Hollywood Race chat), Greenwood is an actress we picked for our 10 Black Actresses to Watch in 2014 list. Greenwood wasn’t promoted to series regular until Season One of Sleepy Hollow ended, but it was clear from those first few episodes that her role as Jenny Mills would be hugely important for the plot and for television in general. Mills is about as bad ass as they come, and her ride-or-die style (though we prefer that she ride, rather than die) sets her in stark contrast against her sister and the protagonist of the show, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). Sleepy Hollow is gearing up for a highly anticipated second season, and Paste caught up with Greenwood to talk about her role on the show, and the idea of ethnicity as it plays out in real life and in the casting room.

We begin with a somewhat awkward admission on my part. I wasn’t actually sure that Lyndie Greenwood was black. I knew I wanted to include her on this list of black actresses, but it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know, for sure, that she identified as a black woman. She was clearly a woman of color, but I wondered if she was maybe Latina. I spent a good fifteen-to-twenty minutes scouring online, Instagram-stalking her for clues. At a certain point, I even thought I might change the title to “10 Actresses of Color to Watch in 2014,” but then I’d complicate things, I thought. It all sounds like a bit much, and—indeed—the moment felt a little ridiculous. I decided to include Greenwood anyway, and it all worked out in the end. At the beginning of our talk, the actress was happy to clear it up for me:

“Well, I’m mixed,” she says, simply. “My mom is from the Caribbean. She’s from Tobago, and and my father’s family is from England. But we’re all Canadian.”

And once we got that bit out of the way, we were able to get to the good stuff, like her introduction to Sleepy Hollow. She explains that she saw a preview for the pilot before auditioning, and that she also received a succinct, but exciting description of the character they were casting: a “Sarah Connor type who’s been locked in an asylum for a while.” Greenwood thought the role sounded absolutely “rad,” and her background in theater, dance and martial arts certainly helped prepare her.

“Martial arts really gives you a knowledge of your physicality,” she explains. “It gives you physical confidence, and I think that’s really important when it comes to playing a character who is so tough. Often when I get into the spirit of Jenny, I’m on the ready. My body is ready to deal with what’s coming, and I think training definitely helps with that.”

The fact that Greenwood was cast to play a “Sarah Connor type” speaks volumes about the difference between casting for Sleepy Hollow, and casting for many other film and television productions. Greenwood is not a token on this show, and she knows a token role when she sees one.

“I love the terminology that goes into auditioning for things,” she says with a small laugh. “I often go out for the ‘open ethnicity’ roles. It’s their token. If they want to just throw in a non-white person to make the show a little bit diverse, then someone like me works.”

It’s an interesting conundrum, and one that we also discussed with Tessa Thompson, who we’ll get to see later this year in Dear White People. Should one go out for these roles, when there are clear, problematic racial implications at work? It’s like deciding whether or not to check the box labeling your ethnicity for a college or employment application. Do you want to play token? Do you have a choice? Or don’t you sometimes have to do it, if only to get in the door so you can start doing what you really want to do—like playing the “Sarah Connor types”? It’s a difficult choice to make, but shows like Sleepy Hollow, Orange Is The New Black, and a handful of others are clearly working towards a world of entertainment without tokens.

Greenwood also points out that American programming is far more ethnically diverse than Canadian. She finds this strange, noting that Toronto is “one of the most multi-cultural places,” so it’s disappointing that their studios choose not to reflect this.

Sleepy Hollow is also a fantastic example of American programming that reflects a society where people of color are in visible positions of power. Alongside Greenwood is Beharie (another black actress who plays detective Mills), and Orlando Jones, who plays the chief of police. While Jenny Mills is the type who needs to be prepared to drop-kick someone (or some other-worldly thing) at any given time, Abbie Mills is a horse of a different color. Still, Greenwood warns me against being fooled by the goody two-shoes performance from Beharie. “Nicole is awesome,” she says. “She’s funny and she’s super-welcoming to me, and very supportive. But, in real life, she’s probably more intimidating than me. I’m not really as tough as Jenny.” Greenwood goes on to describe the star of the series as someone who “commands the room” and “has a big presence.”

It sounds like bad-assery is just running amuck on the set, and the chemistry between the two actresses was something very organic—something that grew over time throughout the season. By the time the secrets (and demons) started coming out, and lives were on the line, the complex bond between the two as sisters felt very real.

Greenwood also has great chemistry with Captain Frank Irving (Jones). There are whole throngs of fans just waiting for the writers to embrace the romantic connection many of us are either sensing or projecting onto the duo. And Greenwood seems cool with all of this.

“Orlando and I have talked about it,” she tells me. “We were so surprised that the fans picked up so immediately on something that we didn’t even know was there. We were excited to have this episode where we got to play together, but we didn’t realize it would take off so well. So, who knows? Who knows what’s going to happen with Jenny and Frank?”

Jones has clearly enjoyed their scenes together, and Greenwood reveals that he’s taken to calling the two of them “Mr. and Mrs. BAMF” (as in “Bad Ass MFs”). While the fans would love to see more of them together, Greenwood is right to ask, “Who knows?” By the end of the first season, her character is hanging out of a car (looking awfully dead … though we assume she’s not, since we know we’ll be seeing more of her on the new season), and Chief Irving is heading to jail.

While all of these characters—Abbie, Jenny, Irving and a host of minor players—point to the diversity of Sleepy Hollow’s cast, Greenwood is quick to point out that this isn’t the kind of diversity that calls attention to itself, so to speak. Unless you’re looking for it, you may watch the show completely unaware of the fact that it has one of the most culturally diverse casts on television. When such diversity can go by almost unnoticed, this too, is a sign of progress. But, for now it’s still important for some of us to point it out, if only to encourage other shows to follow the lead.

“I love that people watch Sleepy Hollow and see such a diverse cast without any real regard for the fact that it is diverse,” Greenwood explains. “Everyone just has such a unique voice. As a woman—and especially as a woman of color—I think it’s important. We still have a long way to go. Just because there’s progress being made it doesn’t mean that we should just stop supporting each other.”

As the FOX series begins production on Season Two we look forward to more of what made the first season so great: strong writing, strong actors, and a strong commitment—whether it’s obvious or not—to progress.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.