As ‘Regina’ in Netflix’s Maid, Anika Noni Rose delivers one of the most surprising performances of the year. That’s not to say that Rose isn’t a wonderfully accomplished actor – of course she is. It’s just that Regina is such an unusually complex, well-written, and many layers deep supporting character that we can’t help but be caught off guard by what an original creation she is. In Rose, the part was met with the perfect performer. Every second that she is onscreen we see a riveting, humane, and even funny portrayal of a woman on the brink despite the trappings of wealth that surround her. As good as everyone is in Maid, it is Rose that commands the screen with the most authority in every scene she is in. Certainly, Maid offers the wonderful Margaret Qualley a breakout role, but to my mind, the best performance in the show is Rose’s.
In our conversation, we discuss her approach to playing Regina, the surprising turns her character takes, and the unrealistic expectations often placed on successful women in modern society.
Awards Daily: How did you come to Maid?
Anika Noni Rose: I was sent a script and I was asked if I was interested in auditioning for it. I thought it was one of the best scripts that I had read in some time and I was like “Well this is very interesting. This is a different role for me.” I don’t think people have seen me in this space before. I had a meeting with (show creator) Molly Smith Metzler, and (Executive Producer) John Wells, and a lot of the writers before auditioning. There were a lot of theater people in that writing room – people who really have a lot of respect for the word and how it lands – and they were familiar with work that I had done before which is not always the case. You don’t always run into people that are familiar with your theater work, so that was also exciting.
AD: I can imagine a version of Maid where you only turned up for one episode and made a strong impression. What was so enjoyable is how your character kept coming back into the show and revealing new shades to the audience each time. That must have been exciting for you to see just how far the screenplay took Regina.
Anika Noni Rose: It really was. There were things that I didn’t know were going to happen. I would get a script and be like ”Ooh! Ooh this is great.” But one of the things that I talked with Molly about before I signed on, I said “Listen, I’m really not interested in being somewhere for six months to be tokenized, or to just be doing one thing the whole time, or be in one and a half episodes. That’s fine if that’s what you want to do, but that’s not something I can do.” Particularly during COVID. That’s a no. And so we really talked about it and she said she had really great plans for the character, but I wasn’t expecting where Regina went. And I was really grateful because I felt like it’s a surprise for any character, but it’s definitely a surprise for this woman that you’re looking at. I mean, the fact that you have a black woman in the upper echelons of society who is highly monied and entitled, that in itself is not something that you often see, unless it is something that is mythologized, or made so shiny that people are afraid to look at it hard. It’s not often done in a space of reality. And I know women like this. It was exciting to me that she was who she was without apology. She was just who she was and that was that.
And she wasn’t nice…and I’ve talked about the fact that women are so often concerned about and expected to be NICE. Nice is a coat you can put on. What I found most interesting about her is that she was a good person who was going through a lot of shit, and she didn’t have time for the “nice” coat. But when you got to know her you found out that she was somebody who was really kind if she liked you, if she cared about you, and she knew who she was. She knew that she had quirks and she knew that she could be prickly, but she was also about her business. She had things also to learn from life too. I think she thought at one point that she was bulletproof and then she looked down and she was bleeding. For a grown woman, a woman who had built a life and thought that she had made choices that meant that house was fortified. And I think that in this moment, in 2021, so many people are realizing that the foundation isn’t solid, that they built their life on a fault line. And so many more things are more important than the things that we thought were important. I found her very intriguing. I loved that she was the person who did the thing that needed to be done to help someone else, and she was the last person that you expected to be that person. I loved that we got to visit her wounds and not in a way that was “woe is me”, not in a way that was melodramatic, in a very straight forward “I can’t hold this in anymore-the dam is leaking and I only have two thumbs.”
Awards Daily: It did occur to me watching Maid that there was a time when your character would not have been played by a person of color.
Anika Noni Rose: Absolutely not – that time might have been last year! [Laughs] I know that there are people who are like “That’s not real, that doesn’t happen, who’s that, we don’t know that person” and I actually just finished telling somebody that just because this isn’t somebody you know, doesn’t mean this isn’t somebody that exists. And I feel like that deserves air as well, we deserve to see these people. And that is thrilling to me, because I have met Reginas and spent time around them. I do know that she is a real being and she is also talking about things that we as women don’t always talk about because it’s scary and it’s hurtful. There’s so much shame wrapped around all of the things that she was going through. There’s shame and discomfort in being the only one (person of color) in a particular position (at a law firm). The shame and discomfort of being the younger woman with the older man. There’s shame and discomfort around her infertility. There’s so much that this woman is dealing with and then imagine, a black woman in Seattle who makes her way to partner in this crazy law firm – the hoops that she must have had to jump through to get to that place. I find her very real, and she would not have gotten that air time some years ago. If she had, she’d have been holding a magic wand somehow before everything was over. [Laughs] It wouldn’t have necessarily been something that was real, or she would have been talking about being black the entire time, and that’s not real either.
Awards Daily: One of the points the show makes through Regina is how wealth does not protect you from all pain.
Anika Noni Rose: No, it doesn’t. I think that so many people are walking around wounded. Sometimes people amass wealth because they think that that’s the thing that’s going to heal whatever is hurting. And that’s just not the case. Money doesn’t stop you from feeling things. Well, maybe it does for some people because you can afford all kinds of different inoculation. But at some point you’re gonna feel something. This woman was in a stunning house. I would probably give the owners brownies with ex-lax if it meant that I could spend a weekend living in that house. [Laughs] That woman was living in this house, with the ocean as her backyard, and she had a husband, and she was one of the loneliest people on the planet. I’m so glad that we had to dig for who she was. I just think it’s very important that we remember in art – when I think about great art – when we find a Michelangelo, and we think, “This is amazing, we just need to clean it up.”
Then they clean it up and they realize it’s the top layer of five paintings. He’s been painting on this canvas for years and you’ve got four other things beneath it that are incredible. I feel like that’s what great art is supposed to be. If you clean it, you should scratch the surface and you should see something else that makes you want to dig further. Whenever I’m handed something like that, which I feel like I was with this piece, which was surprising to me as well, as good as I thought the writing was, I didn’t know that we were gonna go where we went. And I had Nzingha Stewart as a director – who I just love to death – on the episode where everything went to shit for me. And then I had Quyen Tran in her directorial debut on episode eight where you got to see something totally different from Regina. You got to see the humor of who she was because she was exhausted. She was never the same person when you came up on her, you were like “Oh god, who is she today?”
Awards Daily: And yet, the character is still consistent even though her behavior isn’t.
Anika Noni Rose: Every day is a different day, right? I was so grateful to express the humor that is exhaustion, that is the mother who hasn’t slept, which she doesn’t think it’s funny at the time but looking at it you’re like oh she’s losing her mind, and I didn’t want that to be a heavy losing of the mind. I really wanted it to be something where people could have a moment and laugh with the understanding of it having gone through it. And Quyen got that. Quyen is the mother of two children or three children. I was so thankful to have somebody just say go play. I didn’t realize we were going to have the twists and turns that we had. It was a rollercoaster, It was important for me for her to be the same person through and through. This was the moment where my guard was down, where I had not slept. I feel crazy, but I’m still me, so don’t get too comfortable. [Laughs] How the hell am I supposed to take a nap, have you forgotten who you’re talking to? But she comes to that later and after her nap you see that she’s starting to see Alex and they’re starting to see each other for people not just the spaces that they take up.
When she comes back from her nap she was like, I died a little bit and that was amazing. In being given some grace from Alex, she was allowed to access her own humanity and realized you asked me something last time we saw each other and I was so balled up in my own shit that I couldn’t even recognize the why that you were asking. And aren’t we that way sometimes? We’re so caught up in our own stuff that somebody much less fortunate than we are asks us for some leftovers or a dollar on the street and we’re like aw no I don’t have it whatever. It’s very easy to get caught up in your own place and not realize even balled up in your most devastating pain, somebody is hurting more than you are. Or somebody is hurting differently than you are. You have the ability to alleviate that in some small way, if you could look past where you are in that moment.
Awards Daily: I loved the scene when you came back from the holiday party and you just skipped right over the extended liberties Alex took with your home – drinking your wine and wearing your expensive sweater.
Anika Noni Rose: I mean, couldn’t have cared less. Do you want some more wine since you’re here and clearly you’re already drinking out of my bottle? [Laughs] Which I think is hilarious, because on another day she would have lit the whole house on fire with rage. I think every scene that Regina is in, her status has shifted in some way or another. Her status within her home, her status within life, how she sees Alex changes scene by scene. You get to see her really shift and that Thanksgiving scene is real. There’s nothing left.There’s no covering, there’s nothing here but pain and hurt and I have to speak. I have to speak, this is something that I would never tell anybody but you’re here and you shouldn’t be here, but since you’re here we’re gonna talk about it today because I’m dying inside.
Awards Daily: You and Margaret Qualley develop an uneasy chemistry that I think is very hard to get right. You both played off of each other wonderfully. How did you develop that vibe together?
Anika Noni Rose: She and I actually got along really well. What we didn’t do was spend a lot of time together. She’s in every episode, I’m in seven, and the shooting was all spaced out. I never knew when I was going to be called or supposed to be there and what was going to happen. But I think that what we had is a real trust with each other and an ease with each other. I could be my most frigid self and Margaret was able to be open to feeling it and listening to it and taking it in and letting it bounce or letting it permeate. It’s so interesting too because we’re about six inches apart in height, I think she’s probably about 5’8” I’m 5’2 ½”. There were times like that scene where we’re out on that dock, and the dog has been stolen and she’s giving it back to me, and she’s found herself a little bit, and found some strength and she’s not going to take this from me, and I’m like “Well, I don’t know who you think you are”. But I’m 5’2”. So the whole time we’re doing that she’s looking down on me, but I’m looking down on her. You know what I mean? And it’s a very interesting space to take up. I don’t know what to say to that except that I think that we both were very respectful of hearing what the other person was saying.
Awards Daily: In the scenes that you and Margaret share – particularly during the Thanksgiving scene – I love that you and her are shown listening to each other. So often, the camera focuses only on the person who is speaking, but both of you were shown listening. Which is the key to their relationship. The fact that they really hear each other.
Anika Noni Rose: I’m so grateful to Nzingha for that.So many directors would not have given us the space to just sit there and talk. And let the air be there and let the air live. Let the breath live. And Nzingha did that. I was so grateful that we weren’t like Ok now let’s do another take from this angle, let’s do this, let’s do that. No. There was a stillness and an immediacy about it that I felt was palpable, and that only comes when somebody really trusts their actors. Anytime I’m in that type of circumstance I’m really grateful because I feel like the spark that needed to be there, the magic that needed to be there could have only lived in that circumstance. If it had been a situation where we had been reset and done a different angle: “Let’s pick up a different lens, let’s do this, let’s do that,” there’s something you lose sometimes. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes you’re like “Oh god, and then the camera did this.
It was amazing because we could really see her pupil dilate.” You know what I mean? [Laughs] But sometimes life just needs to be lived and we as the viewer need to be given the space to see it happen. And I feel like that’s what we were given with those decisions. I would not have wanted to do that monologue three or four times for the art of an angle. I think that Margaret and I – there was something very magnetic between us – that I remember clearly feeling. Sometimes I don’t watch scenes back, because it’s stressful, My reps were like if you only watch one episode, you must watch this episode. I was like okay, I will watch it, but I was like I was there and it felt cool and I just want to leave it alone. But watching it, I found a sense of real gratitude to the writers for understanding the space they were writing in, and to be working with an actor opposite me who wasn’t trying to make something about herself, even though the whole show was about her, and, to be with a director who understood a need to allow art to happen.
Awards Daily: Even though you knew you were doing good work, the overall success of Maid had to be surprising. This isn’t a show that looks…easy.
Anika Noni Rose: Surprise is a nice word. I would say “shock.” [Laughs] I really don’t think any of us thought that we were going to be nestled up under Squid Game. It was stunning. I think I can say that honestly, none of us, not while we were shooting, not when we were done, that we expected this. We were doing something small and sort of indie. And then it turned into a phenomenon. And you know what that does? That goes to show you where we are as a society. How many people felt like they were being spoken to? How many people have had the experience of need and hurt and pain, and how many people have been suffering and see themselves in that space? We have so much work we need to do as a country, as a people, but I’ve gotten messages from people all around the world – people saying I’ve never seen this type of look at poverty in the United States in this way. There’s work to be done. There’s work to be done.
Awards Daily: I watched Maid with my wife, and while watching the show, she asked, “who is that?” And, I don’t think she meant just “who is that actor,” I also think she was saying, “I haven’t seen that character before.
Anika Noni Rose: I think that both sides of her statement, and what she could have meant by it, both of those meanings are great compliments. An actor always wants you to be like “Who is that? I don’t recognize that person.” I’m very grateful for that and I thank her for that. I hope to be able to do work that makes people pause for a moment, that makes people think for a moment. You know it’s a gift when you’re able to do that – when you’ve gotten that type of material. But also the stars aligned and it was a time for you to be in that space. So, I hope to be able to do those types of things, I had no idea that this was going to be received in that manner, that this was what it was going to be. It doesn’t always happen. I thought No. 1 Ladies, that was something that was so special and another “who would have thought?” And the gift of creation and creativity with Anthony Minghella.
I really miss comedy. I was really glad to be able to touch on it a little bit in Maid, which is where you would least expect it. I’m thankful for all the artists that I got an opportunity to work with on Maid, all the writers who put their personal sweat and tears into the storyline and gave it an honesty and a directness that maybe we might not have seen without those particular people behind the pen. I am still shocked, but very happy, that this is how it’s been received, because i feel like perhaps people will be more aware of many things that they weren’t thinking about because it wasn’t their reality, or perhaps people for whom this is their reality will be aware that there is a way to get out of it. Hopefully it will broaden people’s minds when they think about casting – what they think they can and cannot do.
Maid is currently streaming on Netflix.