You may not know her name, but if you are a fan of network and cable episodics, chances are you know her face. She’s been steadily working since she landed the recurring role of Annie Price on the Shield in 2004. This past television season she was probably all over you DVR delivering memorable performances on Law and Order SUV as a transsexual teacher, on Hawthorne as the hilarious and heartbreaking homeless woman Isabel, or True Blood as the con artist Miss Jeannette among others. This season she debuts as Lt Maureen Mason on the well reviewed and highly publicized Detroit 1-8-7 on ABC, where she’s found her home as a series regular. In between takes of the TNT show Hawthorne, we caught up with the bubbly actress over the summer to discuss the craft, the business, the hair, and the life in LaLa land.
On emotional scenes
Aisha: I’ve yet to crack the code on emotional scenes. I think the emotional scenes that probably work better for me are the ones where it’s more of a full scene and it’s not so much like 0 to 60. The more you rehearse it, the easier it is. But sometimes it’s tricky because like the more you rehearse it the more you become immune to the material and the circumstances. It’s a tricky thing. As far as emotion goes, I’ve always been taught to not try to achieve the emotion, but to try to fight against it. But sometimes in fighting against it, it doesn’t work. Cause you fight against it so well that it disappears. (She laughs.) I try to just understand the circumstances and bring the character to life and hopefully it will do what it’s supposed to do when it’s supposed to do it.
On her technique
Most techniques are saying the same thing but using different vocabulary which is why I don’t subscribe necessarily to one or the other. But I think intrinsically maybe having learned so many things it’s almost like exercise. Your muscle is trained to do certain things at certain times. Your muscle is not necessarily announcing and now I’m going to flex. It just sort of does what it does after having trained in all of these different areas.
On being bitten by the acting bug
It was a series of three things for me and I noticed it retrospectively. The first was my father took my family to see the movie Gandhi and it resonated with me in a way that not much had at that point in my life. That was the first time I was exposed to the medium of film. And I still hadn’t made the connection that these people inside the screen were not actually these people. And you couldn’t tell me that Ben Kingsley wasn’t Gandhi. It made me have so much reverence for the craft of storytelling.
And the second: my mom had taken me to see Sarafina! on Broadway. That’s where I began to see my peers, people in my age group doing something that could have an impact on me. And so I knew that I wanted to have that kind of impact amongst my own peers.
Third, I used to take tap dance after school in junior high school. And my tap dance instructor said I was quite disruptive. And she was like, “You need an outlet. You need a medium that’s a little bit louder than those tap shoes.” So she pointed me in the direction of a high school. Laguardia High School of the Performing Arts. And it just sorta took off from there.
On her first big break
I was working at the Argyle Hotel now the Sunset Tower hotel. And it definitely wasn’t as trendy as it is now. I was working there and a woman came in to have her birthday party. We ended up connecting. The day of her party comes. And her best friend comes to the desk. And her friend said, “Are you an actress?” And I said un-huh. And I always heard of people being discovered in particular places, but I never thought that would be the route for me. And it definitely solidified the mantra that I say for everyone who comes out here. Is that everybody’s journey is completely absolutely individually different.
Turns out she’s with the casting director for THE SHIELD. She called me in the next day and she damn near lobbied for me. And I auditioned for the role. And I ended up booking a recurring role for the third season of The Shield. Before that I really hadn’t done much. The Shield is really what turned the wheel on the car for me and pointed me in another direction.
On an even bigger break
I did a film called Assault on Precinct 13. It was my first major film and it was with Laurence Fishburne, Ethan Hawke, Brian Dennehy, Drea De matteo. And here I was no name, no body, no nothing. And I showed up and I remember the first day seeing Laurence Fishburne. And I remember feeling so nervous. Like I was physically shaking and I reached out to shake his hand like I had been there before and I knew what to do. And he reached out and gave me the biggest hug and made me feel like I belonged there. And that’s really when I had that defining moment. Like I am an actor and I belong here and that film was actually what pulled me out of having to have a survival job. I left the Argyle at that point and I’ve been working as an actor ever since.
On hitting before she thought she would
The irony of it was that I had set my mind on a five year window. I had come from a football school and I put myself on a football schedule. I thought ok I’ll be redshirted the first year and for the next four years I’ll figure out what to do. And hopefully by the fifth year I’m out here I’ll be drafted which I equated to having gotten an agent and maybe somebody would call me in for an audition. I thought it would take me five years at least to even scratch that surface. Based on the stories I’d heard. So I didn’t expect for it to transpire the way that it did but I just walked through the doors that were opening for me. I showed up. And I strongly believe that this is what God’s purpose is for my life and he sent me here at a specific time and he designed the time for me to come.
On her hairstory
For as long as I’ve known I’ve definitely been defined by my hair. Whether it’s the hair I rock now or the hair that I used to rock. It went through variations. Never had a jheri curl. But I’ve definitely tried to create one with a perm. (She laughs) I would wait until it was right at that border line of needing to be permed and I would wet it and gel it. And I used to think that it was gonna curl. But no such luck. It would just dry into a nasty crusty ball of dry crustiness.
On being defined by hair
I saw Whoopi Goldberg on Broadway in her one woman show and she put that white shirt on her head and was talking about this is my long luxurious long hair. And I immediately identified. There’s something about having enough hair to sway back in forth. So that was my goal in life to have some sway hair. And I either felt beautiful or not beautiful depending on what my hair looked like. It spoke to what I put on for the day, how I walked. How I functioned in class. I never realized that it had such an impact on me until I looked back retrospectively. And as I started to cut my hair shorter at different stages of my life I started to realize that I was disconnecting from the hold that it had on me.
On the big chop that changed her career
I knew I was moving to LA and I thought that the look was long flowing hair. So I began to grow my hair out to about shoulder length. I was going to the Dominicans in Brooklyn getting a wash and set every other week. Came to LA and the wash and set was not 15 dollars. And I didn’t have a job. It was way too expensive to maintain that hair and that look.
I always wanted to cut my hair. But I wanted some big event in my life to happen so I could say this was the day that I cut my hair. But nothing was happening. On this particular day that I cut my hair a girlfriend of mine was going through something and she was always begging me to cut my hair and I just wanted her to feel good that day. So I was like you know what, I’m gonna take her to the barber shop with me today and were gonna cut my hair.
The minute I cut it all off, I saw me. I could see my face, my eyes. I saw me outside of my hair. And I was no longer defined by what was up there. I was defined by who I was. And so I was now defining it. I booked my first job NYPD blue with no hair. After that the doors of opportunity just flung open.
On the pressure to conform:
My agents never put that pressure on me and the jobs that I’ve had have always embraced what I bring into the room. I think it’s a mythical voice that makes you feel like you are supposed to look a certain kind of way. I think if that pressure comes its only an internal pressure that comes because we are inundated with a certain kind of image; so you feel like you are supposed to look that way because obviously this is what they employ. Which is why I think it’s so important for me to show a difference, a variation.
On bringing sexy back:
I did a pilot where I played a street worker; not a hoe but a street worker. (She laughs) And she was like the Bonnie to the Clyde on the show. And I got to be sexy. But I have to create my own venues to be seen in that way. I did that film Love Aquarium and Karaamu (the film’s director) wanted to highlight me in that kind of way and I wanted to be highlighted in that way. Because we knew people would default, because of the aesthetic, to making me kind of androgynous and not necessarily the Va Va Voom or the love interest. I think sometimes it’s still challenging for people to see me as sexy. But outside of this, (referring to her homeless woman costume) all day, everyday, I’m dripping sexy. Dripping sexy. (She laughs.)
On Dating Actors:
The actor that I dated was super engrossed in himself and I’m just by nature a little bit more to the humble side so I’d rather date an actor who was a little bit more to that side.
But what I love about dating actors is that they already have an understanding of the business. They understand the places that you have to go emotionally and they understand you might not want to talk for a couple of hours when you get home. They just get it. But the good thing about dating non actors is that they could care less about this world.
On the best of LA:
The mountains, the weather, the aesthetic. I love that I can drive up and down the coast. I can have a staycation in LA. Go up to wine country or Tahoe. California just offers a different kind of inspiration than NY.
On the worst of LA:
Most people have an agenda here. You have to peel away at the layers of their agenda until you get to the core of this person. What they love about life. What they believe in. People are presenting themselves here. And I’m just like, I open my heart on day one. And after so long I’m like, um, can I have my heart back? Thanks.
LA or NY?
My New York people would kill me. New York.
On what’s next:
I just hope for more resonating, meaningful enlightening stories for me to tell. I’m trying to carve my own way. Hear my own voice. Listen to my own impulses. And hopefully it will be the strongest choice I can make.
Catch Aisha this season on Detroit 1-8-7. Watch the pilot now on abc.com. New episodes air Tuesdays at 10/9 central on ABC.