EXCLUSIVE: Antoinette Robertson Talks ‘Dear White People,’ Millennial Activism & What’s Next For Coco

EXCLUSIVE: This is Antoinette Robertson’s moment.

Netflix’s acclaimed series Dear White People is certified fresh and Antoinette Robertson’s Colandrea “Coco” Conners is one of the many reasons why the series is so iconic. A girl from the South Side of Chicago who chooses self-preservation as a way of asserting herself, Coco is not easily understood. However, under creator Justin Simien’s direction, Robertson helps Coco blossom into the warrior that we always knew she could be.

The Haves and the Haves Not alum wasn’t always poised to stand in front of the camera. Robertson graduated from college with a degree in chemistry but soon realized that she had an insatiable hunger for acting. As Coco, Robertson is shining for dark skin women, redefining what it means to grasp power and doing things on her own terms.

As we await news on a season two renewal, got the opportunity to speak with Antoinette Robertson about Dear White People, activism and the one skin care product she’s obsessed with.

JET: Hi Antoinette, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Antoinette Robertson: Oh my God, thank you for having me.

JET: I wanted to say that I loved you so much in Dear White People. Coco is my favorite character. Teyonah Parris really outlined who Coco is in the 2014 film, but in the series, you really are able to reveal who she is at her core. What cues, if any, did you take from Teyonah, and how did you decide to make Coco your very own?

AR: I’m always a firm believer that every artist brings themselves to their characters. How beautifully Teyonah portrayed Coco, I could never do that in that capacity because she brought herself to Coco. My thought process about Coco was a little different. I spoke with Justin [Simien] about her core attributes, her thought process, the motivations behind some of her actions. In terms of taking things from her performance, I didn’t, only because I’d watched the movie when it came out three years ago and I haven’t seen it since. I was like, well, if I’m going to book a series, I can’t go in there trying to be the girl who did it before me. I have to do something different. Again, I want to leave my mark on this industry. I’m more interested in people knowing who Antoinette is instead of being a carbon copy of someone else. That’s not fun at all. I saw Coco differently, and they gave me way more material. I brought some of Antoinette to it, more to Colandrea than to Coco, I want to say. I’m closer to Baby Co because I’m a little bit more of a free spirit and giggly. It’s different. I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m not that girl. I kind of look like that girl, but I’m not that girl.

JET: Perfect. How did you get involved with Dear White People? How did you meet Justin and connect and decide this is the role that you wanted to go for at this point in your career?

AR: It is so random how life works and how God works because I was up for another show. I’d been going back and forth with the producers for that show for three weeks; I want to say. I was in the audition, and they gave me something to do. I was like, “I feel like they want me to portray a stereotype.” I was like, “No! This isn’t my job. I don’t want it.” I turned it down. I was depressed for a couple of days. Then Dear White People shows up. I went to the audition with jeans and an oversized shirt. I wasn’t even thinking about it. When Coco happened, they actually gave me the same script as the movie. I was like, “Crap; I don’t remember the tone of it. Should I watch the movie?” My boyfriend was like, “No. Don’t even watch it.” He was like, “If you’re going to get this if it’s going to be you, it has to be completely you. I feel like if you watch it, some of the choices might seep in.” I’m like, “Okay, cool. Let’s do it.” I did it one way, and Justin was like, “What if you did it the complete opposite way?” I did it the complete opposite way, and the whole room died laughing. I’d never thought that I was funny, so I was like, “Holy crap. I might actually be able to do this comedy thing. Let’s see what’s going on with this.” It just felt right from the beginning. The read felt right. I literally walked out of it, and I was like, this is my job.

JET: Were you shocked at all about Coco’s journey as you learned more about her? Were you shocked about where she ends up at the end?

AR: Am I shocked? Was I shocked? No. I feel like if you grow up in circumstances where you feel like you’re powerless, and you see people die in front of you, and you can’t do anything about it but then you realize we’re in a world that caters to people who assimilate, but your thought process is, “This is self-preservation. This is how I’m going to get where I need to get, because if I get to the White House, I can easily be a part of creating lasting change, as opposed to just holding up a picket sign.” You get what I’m saying?

JET: Yes, for sure.

AR: What I didn’t foresee is that cute little moment between her and Sam at the end. That could possibly be a bridge being built.

JET: It’s a white flag.

AR: I don’t know what they’re going to explore next season or not, but it’s nice to leave it open-ended, so we don’t know. It just kind of feels like now there’s something that’s more pressing than us arguing against each other. Now we might need to join forces against something else. That’s what it felt like to me. I think that was a really delightful surprise because it was nice not to be mean to Logan [Browning] again.

JET: Thinking about Coco and Sam’s relationship, what I loved about it is, it’s kind of like when you and your best friend from elementary school grow apart. There are issues of colorism and other things, but it wasn’t this blatant dark skin versus light skin trope that I think we often see. How did you feel about their relationship, and were you surprised at all about their backstory?

AR: Oh yeah, for sure. I was super excited for them to explore their backstories in that capacity so we could understand there’s more than one force at play here. These two women come from two totally different backgrounds. They’re struggling with completely different things. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t love each other. That just meant that they were both fighting for different things and couldn’t understand where the other was coming from. Coco couldn’t understand why Sam would want to be a part of a group of people who tell her ass to get up when she first got there and weren’t trying to be inclusive of her until she started wearing her pompadour and being more Black power. Then, Sam also couldn’t understand why Coco wanted to be a part of a sorority. If the thought process is, “Look, these are the girls that are most powerful on campus. They have Troy wrapped around their finger.” I’m happy that they explored this because life isn’t black and white. There are so many different shades of gray. I feel like as a community; we have to talk about colorism. It’s there. This all happened as a result of slavery. We gotta talk about it before we can heal from it. If you have someone who’s in power, and they put people of one hue in the field and people of one hue in the house, and we know that the people in the house get better treatment; what does that psychologically do to a people for generations to come? Instead of feeling like we are one, there are these divisive tendencies of the world to keep us apart because they know we’re stronger together. Having these conversations centering around colorism, it’s the only way we’re going to start healing. I was so happy that they did that. I just thought it was brilliant.

JET: Coco speaks to me because she chooses the way that she wants to be an activist. She chooses her activism, as you said, through self-preservation. I think that’s so important right now. We’re all trying to determine if we should we be rioting? Should we be picketing? Should we be doing this? Why do you think it’s so important for someone like Coco to be included in the spectrum of Black millennial activists?

AR: Millennial activism is not one thing. I’m happy that they explored that. You can’t throw shade on someone because they don’t want to go and hold up a picket sign. Maybe that person has 100,000 followers, and they want to tweet their way to victory. You don’t know. Maybe that person is an artist and uses their art as a source of their activism, and they want to put on plays that are going to empower and inspire people. Everybody has their own way to be an activist. That’s why it’s so nice that they explored the different shades of that, to have an understanding that we are one people, but we all collectively don’t think the same. We don’t. We all have different ideas of how we’re going to accomplish what it is we want to accomplish. Painting us all with one brush, saying we’re the ones that are literally rioting in the streets, that’s not the case. What matters is that we really are speaking out against injustice.

JET: Definitely. I absolutely agree with you. The hair aspect of Coco’s journey is also extremely important. Did you speak with Justin at all about why he decided to add in a hair moment in the script?

AR: As Black women, how many times have we changed our hair up for a man?

JET: A thousand times.

AR: Let’s talk about it. Having that moment, “I can’t believe I changed my hair for you. First of all, you weren’t even worth it.” It’s nice that you realize that her changing her hair wasn’t about Troy. It took Troy pulling off the wig. As Black women, that is your biggest fear. The world is about to end. You might as well crawl underneath a rock and die at that moment. To have that moment, and then to have a man, the man that’s been the object of your desire for a long time, to see you in your most vulnerable state, to be accepting of you, and to say that you would be all of that and more without these adornments, those things that you thought you needed to get his attention. That is an accumulation of, since freshman year, Coco trying to get this man’s attention. Coco getting that weave originally because she wanted to be the object of desire for him. Thinking about that moment, “Oh my God, I did all of this for you. What am I doing?”

JET: I don’t even like you

AR: “I’m smarter than you!” You’re right. It was the idea of you. It was the idea of feeling that and having someone look at Coco like that, and having them wrapped around her finger because she’s wanted that for so long. The power of having that. She wants a guy of that prestige to be with her. She wants to be on his arm. First of all, he’s gorgeous. Jesus. Okay?

JET: Yes he is.

AR: Add to the fact that he’s intelligent, and he’s Ivy League educated, and he comes from a great background. He has it together. He seems like the “I have it together” guy. Again, that’s his own veneer as well.

JET: Did you expect, or were you even bothered by the backlash that came with the date announcement? This sort of fury across social media attacking the show, attacking Justin, before an episode had even aired.

AR: I was completely unbothered. I was actually tickled by it, to be honest. You had a mixed girl saying, “Hey, don’t wear blackface.” People got mad? In 2017? Somebody says, “Don’t wear blackface,” and y’all get mad? Really? Really. Really. When I had time, I went after some of the racists in the comments, anonymously of course. I was completely unbothered because I know the type of integrity that was put into this project.

JET: What was the set like? I know that you guys actually wrapped filming on Election Day, which is so ironic in a way.

AR: Oh my God. Insane. First and foremost, it was so much fun. It was like summer camp. I absolutely love my cast. They’re so awesome. Dude, forget about the fact that they’re good-looking because people always say that, “You have such a good-looking cast.” I was like; they’re awesome people. We’re all focused on creating really great works of art. I feel like sometimes people just phone it in with their work because they want a check. We’re all in this because we really want to create lasting change in the world first foremost. I’m like, wow, and you’re going to pay me to hang out with my friends? This is awesome. Life couldn’t get any better. It’s an amazing atmosphere. We wrapped on Election Day, which was really difficult because we were doing a Defamation scene, which is the most ridiculous scene. I’m like, “Oh my God, let’s go out and celebrate.” We’re watching the polls, and I was like, “No, he’s not going to win. This has to be click bait. There’s no way.” Everyone’s depressed, and I’m like, “You guys are feeding into the negativity. He’s not going to win.” Then when he won, I was like, “Oh my God, he won.” We all cried. It was nuts. It felt like the American Dream that we were sold was not real. As people of color, you know it’s not, but that solidified it.

JET: Why do you think Dear White People is so important right now?

AR: Racism is still alive and well in this country and in the world, for that matter. We’re still dealing with these issues. Just because the majority doesn’t necessarily feel it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, that minorities need to have their experiences on a platform like Netflix, or on a television show so that the world can see, “Hey, this is still affecting us.” Just because it’s not affecting you does not mean that it no longer exists, number one. To add on to that, I feel like it’s just needed because we just need to start to try to bridge this racial divide. I feel like the only way we’re going to do that is with honesty and compassion. We start to cultivate environments where people feel comfortable speaking out against things that are wrong.

JET: Should Dear White People be green-lit for season two, where do you want to see Coco in the second season?

AR: Where do I want to see Coco? I have no idea. Oh my God. I like this new, not to say I don’t need a man, but I am bad by my D-A-M-N self. I like that version of Coco that’s not just trying to get this man’s attention and keep his attention. I like the version of her that’s like, “I’m smarter than you. I’m going to take over the world, and I’m not going to even remember her name.” I love that. Let’s improve on that. I also like seeing little glimpses of Colandrea. I’m sure they’re probably going to go deeper into backstory, but I just want to see her do what I know she’s going to do, and that’s take over the world. It’s just definitely going to … I know it’s going to be a fun ride. That’s all I know. We’re not going to know for another two weeks.I just want to see her further empowered.

JET: You’re so gorgeous. You have beautiful hair and skin. Do you have any summer must-haves, any products that you gravitate toward?

AR: Oh my God, thank you. I’m obsessed with Black Soap. I am the most unconventional person when it comes to skin, only because I’m very Caribbean. I like to keep as few chemicals on my skin as possible, but I’m obsessed with Black Soap. My skin just loves it. Aloe vera is one of the key components in it. My skin just loves aloe vera. If I feel like the texture of my skin isn’t really smooth, I can put aloe vera on my skin and my skin will just literally be as shiny and soft as a baby’s bottom. It’s so ridiculous, but it’s my favorite thing. I use $2 soap and $200 cream. It’s so ridiculous. It makes no sense.

JET: What’s next for you? I know you said that you are waiting to see if Dear White People get the renewal. Are there any projects that you’re working on in the meantime?

AR: I just finished the 10th episode of my own series. I’m producing my own series.

JET: Oh wow, congratulations!

AR: Thank you so much. I’m so excited. I spoke to one of the execs at the Netflix. I was like, “Just to let you know; I want to do what Michaela Coel is doing.”

JET: Oh my God, I love her.

AR: Have you seen Chewing Gum? Oh, my God. I said that’s what it is. I want to write, and produce. Maybe not direct, but I want to write, produce, and act in my own series, and I want to bring another shade of Blackness to light. I think that’s going to be super duper dope. Now that Dear White People has taken off, I don’t know if I’ll have time to do that because I’m also working on doing films as well. I think that’s going to be tabled until probably after my next hiatus if I’m not doing another film. I’m definitely going to make it a priority of getting it done.

JET: Wonderful. Well, I’ll certainly look out for it. Thank you so much, Antoinette. It was lovely chatting with you today. Congratulations on all of your success. I’m super thrilled about Dear White People.

AR: Oh my God, thank you so much. It was like talking with my girlfriends. It was awesome.

Dear White People is currently streaming on Netflix.

Photo Credit: Riker Brothers