For those of you familiar with “@DatingZoe”, you probably know Alina Carson as Maggie — the sweet, sincere “date” the titular character rejects for being too young — and for still being in a relationship with her ex. But for her mom, Carson hit the big time when a photoshoot she’d been in landed on Vogue’s website.
“She was like, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ and I was like, ‘For that?’ By then, I had been doing all these cool, interesting indie projects,” Carson says. “And it was this random shoot I did for, like, Beyoncé, that she ended up being super proud of.” (In her mom’s defense, sharing Vogue with Beyoncé is pretty cool.)
When last on GO, Carson appeared as part of our LGBTQ+ Representations: Film and TV Pride virtual panel discussion. I caught up with the actor, model, and “Hamilton” fan one-on-one to talk more about her views on acting, representation, and landing the dream role.
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Carson first got into acting after seeing a production of “The Lion King” with her aunt and mentor, Lisa Carson, who played Renee Raddick on Fox’s hit series, “Ally McBeal.” After seeing the play with her aunt, Carson began doing theater in her native Baltimore. Her first show, a production of Langston Hughes’s “Little Ham,” left an impression on her. “It was so representative,” she says. “It was so honest. And I think it said a lot of things that I wasn’t able to articulate at that time. And it just sold me. I loved it.”
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Carson has continued theater work with the Harlem Repertory Theater in their 2019-20 season. She’s also branched into television and TV, landing roles in “@DatingZoe” and in director Jess Dunn’s series “Gray Ground.” But it was the role of Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” which Carson played with the Harlem Repertory, that really spoke to her.
“That character is arguably the coolest character ever written,” she says. “She’s going throughout this sort of awakening throughout the whole process of the show, she’s just super cool. I related to the character so much that I just felt like I was me on stage every night.”
When I ask what about the character she relates with, Carson points to Beneatha’s quest to express herself, which takes the form of her “flitting” between various activities like theater groups and horseback riding — a quest which the other members of the Younger family don’t fully understand. “It’s generational, they can’t quite understand where she’s at, or what she’s trying to express because their problems are different,” Carson says. It’s a position Carson is familiar with; aside from her aunt Lisa, for her own family acting was a hard sell. “I’ve often had that sort of feeling where it’s like no one quite understands why I drove all the way to New York, why I chose this life for myself instead of a more conventional sort of life.”
Finding that the best way to express herself has been part of Carson’s learning process as a performer, and as she’s gained more experience, she’s also become more emboldened in her work, especially her more recent projects. But she’s also aware that actors and models are too often presumed to be seen-but-not-heard, and that speaking out, especially against someone with more power, could be costly even in the #MeToo era. And while she admires the people who can speak out, her own approach to affecting change is to listen, observe, and understand her environment — noting, for example, which directors tell inappropriate jokes, have the biggest egos, or waylay productions for petty fixations. Getting the word out to others in her acting community gives other actors and creatives the heads up and, in some cases, may lead to bigger change. One particular director, Carson tells me, whose off-color humor had made life on the set untenable, doesn’t seem to be getting much work lately. Although “that could be because he wasn’t very good,” she jokes.
Not that being non-confrontational means she doesn’t have opinions. Taking the time to observe and learn her environment gives her insight into how others see her, or how those in power might underestimate visible creatives like actors and models. “I feel like my existence is political,” she tells me. “I’m a Black woman — queer. I have opinions. I have thoughts. I feel very strongly about a lot of things, and I don’t seem like it because I’m very light-hearted. And sometimes they feel when I get to set, and I’m bouncing around with my curls and my dimples, I don’t care about anything that’s going on. They’ll start complaining about Black Lives Matter or things they think I don’t care about, but I’m on the streets, I’m protesting.”
Other actors and models she knows have often experienced this same type of insensitivity from those on set. “They just don’t see you as any sort of intellectual. And they talk kind of spicy.”
Such assumptions underscore our need for more and greater representation, both on-set and on-screen. The assumption that Black women are strong, although positive in some ways, may also mean that a Black actor won’t be considered for a role that involves more vulnerability. In this regard, Carson has been more fortunate, she says, landing a range of roles that go beyond the traditional typecast. Her role in “@DatingZoe,” for example, didn’t revolve around her race or orientation, but rather the sweet, whimsical side of her character.
What she would like to see more of is diverse roles for transgender persons beyond the traditional archetype and more opportunities for darker-skinned actors. “Lupita Nyong’o is not enough,” she says. “There’s so many very talented girls. I’m in a working group with a lot of other black actresses. They are so talented but sometimes they don’t even get considered for certain roles because, again, they’re ‘sassy,’ or ‘tough,’ or ‘badass,’ which are all great things, but they might not fit to read for a role that’s ‘sensitive’ or ‘sweet’ or ‘unintimidating.’”
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“So I’d like to see more darker-skinned black women, to be honest. And just honest stories. I don’t necessarily want to force representation. The stories will come; you have to listen.”
For her own “ideal” role, Carson isn’t as certain. “I don’t know. I haven’t read the script yet. I’m really curious to know!” Ideally, the role would be multifaceted, but beyond that, words are elusive. “It’s one of those things where I’ll know it when I see it. Preferably, something with stage combat, because I love stage combat.”
She’s more certain about who she’d like to work with. Actor, writer, and producer Lena Waithe is on the list, as is Maya Cozier, who has just made her directorial debut with the short film, “She Paradise” (the film is set to premiere at the now-postponed Tribeca festival). As for current projects, Carson stars on the scripted Instagram series, “Besties: The Ultra Mini-Series,” about a Brooklyn woman who is trying to have her first one-night stand. The series, she says, is “very light-hearted, very cute. Super diverse.”
With her dream role still out there, and with so much talent to work with, it doesn’t sound like Carson will be fulfilling her mother’s dream of a conventional life anytime soon. She hasn’t yet found the perfect way to express herself.
“There’s something in me that I really need to say,” she says. “And I’m just going to keep working until I say it.”