‘Dear White People’ Star Antoinette Robertson on Turning Your Audition on Its Head—and Killing It

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Photo Source: Illustration: Nathan Arizona/Photo: Dfree/shutterstock.com

Antoinette Robertson has recently discovered she’s a day planner person. Something about putting pen to paper—and sometimes a sticker—when it comes to calls and events helps her organize her days. For auditions, though, Robertson commits to digital calendar all the way. Ambitious Coco, Robertson’s character on Netflix’s “Dear White People,” which returns for Season 2 this spring, is also the type to use a day planner. An Ivy League student who initially serves as a foil to activist Sam, Coco deals with the struggle of identity and beauty. Robertson, who originally went to college for chemistry, draws from a singular perspective—how pain has shaped us—when approaching Coco: “We’re all one thing before something wounds us,” she says.

What have you learned from playing Coco?
Playing Coco has taught me about how I approach how the world views me and how I view myself. When you realize those are completely different things and you stop trying to cater to what the world wants from you and you start being true to yourself, that’s when you start growing and evolving. I’ve had those moments when I modeled. People always wanted my hair straight, and I made a decision that I wanted to wear my hair natural. I’ve had moments in my life where I needed to assert myself and stand in my power, and that’s definitely what I’ve brought to Coco. I can see the vulnerable young girl who wants to be accepted, but then I also see that woman who’s evolving into what she wants to be. Growth is a lifelong process, so [I see] that evolution, from someone seeking validation to no longer wanting that validation, knowing she can validate herself.

How do you find the right amount of vulnerability to play a character who’s incredibly ambitious but also dealing with the struggle of how she fits within the world?
The mindset is, what happens when some women have to create an outer shell to protect themselves? What happens when that veneer slowly falls apart? Do we see the cracks and the crevices? Do we see the vulnerability seeping out? I wanted to approach it from the standpoint that women can be both ambitious and assertive and that does not equate to them being a bitch. In a world that tries to tell women what to do, be, say, act, wear, having a woman who is competent in her abilities and assertive in what she wants to pursue in life, coupled with the fact that she’s human and she’s experiencing things that may or may not hurt her, it doesn’t make her weak to show her vulnerability. Vulnerability is a source of strength, in my opinion. Having those elements makes her more multidimensional.

How much of an impact did beauty and people’s perceptions of what is beautiful play into how you approached Coco?
We live in a world where, at least now, I don’t necessarily see every type of woman represented on magazine covers. Having that representation, to see that: “Wait, I look just like her, I can accomplish what she has,” is very important. Especially for young women of color, understanding that we live in a world that caters to a Eurocentric idea of beauty. The essence of who you are is of the utmost importance, because young women need to know who they are in this moment is enough.

What advice would you give your younger self?
I wish I knew that I wanted to be an actress! [Laughs] It would’ve saved me a degree in chemistry. But also, understanding that, as artists, our art should be used to inform and inspire people—at least, that’s what I seek to achieve. If I can contribute something to the artistry as a whole, like representing women of color and giving them positive depictions in the media, I’m doing my part.

What I would tell any young actor is: Hearing “no” doesn’t mean “never.” The only things you can do are to constantly pursue growth as an artist and make sure you’re prepared to walk in the room. You could’ve killed the audition. It’s not always the person with the best audition who gets the job. There are so many different things that come into play. I wish I would’ve known I was enough. You don’t need to walk into a room and get people to like you. When you go about seeking validation from other people and you don’t get it from them, does that mean your well is empty? Perfection is the death of artistry; there are so many beautiful things that can be found in the imperfections of life. If you’re looking for something to be perfect, you might actually miss out on something beautiful.

How do you typically prepare for auditions?
I write notes about all of the relationships that I see present: someone’s opinion of my character, as well as things my character says that inform me about her thoughts on life, love, her parents. Then I work on it the exact opposite way. I go toward my instincts, of course, but to add nuance to a performance, you may need to explore things outside of the box. After going over it a million different times, I try not to run it out loud too many times because I don’t want to get caught in a robotic way of saying things. I want to understand how my character feels about everything and everyone in that script, what my instinctual response was, and how I felt when I turned it on its head.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned that you auditioned for Coco one way and they asked you to do it the opposite way.
You have one idea about something and sometimes people get stuck on that one idea. If they tell you to do it a completely different way, you should’ve explored it a couple different ways. I explored Coco so [much], I had the words memorized, but I also wanted to give myself the freedom to play the moment. That’s where my magic is, living in that moment, really taking the person I’m speaking to in and not just performing the things I learned in my living room. I don’t think that serves anyone to do things like that.

What is your worst audition story?
They wanted us to be on the phone for an audition. This was an alarm situation. I had an app where I’d recorded my voice reminding me to get my ass up. I’m in the middle of the audition, and I’m supposed to be talking about the death of one of the other characters and I hear the recording on my phone saying, “Get your ass up!” [Laughs] I didn’t know how to explain it. I burst out laughing in the middle of the audition and the whole room did, too. I ended up getting the role, which is hilarious.

What special skills do you have on your résumé?
I pride myself on being really good at accents: South African—I’m Jamaican, so that one happens a lot—British, cockney, Russian, or Ukrainian. I’m presently working on a Pittsburgh kind of an accent [where], for whatever reason, I couldn’t understand how people’s mouths were moving. If I knew someone who could speak with that accent that I could mimic, that would be better. That’s the one that made me really annoyed. I will not be defeated by that Pittsburgh accent!

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