Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: “Formidable” is often used to describe Gina Torres’ onscreen presence, whether she’s playing the unflappable second-in-command on a ramshackle spaceship on Firefly, a midriff-baring Sumerian princess on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, or a high-powered lawyer intent on making the most of her second chance on Pearson. And the statuesque actor, whose genre-laden career now spans three decades, certainly emanates competence and poise, making her look like every bit the natural-born leader. But a closer inspection of the DNA of a Gina Torres character reveals as much warmth and vulnerability as poise and prowess—it’s not for nothing that Firefly’s Zoë and Wash are one of the most beloved TV couples in the ’verse.
Still, Torres, who almost singlehandedly expanded the Suits universe with the (ultimately short-lived) spin-off Pearson, shows an undeniable resilience. Even as she garnered little traction in more mainstream stories, the Manhattan native embraced genre shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, Cleopatra 2525, and Westworld—and these shows embraced her right back, providing her with a huge sandbox to play in as an actor. When The A.V. Club spoke to Torres in late January ahead of her debut as Tommy Vega on 9-1-1: Lone Star, the actor discussed that mutually beneficial relationship with genre storytelling, avoiding the “supportive wife” roles, and why it’s a great time to rediscover Cleopatra 2525.
The A.V. Club: You’ve joined the Lone Star team as Tommy Vega. What made this the right role for you, following the creation of your own show with Pearson?
Gina Torres: It feels like a continuation of what I wanted to achieve with Pearson. After being this one character, after embodying Jessica Pearson for six-odd years, I never felt like we really got to know her, the entirety of her, which is what inspired the spinoff, Pearson. It was just such an opportunity to really meet her for the first time in some ways, and understand what makes her tick and the “why” of who this woman is.
Coming into Lone Star, I didn’t have to do the heavy lifting in terms of asking for more. She was already presented as this full human being with issues and doubts, and a beautiful skill set, being a badass. And I get to portray a frontline worker during a time that we certainly never saw coming. It just put a finer point on why I do what I do, the love of being able to bring actual human beings into the light, and to have a spotlight put on their lives as a way of understanding ourselves and each other. That’s what Tommy Vega brings to me, as a character, to be able to do that.
AVC: This is also one of the few shows right now that can lean into this new normal of masks and social distancing. What has it been like to film with all these new restrictions in the current reality?
GT: At the beginning, it could be a little overwhelming. You learn very quickly that even in this land of fantasy, you cannot get away from reality. It is very much a part of our everyday lives and it’s part of our work lives. There’s even a finer point put on it because we are portraying frontline workers—we owe it to them and we owe it to the reality that they are suffering through, to be as honest and careful as possible. Aside from that, once you wrap your brain around all the new protocols—and we do; the cast and crew as a whole have embraced the restrictions because A, we want to work. B, we love what we do, and if this is what we have to do to get that done and keep everybody safe, then that’s what we’ll do, it’s just that simple.
AVC: Soap operas can absolutely offer lifelong career opportunities, for actors like Susan Lucci, for example. But they also act as a training ground for many actors. Did it feel like that kind of experience for you?
GT: Yeah, I think it was really my first on-camera experience. I’m really sad that soap operas have gone the way that they have, that they’ve all but disappeared. I think maybe there are two or three on the air now. It was a tremendous opportunity to learn camera craft and blocking and all of those things—discipline, too. Because when you consider the fact that they would shoot that one hour in a day, where on weekly or nighttime television, it takes seven to 10 days to shoot an hour of television. So if you’re an actor on a frontrunner’s story line, you’re learning all of those pages every night, and you’re shooting every day. I just remember being this tertiary character in a frontrunner’s story line, and I think I worked that whole week. The first day I was good, the second day I was good, the third day I was a little nervous, and by the time the fourth day came, I was just behind. I was exhausted, and I didn’t know if I could keep up. And then by the grace of God I got through Friday. But it’s quite a grind, and hats off to actors who have done it and have done it well for years.
AVC: Your time on One Life To Live overlapped with Nathan Fillion’s run on the show. Did you guys get to work together at all?
GT: No, the funny thing about One Life To Live is that I was on that show twice as different characters. I think the first time was pre-Nathan, where I was a nurse with a past. And then the second time, I think I was a wellness instructor that worked in the hospital part-time. We did quite literally cross paths, because during the second time I worked on One Life To Live, there was a big Fourth Of July picnic scene, which they often do, where every character on the show comes in and out. We did cross paths during that scene. And I remembered he absolutely caught my attention as someone who is gregarious and comes to laughter easily and is just happy to be there. Then we met later, and I’m sure we’ll get to that, but yeah, One Life To Live.
Xena: Warrior Princess (1997)—“Cleopatra”
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1997-1999—“Nebula/Beth Hymson”
AVC: Your appearances on Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys marked the start of your considerable work on genre shows. What about those experiences sticks out the most?
GT: I remember it being fantastical. Being flown to New Zealand, a place I had never thought of, much less thought of spending a whole lot of time in. On the other side of the world, far off into the International Dateline, and having fun. Once they fit you and you’re in these costumes and you’re playing with demigods and these wonderful, wonderful characters, I just thought, “Oh yes! I do play pretend for a living.” [Laughs.]
The other side of that, of course, aside from having a great deal, is your actor brain. It’s like, am I going to survive this? Because back then, genre television could be a bit of a death trap for an actor. Are you going to be pigeonholed; is anybody going to take you seriously after running around in peekaboo leather pants and a brass bra? Is anybody going to be able to see past this? It’s dueling realities: You’re so grateful to be working, you’re so grateful that you’re having a good time, that you’re getting to see the world, but then you’re going, “Is this it?”
AVC: As someone who’s followed your work for a while, and loves seeing Latinas in sci-fi and fantasy, it’s been great to watch you embrace genre shows.
GT: Early on in my career, I was very, very blessed that genre shows embraced me, because mainstream was not having me at all. [Laughs.] A little bit here and there, but for the most part, it was genre where I found a home. It was genre where I found exposure, it was genre where I got to hone my skills and get better. It was where I got to play royalty, and not worry about fitting into a certain mold that a young actress would have to fit into—playing the girlfriend or the supportive wife. The one standing next to the main character, whoever that is.
AVC: You have really made the most of these opportunities, too. Your work on Xena and Hercules led to you starring in Cleopatra 2525, which is a show on the verge of being rediscovered, especially now that everyone is on the hunt for hidden gems.
GT: Now that I have distance from it, quite a bit of distance, I have to say it is obsession-worthy! It was a lot of fun. They really did swing for the fences, as far as genre shows go.
I think you’re right, so many things are being rediscovered because networks and studios are going into their vaults and saying, “What can we put on our streaming service?” And Cleopatra 2525 may or may not come up, but it was a pleasant surprise, and it was incredibly flattering to have Rob [Tapert] say, “Hey, listen, I want you to come onto this show.”
AVC: And you won an ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) award for your work on the show.
GT: Another big surprise—that’s not usually a show anybody gets awarded for. And to get an ALMA award from my people was great. That was a great celebration; that was a great night.
Firefly (2002-2003) / Serenity (2005)—Zoë Washburn
AVC: Firefly is a show that has been endlessly pored over since it was canceled. In all of that discussion, what do you think people might still generally overlook about the show, or what is something about you wish people talked about more?
GT: It’s been so picked apart and analyzed over the last 20 years. They haven’t missed a thing. Lovers of the show are absolute lovers of the show, and they love the show because they get it. They get that we were a family—not just the characters, but also the actors. They love the relationships because it didn’t matter that we were in a spaceship, those were relationships that everybody could relate to. Zoë and Wash being such a beloved married couple, that’s something that I always loved; their relationship drew me from the start. It’s something I continue to go back to, because we all need connection, we all need community. Firefly is such a beautiful example of what that means, in good times and in bad times. The struggles, the fact that human beings are very different and you have to figure out a way to live together… that coupled with being able to connect on an intimate level, I think is just incredibly important, and serves as a mirror to our own humanity.
AVC: You’ve said in interviews that you haven’t often been considered for romantic lead roles, which has always boggled my mind because, as you pointed out, Zoë and Wash are very much in love. You lent Zoë so much warmth and charm. She’s a badass but she’s also this very layered character.
GT: Very much so, and I loved playing that and I loved layering all of that into her. She’s great at being scary, but those who know her best love her. And that’s true for a reason.
AVC: You describe genre shows as embracing you, but it really is this mutually beneficial relationship. We see that in your role on as Jasmine on Angel. You were the Big Bad that season, this world-ending threat. What went through your mind when you first learned that you’d be the antagonist?
GT: It’s fun being the bad guy; I couldn’t wait. And it came right after Firefly was canceled. Joss [Whedon] was kind of like, “Hey, I want to give you this, ’cause the other thing didn’t work out. And you only got to wear one costume on Firefly so now you get to wear dresses and look really pretty, And while you’re doing that you’ll also be eating souls.” So, okay! Let’s go for it, why not? Playing villains is so much fun, and then to be able to do it in that context—who else gets to do that? Really? Come on now. I understand—the mainstream stuff is fun, it’s good and it’s interesting. But when you talk about the stuff that we get to do in genre, it really is the nth degree of the playground. You’re in the sandbox and you’re making castles, and you’re making them high and as big as you can, and with as much sand as you can, and that’s what it feels like. You’re just a kid again.
AVC: We’ve talked different genre productions you’ve been a part of, but Justice League Unlimited was your first proper superhero project. Did that whet your appetite for more shows or roles in that vein?
GT: Justice League actually whet my appetite for more voiceover work. That was a lot of fun. I’ve happily been able to do more of that, as the years have passed along. And sure, in terms of doing live-action superhero stuff, when it first started getting big, it made me want to take that on. Do I wish I had been in Black Panther? 100%. Do I wish I had been in Wonder Woman? Yeah. Every time they threatened to make that movie in the last 20 years, I kept saying “Me! Please? Please me, please!” And none of that’s happened. But listen, I’ve been around long enough to know, never say never.
Alias (2001-2006)—“Anna Espinosa”
AVC: A character of yours that does feels very superhero or comic-book adjacent, at least, is Anna Espinosa from Alias. She’s seen as the inverse of Sydney Bristow, somebody who is just as highly trained, but with her moral compass set to a different direction.
GT: I would sometimes joke that I was her Catwoman—just coming around to slap you around a little bit, playing cat and mouse. But I was always the cat. Then as the series went on, Sydney got better—she got really good and we had to say goodbye to Anna. But that was such a fun job, and Jennifer [Garner] was such a doll and so much fun to work with. Again, I was just giddy at the kind of things that I got to do. Another supervillain with no remorse, no regret.
AVC: You like doing your own stuntwork, and this must have provided a ton of opportunities.
GT: Yeah. I think by the time I had started doing Alias, I had been doing my own stunts for five years. Just loved it. You want to get in there—you don’t want to just pop up on the screen pretending that you’re out of breath. You want to earn it, so we did.
I Think I Love My Wife (2007)—“Brenda Cooper”
AVC: This was the first time you played someone who was primarily in the supportive partner role that we discussed earlier. What was that experience like for you?
GT: It was interesting, in that I wanted to make her more than just the overbearing wife. Chris [Rock] and I talked about it, because I just felt that there was an opportunity there to not just have her be the shrew, where he’d be justified in going out and finding his happiness. I thought it was really important that we show this is his issue, his problem. As far as relationships and couples, you both realize that you’re putting stuff into the pot that creates estrangement. But this is about what’s going on in his brain. And I didn’t necessarily want to contribute to that in a very cookie-cutter way.
We talked about that, and we talked about the moments that we could earn and the moments that every married couple could recognize, especially when they have kids or they’re working and they’re exhausted and they just keep missing each other. There’s a very specific moment where he comes home and she knows something’s up, and I just wanted it to be quiet. I didn’t want to have it be the explosive, “I’m going to blow up all your shit and make you miserable and how dare you.” I wanted it to be that moment of “What are you doing?” What is he doing?
Huge (2010)—“Dorothy Rand”
AVC: Huge seems to hold a special place for you.
GT: Absolutely. It’s a show that deserved a life. For those who, as teenagers, were on the fringes or the odd people out for whatever reason—they deserve this show. The show starts out with a bunch of kids who have to spend the summer at an overweight camp. But halfway through the first episode, their weight is no longer an issue or the focus. They’re just kids. It’s this microcosm of growing up; these kids who are scared and insecure, who want love and romance, and to be seen and understood. We needed that. We desperately needed that, in a sea of perfect-looking people everywhere you look. It really broke my heart when it didn’t get a chance to find its audience and live.
I got to play a woman who never, in her brain, really stopped being one of them, even though she so-called “countered” the weight thing. She still carries that with her and battles with it. She’s still wondering if she’s worthy of a great many things. That’s a show that I hope people find as well.
Hannibal (2013-2015)—“Bella Crawford”
AVC: When you joined Hannibal, it was your second time working with Bryan Fuller, after Pushing Daisies. What’s it like to collaborate with him?
GT: It’s always a treat. You never quite know what you’re in for. He presented this character of Bella, who’s so beautifully crafted. He told me what he wanted, and having lost a mother to cancer, as well as people dear to me, what was so important to both of us was that she keep her dignity during this battle. I think we were able to accomplish that. In the midst of all of this gore, in the midst of all of this psychological thriller, there was this story of a husband and a wife that was heartbreaking and triumphant at the same time, in this weird way. And I loved it. I loved going into those spaces.
Star Wars: Forces Of Destiny (2017)
Star Wars Rebels (2015-2018)—“Ketsu Onyo”
AVC: How familiar were you with Star Wars when you signed on to play Ketsu?
GT: I’m not a Star Wars fanatic; I’m a fan. I was coming of age when the first three [films], now known as the second three, came out. I remember that, seeing episodes three and four and five and thinking, “Wow, this is amazing, what a ride,” and the characters of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, not to mention Princess Leia. What an incredible universe. A couple of decades went by, and I was onto other things, then one episodes one, two, and three came out. Then it exploded into all of these pieces, these fractured pieces of the story that are all part of the same universe. I found that it’s been really hard to keep up. But I’m thrilled that I’m part of it in some small way.
Suits (2011-2018) / Pearson (2019)—“Jessica Pearson”
AVC: So many of the roles you’ve taken on are just rife with the potential for spin-offs. You’ve made these characters memorable, whether we’re talking about Jasmine on Angel or Anna Espinosa, who very well could have had her own show about being more of an anti-hero, which is something we see a lot of these days. But with Jessica Pearson, this was your first opportunity to make good on that potential. The idea for the Pearson spin-off was your own, correct?
GT: Yes, absolutely. We’ve come full circle on this conversation. It was 100% my idea. You were talking about potential, but to this day, and in some ways even more so, because it’s so hard to recoup money on a lot of these endeavors, they’re always looking for the biggest star they can find. Especially if we’re talking 10, 15 years ago, I just did not meet the requirements of stardom that a lot of studios deemed necessary. And then comes Jessica Pearson, and the popularity of Suits; not just the popularity of that show, but the character that I portrayed. It seemed like a natural progression. The mothership was on its way out, and we knew that fans would be craving a piece of that world to wean themselves off of Suits. And I was more than happy to provide them that, because I had a great idea. I thought we should follow this woman, see what’s next in her evolution. Let’s go on that ride.
Thankfully, the studio and everyone who had a say in it said, “Yeah, let’s do it. That sounds like a really good idea. And if anyone can pull it off, Gina can.” But a lot of that confidence is based on time earned. When I say they said, “If anyone can pull it off, Gina can,” it’s because they had been watching me for the better part of six years, or the 25 years prior to that—my reputation as a professional, as an artist, what I was bringing to the table. I had proven to be a good bet by that time.