in conversation

Erika Alexander Is American Fiction’s Quiet Storm

The Indie Spirit nominee chats about going toe-to-toe with Jeffrey Wright, her penchant for playing lawyers, and the state of the Black sitcom.
Erika Alexander Is American Fictions Quiet Storm
Ari Michelson

Though she’s got a knack for playing lawyers, Erika Alexander doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, let alone a law degree. “I famously did not go to college. I didn’t have the opportunity,” she says nonchalantly over Zoom. After spending five seasons in the mid-’90s milking laughs as the high-powered and sharp-tongued attorney Maxine Shaw on Living Single, Alexander is now an Indie Spirit nominee for playing Coraline, a public defender and Jeffrey Wright’s love interest in Cord Jefferson’s feature directorial debut, American Fiction, which opens wide on December 22.

So what is it about Alexander that screams “lawyer” to casting directors and audiences? “What they’re also seeing is the engagement of all the people who poured into me, from my preacher father [to] my teacher mother,” she says. “All the instructors and people who have been the avatars of who I think are cool, from political to activists.” Alexander feels there’s a shared ethos that makes it easy for her to channel an attorney. Actors, she points out, have to learn to communicate effectively as well. Lawyers “also have to be able to see the pros and cons. They have to look past people’s façade and see into something deeper so they can not only create a case, but make the case and win the case.”

In American Fiction, Alexander makes the case for trying to see the best in people. While Wright’s Monk is often acerbic, sometimes pretentious, and always rough around the edges, Alexander’s Coraline is full of warmth and intelligence, allowing the audience to see Monk’s softer side. “I always thought of Coraline as the quiet storm,” she says. Every character in American Fiction, which also stars Leslie Uggams, Issa Rae, and Indie Spirit nominee Sterling K. Brown, “comes with their own local weather. So every time Jeffrey’s Monk character turns around, he has to deal with a different weather system—the different weather system he’s in, the different weather system he creates. And he can’t right now, in his life, operate in a silo. He has to manage his life, which is very annoying for him.”

While Coraline may be a gentler weather system, she’s no wilting rose. “There’s nothing subtle about Coraline,” she continues. “She’s a lawyer who likes her job. She likes her life. She’s reconstructed herself successfully after divorce. So her equilibrium is stabilized, but she wagers all of that and gambles on a curmudgeon like Monk…She’s a quiet storm, but he’s in the perfect storm. He’s getting what he wants in the worst way.”

Coraline is also more than a romantic sparring partner for Monk. Wright and Alexander have an easy chemistry, perhaps because they occupy similar spaces in Hollywood. “I’m mostly in a class of artists that are classically called character actors,” Alexander says. A character actor, in Alexander’s opinion, is a “creative chameleon” who is “biding their time, killing it in scene-stealing pieces until they can get their chance at the title role.” Wright, she says, has “been there more than most, and certainly I have too.”

The positive side of being a character actor is getting consistent work. Alexander’s been acting professionally since she was 14: “I’ve had the opportunity to work with extraordinary iconoclasts—from Peter Brook, who was the Royal Shakespeare [Company]’s most esteemed director, [to] Joseph Papp at the Public Theater. Also, Yvette Lee Bowser, who’s the first [African American] woman to ever create her own [prime-time] television show,” she says. The downside? “I’ve seen people, though, come up to me and say, ‘You were in Get Out?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ They didn’t recognize I was there because I had a different feel.”

American Fiction, however, is bringing both her and Wright to the forefront of the narrative. “I feel like I’m within my weight class, thank you very much,” she says.

American Fiction wrestles directly with questions surrounding Black art: What constitutes it? What should it look like? And, most pressingly, what makes it “successful”? The latter is a question that is intimately familiar to Alexander, perhaps best known for her role on Bowser’s Living Single—one of the Black sitcoms proliferated in the ’90s and early aughts, particularly on the now defunct network UPN. She and I toss around beloved titles from that era—Moesha, Sister, Sister, One on One, All of Us, The Parkers—and lament what feels a bit like a bygone age.

The Black-sitcom era provided necessary counterprogramming to popular white ’90s sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, the latter being a show that Alexander previously called out for its similarities to Living Single, which predated the NBC series. These shows were popular and long-running creative engines that launched and perpetuated the careers of some of the industry’s biggest names, including Wayans family member and My Wife and Kids star Damon Wayans, Oscar winner and Parkers star Mo’Nique, and even Girlfriends star and fellow American Fiction cast member Tracee Ellis Ross. (Queen Latifah also starred on Living Single with Alexander, playing editor Khadijah James, Maxine Shaw’s best friend from Howard University.) Beyond minting stars, these sitcoms also created varied and nuanced portraits of Black life, proving over and over again that there’s no monolithic Black experience.

Now, though, the genre is dormant, if not entirely dead. “Why, when we were so successful and gaining in this industry and making money for it, was it put off?” Alexander wonders. “Why was an obstacle placed there?” It’s the type of question so central to American Fiction—one, like many of the questions posed in the film, that doesn’t necessarily have an easy, clean answer.

“We’re not always in the driver’s seat,” Alexander says. “And like Monk a little bit, you’re talking about wanting to be free of the narrative that keeps us in the cheap seats—spectators to our own lives…. We need to have these conversations.” In American Fiction, Hollywood decision-makers show a distinct lack of imagination when considering the possibilities for Black art and Black artists. As Alexander notes, that’s very much rooted in reality. Endless as the potential may be, “if you can’t sell it, because the room has already decided you are one way, then you end up with a lot of discontented players—heartbroken. And it has nothing to do with their talent or their possibility.”

Directors like Jefferson, she believes, are here to change that. “Cord is one of a set of directors of color—Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Steve McQueen—who have an amazing pipeline of overqualified, usually undervalued talent to choose from,” she says. “But it’s not easy, because these performers are often the ones that have to be coaxed out to come play. You know what I mean? They’ve survived so much mediocrity, and they’re often loath to contribute.”

So, when an opportunity like American Fiction comes along, Alexander doesn’t ask questions—she just says yes. “They tell you that a new director who happens to be a phenomenal writer, and who already has that credibility—Watchmen, Succession—wants to meet with you for a movie he wrote starring Jeffrey Wright, and you play his girlfriend? I said, "I don't even need to read anything. I am in.’”