Actor and filmmaker Maisie Richardson-Sellers talks growing up mixed race, leaning into her queerness and changing the game for on-screen representation
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
“I’m fed up with having straight, cis, white people tell queer stories.” Maisie Richardson-Sellers is venting about one of her specialist subjects: LGBTQI representation. Yes, it’s brilliant to see the proliferation of sapphic period dramas like Colette, Vita & Virginia and Oscars darling, The Favourite, but – and it’s an important but – where are the women of colour? Where are the urgent, contemporary storylines? Where are the out queer actors in lead parts? Maisie has a theory. “It’s like there’s a sort of glass ceiling. Once the queer film is of a certain size and budget, suddenly you only see straight actors playing these roles. I really think it’s time to push back and create the art that we want to see.”
Ah Maisie, you’re surely the queero we’ve been waiting for. With close to 330k Instagram followers, and acting credits including DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, The Originals, and upcoming Netflix film The Kissing Booth 2 (she plays pool player, Chloe, a dream come true for “little queer Maisie”), her star is very much in ascendence. But do you want to know what’s really thrilling? She’s determined to use her growing profile to help others, “to pass the mic” and strive towards diverse, inclusive, authentic representation. She wants you – yes, you, reading this – to feel represented, celebrated and empowered.
We’re chatting long distance, me at DIVA HQ in London and Maisie, slightly more glamorously, on the set of hit superhero series Legends in mountainous Vancouver. After our interview, she’s off to shoot a night fight scene on a dock. She’ll likely be there till 3am, recording take after take of high-octane ass-kicking action, but for Maisie it’s just another day at the office. I’ve met her before, during her West End run of 3 Women by Katy Brand, and it’s a joy to speak to the actor, writer, director, Oxford graduate, and – let’s be honest – overachiever again. Maisie is the kind of person who radiates warmth, even down the phone line, and instantly puts you at ease.
Just as much of a badass as the sci-fi characters she portrays, Maisie is the epitome of being the change you want to see. Case in point: Barefaced Productions, the film company she set up because she was so frustrated by “the same old predictable storylines and protagonists”. “When you’re not seeing the stories you want to see being told, tell them.” She’s done her research and points out that according to The Hollywood Reporter, out of the top 250 grossing films of last year, only 8% had female directors and a mere 1% had 10 or more women in key off-camera positions. “If everyone behind the camera isn’t diverse, then that’s going to affect the stories that are being made.” That’s why her film company has a policy of ensuring at least 70% of the crew and creative team are female, with a particular emphasis on women of colour.
Maisie wants Barefaced to provide a platform and eventually financial aid to “help filmmakers who are under-supported see their visions come to life”. And the name? “My mum’s Guyanese and ‘barefaced’ is a slang word, which describes being unashamedly brazen, flouting convention or challenging the norm. That’s what I want to do with the production company.” It’s clear how much she cares. She tells me earnestly, “We have a social responsibility to ensure that we’re creating truly diverse content”. Maisie’s the real deal, not just talking the talk, but taking serious steps to change hearts, minds and the cinematic landscape. She’s currently finishing up on Sunday’s Child, a short film she co-wrote and directed about a mixed race queer woman’s journey to acceptance. “It’s a message of hope for people who haven’t found their community. I know how isolating it can be up until that point where you’re finally seen.”
Her activism isn’t limited to the art she creates. While filming The Kissing Booth 2 in Cape Town, she worked with The Triangle Project (triangle.org.za), an incredible non-profit supporting LGBTQI people facing hate crime, HIV, homelessness and corrective rape. “The work they do is so real and literally life-saving. To be able to dive into cultures and learn about them on the ground is deeply rewarding.”
Although Maisie pours much of her energy into the queer community now, when she was getting her start as an actor five years ago, she was concerned being open about her sexuality might negatively impact her progression in the industry. “I was nervous I would be typecast, that I would never be seen as the young female lead, which is rubbish. People are willing to believe that straight people can play queer. Why can’t they believe the other way round?” Fortunately, she hasn’t experienced any backlash. “That’s also a testament, even in five years, to how far we’ve come. It’s a unique decision for everyone, but I couldn’t have done my career without being out. To go back into the closet would have been pretty traumatic. It would have felt false.”
Maisie began questioning her sexuality at 16. Her dad already had his suspicions. “I remember one time we were sitting in our roof garden and he said, ‘Maisie, have you ever thought that you might also like girls?’ I was like, ‘What? How dare you?’ I was so shocked that he just saw it. Two days later, I crawled back to him and I was like, ‘…Maybe’.” Nevertheless, it took Maisie several years to come to terms with her queerness. “It was a journey.” If she could speak to her younger self now, she’d tell her, “Don’t be afraid to open up”. “I had such a sense of needing to be strong, to keep everything to myself. It’s so much more lonely that way. The greatest form of strength is vulnerability.”
At 17, her first same-sex relationship made her realise, “This feels good. I’m not hiding anything and I’m keeping all the doors open”. “That’s the beautiful thing about being queer. Who knows what will happen in the future? At the moment, I’m with a wonderful woman and that feels right.” That wonderful woman is super talented singer-songwriter Clay. The artistic pair live in LA and have been known to collaborate professionally, most recently in the dreamy and gloriously queer music video Maisie directed for Clay’s single, Project 5 (tinyurl.com/MaisieProject5).
Maisie’s free-spirited actor parents never had an issue with their daughter’s sexuality. Hers was a bohemian childhood, largely spent playing in nature or reading books. “My dad is a quirky actor and he doesn’t believe in TV.” She could frequently be found in dressing rooms or on tour with her thespian folks and at the age of three, Maisie saw her mum’s curtain call in a performance of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. “I pointed at the stage and I was like, ‘Daddy, I want to do that’. And that was it.” While reading anthropology and archaeology at Oxford, she was spotted in a student production and snapped up by an agent. She got into directing at uni too. Her first play was Ntozake Shange’s For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. She still carries a copy everywhere she goes. “It has literally been my rock. It explores the Black experience in such a universal way and with such amazing writing about survival and tragedy”.
While Oxford gave Maisie a rigorous education, she found the environment “very white”. It was the same story at the private schools she attended through bursaries and scholarships, where she was often the only person of colour in her class. “There was always this sense of people trying to define my identity for me. They couldn’t place me, so they would decide that because of the way I spoke or dressed or the music I listened to, I wasn’t Black enough. I was always being called a ‘Bounty’ – Black on the outside, but white on the inside. I felt like neither half of me was enough.” Through a combination of travelling, self care and seeking out Black writers like Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou, she came to cherish being mixed race. “Now I see it as a wonderful gift. Reclaiming my identity and finding a deep love and pride in who I am, just as I am without the need to force myself into one category, has probably been my most rewarding journey so far.”
She reveals that Bette on The L Word is one of the only examples of a mixed race queer woman she’s ever seen onscreen. “I don’t know how many times I’ve watched The L Word, but I could probably quote it all!” The truth is there still aren’t nearly enough roles for performers from different ethnic backgrounds. “When I was starting out, I’d hear things like, ‘Oh sorry, we can’t cast you because we’ve already cast a Black woman in this’.” There’s also a “huge colourism” problem in the industry. “There is not nearly as much representation of the darker shades of skin-tone as there should be. It’s such a shame that we see a couple of light-skinned people of colour, and everyone goes, ‘Oh look, there’s great representation’. No. We still have so far to go, especially in leading roles.” In pretty much every one of her acting projects, stylists try and tame her gorgeous mane with curling irons, straighteners or wigs. “It’s so sad. I can’t wait for people to see that big, natural hair is just as sophisticated. It’s just as beautiful and inviting.”
As well as being extremely eloquent, and in possession of magnificent tresses, Maisie is a living, breathing fountain of wisdom. She calls the racism and transphobia that exists in the queer community “tragic”, saying stirringly, “Intersectional feminism is the only feminism. There’s so much we can learn from listening. We should be forcing ourselves to step outside our comfort zones and actively trying to understand other people’s experiences.” And that’s precisely what she hopes to do with Barefaced – spotlight the stories we don’t see, stories that would have been life-altering for a younger Maisie, and encourage empathy and self-acceptance through authentic queer art.
Before we say our farewells and Maisie limbers up for her big fight scene, I ask if she has any final thoughts she’d like to share. Of course she does. It’s Maisie, one of the most inspiring, altruistic queer artists out there. So here is her parting message to you: “Don’t be afraid to use your voice. The world needs diverse perspectives. It needs your perspective. Anyone who tries to dampen your fire isn’t worthy of your warmth. Lean into who you are. Lean into the fragility, strength, beauty, soul, and determination that you have… and radiate.”
This interview originally featured in the October 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!