Rutina Wesley is a Juilliard-trained actor well-known for her stirring performances as Tara Thornton on HBO’s True Blood and Nova Bordelon on the Oprah Winfrey Network series “Queen Sugar”. 

Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Wesley comes from a family of entertainers. Her father was a professional tap dancer and mother a showgirl on the Vegas strip. Although she studied dance and performance as a youth, and later got her BA in Theater Performance, her grandmother encouraged her to take up nursing as an alternative to the volatile entertainment industry. Instead, Wesley applied to and was accepted by the famed Juilliard School. During that time, she spent a summer studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and also befriended Nelsan Ellis, who would later be her co-star on True Blood. 

After Juilliard, Wesley was cast in the Broadway production of the David Hare play, The Vertical Hour opposite Bill Nighy, and appeared in The Public Theater production, In Darfur. She booked minor roles in a few feature films before getting her big break on HBO’s popular Southern Gothic vampire series True Blood. Alan Ball, creator of the series explains why he cast Wesley to take on the complex role of Tara Thornton: “[She] was the first person who showed [Tara’s] vulnerable side.” 

True Blood, being one of America’s most esteemed shows aired for seven seasons from 2008 to 2014. In 2015, Wesley became a series regular on Hannibal and in 2016 was cast as Nova Bordelon on Ava Duvernay’s family drama “Queen Sugar.” The show is based on the novel of the same name; it revolves around the lives of Nova and her two estranged siblings who must deal with the death of their father and the fate of his 800-acre sugarcane farm in rural Louisiana. With an all-female directorial crew and a deeply humanistic storyline, “Queen Sugar” has caused a ripple effect beyond the screen. “I feel grateful to play a character like Nova,” said Wesley. “So many women have contacted me about how they’ve healed from things or how they’re on their way to healing from watching my work and that’s the best validation.” 

Wesley shares her honest process of learning to heal and making new discoveries as she plays the strong character as one of the Bordelon siblings.

HEALING THROUGH NOVA BORDELON 

Rutina Wesley: When I hear healing and I think of my character, Nova Bordelon––I definitely think of strength. Healing takes strength and no one person is very strong. Nova is flawed and sometimes doesn’t have the strength to heal, but she always finds a way to have this sense of healing. That’s one thing I love about her. I think seeking truth and wanting to speak that truth is powerful. 

There’s a lot of issues that we have as a community we don’t talk about. We showcase those issues on the show and I think people have found it easier to talk about certain issues because of it. People can really engage and learn about themselves and then start conversations. It’s like we’re just a window to the world. We want to be as authentic as we can be in hopes that there will be healing. I feel grateful to play a character like Nova. So many women have contacted me about how they’ve healed from things or how they’re on their way to healing from watching my work and that’s the best validation. 

I’m always learning from Nova. I think one thing that I can say is self care, and being diligent about self care. The healing of all starts with self care. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years of playing Nova and just being on the show is taking care of yourself in order to be your best self.

WALKING IN YOUR TRUTH

Rutina Wesley: I think what it means to walk in your truth is when you are walking in your most honest, most truthful self. It’s not always easy to do because a lot of times we have shame or we don’t feel like we’re enough. We’re scared to walk in our truth, when in all actuality when you walk in that truth you become the best person that you’ve ever been. You become unafraid of being yourself. I think Oprah was right, once you take that step to walk in your truth, you’re not going to go back. Yeah, you may have little dips and things but you’re not going to go all the way back to not walking in it at all. I think if you don’t walk in your truth. You don’t move forward. You can get stagnant and feel uninspired.

I feel like that’s kind of something that I’ve still been trying to do, and I think it’s a learning process. I think it takes some time to navigate, but I think you’re always navigating it right––[as long as] you’re always trying to figure out how to be your best self. 

I love to laugh and I like to have a good time. And I think that people like to see me laughing and having a good time. When I’m in my best self, which is my laughter, my joy––this is my strength.

That’s where I learned where my vibration lies. That’s where it is and so I have to kind of keep myself there and sometimes it takes some work but I’m turning towards walking in my shoes, a whole lot more than I was a few years ago, definitely. 

“Queen Sugar” has changed how I see myself. You don’t know you can be so beautiful or how your skin can be glowing or the words come out of your mouth like poetry. She [Ava] made me see myself in a way that I didn’t see myself in a way that I didn’t know existed.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Rutina Wesley: It is the effect that Ava has had on the women in the directorial community and in production staff as well. She has hired only women directors and hires new people every year. 

She’s put 32 women out there in the directing world who might not have ever gotten a shot. It’s beautiful to see Ava has had this effect on our industry. She has been able to put her hand on something that has touched so many people, especially female filmmakers in particular.

The “Ava Effect” has allowed people to know that this is possible, that there’s so much artistry that is untapped out there that people need to know. It’s possible to do. It’s been an amazing thing for me to see, to start where I started in my career and then [now] to see as many women as I see [in production], who are creating these things.

Interview By Tricia Love Vargas
Photography: Moldilox || L.A. STYLE Magazine
Stylist: Jamar Hart & Tamira Wells || MUA: Ruth Medrano
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