When you meet Gina Torres in person, there’s something that immediately puts you at ease. Maybe it’s the beautiful smile that’s never far from her lips. Or perhaps it’s the quiet, calming tone of her voice—you know, the type that makes you lean in closer because you don’t want to miss a word. It could also be that you assumed she’d be like Jessica Pearson, the cool and calculating lawyer she played for seven seasons on USA’s top-rated show Suits, and are pleasantly surprised to find she’s not.
When Gina breezes into her Health cover shoot, the differences between her and her character are immediately apparent. Whereas Jessica is all tailored pencil skirts and no-nonsense attitude, Gina walks in looking relaxed in wide-leg jeans, a chambray shirt, and baseball hat. What’s more, the actress warmly greets everyone, taking time to make small talk before fixing herself a plate of fruit. “It’s funny, people do assume I am like Jessica—I guess we look alike,” Gina shrugs, cozying up on a couch in the Los Angeles photo studio. “I was talking to my guy about it, and he was like, ‘People are scared of you.’ It’s because they think I am her!”
And that comparison won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. On July 17, Pearson debuts on USA. The show is centered around Gina’s character—a pretty big deal, considering it’s the sole spin-off of Suits. In anticipation of such a monumental moment in her career, we sat down with Gina to discuss her path to success, dealing with mom guilt, and how she stays in such incredible shape.
How did Pearson come about?
It was my idea—I pitched it. I left [Suits] because I had to take care of some family matters. Sometimes there are characters that stay with you—so I was like, “Well, I wonder what Jessica would be doing?” I was obsessed with the 2016 election and was seeing the best and worst of us. I looked at Kellyanne Conway as a personality. There’s a lot there, and I began to wonder what was happening. Is [that person] a believer? Is it an opportunistic sort of ambition? I sort of superimposed Jessica on top of her because I realized that’s kind of what Jessica did—she would hop across the line and blur it, all for the sake of what she truly believed was the greater good. [I wanted to] put her in a political arena. That was the genesis of the show.
How did the show become a reality?
I pitched it to the good people at USA, and they were incredibly receptive. By then a year had gone by, and they were like, “Oh, we want Jessica back!” They had missed her. Everybody got on board, and got a great team together. I still can’t believe it’s happening—and I’m a producer.
It’s your first time as a co-executive producer—what was that like?
It felt natural and good. I would say the learning curve wasn’t so much having an opinion—we all have those, and because I’ve been doing this so long, I knew a lot more than I thought I did. But I had to think about finding my voice, using it, and expressing it in such a way that wasn’t personal, it was just what’s best for the show.
What did you learn about expressing yourself in that way?
To pick my battles and not to belabor the point. It really is letting people know and making them understand [what you want]—as a woman, and especially as the title character. This isn’t a vanity piece. I want to create something special, something that will provoke discussion and dialogue. That has been the greatest challenge, having the other people at the table not just see me as an actress, not someone who is a producer by title only, but someone who is interested, and interested in learning as well. I think once you show a kind of vulnerability, that you’re anxious and you want to learn, it helps open a door and begin a conversation.
In what ways are you like Jessica?
I think the best thing we have in common is the ability to look ahead. Well, she sees seven steps ahead; I’m not there yet. I see three steps ahead—sometimes four, on a clear day.
Have you always been like that?
I’ve always been big on envisioning things. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the one who looks like they’re standing still, until I’m not there anymore. I’m always plotting. It’s all about taking calculated risks.
Was it always your plan to be an actress?
I did go to a performing-arts high school in New York City. But when my friends heard that I wasn’t going to pursue a higher education and that I was going to be an actress, they were like, “Wow.” I was, like, the least showy kid, but it’s what I loved doing. I could only picture myself doing one other thing and that was journalism—again, always in pursuit of the story.
What brought you from New York to Los Angeles?
I actually never planned to leave New York. I was going to be the Afro-Cuban Bernadette Peters. That’s all I wanted—musical theater, luncheons at Sardi’s, doing the matinees and the evening show. That was going to be my life. I was making it happen. I was on Broadway twice by the age of 26—in two crash-and-burn shows, but still. But there weren’t the kind of roles there are today. Audra McDonald was the black girl on Broadway, and she was playing everyone. And she was genius. I love Audra. It was also the beginning of really expensive tickets and movie stars coming back to Broadway. And if they could get a movie star, they weren’t going to spend money on an unknown like me. So, as a girlfriend said to me, what was I going to do? Live out my career in New York as hand-maiden number three? Or go West? So that’s what I did.
You have a 12-year-old daughter. What does she think of your success?
I was worried with going back to film Pearson. She had me home with her for a while, so I was preparing her for what the schedule would be like as a lead of a show. I was telling her it was going to be different, but that I want her to visit me on set and I wanted to be able to see her. I’m just beating this horse because I want her to be prepared and don’t want her to feel sideswiped. And she says, “Mom, I know! You’ve told me.” I was like, “Are you OK?” She goes, “Mom, you’ve got your own show! I’m proud of you!” So that was amazing.
So the working-mom guilt was real?
Yes! I even had nonworking-mom guilt. Like, I should have gone to that book fair, but I needed 30 minutes on that elliptical. It’s not easy. You want to be all things all the time, and you just can’t be. So you prepare them to be as independent as possible. I want to believe it’s as—if not more—important what they see, as opposed to what you say. If they see you expressing yourself from a place of confidence, if they see you going after your dream, it gives them permission to do the same. Especially with a daughter.
How are you teaching your daughter to be confident?
She’s incredibly self-possessed. She always has been. She’s very confident; she’s out-there; she’s a happy weirdo, as is her mother, as is her father. We nourish that and nurture it as much as we possibly can. And all her friends are happy weirdos. In five years, she might not be happy to read this interview, that I called her and all her friends happy weirdos, but I do hope that she can retain that sense of self. It’s a constant conversation; you layer it into the soup and the oatmeal and everything—that her uniqueness is what’s important.
You clearly work out—is that your biggest form of self-care?
Absolutely. At the same time, sometimes no. Sometimes it’s sleeping in and having a doughnut, or three, and some chocolate milk. With working out, it’s about strength—being able to run up the stairs and just feeling like I can get myself out of a situation. I always want to come from a place of power, and of knowing my body. The fringe benefit of that is that I look great in some clothes…and am fit for life.
What’s your attitude around food?
A friend and I were just cackling over our sea bass and butter, bread, and rosé. We were like, “We work out so we can eat this!” It’s about balance. I work out so I can feel good. Sometimes I hit it hard; sometimes it’s just about getting it in. But food? I love food. I like all the no-nos. I love buttery, cinnamony, caramelly, and sometimes lemony things. And I love fried chicken and bacon!
And how do you take care of yourself emotionally?
Emotional health is very important—especially when you’ve joined the circus, like I have. You need to take a breath and to take time away. I’m not about a spa day. God bless all the people that have given me spa gift certificates because they’re stacked in my office drawer. I love a staycation. I like the quiet and being with my own thoughts and watching a movie and recharging. It’s good for your mental health to leave the world out there for a minute and just keep quiet.
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