Anyone whose watched TV or gone to the movies in the past decade will likely recognize comedian and actress Carlease Burke. The entertainer has appeared in dozens of roles in blockbuster films such as Get Shorty and In Her Shoes and television hits including Heroes and Grey’s Anatomy. Now the lesbian performer may finally have landed her big break on the popular Showtime series Shameless.
Burke, who portrays Roberta, a foulmouthed and eccentric lesbian, says her role on the series is one of the highlights of her career.
The gay-friendly drama, which follows a dysfunctional family on the south side of Chicago, recently ended its first season and was swiftly picked up for another. The second season will begin January 8.
Burke says the award-winning cast — which includes William H. Macy, Joan Cusack, and Emmy Rossum — makes her experience all the richer: “Working with William is a dream come true. The amazing cast makes me feel like family.”
The actress portrays the lover of Monica Gallagher, the ex-wife of Macy’s character, Frank Gallagher.
Offscreen, Burke — who typically eschews labels but has been involved with a variety of LGBT causes — is as outspoken as her character, especially when it comes to talking equality within her own ethnic group, African-Americans.
“One would think that of all people, the black community as a whole would be more understanding and supportive of civil rights and the equality of all people,” says Burke. “The only way we are going to make huge strides is when we have the support of straight black people and our churches. Our straight friends and family members need to stick up for us and be proud of their LGBT relatives, who include doctors, teachers, coworkers, police officers.”
Burke offers keen insight on the role African-Americans have in advancing acceptance and equality, saying religious institutions must play a major role. “Black churches have some obligation to advocate for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, especially since it preaches that God is love and created us all in his image,” she says.
A fixture on Olivia cruises, Burke is involved with a variety of LGBT
organizations, including the Los Angeles–based Women on a Roll and
Burke began her comedy career in the early in 1990s with no specific inspiration, other than the belief that stand-up looked like fun and, well, “everyone was doing it.” As she got her footing, the funny lady eventually landed high-profile television and movie roles. But her grassroots comedy mojo is never far away. In between her Shameless gig, she currently produces the comedy show Laugh-a-Latte at Hot Java n Long Beach, Calif. Shows are every third Saturday of the month, and admission is free — something she hopes will draw straight and LGBT audiences alike. Ever the street-level comic, Burke says part of her goal is to bring in support for the venue and the gay neighborhood where the coffeehouse is located.
In addition to the Showtime hit, Burke has a variety of other projects in the works. She appeared in the Disney film Prom, released in April, and has just finished filming Save the Date, which she describes as a feel-good sister movie. The comedy will hit theaters in 2012.
Currently penning a book, the actress has appeared in a plethora of genres, from the futuristic — Dollhouse — to the blue-collar comedy Raising Hope. But she insists comedy always attracts her. Then again, so do Alfred Hitchcock thrillers with thinly veiled lesbian stories.
“I like to watch silly goofball comedies, so I would definitely like to have a supporting role in one of those,” Burke says. “I've always wanted to play a Bette Davis–type character — all dark and mysterious — or someone like Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca. Let's bring that genre back!”
No matter what type of character she plays — gay or straight, funny or foreboding — Carlease Burke is sure to steal the show.