Hulu's latest original miniseries, Little Fires Everywhere, promised suburban housewife drama, and boy, did it deliver. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as by-the-book Elena Richardson and reclusive Mia Warren, the story follows two families whose collision into each other has explosive consequences. Episode 6 provides a glimpse into both the women's early adulthoods, where they both make life-altering decisions that have catastrophic ripples into the rest of their lives. Tony Award-inning actress Anika Noni Rose plays Mia's art professor, Pauline Hawthorne, and blessed us with a groundbreaking queer Black love story that we won't soon forget.
"I don't think I realized how well it was going to be received until it was," Rose tells The Advocate. "As a black woman, I'm often misunderstood with the energy, whatever the energy is, that I'm putting in the world. It's a beautiful moment for people to receive something in the way that you wanted it to be taken, and hoped that it would be taken."
Inspired by Brooklyn artist Lorna Simpson, Rose says she crafted the beautiful and uncanny world of Pauline Hawthorne with the utmost care. "How lovely to be able to step inside of them," the actress says. "So a person for whom artistry is not just the thing that they do, but also who they are."
When Pauline's budding relationship with Mia became romantic, it had the potential to be a tricky minefield to navigate, the possibility of an exploitive teacher-student storyline hanging over their heads. Rose and actress Tiffany Boone, who plays the young Mia, both took care to ensure the relationship was tender, honest, and respectful. "We've seen enough predators," Rose says. "We have certainly seen enough gay predators that make it seem like that's the only way homosexuals are formed, because of predatory people. I didn't want that to be this narrative."
She worked on the script with her own acting choices to ensure the romance was not only consensual but soft and loving. "It was handled with great care and it was important to me, the actor. It was written in the script for Mia to make the first move, so it was important for me to allow her the agency to make whatever move that she was going to make," Rose says. When I asked her, 'Where do you think we are?' I put nothing on it. I put no hope into it. I put no longing in my face, in my body, but I just asked her so that I would know."
Viewers were awestruck, specifically at the moment Pauline and Mia trade smiles in the bathtub and Pauline snaps the stunning photograph of Mia that anchors the entire series. "That was an everyday love moment," she reflects. "It was like you just happen to peek in on somebody's relationship and the everyday romanticism that we don't generally get to see. It wasn't a picnic laid out, it wasn't an event planned. It was an everyday love moment. There weren't even bubbles. It was just what it was."
Her arc in the series has reinvigorated Rose's fan base online, with many fans saying the Tony-winning actress is underrated. "I am so deeply grateful for the people who feel that way," Rose notes. "I think that most of the time we as artists feel like we're banging our heads against a wall. One thing that quarantine has given me is the time to really be introspective and to see how I want to step back into the air when this is over."
"For me, that is looking at things I've done well and the things that I could do better in my life," she continues. "I want to find a way to be better within the movement of my career and whether that's being less shy about asking people to help me — I'm not always good with that. I don't always assume that somebody's going to be receptive. I sometimes have a fear of people saying, 'Nope, no, thank you, not interested,' that keeps me from asking for the help, the assistance, the collaborations that I would like to have. I'm moving my way through myself to find a new path to walk.
"I think I'm a very brave artist, a very brave performer. I want to try to coax my own hand and become a braver person within the business. I have to say that I admire the fans that I have new, old, babies, toddlers, grown people. I'm so appreciative of the fact that they can see me.
"The fact that there are people who champion my work and also me as a person, as a strong, though sometimes fearful, determined person who is trying to plow their way in this business, I'm so grateful for them. That they see me, that they truly see what it is that I'm trying to give and how I'm trying to give it. I'm really grateful."
The season finale of Little Fires Everywhere is streaming now on Hulu. And in the midst of a worldwide lockdown, Rose is hosting a Bedtime Stories for the Littles series, where she reads children's books for "the little ones" on her Instagram channel.