Yvette Nicole Brown
Regarding stuff that really matters…
Yvette Nicole Brown Has Something to Say
Yvette Nicole Brown has worked on numerous commercials, movies and television shows, but there’s just something rare about her current series Community with Chevy Chase and Joel McHale. Brown plays a Christian on the hit show and talks about how her personal faith informs the character. She also opens up about everything from scholarships to social media, an intervention staged by friends prior to moving to Los Angeles, and why no matter what, she knows everything is going to be okay.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: What was your family like growing up, were they supportive of you going into acting? Did they have hesitations about it?
Yvette Nicole Brown: My mom was very supportive a long as I continued to do well in school. I grew up kind of poor, so my whole goal through high school was to get a scholarship because unless I got a scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. [Yvette did get a scholarship to the University of Akron]. I started off as a singer so when I was doing talent shows and what not when I was in high school, my mom was like, “You can pursue this as much as you want as long as your grades don’t slip.” And then the same deal came in college when she said, “You can do anything you want creatively, as long you keep your scholarship and keep your grades up.” So that was the tradeoff. I kept my grades up, and she always came to all my shows. She comes to the set of Community now – she’s always been ridiculously supportive.
RM: Whether someone went to a community or four-year college, public or private, come graduation time everyone has some pretty interesting experiences to share, what about you, what was your college experience like?
YNB: I was one of those people that tried to get involved in everything. I worked at the radio station, I was a Campus Ambassador – those were the people that gave tours on campus – I worked with the Admissions department, I pledged a sorority… I never knew which opportunity was going to give me what I needed to further my life. I wanted to be well-rounded, so I kind of just jumped into everything.
As far as graduating – it’s so funny – I just went back to my college to receive an award. And I talked to a lot of groups of kids and the ones that I found the most fascinating to talk to were the seniors, because they were terrified. There was this feeling of, “Okay, now what?” I told them, and I believe, that the feeling of now what? is where the magic is. The idea of having your entire life ahead of you and being able to do anything with it – it’s just magical. And so I told them, “Feel the terror of the moment, but then toss the terror aside and go boldly into your future, knowing it can be anything you want it to be.” Right when you’re 22 going out in the world is the most amazing time of your life.
The idea of having your entire life ahead of you and being able to do anything with it – it’s just magical.
RM: Speaking of going out in the world, what was your thought process like when you decided to move to LA?
YNB: I was probably too naïve to realize I should’ve been afraid. It was funny. Right before I came out, two of my friends staged intervention.They were like, “Let’s go to dinner and see a movie or something to say goodbye as you move to LA.” And when we got back to my house, my friend Kim was driving and she put the car in park and locked the doors, and I was in the back where the child locks were. She, and my friend Felicia, turned around and looked at me in the back and said, “We’re very concerned about this move to LA. We don’t think you’ve put the time in; we don’t think you’re ready; you haven’t saved any money.” It was this big you’re making the worst decision of your life [conversation.]
I remember having this peace. I govern my life by peace. If there is peace, I know that’s where God is and I go down that path. So I felt peace about it and I told them, “All of your concerns are telling me you guys shouldn’t move to LA! I don’t have those concerns.” I knew I didn’t have a lot of money saved. And I didn’t really know where I was going to live beyond the first three days.
This is just the naivety of a 22-year-old. I just really felt like I was supposed to be there. And as scary as it was moving out, and all the times I was sleeping on someone’s couch, or didn’t really have any money – I still felt that peace. And I’ve governed every decision I’ve made out here from a pathway of peace. When it comes to choosing roles, turning down roles, it’s all governed by peace and [the question] do I feel this is my path? and if it is, I stay on it, and if it’s not, I move on.
RM: So at what point then did you know entertaining was your calling?
YNB: I felt a call towards entertaining from the standpoint of making people feel better. I didn’t know if it would be as a singer, or if it would be as an actor. I just knew that my call in life was to lighten people’s loads in some way.
I initially thought that I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher because I felt if you can catch the babies at 5 and 6, before life has kicked their teeth in – right when they are getting that spark of creativity, that spark of joy about life – you really are in a position to affect generations. So I always felt maybe I would be a teacher of some sort.
But it all goes to the aspect of giving back. I’m not someone that believes that anything is given to you in life, so you can just pile it up and say, “Look at my bounty”. It’s not ever about you. Great things happen, opportunities happen, money comes into your life for you to find a way to funnel it to someone else who needs it.You make enough to take care of yourself, your friends and your family, and then the rest of it needs to go toward charities and causes, and things that will matter.
If you are given an opportunity to have a platform where people are willing to listen to what you have to say, you need to say something. Even with something like Twitter. I ran from Twitter for a while because I was bothered by the word follower. [On Twitter you click on a follow button so you can have access to the person you want to know better] Who am I to have followers? As a Christian, it felt a little sacrilegious to have followers. Then I realized it’s a blessing to have followers, if you lead them somewhere. So I try to make sure that my tweets are inspirational, funny, or encouraging and I try to make sure my page is open for everyone. I see the whole social networking and message-board thing as another opportunity to let people know it’s going to be all right, just keep believing, and stay on your path.
I know it probably comes off a little Pollyanna to some people that may be jaded, but life is hard. And we all need to know that it’s going to be okay, or be reminded that today is hard, but tomorrow is going to be better. It’s not an ego exercise for me; it’s more to give back in some way. And also to get people to watch Community because I think it’s a cute show. They put life lessons in each episode and an episode may seem cynical but in the end there is a message there for everyone about friendship, or faith or loyalty. I think it’s important for people to be reminded in that way too, through entertainment, so that’s why I promote the show like crazy.
RM: You play Shirley on Community and she’s a Christian on the show. When you were first reading for the role and finding out her identity, did you have any reservations with portraying her the way she was written?
YNB: No because you know what’s so funny? I don’t think Shirley was slated as a Christian in the pilot. I don’t remember anything inherently Christian about what she said, or did, and she wasn’t wearing a cross or anything. I think her Christianity morphed from the fact that I’m a Christian. Dan Harmon has taken a lot of our personality traits and infused them into our characters. I remember before we even went into production for the first season, there were these little blurbs on the NBC site called Campus Connection where they listed things about each character and under Shirley’s page it said, “I’m a Baptist and I’m proud of it.” And I was like, “Whoa she’s a Christian! That’s awesome.” It didn’t bother me, and I wasn’t concerned with playing a Christian.
I thought it was an honor to be a Christian, playing a Christian, because I can inform the character in a way that someone who is not a Christian maybe couldn’t. Anyone can say the lines, but if it’s something that involves God, there’s a certain understanding I may have about His goodness, or about His faithfulness that will allow me to imbue the line with a little bit more gravitas than someone who hasn’t met Him yet would be able to. So I take it as a privilege and an honor.
Even before I played Shirley – as a black woman, as a curvy girl, a big girl, I’ve always tried to make sure that none of my roles make black women, or thicker girls look bad. Now I’ve just added another layer to it. I have no problem showing the humanity of Christians because we’re not perfect. We’re flawed people. The only difference between us and the world is that we know we need God. That is the only difference. If I can adequately show that, and show that she has the same problems other people have and she struggles with her faith in the same way others struggle with life and show the humanity of her, then I will feel like I have succeeded. I never wanted to play a perfect Christian, because they don’t exist.
It’s awesome I get to take this ride with her and see Shirley’s flaws and with my acting find a way to imbue the words they give me with the level of remorse and repentance that any Christian walking with God would have after they’ve fallen. I think that’s important. And that’s also something I don’t know that someone who wasn’t a believer would know to do. There is a heartbreaking nature to sin for Christians. It’s the whole feeling that I’ve let God down. Not that I’ve done this horrible thing to another human being, but I’ve let God down. There’s a heaviness; a heartbreak; that comes with that. There’s no condemnation in Christ so we don’t stay there, we repent and we endeavor to do better, and we keep it moving. But there is that moment of “Oh what have I done.” I wanted to make sure as we show Shirley’s flaws we’re able to show that moment of heartbreak for her.
RM: It’s refreshing to see that a network like NBC would allow that theme. Hollywood seems like an easy industry for God to quickly slip from top priority to non-existent. What safeguards do you have in place to make sure you keep focused?
YNB: Even before I became an actor, I’ve always been completely clear on where my blessings come from. I’m not someone that thinks I’m extraordinarily talented, or extraordinarily funny, or beautiful, or any of those things. So if there is ever an opportunity for me to be funny, or display talent… I know where that comes from. In my power, I can do no good thing. Because I’m clear on that, there’s very little chance for ego to enter into my life because I’m not doing it. You’d have to be a pretty crappy person to take credit for someone else’s work.
My friend Kim Rutherford, she’s an amazing Christian songwriter and singer, but she said once to me, early in my career, “God is looking for people that will do his work, but leave his glory alone.” I thought, what a perfect way of explaining humility. I’m blessed to do this job. There are so many more people that are thinner, more beautiful, funnier, or whatever, that should have this job – and I have it. That’s a gift from God. So I don’t know how to exist outside of that understanding. So for me it’s very easy to stay on the straight and narrow.
The wardrobe department on Community gave me a great gift this season in that Shirley wears a cross every week. In my personal life, I suffer with road rage. I get very upset behind the wheel and because of that I have a cross hanging around my rear-view mirror and I have Jesus written on the back of my car. People may think I do that because I want to show everybody I love the Lord. No, I do that because I’m consciously aware that I am representing Christ in that car. So that means when someone cuts me off, or someone won’t let me merge, I see the cross in front of me and I know what’s behind me and I don’t want to make Him look bad. So it keeps me in check that way. And it’s kind of the same thing with wearing the cross on the show. I’m aware every day as I put it on, as this character I’m modeling who Christ is and what the Christian walk is.
RM: What excites you most about working with the Community cast every day?
YNB: I love that everybody is so silly. As an adult you don’t really get to play. And it’s kind of like having recess every day for 16 hours. Besides getting to perform as an actor, in between takes everyone is just so much fun. Not just the cast, but the crew – everyone is just silly. That to me has been a gift every single day.
RM: You’ve had a pretty blessed career consistently working in commercials, TV, and film… in a field where everyone is pretty dependent on agents and publicists and studios to help get them work, how do you know who to trust?
YNB: I believe I have a really good sense of discernment, and I can sense when I’m talking to someone if they are getting me. I tell young people entering the business, when they say, “How do you pick an agent?” that when you go into that initial meeting you just have to have a sense that someone gets you. I speak in terms of blessings and callings, but you have to understand what your purpose is in this industry. If your goal is just to be famous, and rich, you will compromise… because there is always a shortcut to being famous and being rich. If your goal is to do good work and to have a life that is respectable, and a career that is respectable, then there are certain things you won’t do… because it’s not about the money and the fame.
If you are given an opportunity to have a platform where people are willing to listen to what you have to say, you need to say something.
Even before I got Community, as a commercial actor I made more money than a poor girl from Cleveland ever thought she’d make. It’s never been the money for me. I have a house, I have a car, my mother and my brother are taken care of – I’ve got enough. So no decision that I’ve made for the last 6-7 years has been based on paying my rent. I’m not someone that cares about fame. I don’t want people following me when I get my gas; I don’t want paparazzi outside my door in the morning; I don’t want to live in a house I have to build a shelter around for safety. Since that’s not my goal, anyone dangling a carrot saying, “Hey if you do this more, people will know who you are.” [It doesn’t affect me] I don’t need anybody else to know who I am. I’m good where I am. It kind of prevents the carrot from being dangled when you know that you have enough.
I think the greatest gift in life is contentment. You find a way to have peace and contentment in whatever situation you are in – you could be living in a box under a bridge, but if you found a way to have peace and contentment about it, no one can touch you. There are people with millions of dollars, whose names are known all over the world and they don’t have peace. And they keep chasing for more. That’s not a good life. I’m not someone that can be easily swayed because I have enough. And truth be told, I had enough when I first moved here [to LA]. I’m not a very ambitious person, I never have been, I’ve always been like, “This too Lord?!” I don’t have a sense of entitlement and every blessing that comes is always a complete surprise to me and a wonderful joy.
RM: God has definitely placed you in a position where you can showcase his work. Your personality is magnetic and it’s clear your faith is rock solid. What would you say has been the most important tools in building your faith?
YNB: At a certain point in your life, you’ve been through things and survived. It seems like all is lost, and it isn’t. If you string enough experiences like that together then no matter what you face you can say, “This is probably going to be okay too.” You think, I don’t have any money right now, I just lost my job and rent is due – this looks bad. But if I think back to 10 years ago when I first moved to LA and didn’t have a job and I didn’t have money, He [God] protected me then. He has a plan. One of my favorite scriptures is Jeremiah 29:11 which says, “I know the thoughts I think towards you, says the Lord, thoughts to prosper you and give you an expectant end.” He has good thoughts about us. He never said it was going to be easy. He never said that every day there was going to be magic waiting on the front doorstep for you. But He did say that His ultimate plan for you is to prosper you, and for your good. If that’s the case, then at the end of this, I’m going to prosper – and I don’t think He meant money. I think God meant in faith, in spirit and in the stuff that really matters.
If at the end of this life, I’m going to have a good end and be prosperous in spirit, then does it really matter that the light bill is due and I don’t have the $25 dollars? Honestly, worst case scenario the lights will be off. Then I’ll get the $25 dollars and the lights will be back on. It’s really not that deep. And the plan is to have friends in your life that will remind you of this on the days you forget. We all ultimately forget. Life happens and it seems like it’s the end of the world and you need to have a circle of friends in your life that say, “No, no, now precious, calm down. I know it’s bad, but you know what? Your lights are off, so come to my house tonight.” Or “Here’s $25 dollars for your lights to be on,” or “I’ve got some candles.” As long as there is someone in your life to tilt you towards the right way of thinking, you’ll be fine, and then you do the same for them when they forget. That’s what the journey of life is; reminding each other it’s going to be all right and helping each other through as we find our way towards it being all right – as we stumble toward it being all right, or as we crawl, or as we pray, or as we cry our way towards it being all right. But it’s going to be all right.