Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, New Girl and now starring on the BET network’s Being Mary Jane, actress Raney Branch is living the successful actress life these days. The Atlanta-born star started acting all the way back in kindergarten and hasn’t looked back!
The Levity Ball caught up with Raney to talk about moving to Hollywood, her current role on Being Mary Jane, her obsession with HBO’s Game of Thrones and why its important for her to be a positive role model for other African-American girls…
1. When did you first know you wanted to become an actress?
My parents would probably say in kindergarten when I was the star of my school’s play. But I remember the costume was itching, so definitely not that young! Then, at 15, I watched the Anthony Hopkins/Brad Pitt movie “Legends of The Fall” for the first time. I remember it being the first time I actually FELT LIFE. You know? That feeling of passion, power, rage, fear, hope – all at once. All in 2 hours. I was so moved by the performances. I knew I wanted to feel that way forever. I wanted to make people feel the way that movie made me feel. But then there was the whole become a politician and save the world thing I’d had going since I’d declared my presidential race back in elementary school. So it took me a while to finally get up the courage to explore that creative part of myself. Once I started acting, I was hooked.
2. Growing up in Atlanta, were there any specific local places you trained at for acting that helped you follow your path forward to becoming the actress you are today?
In college I had a very specific path I’d been on since high school – go to law school. So all my training previous to college was centered around foreign language and international studies. I actually ended up majoring in environmental studies with a minor in Arabic, but I also managed to find outlets for me to express myself creatively. I joined a theatre arts company called En-Acte that taught sex-education through musical theatre while in college. It really helped me find my voice, both as an artist and an advocate for others. I also took on-camera audition classes, scene study classes and honed my craft doing theatre around metro Atlanta.
3. What went through your mind when you first moved from Atlanta to the ‘city of stars’ Hollywood?
Why is gas $5?! Why are there 12 street signs on one pole? Why is rent for this ROOM $900?! Aside from those initial “how am I gonna eat?” questions, I was just so happy to finally be in the place I’d dreamt of being for a long time. Oh, and WHY. Is. It. Raining? That song by Tony, Toni, Tone – issa lie!
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
Spend more time loving the people you care about than worrying about your career. The career will come. But you don’t know how long you will have the people you love on this planet.
5. You now star on BET’s Being Mary Jane… how was it coming into an already loaded with talent cast?
It was really intimidating at first. I’m a huge fan of Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy and Lisa Vidal. So sometimes off set, I couldn’t even open my mouth to speak, I was just so in awe. But everyone was really awesome and warm. Most of my scenes were with Gabrielle, so getting to play opposite her and watch her do her work was amazing. From a craft perspective – getting to watch people you respect do their work is worth more than all the classes one could take.
6. What more can we expect from your character on the show this season?
My character Aaliyah is a publicist brought on to help Mary Jane with her image. Let’s just say…I have my hands full all season!
7. What is your dream role that you hope to play one day?
I would love to play a historically prominent woman of the African diaspora. As a little black girl growing up in the late 90s, I had very few positive images of black women in tv and film. We were either slaves, hypersexualized or stereotyped as poor, uncouth and uneducated. I’m really excited about shows like Being Mary Jane, Insecure, and Queen Sugar because they are exploring narratives about the African and African-American experience that Hollywood hasn’t wanted to show in the past. But I am even more excited about what comes next – as we gain more financial backing from Hollywood, venture capitalists, and others – man, think of how many more of our stories will break through. There is a whole history of the most ancient people of the world that has yet to be tapped!
8. We hear you are a huge Game of Thrones fan and that you even do interpretive dances before every episode?! Tell us more about those dance moves and what character on that show do you relate to most?
My dance has a lot to do with bad-ass Red Woman Melisandre and Arya Stark’s journey to becoming an assassin. And by the way – I use the term “dance” very loosely. My dance is like your pre-school niece’s first ballet recital – lots of jumping and twirling around, but you’re not exactly sure she realizes there are actual steps! But I am as serious about it as Drogon was when he burnt up all those people the other week! …In terms of character I identify with most… I’d say Dany. She has such a big dream – to truly be the absolute best. Yet she has had challenges along the way – expectations of who she is supposed to become because of her parentage and her gender; sexism; faith in something greater than herself but it constantly being tested…. I’m not trying to become the ruler of the 7 kingdoms, but I experienced similar challenges along this crazy journey of becoming a working actor.
9. Besides acting and interpretive Game of Throne dances, what else do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m kind of addicted to DIY projects on Pinterest. I made my side tables from an IKEA hack I found on Pinterest. I’m also designing some furniture pieces for my house now that my fiancé has accepted the fact that I’m making a lady cave when we get married.
10. Where do you see yourself and career in five years from now?
Definitely married to my amazing fiancé, writing my own projects, and being a lead on a show that stretches me as an artist.
11. And final question: What do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for my generosity. All the other stuff – success, fame, fortune, accolades – none of that really matters. All that matters is how we treat one another and if we left the world a little better.