Dionne Brown Breathes New Life Into Queenie

Culture

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“When I got the part of Queenie, I was ecstatic,” says Dionne Brown, in between sips of Red Bull after a long, arduous press day in London. “But then afterwards it was like, ‘Oh, I’ve actually got to do it now. Yikes.’”

Such is the familiar plight of an actor who gets tasked with bringing a beloved novel to the screen. Queenie, the 2019 book by Candice Carty-Williams, was met with high praise and topped several bestseller lists in the U.K. The story follows the life of Queenie Jenkins, a 25-year-old Jamaican Brit who goes through a “quarter-life crisis” after a messy breakup with her longtime boyfriend. As she embarks on a rocky, yet rewarding self-love journey, we’re introduced to an ensemble cast of friends (affectionally called “The Corgis”), family, colleagues, and the occasional fuck buddy. The novel was named Book of the Year at the British Book Awards—making Carty-Williams the first Black author to win the prize. So can you blame Brown for being a little nervous?

“It meant so much to so many people and now there’s gonna be a direct visual of that, and it’s gonna be different,” says 28-year-old Brown. “I was putting a lot of pressure on myself because I don’t want to let people down, but it got to a point where I had to detach. People are going to have their opinion and they’re entitled to it. All we’re trying to do is make something that people can relate to. I think the people that relate to it will relate to it. And the people that don’t, won’t. And that’s fine.”

preview for Queenie official trailer (Hulu)

Like Queenie, Brown is also of Jamaican heritage and London-born. A trained dancer, she later pivoted to acting and studied with the National Youth Theatre before attending the Arts Educational School in London. When she graduated in 2021, she landed her first gig in the British miniseries The Walk-In and her second in Apple TV+’s Criminal Record. Around the time of her audition for the latter, she met Carty-Williams for the first time.

“I met Candice when I was auditioning for her show Champion,” she says. “I didn’t end up getting the part, but my agent told me they would love to have me tape for Queenie and I was like, ‘Of course, I would love to.’” She sent off her tape in October 2022 and the rest is history. “When I received the offer, I started screaming. I was so happy. I told my immediate friends and everybody was just like, ‘Fuck.’ It was such a joyous time, I have to say.”

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

<i>Queenie</i> by Candice Carty-Williams

The joy translates onscreen too, particularly when Brown shares the screen with the women who make up Queenie’s family: her aunt Maggie (Michelle Greenidge), Grandma Veronica (Llewella Gideon), and younger cousin Diana (Cristale De’Abreu). The dynamic was something that Brown really wanted to get right, as so much of their bond reminded her of her own family. “Queenie has a lot of strong feminine energy in her life,” she says. “I can relate to that. I only have one brother. There’s five of us, all sisters and aunts. I know what it’s like to grow up in a big Caribbean family. My house was so so full of love, full of noise, full of laughter, and full of anger at times. There were props on the set that reminded me of my own grandma’s house. There are so many things that are staples in the Caribbean community. I really wanted to dive into the feeling of home.”

While she approached most of her costars with a level of familiarity, there was one whom she had to keep a cool distance with. “For the relationship I had with Ayesha [Antoine], who plays my mom, I was like, ‘I’m gonna stay away from you.’ Our characters are not close. I was like, ‘You want closeness with me, but I just can’t give that to you.’ We were very pleasant with each other, but it was minimal. And when it came to the end, she was like, ‘I wish we spoke more.’ I just couldn’t.” Much of Queenie’s persistent sadness is the result of being abandoned by her mother as a child. Throughout the series, we first see her attempt to work through that grief on her own before finally seeking out therapy (much to the dismay of her Caribbean grandmother).

Queenie is sad and broken, but she’s so beautiful and smart… We were trying to encapsulate that.”

a group of people standing together

Latoya Okuneye//Lionsgate

Dionne Brown as Queenie.

The care Brown took to fully inhabit Queenie’s headspace caught the attention of Carty-Williams early on. “Dionne’s commitment to understanding who the character is was really something,” Carty-Williams, who also served as the show’s executive producer, told ELLE.com in April. “I could tell that she’d studied the novel and she would always ask me about Queenie’s thought processes, motivations, and feelings. Being able to discuss those things with her is why she was able to create her own version of Queenie.”

Brown’s dedication to making Queenie’s relationships believable also extended to her romantic prospects. Where the novel only paired Queenie with white men (which continues to garner much criticism), the show introduces a Black love interest, Frank (Samuel Adewunmi). Brown welcomed the change. “I feel like it’s giving her something,” she says. “Friendship love is important and powerful, but it’s not the same fulfillment you get from being loved correctly in a romantic way. All of the men that she has courtship with are white, which is fine. But it’s beautiful that she’s growing something with a Black man.”

She and Samuel shared a common goal: “We wanted to make it real,” she says. “Queenie is sad and broken, but she’s so beautiful and smart and he can see all of it. We were trying to encapsulate that.” Even the crew behind the scenes were swept up by their love story. “One day, one of the boom operators was like, ‘Is Frank coming back? I liked what you guys were doing.’ It’s little things like that that were really joyous for me.”

dionne brown

Disney/Ramona Rosales

I think that your emotions are excellent indicators, but they’re not the best navigators all of the time.”

And though men play a significant role in Queenie’s journey, Brown is also adamant about the fact that the story is really about the relationship she has with herself. “I think that your emotions are excellent indicators, but they’re not the best navigators all of the time,” she says. “We see her allowing her emotions to navigate rather than just indicate. And then she goes on a journey to really figure out what she needs and what’s going to make her happy. It’s about self-love.”

As Queenie finally makes its way into the world, Brown is holding close a similar lesson she learned while filming. “Accountability and forgiveness go hand in hand. Just because there are two things that are conflicting doesn’t mean they’re not attainable. I’m a big proponent of taking accountability for all the stages in my life. I think in doing that, sometimes I forget to give myself grace, but it’s needed.”

All eight episodes of Queenie are now streaming on Hulu.

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