Lorraine Toussaint has a familiar face. The actress has been a stellar and steadfast presence in Hollywood productions for more than two decades, with recurring roles on Law & Order and Saving Grace, and parts in Hudson Hawk and Point of No Return, among many others.
But despite Toussaint’s familiar profile and constant appearances on the big and small screen, she’s far from a household name. That could finally change this awards season, with talk of Emmy and Oscar nominations for the 52-year-old actress’s work on two career-changing projects.
In September, Toussaint gave a pitch-perfect performance as a bereaved and betrayed pastor’s wife on the ABC drama Scandal that could land her a guest appearance Emmy nomination, industry insiders say.
The next month she won rave reviews and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her role as a heartbroken mother emotionally and financially supporting her two adult daughters in the indie darling Middle of Nowhere.
In both productions, the Juilliard graduate was playing a woman forced to fight for the love and respect she felt she’d earned—from her distant daughters in Middle of Nowhere and a husband no longer alive in Scandal.
“I love to see how a character unfolds off the page in a project,” said Toussaint over lunch in Hollywood. “I don’t always know how the character is going to turn out, even with the script being there. It’s not always clear where that character is going to take me. Or where I will take them. Sometimes the character will go into a completely different direction than I expected once the cameras start rolling. That’s what I love about what I do.”
Born in Trinidad, Toussaint moved to Brooklyn with her mother at age 10 and graduated from the Manhattan High School of Performing Arts in 1978. Graduation from Juilliard followed four years later. Blessed with height—she’s 5-foot-9—a distinctive gap in her smile, and a “tell-it-like-it-is” personality, Toussaint landed work quickly and frequently in Hollywood soon after her arrival in the 1980s. That track record has endured: today she has recurring roles on the television show Body of Proof in prime time and The Young and the Restless in daytime.
“She carries herself with a certain dignity on screen, so you never forget her even if you don’t know her name,” said Donald Bogle, a film historian and instructor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “She always portrays a strong black woman in her roles without being an angry black woman, and that’s key to her gift. She’s not sassy in the way many black roles have black women appear. She just tells it like is in her roles, and you believe her.”
Toussaint does just that in the critically acclaimed indie film Middle of Nowhere. She shines as Ruth, who struggled to raise two daughters and who’s unhappy with the choices they’ve made as adults.
“When I read the script, I saw a very complete, very complex, and very flawed woman,” said Toussaint. “I loved her and I wanted to play her because I’m a daughter, a mother, a black mother, and I know that character oh so very well.”
In one scene, Ruth writes a sizable check for her daughter whose husband is in jail. The money is to pay for his appeal hearing, and Toussaint conveys a tortured expression of anger, sadness, and dismay at the situation with just the raise of a perfectly arched eyebrow.
“She’s angry that she has to do it, but it’s for her child, so she’s going to do it,” said Toussaint. “That’s what mothers do for their children: whatever they have to. But it comes with a cost, and my character was making it clear that that check was going to cost her daughter, because she was going to hear about it again and again.”
Toussaint said she relished the opportunity to take on a character who expresses all that regret, resentment, and heartbreak, sometimes all in one scene. Such roles, she added, are rare for any actress of a certain age in Hollywood, but especially for women of color.
“I always loved Lorraine’s television work and lamented the fact that I rarely saw her in roles where she could really unleash all she could do,” said Middle of Nowhere director Ava DuVernay. “You always saw her talent shining through cracks in the stereotypes and caricatures she was handed to play.”
One role that didn’t include caricatures, though it easily could have, was Toussaint’s turn as Rene Jackson in the ’90s TV hit Any Day Now. In the ‘60s, Rene was a young black girl growing up in Alabama whose best friend (Annie Potts) was white. They lose connect as they get older but reunite after years apart and become close friends again. The show ran from 1998 to 2002.
“That is the beauty of her work,” said Bogle. “That role could easily morphed into the black woman taking care of the white woman and helping her with her problems. The black caretaker of her white friend. But Toussaint didn’t allow that to happen to her character. It was very balanced and nuanced, and that’s a credit to her skill as an actress.”
Bogle added that if Hollywood were a place of equal opportunities for actors, Toussaint would surely enjoy the fame and success of Samuel L. Jackson or Morgan Freeman, or even Melissa Leto.
“She is this amazing character actor that can do anything with a role,” said Bogle. “She just hasn’t had the opportunities those men have as men. What they’ve accomplished is amazing, but she is very much like Melissa Leo, who is in everything and is great in any role.”
Toussaint forged a tight bond with her co-star Potts while filming Any Day Now and remains close to the actress today. Potts recently hosted a viewing party for Middle of Nowhere at her Hollywood home.
“I just hope this is her time, finally,” said Potts. “Ever since I can remember she’s been this incredible actress, so let’s hope everyone sees it now because it’s always been there.”
Toussaint, who has an 8-year-old daughter, says there was a time when she thought she’d be more visible in Hollywood at a younger point in her life.
“I had this idea that some things would have happened for me sooner in my career,” said Toussaint. “I remember when Halle Berry won the Oscar and thinking how much so many of us [black actresses] thought that would be us up there winning too. I even told Halle that. But who doesn’t feel that way when they are young? If it does happen, it is the right time and a good time.”
Toussaint also knows that road to an Oscar won’t be easy, given that Middle of Nowhere received no Golden Globe nominations this week and is up for consideration in a year where films with strong black themes or characters are focused primarily on slavery. Lincoln and Django Unchained both received numerous Golden Globe nods.
“It will be what it is,” said Toussaint matter of factly. “This was a wonderful role in a wonderful film that came out when it was supposed to, if you believe in fate. I do.”