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Gabrielle Dennis cannot stop laughing. In HBO’s Emmy-winning sketch comedy series A Black Lady Sketch Show, Dennis plays more than a dozen characters to represent the Black female experience through absurdist humor. In Apple TV+ sci-fi dramedy The Big Door Prize, she stars as Cass — the wife of Chris O’Dowd’s Dusty and mom to their daughter (Djouliet Amara) — a homemaker looking for a sense of purpose in unique ways outside of her small-town life. Here, Dennis talks about how she got her start, the significance of Black identity and finding yourself.
DEADLINE: You used to be a camera operator before switching to acting. Tell me about that time of your life and its influence on your career.
GABRIELLE DENNIS: Being a camera operator [after college] at a local news station, was very much me being one of a kind, while I was there. And it wasn’t that I was really thinking of it in the sense of, ‘Oh, I can be groundbreaking in this space.’ It was just more of, ‘How do I get to the next level?’ And for me, looking around, no one looked like me behind the camera, behind the scenes. The camera operators and floor directors were older, mostly white men. And so, there was this environment based on seniority, and I was like, ‘So I got to wait for one of these guys to either die or retire. I don’t have that kind of time.’ [Laughs] So that’s when I decided [to pursue acting].
I guess it was very naive or brazen of me to feel like I was deserving of more so quickly in that space. But I think it was just that hunger of coming out of the program at Howard University, and putting in all those hours and feeling like you were learning something and excelling in something, and then someone puts the brakes on that. It scared me a bit to the point of trying to go ahead and see this other fear that has been lying dormant for so long. It was like, ‘Heck, if this is going to be scary, why not go and pursue something scary but also something that I have a true passion for?’ So, I am grateful to this day that that job said ‘no’ to me for the promotion. When they told me ‘no’, I felt like it was the first of many great ‘no’s that I got in my career.
DEADLINE: A Black Lady Sketch Show is groundbreaking because it’s the first show of its kind in the sketch comedy space. What has it been like being a part of this journey?
DENNIS: It’s been amazing because I’ve been able to have a front-row seat to the show growing. And I’ve had a front-row seat of watching Robin [Thede] basically accelerate the careers of so many people or help add to the progress in their careers. It’s a show that’s been placed on a platform where it’s been nominated and has won Emmys. It’s exciting to be a part of a show where people on the other side of the camera are at home watching and there are little girls, young women and full-grown adults who are being instilled with new dreams or re-found dreams and are finding ways to be inspired. And it’s not just by the actors, but because we have all these amazing female Black women directors and writers.
It’s also exciting not just as a cast member, but also just to be a fan of what this show has and can continue to do for Black women in the industry. I’ve got to make great friends with such an amazing, talented cast and watch them grow and have a blast. I say this all the time, it’s also the hardest job I have ever had when it comes to acting. Because of the muscles it already takes in comedy, then compound that and up the ante with it being sketch comedy. And then, we’re doing dozens of characters — I always forget the count — but I’ve done between 30 and 40 characters just in Season 4. And we’re squeezing those into a three-month shooting schedule. So, you’re really pounding the pavement, and it’s fun. But part of the fun is the challenge. It’s like, ‘How do I come up with another voice or posture or something that sets this character apart from the 200 other characters I’ve already done?’ So, being a part of the four seasons has definitely challenged me and has allowed me to grow as an artist. And it’s instilled a different level of confidence in myself, like the amount of insanity that we do on the show. There are things that you’d never think in your wildest dreams, I would do. So, to be able to do them and pull them off, then they become fan favorites that people discuss and resonate with, is really special.
DEADLINE: How do you continue to elevate yourself in comedy, especially after being on the show for four seasons?
DENNIS: I love that I get the ability to grow. But also, as an actor and performer, our training involves everything from Shakespeare to pointe ballet. I went to a performing arts school and was trained as a triple threat. So, to be able to go to work and pull some of those tools out of my belt and do them on the grand scale of an HBO platform, it’s amazing.
This season, I do a ballet-dancing character. Where else would I get that chance on any other shows that I’ve done? I’ve gotten to play this gang leader who is very passionate about quality control and a great work environment. And where would I get a chance to practice these accents and do all of that? I love being able to utilize all of my gifts.
DEADLINE: The Big Door Prize is a comedy that leans into drama. What’s that genre switch-up like?
DENNIS: This is one of those shows where the writers do such a good job of reeling you in at the end of each episode.What I love is that this was something different than anything I’ve ever done. It was a nice opportunity to work in a space with Apple TV+, working with Chris O’Dowd and David West Read, who’s responsible for Schitt’s Creek. And what intrigued me most about the script was once I read it, I couldn’t really give a one or two-line blurb about what it was about. I had an emotional connection to it. I was interested to dive in and figure out what this warm and fuzzy feeling was and see if it would continue.
Then getting to speak with David to help develop this character from the novel the show is based on was exciting. There was something so different and magical about the process that I liked. Also, I’m trying very hard not to be boxed into just one thing. I would say that Jamie Foxx has been the epitome of what I think an ideal artist is. In performing art school, we did blind casting, we had Black Cinderella, white Cinderella, Asian Annie, Black Annie. So, for me, we were not taught to put limits on ourselves. So, I started feeling like, ‘OK, I haven’t done comedy in years.’ And then Robin came and snatched me out of that space to do sketch comedy. But for this, I was like, “I don’t want to just be known for one type of comedy either.” I feel like there’s not another show on TV remotely like this.
DEADLINE: Your character Cass is interesting. She comes across as a perfectionist, but while she maintains this façade, it seems she’s trying to really find her purpose outside of being a wife and mom. How do you read her?
DENNIS: Well, for me, I feel like Cass and I are both pretty adventurous. I feel like she has an adventurous spirit and energy in the sense that she was willing to try the machine and became a believer in it, and really wanted to see where it took her. But one of my favorite scenes in the show is when she opens the closet, and you see all these boxes of like, ‘Cass is this, Cass is that.’
She’s been scatterbrained all over the place in her life, trying to find herself. I feel like I identify with that. I’ve done restaurant management, I’ve done dancing. I’ve done all these things in my background to finally get to where something really sunk in. And I feel like we all are chasing that thing, we’re finding ourselves in some way or another. And although I’m not a wife and a mother, I have found myself trying to make sure that I’m not only identified as one thing, whether it be just an actor or someone’s daughter or trying to be a full human.
And I think that’s Cass’ quest. There’s that parallel where she and I are trying to find growth in self, in trying to find pure purpose. And happiness really, for me, I think, is the biggest thing. There’s this scene where Dusty just asks her, “Are you happy?” And she has this pregnant pause, and I intentionally did that, because that is a triggering question to ask someone if they’re in a vulnerable moment and it could be just waterworks.
I think all of us struggle with that question of happiness at some point that this show’s existential themes and questions go through. Specifically with Cass, just the journey with her was really fun, to find that she’s this lost soul finding herself in a way. But there’s some beauty in that, because you want to root for her to find herself. You want to root for her to plant her feet under herself, for herself.