Yvette Nicole Brown
Photo credit: Tina B. Henderson
Perhaps you know her smiling face from TV commercials or the numerous roles she’s had on situation comedy shows, among them, NBC’s The Office, HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasmand Entourage. Maybe you recognize her trademark scowl and eyebrow roll or tune in each week to see her hilarious character, Shirley Bennett, on the popular NBC primetime sitcom,Community. It might be her familiar voice as “Cookie” in the animated series, Pound Puppies.
Either way, funny lady Yvette Nicole Brown is someone you won’t soon forget. I spoke to her about the fame she’s enjoying and her road to stardom.
Sandra Varner (Talk2SV): You are becoming one of the most recognizable faces on TV with a penchant for unique character portrayals, not to mention your role on the successful sitcom, Community. What makes Yvette Nicole Brown standout in the most competitive industry there is?
Yvette Nicole Brown (YNB): I never knew that I was a standout so I’m really happy to hear that and thank you. I think if it’s anything, it’s probably how grateful I am and the joy that I have to be an actor. There’s not a lot of us with my skin tone or my body size that are allowed to have a shot at this so the fact that I was able to be on a show (Community) that has lasted three years is just a great blessing. Maybe it’s the joy that I feel every day going to work; people see it and maybe that’s what makes me stand out, if I do at all.
TalkSV: Gratitude and appreciation for one’s work does speak volumes. One particular character trait I’ve noticed is your ability to communicate through a range of hilarious facial expressions. Is this a characteristic that you’ve worked to perfect or are they just instinctive reactions?
YNB: I think they’re just instinctive reactions. I have a very expressive face and a big old apple head so I think that everything I’m thinking crosses my eyes and my eyebrows– it just kind of shows up. I come from a funny family. My mom is hilarious. Growing up, she always made our lives so much fun. I think many times it’s just me hearkening back to the things that I saw her do as I was growing up. So, it’s probably a little bit of mom along with having an expressive face.
Talk2SV: How did growing up in East Cleveland, Ohio enhance your sensibilities as an actor?
YNB: I grew up in a single parent home with my mom and my brother. We didn’t have money when I was coming up so we had to be creative, especially around Christmas time. When it came time to entertain ourselves we would put on plays, write songs and that kind of thing to entertain my mom because she was always working so hard. And, on her part, she was always trying to make ends meet. She didn’t want us to see the struggle so she would always come in the house with a big smile on her face. Whatever play or skit we had created after an eight or nine hour day of working, she’d come in excited to see it even though she was probably very tired. I think that informed my work ethic now: put a smile on your face no matter how you feel. That little performing spirit was in me as a kid because we were performers for my mom and I think that’s how it has colored my acting now.
Talk2SV: You started performing as a kid. When did you know that you were good at it?
YNB: I still don’t know that I’m good at it…sometimes I can’t believe they’re letting me work (laughter). I don’t think I’ve ever given a performance and thought, ‘yeah, look at me.’ I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I know that I am at least doing the bare minimum that’s required because I keep getting a paycheck and I haven’t been fired. I always try to be better. I hope that I make people laugh; I hope that I lighten their load in these strange times and that’s all that I could ask for as a performer.
Talk2SV: Speaking of “strange times,” you mention that you are still getting a paycheck, particularly in an industry known for uncertainties. Are you a good money manager?
YNB: Oh I’m a great money manager. I grew up poor and my goal was to never go back. Even before I started acting, when I was an office temp, I was a very good manager of my money. I saved, always saved more than I spent and I always decided that I would save at least five or six years below the standard of living that I had achieved. When I was working, I had a full time job; I was still living as an office temp. Now that I am a series regular, I’m still living as if I’m a guest star. I don’t even pay attention to the money that comes in above whatever that level is. That money always gets put away and invested and so forth so I can give to my mom, my brother, friends and whatnot, as times goes on. I don’t ever want to be a burden. I always want to be a blessing, so I save.
Talk2SV: This is a rare discussion we’re having and I love hearing you say these things. It is easy for someone in your position to become pompous, arrogant and off-putting, particularly in this business. You’re a treasure.
YNB: Oh my, thank you; I know where my blessings come from. I feel that if I ever got high minded the Lord would come down and let me know who was really in charge (laughter). I tend to give him the glory first– he ain’t got to remind me who is running things. It’s easy to stay humble if you know who you are.
Talk2SV: You are self-deprecating, making jokes about yourself as well, earlier, referring to the size of your head. Conversely, I think you have the best head of hair in the business. Who is your stylist?
YNB: My stylist is Janet Moore. Loretta styles my hair on Community. Sometimes I’m wearing a wig on the show. Last year, I had my own hair and I love my hair. Earlier, I was talking about my big old apple head. I have a certain shape head that makes me look like an apple. I don’t know if it’s a Cleveland staple but a lot of my family members have apple heads too. (laughter)
Talk2SV: Laughter comes easy when talking to you. Have your ever done stand up?
YNB: I have not. I have a great respect for stand ups. Lonnie Love is a close friend, Sheri Shepard is a close friend and I see the work that goes into crafting the perfect joke. I’m not one of these people that have ever believed that I can do all things. I could do all things right, but as an entertainer I believe that there’s some things that you can excel in and there’s other things that you’re just OK at. I never wanted to do something if I couldn’t excel so I leave the comedy to the professionals and I just say funny things that people write for me. It’s not an easy craft to stand in front of a brick wall and take a microphone and talk about your life and lighten people’s load so no I’ve never tried it and I probably never will.
Talk2SV: Several celebrities are choosing national weight loss programs to shed pounds. Is that in your foreseeable future?
YNB: Yeah, look, I’m sure that if you were a chubby girl and now (after losing weight) you can go out and buy those super cute tiny clothes or maybe you can walk up a hill a little easier, perhaps it would make you happier. I haven’t lost weight to know what that may feel like but, again, I get up a hill just fine and the clothes that I buy are cute too. I don’t see it (my size) as anything that needs to be fixed. Now, I’m not saying that that’s what others feel; I’m sure they are making the best decision for their lives just as I’m making the best decision for me and mine. One day, if I lose weight and I decide that I want to go down that route, that’s a decision I’ll make at that time but, as of right now, I’m fine.
Talk2SV: Shed some light on the casting process that landed you the job on Community?
YNB: I auditioned along with every single black woman on the planet. We all laugh when I see all my friends in the industry, since that day. Everybody I know of a certain age, almost every race, auditioned for the show at some point. They had pretty much color blind casting. I later found out that my character, Shirley, was supposed to be a middle aged white woman. I walked in, 30-something and black and they were like, OK. It just kind of fit my story. I refer to people as ‘pumpkin’ and ‘sweetie’ so when I read the script, I said to myself, ‘Oh, my goodness, this character uses my language.’ So, I thought, this (role) might be OK for me. I went in and I auditioned the first time with the casting director and the creator. Then he called in a couple of other producers so I auditioned twice. From that day forward and maybe two or three days later, I found out that I was going to be moving on to perform in front of the studio executives, which is very grueling and crazy-making. Then, they used a tape of me from that performance and showed it to the network and that’s how I got the show.
Talk2SV: As we close, describe the typical day in the life of Yvette Nicole Brown, who is on her way to becoming a household name.
YNB: A typical day: if I’m doing Community, I’m usually up and in the make up trailer by 5:30 a.m., on a Monday, that’s our first day of production. I’m usually there from 5:30 in the morning until maybe 7 or 8 at night. We usually do about 14 to 16 hour days, going over different scenes and so forth. We have an hour or a half an hour lunch break and that’s the grind. On a non-work day, part of the day could include a radio tour that begins at 6:00 in the morning. That could last all day. From there, on that particular day, I left to record a voiceover. So that was a typical day when I’m not working. You’re always either doing the show or promoting the show or in a lot of cases, doing something as the occasion warrants. That’s what I think is important in the event I do become a household name. I would use it to promote worthy things and causes just so that I can say, ‘thanks for coming, have you heard about thisgroup.org, have you heard about Lollipop Theatre, have you heard about Amazing Grace Conservatory.’ It’s a great way to let people know about projects that you believe in that are helping other people. I don’t believe God wants anyone to say, ‘look at my success.’ It’s not about amassing a lot of money; it’s not about amassing fame. It is about using the money and any recognition I have to bless others. If I don’t use it to do that, I have failed.