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SC native, ‘Mad Men’ actress Teyonah Parris finds success in new role

Teyonah Parris
Teyonah Parris Provided photo

South Carolina starlet Teyonah Parris is enjoying a run of successful movie and TV roles, with more on the way.

Parris played Dawn Chambers, Don Draper’s assistant on the AMC TV series “Mad Men,” then the fame-hungry Coco Connors in the Sundance breakout “Dear White People,” which follows four college students at a predominantly white university.

She is currently Missy Vaughn in the LeBron James-produced Starz comedy, “Survivor’s Remorse,” which offers a (fictional) look inside the mega-rich world of pro basketball. And she most recently landed a leading role opposite Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Hudson in the upcoming Spike Lee film “Chiraq,” a modern spin on the Greek comedy “Lysistrata.”

“I’m following my dreams, and it’s spectacular,” said Parris, speaking from a cafe in Los Angeles.

The Hopkins native now lives in New York but returns to the Palmetto State frequently to visit friends and family, she said.

After attending Lower Richland High School for two years, Parris graduated from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts in Greenville, and then went on to attend The Juilliard School in New York City.

With her second season of “Survivor’s Remorse” premiering at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Go Columbia talked to Parris about her role on the show, working on set with LeBron James and her embarrassing first day on “Mad Men.”

Could you talk a little bit about your latest role as Missy Vaughn on “Survivor’s Remorse”?

“Survivor’s Remorse” is a show on Starz. The show centers around a young man, Cam Calloway, who is newly drafted to the NBA. You follow him and his family as they experience his now being a superstar. Anything goes, and nobody is off limits for having a microscope put on them. Cam’s cousin Reggie manages Cam. I play Reggie’s wife. Missy (Reggie’s wife) comes from money and marries into this family from a rougher side of town. So the show explores different classes among African-Americans, which is exciting. You don’t get to see that done often.

And LeBron James is a co-producer. Is he around set?

He does come to set. When we filmed the first season, he was in playoffs, so he couldn’t come as much as he said he would have liked to, but he did come this past season. He even makes an appearance in Season 2, so viewers should watch out for that.

This is the latest in a string of big parts for you. Another being Don Draper’s assistant, Dawn Chambers, on “Mad Men.” What was that like?

“Mad Men” has been a blessing to me. It was such an awesome experience to be a part of that show.

Do you have a favorite Mad Men moment?

When I first joined the show, on my very first day, I was so excited and nervous and anxious. It was a big moment for the show, because Dawn is the first African-American to integrate the office. Everyone is excited. And I go to my desk in front of Don Draper’s office. So this chair is a swivel chair, but it only has three legs. I go to sit in this chair and I flip over! I’m so embarrassed and people start laughing and clapping. I’m such a clumsy person. That had to have happened.

And then you played Coco Conners in “Dear White People.” How did you approach that role?

“Dear White People” holds a special place in my heart. I call it the little movie that could because it was able to come together without funding. It started with a concept trailer released online that went viral. I loved Coco because she was so different from me. She believes assimilating is how she can get through life. She doesn’t deny she is black, but would much rather you don’t know she is black. I approached the role asking, “What is her motivation? What does Coco want?”

I’m following my dreams and it's spectacular.

Teyonah Parris on her career as an actress

How often are you in South Carolina? Do you still have friends or family here?

I was just there for a week visiting all my family. That last trip was exceptional because I met my new niece and nephew, who are 5 weeks old and 12 weeks old.

How has your family reacted to your screen success?

They’re so excited, they’ve always been so supportive – them and my drama teacher Rachel Cooper, who taught me from middle school drama through high school before I went to Governor’s School. She’s coming to the “Survivor’s Remorse” season two premiere in Atlanta along with my family. It’s important for me to show that young girl from Hopkins, South Carolina could really penetrate this industry and make a living doing it. I want other people from home to know it’s possible. It feels really good.