Getting the opportunity to speak with Rachel Hilson, who is an incredibly talented performer in the Hulu series Love, Victor as well as on This is Us, was a distinct pleasure. Hilson is a multi-platform artist and poet and extremely plugged into important events happening around the world, especially at the time this phone interview was conducted. As you will read from the interview, Hilson did not shy away from speaking her truth, but at the same time intelligently balanced her thoughts about the importance of Love, Victor and what the series brings to her path as a performer.
The following is a condensed and edited version of a powerful interview with the candid and reflective Rachel Hilson.
Brief Take: You are incredible in this series, and though you were a recasting, it was said that they built the character around you. What was your starting point toward creating the character of Mia?
Rachel Hilson: Yeah, I was not originally cast. I kind of came in, I had a screen test I think on Monday, and then we started shooting I think on that Friday. Isaac (Aptaker) and Elizabeth (Berger) are incredible writers and they did give me a lot of great things to work with. She’s an artist and she comes from a wealthy background and she’s got some family issues, kind of like we do, she’s got some family trauma, I guess you could say. Her Mom’s not in the picture any more. I’ll usually journal in my character’s voice. I like writing things down, I’ll write down the lines and I’ll write down a little journal entry and a little description on my own. And music, I felt like my character Mia would be a Sade person. [laughs] I kind of imagine that her Mom maybe listened to Sade and that kind of became her thing. You kind of find new things as you go along, it was very quick the turnaround from getting the job, to hearing about the job, honestly, to even shooting. I feel like I built her in the first couple of episodes and it’s always an evolution.
BT: How important is it that this show is subverting traditional tropes and offers something we’ve never seen?
RH: Yeah! I love that about Isaac and Elizabeth, again. I love that they take an interest in stories outside of themselves and perhaps outside of what they know. How often do you even see a Black girl playing this popular—I hate the word “popular”, it feels very specific and limiting, but this popular girl at school even—Mason Gooding, he plays the jock, and I think it’s important to see diversity in these different roles and these kind of quote unquote “tropes”—I also don’t like the word trope. I think that as people, we are composed of many different layers, and I think that this show really highlights that. Michael (Cimino) is a Latinx teenager figuring out his sexuality and I’ve never really seen that before. I’m excited about all of those things.
BT: Tell me about the cast trip very early on to Big Bear Lake, which contributed to on-screen dynamics I imagine.
RH: [laughs] That was so much fun. We did that after the pilot, which was funny because everybody else was cast before I was by about a month or two, I think. So I had barely known these people. Like I had met them maybe three times [laughs] over the course of shooting the pilot. But that trip definitely connected us and honestly I’ve never done that with a group of cast members, but I think that’s a really cool thing to do. Because when you stay together—when you live together for even a few days, which I think was four or five days—you’re kind of forced to connect and bond. That was a lot of fun. We cooked and hiked and played board games.
BT: Speaking of board games, the scene in which Catan was explained to you by Anthony Turpel‘s character was one of my favourite scenes in the series. What were your favourite scenes to shoot?
RH: I don’t know if you remember the sushi scene with Michael. That was fun to shoot, just because I kept dropping the sushi in my chopsticks. I loved all of my scenes with Mason (Gooding). Mason is one of my good friends now and he’s so much fun to work with. We had a few really fun scenes, we had a grilled cheese scene—there’s food again, which was fun with which to work. Obviously, the ferris wheel scene is one of my favourites. Oh, and working with Bebe Wood. Honestly, there was never a dull moment shooting, overall. It was a really, really great group of people.
BT: There is a heartbreaking scene towards the end of the show in which you break down in the arms of Sophia Bush. What was it like to play that scene?
RH: Oh, I love Sophia! She’s so cool. Yeah, Mia goes through a really interesting journey and we leave it a little bit unfinished. She’s stepping into this new…I feel like all the characters are going through this, their own little metamorphosis, but yeah!…I think it’s really interesting for what Mia’s classmates is obviously something very different than what is going on at home. And I think that it’s really nice to see that kind of contrast, because it does, again, highlight how we are all complex as humans, especially as teenagers, and her journey in particular with her Mom no longer being in the picture and her Dad having this new woman in his life, I think she’s just afraid of losing people, losing this person who is there for her. And I think that’s why she connects with Victor, because she feels like he sees her in a way that other people have not. And yeah, Sophia is amazing, just in general. I don’t know if you follow her on Instagram, but she’s really awesome, she’s an activist and everything.
BT: Your work on This is Us is phenomenal. You really capture the essence of the character of Beth. What do you enjoy most about playing Young Beth and working with Niles Fitch and being a part of the series?
RH: It’s amazing, a great honour. Every single person on that show, from the writers to the actors to the crew members, are honestly incredible, which is something that you don’t always find. It’s a joy to be able to work on that show. I love playing Young Beth, I think Susan (Kelechi Watson) has given me a lot to work with, as far as how she’s gone about playing Beth, she does it beautifully. I think the cool thing about this show is that you do find consistencies between these characters over the course of their lives, but they are—at the end of the day—individuals, and I think the show and the actors and the writers do a great job of allowing to create these unique, rounded humans at every age. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. Niles (Fitch) is the greatest and he’s so funny and yeah, everybody is wonderful. I love working on that show!
BT: You’re an accomplished artist, poet and dancer. Who inspires you?
RH: Who inspires me? My Mom. Yeah, my Mom. I know that’s a cliché answer, but she’s always been the one that has encouraged me to stretch myself. I mean I can say actors, but I think that’s boring. Can I just stick to my Mom?
BT: What have you been quaranstreaming?
RH: I’ve recently been watching this show called Random Acts of Flyness on HBO. It is soooo good and it’s so underrated. I don’t know why it hasn’t gotten the visibility or publicity that I feel like it deserves. It’s like a sketch show mixed with documentary, mixed with comedy and satire, and it’s just so well done. It’s all about Black culture and it kind of dispels myths and it also like creates new myths, and it’s really, really, really beautiful. It’s by Terence Nance, he writes, directs, creates it, acts, he does everything. Highly, highly recommend that. I’ve also been watching Little Fires Everywhere, which I thought was awesome, Normal People, also on Hulu.
BT: What is something in performing that you would like to do that you haven’t had a chance to yet?
RH: Ooh! I want to do theatre, I would love to do theatre. I would love to do Shakespeare. I’d love to play Cleopatra, or I don’t know, Ophelia in Hamlet. Yeah, I would love to do more classical things, more period things. I love history.
BT: How much do you get into a character like Mia? What do you take with you and what do you leave on screen?
RH: Hmm, to quote Meryl Streep, I hate that I’m doing this, because, I mean I love Meryl Streep, I love Meryl Streep to death. But we all know she’s the Queen. And she had this quote, she said that: “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there”. And I think that’s a really beautiful way of thinking of things. I think you’re always there in those characters, obviously. You commit as best you can to these characters, especially when you’re working on a show, it’s like three months in which you’re this one character, eventually you do go home with these characters at some point, but…I don’t really know the answer to that. It’s funny, I don’t know if I have a formula for any of it. I mean obviously you learn things in school and you gain tools as you do more jobs and you find what works for you, but I feel like on set you commit the best that you can and whatever that looks like for you…yeah!
BT: What do you think about Hulu’s decision to move forward your premiere to not be on Juneteenth?
RH: I think it was the best decision that could have been made. I think that it was a really, really wise and important decision. I think that day deserves all the space and attention and focus that it deserves. I don’t know why it’s not observed more widely. I feel like among my Black friends and my Black community acknowledge the day, but it hasn’t really been acknowledged widely ever, or by mainstream culture, which is I guess a kind of reflection of this new movement and new age into which we are stepping. Yeah, I am very excited about that.
BT: What does this new age mean to you as a performer and as a person?
RH: It’s been interesting these last couple of weeks. I feel like watching Black people die and be killed is unfortunately nothing new and it’s always been a part of my life, and it’s been interesting kind of watching the rest of the world really open their eyes to it and really wake up and understand what is happening. And it’s a good thing, it’s exciting that we’re moving into this new direction with this awareness, but it has been challenging because I think for so long, a lot of it felt kind of silenced or just ignored. I don’t know, I don’t think that things can really go back to the way they were pre-pandemic, pre-(new) civil rights movement, I guess that is what we are calling it. I’m looking forward to what this future holds for righting history, and right now it’s kind of crazy and exciting.
BT: What do you think is the role of art in terms of changing the culture?
RH: I think art is extremely important in making change. We’ve seen it happen over the course of history and we have seen it happen in recent years. But instead of it feeling like: “Oh, this is cute, I’m glad that they’re making things for Black people with Black people in them”. I think people are now understanding that it’s more than that, it’s always been more than that. Putting Black people in films and hiring Black writers and directors has always been about more than optics. Yeah, that is exciting.
BT: Do you select your roles based on what is important to you?
RH: Yeah! I hope that with every role that I take, that somebody, somebody can relate to the character. At least one person will, I think. None of us are confined to these boxes, nobody is just one thing. And I think this is the beauty of art, is that audience members or viewers can find something about a person and through that see themselves, whether they’re Black or white or gay or trans…whoever they are, they can find some sort of humanity in the roles that I play.
BT: What would you like viewers to take away from this series?
RH: I think there’s a little bit of everything in it, and I hope that people are excited to see these beautifully diverse faces and stories, and as I was saying, realizing that they don’t have to fit in one box. They don’t have to be limited to a label. Our journeys toward self-discovery will be constant. We’re always evolving, and that is OK—it is part of the journey.