Our November cover star, Cleopatra Coleman, opens up about exploring her biracial identity and finding her zen. “I’ve just realized the importance of the present moment. It’s literally all we have.”
While talking to actress Cleopatra Coleman, I learn a shocking truth: There are dead zones that can extend across whole communities in Los Angeles and that are impervious to whatever magic it is that makes cellphones work. And Coleman seems to be living in one of those dead zones now.
If this were the set-up to a sci-fi movie, it would probably be right up Coleman’s alley, but it’s just a case of poor reception. I’m listening about as hard as a person can, but I might as well be talking to a ghost calling from a subway pay phone circa 1983. I’m both talking to her and not.
When we try again, she’s all apologies. “It’s my fault,” she says in her warm Australian accent. “I moved to this house in the Hills, and I absolutely love it, but I get the worst reception. Which I kind of love, too, but it makes for annoying interviews.” But, bless her, she has left her house now, and I can finally hear her speak in complete sentences.
That’s good, because I, like you, have questions. For instance, “Who is Cleopatra Coleman?”
At the moment, that’s a fair question. After beginning her career in Australia, Coleman started popping up in American films and television around 2012, when she was cast in Step Up Revolution thanks to a childhood spent in dance.
But she didn’t stay in the dance world. Instead, she showed her funny side, holding her own playing opposite a couple of SNL heavyweights—first with Will Forte in the post-apocalyptic comedy The Last Man on Earth and then, in 2017, with Jay Pharoah in White Famous. More recently, she’s been playing in the sci-fi genre. And while sci-fi is a common stepping stone for a lot of young actresses, Coleman’s love of the genre feels genuine. Why else would she write and star in Hover, a sci-fi thriller about killer drones?
“I think it’s a really important genre,” she says. “I don’t know what about it attracted me. Maybe it was my parents. I used to watch this obscure British show called Red Dwarf, and I used to watch Star Trek. After that, I learned that Star Trek had the first interracial kiss on television. That was important to me. It’s a great way to hold a mirror up to society without being preachy.”
“I learned that Star Trek had the first interracial kiss on television. That was important to me. It’s a great way to hold a mirror up to society without being preachy.”
Her latest film, In the Shadow of the Moon (on Netflix), is a kind of time-travel crime thriller. It combines a propulsive plot with grim predictions. That’s not to say Coleman believes the dystopian future her flick reflects will actually come true. But it won’t not come true either. “I think probably both, right?” she says. “I think when you look at a Blade Runner-type world, everything is super-polluted, but then you have this great technology. We’re headed for some kind of combination of incredible technology and incredible amounts of famine and environmental issues.”
It’s something she definitely thinks about. “I try not to buy fast fashion, but it’s really hard,” she says. “I’ve always been a big vintage shopper, because I didn’t have money as a kid. Vintage clothing fits better, and you get so much satisfaction from clothes that have a story. But I don’t fly that flag too strongly, because where does it end? Driving, catching a flight…. They’re all really bad once you pull the thread.”
“I’ve always been a big vintage shopper, because I didn’t have money as a kid. Vintage clothing fits better, and you get so much satisfaction from clothes that have a story.”
But speaking of threads, Coleman’s character in the film is a cipher. It’s clear from the start that she’s some kind of badass assassin, but whether she’s a good badass assassin or a bad badass assassin is ambiguous because of Coleman’s soulful performance. Whether she’s running from the cop who’s after her or fighting him off, her physicality is undeniable, but her eyes stay filled with a poignant mixture of regret, pathos and faith. She’s able to occupy this space between cold-blooded determination and compassion in the same way that Linda Hamilton did in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and that Sigourney Weaver did in Aliens. And that’s saying something.
In the Shadow of the Moon is actually the second time-travel flick Coleman has starred in this year; earlier in the fall, it was a chronological comedy with Daniel Sterns. Up next, she’s sticking with comedy in Godfrey, with Iliza Shlesinger. These are all smaller films, but the momentum is undeniable. Prediction: The question “Who is Cleopatra Coleman?” won’t age well.
I ask her what she’s into these days. “Right now, I’m really into relaxing,” she says. She doesn’t just mean taking it easy. “I’m at this point where I’m not about material things—not that I ever really have been, but lately I’ve been in this kind of Zen place. I’ve just realized the importance of the present moment. It’s literally all we have. Any projections about the future are your ego, and any projections about your past are your ego; all you have is right now. I’m pretty hip to that right now, and it’s making me pretty happy.” Coleman comes by her Zen honestly. Her parents are both artists, and she was raised around guruism. It has helped her see the world a little differently.
This brings to mind the idea of liminality—the state of being in between. And much of what makes Coleman so intriguing is how she owns that state. “I’m biracial, so I’m the accepted version of what a black actress in America should be, and that has never been OK,” she says. “I can’t fulfill a character that is meant for a black actress. But the biracial identity is so interesting, and that’s something I do want to play. And it’s what I play anyway just by default, because it’s all-encompassing—it’s really fertile subject matter.”
“I’m biracial, so I’m the accepted version of what a black actress in America should be, and that has never been OK. I can’t fulfill a character that is meant for a black actress.”
To be clear, being biracial isn’t technically a liminal state—that would imply that she was in the process of changing skin colours. But it is outside. And you see the world differently when you’re outside. You can see how life works and how people react to it. You can take that all in, and if you’re Cleopatra Coleman, you can make it into something that hasn’t quite been seen before.
After all, if this is Cleopatra Coleman in between, it will be awesome when she arrives.