‘Queen Sugar’ Star Bianca Lawson Is Changing How Addiction is Portrayed on TV (Exclusive)

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The actress opens up to ET about playing Darla and shining a light on addiction and mental illness.

OWN’s Queen Sugar may be centered around the Bordelon siblings and their fight to keep their sugarcane farm and mill churning; but Darla, played by longtime TV teen star Bianca Lawson (Pretty Little Liars, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), is a quiet force that’s breaking stereotypes by shining a light on addiction and mental illness.

Lawson was immediately drawn to the recovering addict and former prostitute who is trying to rebuild a life with her son Blue (Ethan Hutchison) and his father, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), because of “her survival instincts and her resiliency,” she tells ET. “I feel like even though her story is so sad, there is something very hopeful in terms of the worst things can happen to you, and you can do terrible things, but you can still start over. There’s hope for your life.”

Embodying the character has given Lawson a chance to play what is usually deemed an unflattering stereotype for black women -- “the crack-addicted mother” often avoided by many actresses -- in a different light. “I’ve never seen addiction portrayed like this before, where it’s so relatable and real instead of a movie version of addiction and mental illness,” she says, explaining that Darla’s roller coaster sobriety journey is one that many can relate to. “It’s complicated and messy like life is, and she keeps stepping up. I love how much growth Darla has had in spite of numerous setbacks.”

Darla’s evolution from season one starts with isolation; she is without a family, a relationship with her child, or a job. She’s forced to face her own demons and eventually makes her way to rebuilding her relationships with the Bordelon family, Blue and Ralph Angel, and holding a steady job. As season two progressed, more of Darla’s backstory was revealed.

“She comes from this family with a wonderful upbringing and still went down that path. Her mother struggles with addiction as well,” Lawson explains, adding that one of her favorite scenes is when Darla and her mother, Darlene (Michael Michele), are sitting at the piano in episode 14 (“On These I Stand”). It’s during that moment she reveals her regret over visiting some high school friends and hooking up with a random guy, who is potentially Blue’s biological father. “You get to see a side of Darla that you’ve never seen before. When she is playing the piano with her mother, there is a glimpse of that moment of happiness before any of the darkness happened, sort of like when things were still sort of pure and she had a bright future ahead of her.” 

Unfortunately, Darla’s world goes dark again as she attempts complete transparency by telling Ralph Angel that Blue might not be his son -- a bombshell of a secret revealed ahead of the season two finale. The fallout is quick, as the Bordelon family rallies behind Ralph Angel, and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) fires Darla from the Queen Sugar Mill in retaliation. 

With Blue’s paternity out in the open, Lawson says the season two closer, airing Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 9 p.m. ET, is really going to take viewers on an emotional journey. “It’s going to be surprising and revelatory. You won’t see it coming. It will probably be the most intense and moving episode yet,” she teases.

Bianca Lawson as Darla on 'Queen Sugar.' - OWN

Helping Lawson explore Darla’s journey and pull back the layers on her character’s addiction have been the women behind the camera -- a group of female directors all handpicked by creator Ava DuVernay, who continues to make good on her commitment to create opportunities for women of color. “It’s been very nurturing having all of this female energy around,” she says. “It feels like you are in a safe container to expose all of yourself and go to those heavy places within yourself. You let it all go and with such trust. I think that’s the thing that these directors and Ava provide, there’s such a sense of trust that I have with them that I can expose my soul.”

Of course, Lawson is no stranger to delivering emotion-filled performances on popular CW and Freeform teen dramas. But the actress, who has become notable for being decades older than her onscreen characters, explains that it’s a misconception that her career has only consisted of teen roles. “I have actually played older roles in the past. The majority of the parts were supernatural, so they were ageless,” says Lawson, who is now 38. She adds, however, that playing Darla has allowed her to bring more of herself and her own experiences to the table. “With this character, it’s the most complex, layered character that I’ve gotten to play. There’s a depth about this character that I haven’t gotten the chance to portray in other roles.”

And the impact is something the actress had never anticipated -- but she’s happy that it’s resonating with fans. “There’s never been a character in my life where I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that they can really identify with Darla, or they had a Darla that was their mother, or that was their daughter,” Lawson says. “There’s something really extraordinary about that: You’re having an effect on people’s real lives, as opposed to just acting on a television show. There’s a much deeper meaning to it, and that’s the most special thing about it.”