The ‘Vice Principals’ star reflects on her rise and that of her former Off-Broadway co-stars Sterling K. Brown, Brian Tyree Henry and Andre Holland.
At the 69th Primetime Emmys, Sterling K. Brown took home his second consecutive Emmy, this time for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for This Is Us. It was another marker of success for the unofficial graduating class of actors -- Brown, André Holland (The Knick and Moonlight), Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta and This Is Us) and Kimberly Hébert Gregory -- that starred in the 2009 Off-Broadway production of the Brothers/Sisters Plays by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Moonlight earlier this year.
“Look at us now: an Oscar winner, two-time Emmy winner, and all of us working and winning at the same time,” Gregory tells ET. “I’m filled with joy, pride and humility. We came from a place of working in the theater and scraping just to get by. We all trained hard and studied at various schools, and I truly feel it’s a confluence of our ancestors that runs through us in this moment.”
For Gregory’s part, she’s enjoying a breakout year on TV thanks in large part to sharing the screen with Danny McBride and Walton Goggins as Dr. Belinda Brown on HBO’s Vice Principals, which recently returned for its second season. “What I love about Dr. Brown is she could care less! She knows who she is, and there are big parts of Kimberly that stand in that now,” Gregory says. “She has helped me to be confident in my life and my work.” Her confidence has also landed a series regular role on the upcoming ABC series Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, which caps off a year of TV work that’s seen her in multiple episodes of everything from Better Call Saul to The Guest Book on TBS.
“If IMDB says it, then it must be true,” she says matter-of-factly of the fact that she’s played no fewer than five characters on five different major networks in 2017. “To let my mother tell it: When I was a child, I told her that I was going to win an Oscar. However, as I grew in my craft, I started out confident that I was going to do theater. Theater was my thing, and I was very happy to be doing it. So to be here, at this moment, is rather odd because up until four years ago, I was very happy to do the hustle of theater.” That hustle included a 2012 Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play for Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
“I loved my character, Lottie, for the simple fact that I think she is such a relatable actress. Lynn wrote an actress role for an actress. It was an actress of color, of a certain size, at a certain time in history. So I really loved jumping into Lottie and I do feel like that character and that piece opened doors for me on-camera, which I was shocked by,” she revealed to Backstage.
Gregory, much like her former Brothers/Sisters co-stars, is now all over the screen, but she looks back on their time at The Public Theater in New York City with pride, saying that, at that time, it was the biggest opportunity for any one of them. Yet, there was so much “black excellence” in that room.
Gregory’s humility through all the success is what continues to shine brightest as she acknowledges the importance of black female representation onscreen and the visibility needed within the industry for all types of characters. “I remember, four years ago, being told by someone that I was too large for the camera—not in terms of size, but in reference to theatrical presence. However, Hollywood thought different and I landed my first role on Private Practice, which I didn’t know at the time was a Shonda Rhimes show.”
For Gregory, this point was important, as over the past few years there’s been an expansion of black women both in front of and behind the lens, with the likes of Rhimes and Ava DuVernay creating and producing TV. When talking about this idea, the actress makes reference to Empire star Jussie Smollett, who recently referred to black women as “the origin.”
“Being a black woman in this moment, I feel it is a great time to remind ourselves and the world [of our] black femininity and black womanhood,” Gregory says. “We are the origin. If you can’t respect and get into [it], you’re the problem. Let’s take up more space. Let’s remind people and remind everyone there is origin here.”
Taking up more space is something the actress is passionate about, as she hopes to expand her career behind the scenes. “Writing is something I’m ready to explore; creating content that tells stories and more storytelling of people who are similar,” she says. “I foresee myself transitioning to producing and directing; it’s just in my personality to do so. It might be nice to have agency in the work that I’m creating in the future.”
Gregory is energized by having the opportunity to stand proud in her blackness and her womanhood, letting the world know it will have to deal with it. “Dr. Brown is a fully realized character as a black woman,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard to see full black femininity. Let it love. Let it lose. Let it break but let it stand strong. Let it be hard but let it be soft.”