MEET Rachel Hilson: actress and a movement in the making. She speaks with SBJCT on her latest project, Love, Victor, on shifting the binary nature of environmentalism, sustaining activism, JOY, and more. Read on below…
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Erin Walsh I want to start a bit with your background. Can you fill us in a bit on your beginnings and what brought you first to NYC and then to LA? I bet our readers would LOVE to know a bit about your college thesis which I find to be absolutely essential.
Rachel Hilson I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and went to the Baltimore School for the Arts for high school, where I studied acting. After graduating, I enrolled in NYU Gallatin: School of individualized Study, which basically allowed me to create my own curriculum and “concentration.” I called mine “Writing and Performing Race” and explored the mythology of racial performance—that which is lived and embodied in everyday life and that which we see in art and media. Essentially, I studied theater, film, literature and myself through a racialized lens, which, as a black woman, I’ve kind of always done but more critically, I guess.
EW Walk me through some of your recent roles and what led you to Love, Victor.
RH Up until Love, Victor, my career had largely been one of guest work, which I’m so grateful for honestly. I’ve developed a lot of great relationships that way. I have the honor of playing Teen Beth on This Is Us, and some of the creatives on that show are also the masterminds behind Love, Victor. Things kind of just fell into place in a really special way. Very grateful!
EW Can you tell us a bit about your character and the project?
RH Yeah! Love, Victor exists in the same world as Love, Simon, the 2018 movie based on the book Simon and the Homosapien Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Love, Victor follows Victor, a teenager new to Atlanta, who’s on a journey of self discovery, particularly as it pertains to his sexuality. I play Mia, one of Victor’s first friends (and possibly more). She’s kind, compassionate, artistic and a bit of an old soul. She’s definitely struggling with some family trauma and trust issues when we meet her. She’s one of the more wealthy students at her high school, which has granted her a certain level of status and popularity, which she doesn’t necessarily want. I think she’s really just looking to be seen by someone, and I think she feels like Victor sees her.
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EW How do you start the journey of finding a character? I am curious both physically and emotionally what your process is…
RH It’s different every time. I don’t want to lock myself into any particular answer, but I guess one thing that is consistent is journal work. Writing about my character and as my character is always a part of it. Usually music, too.
EW You currently live in LA. You rode up to shoot with SBJCT on your bike which proudly posted a sign that read, “BLACK LIVES FUCKING MATTER”. Brava. Walk me through your role as an activist. What do you consider to be your social responsibility? There are so many layers to this, I understand, but let’s start on a daily basis, especially given the tremendous earthquake the world is experiencing in a Covid, BLM awakening. When you wake up, what are you hoping to accomplish each day?
RH I wouldn’t consider myself an activist so much as someone who understands what’s right and tries to encourage others to do what’s right? Well, maybe that is activism. I just feel like calling myself an activist diminishes the work of those doing the organizing and heavy-lifting. But I guess the resurgence of this movement is largely contingent upon all of our (sustained) “activism,” isn’t it? Whether on social media or in protests or in supporting black businesses. If all of that makes you an activist, I guess I’ve been one for a long time. Black people are born resisting, but I don’t know if that’s activism so much as survival.
EW What are you most proud of in terms of how you use your platform thus far?
RH I’m not sure! Just doing my best to share what I find happy and/or important right now.
EW What do you think are the most instrumental and practical ways people can begin to implement change with the BLM movement?
RH I definitely think making calls, sending emails, protesting, donating, and VOTING with your ballot and your dollar are the most practical ways that everyone can implement change. I also think bodily awareness is key–checking your biases and how they manifest, making literal space for black people and their voices, being an ally in real life. What I think is beautiful about change-making is that the ways that I go about bringing change will inevitably be different than the ways you or someone else goes about it. I think it’s important to analyze your strengths and use them in the best ways you can.
EW What are some of your favorite organizations that we should look into to help with this process?
RH I’ve learned about a lot of amazing new ones over the last few weeks. I’ll list a few. I think the best thing to do, since there are so many, is to research ones that resonate with you, especially on a local level. Color of Change, Marsha P Johnson Institute, National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and ACLU
EW Any sources of reading inspiration you find to be consoling at the moment?
RH I’m listening to an audiobook called The Hidden Life of Trees which has been kind of like an escape during this time. Really therapeutic and meditative.
Every major issue that we face today, including climate change, carries the legacy of racism and colonialism.
EW Tell me about the issues facing the black community with regards to the environment, and black environmentalism in particular.
RH It saddens me to think about a binary version of environmentalism. I don’t think it’s entirely incorrect; however, there is one environment, and black and brown people are very much a part of it. Our social injustices are environmental injustices. Every major issue that we face today, including climate change, carries the legacy of racism and colonialism. The impacts of climate change and environmental injustices have and will continue to negatively impact black and brown communities the most even though black and brown communities contribute to it the least. We saw this back in 2004 with Hurricane Katrina. We see it with the ongoing Flint Water Crisis. We see it in the impending loss of native land due to rising sea levels. We see it in communities where it is easier to find a bag of chips than it is to find fresh fruit. We see it in many different areas. I think the face of environmental issues needs to change and diversify. When I started my journey toward environmental consciousness, I was very much concerned with waste, particularly plastic waste. I still very much am! But I think it’s a little too fun sometimes. Fun water bottles and straws all entice people to care, but it’s almost null to be overly concerned with a plastic bottle–which is a mere signifier in a lot of ways–when water coming out of people’s taps is literally brown. In that respect, there is a huge need for bottled water! This is not to say that we shouldn’t still promote reducing waste–I definitely still do!–but I think the focus needs to shift more toward health, safety, and access, which ultimately goes back to giving a sh*t about the black and brown people of the world.
EW Rachel, there is so much WORK to do. What is high on your priority list right now?
RH I’m working on a passion project right now that I hope contributes to environmental equity.
EW What makes you hopeful at the moment?
RH November 3rd, 2020. Angela Davis said something that really resonated with me in regard to this upcoming election. She said that “the election will not so much be about who gets to lead the country to a better future, but rather how we can support ourselves and our own ability to continue to organize and place pressure on those in power. And I don’t think there’s a question about which candidate would allow that process to unfold.” With that, I’m hopeful.
EW First thought when you wake up?
RH Tea? That’s probably a bad answer.
EW Last thought before sleep?
RH Ooof, I’ve been just passing out lately.
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EW Physical routine that keeps you sane?
RH Bike rides and long walks or runs. Been going on walks from Hollywood to Venice and Hollywood to Highland Park. I’ll invite a friend (and wear a mask of course!) or go solo and listen to an audiobook. It’s been a good way to get to know LA more intimately.
EW Most integral source of inspiration for you as an artist?
RH Nature and my people!
EW Rachel Hilson, what’s your SBJCT? What drives you, really moves you?
RH My SBJCT is joy. Experiencing joy and helping others experience joy is what drives me.
EW Rachel, we will also design an action button that drives our readers to causes you would like to support. Can you kindly list some so we can bring attention to them?
RH The ones I listed earlier are all great!! As well as: Outdoor Afro, The Slow Factory, Indigenous Environmental Network, Climate Justice Alliance and Know Your Rights Camp.
Again, it’s so important to research and support local organizations that align with your values in addition to national and international ones! Buy local, support local. Go to your local farmer’s markets! Volunteer! Support black and BIPOC businesses!