EXCLUSIVE | Mrs America's Bria Henderson on 'unsung hero' Margaret Sloan and how Cate Blanchett gave her chills
In an interview with MEA WorldWide, Henderson says she didn't know about Margaret Sloan until she started researching on her and this is how she prepared for the role
Dahvi Waller's 'Mrs America' has set a lot of waves in motion since its April premiere. From sometimes glorifying by humanizing anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) to sashaying the thrilling rise to the top and eventual aftermath of the Equal Rights Amendment, the show has been controversial and fierce in its own partly FX, partly Hulu way. Set in the '70s, the show sees the first onslaught of the term 'tokenism' through Bria Samone Henderson's Margaret Sloan. But what really captures the intrigue is that Bria's Margaret wasn't just a made up token to insert the concept into the plot. Margaret was one of the most prolific black feminists of her time, who would travel to colleges all over the country with Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) to speak on sexism, racism and women's politics.
Spilling to us all the details about this rabbit hole she indulged in to research who Margaret was and what she stood for, Henderson exclusively shared with MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) what a 'beast' the cast of 'Mrs America' is to work with. But first things first, and that is her Eureka moment of discovering the person she was going to embody for the screen. "It’s truly an honor and a blessing to bring this woman’s story to the screen in such a major way," Henderson says of her experience, adding: "I was drawn to the role of Margaret because of the woman she was. I’m constantly figuring out what kind of artist I want to be and this project helped me to figure that out. I want to tell stories about women who look like me and share some of the same experiences. You will see a little of how Margaret had to navigate these spaces, like the feminist setting, and find her own place that would not force her to sacrifice parts of herself to push an agenda forward."
We meet Margaret on the show in an editorial meeting of Steinem's Ms Magazine where people on board are pitching story ideas and Margaret addresses the issue of tokenism in the office. Today we are no stranger to the concept, with 'South Park' pretty much dedicating a whole black character to tokenism by naming him 'Token'. But back in the day, clearly, the likes of Steinem and her oblivious coworkers had little clarity on the bias and mockery they were showing toward people by reducing them to capabilities and mannerisms akin to their race, color and ethnicity. Margaret's attempt at addressing the issues she has faced earns her Steinem's sympathy and encouragement to report the same. In real life, however, even half a century later, the issue isn't a thin whiff in the air. "I’m not sure if we have actually come far," Henderson reflects on the dynamics of tokenism in today's world. "I know that as a black woman and as an artist, I still find myself in spaces where I am fighting to show that I am more than whatever box people freely put in. We still have a long way to go."
That said, Henderson is doing her due bit to spur us forward that "long way to go" by deep diving into characters like Margaret and exploring their niches of feminism, even though Henderson was just as unaware of Margaret being a real person as anybody else. "I had no idea Margaret was real until the callback when I was asked, by casting, to not wear makeup. Luckily, my common sense kicked in and I researched her and dove into a rabbit hole to find out everything I could about her," Bria recounts her journey to the curious world of Margaret Sloan. "I did as much research as I could," she says, adding, "There’s not a lot of information on her but I was able to find some recordings of her when she toured college campuses with Gloria Steinem to speak on sexism and racism. I also found an interview she did in 1977. So being able to listen to her voice and watch some of her physicality, I was able to adopt some of those 'Margaretisms'. My biggest character study was digging into the script and making sure I told the full story in all of the scenes by figuring out what was on the page and what was beyond it."
She also teases how her Margaret "...does come back for a full-circle moment in the later episodes; you’ll have to watch to find out." Henderson can't stop gushing about her favorite moment from the show, which is surprisingly non-Margaret. All the way in Episode 5, Phyllis and her husband Fred Schlafly, get into a debate with progressive liberal married couple Brenda and Marc. Soon, the conversation turns to gender-specific roles within a family and ends with a post-debate argument between Fred and Phyllis. "Fred leaves and Phyllis slaps herself and regroups," Henderson tells us about what moved her. "Cate Blanchett is a genius. The silence of that scene gives me chills and her breathe work is just delicious. I love watching actors. And I look forward to what Cate does every episode."
Blanchett isn't the only one to have captured Henderson's breath. Byrne's Steinem is also one of Henderson's favorites and not just because she's an "easy artist to worth with". Henderson touts Byrne as "collaborative and patient in the story-building process. Not only does she look the part, but she fully embodies who Gloria was and is. It’s a complete transformation. I found myself just staring at her on set because I couldn’t get over the fact that she looks just like her." Henderson will also have you know that "Blanchett and Uzo Aduba are masterful beasts. It’s so refreshing to watch their work. They brought a full character to each of these women. Both nuanced. Both transformational. Both mesmerizing. Both brilliant." And even with her on-screen allegiance to Steinem, Henderson claims she is team Betty Friedan — Steinem's biggest rival on the show. Why? "Because Betty stands for what she stands for. She is always pushing the button. She’s loud about it and that’s more of who I am."
At the end of the day, however, Henderson's journey with Margaret and realizing her real-life iconic status is a tale too common. While touting feminist pillars like Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Jill Ruckelshaus and several more, somewhere along the line, other crucial emblems of the movement don't get the recognition they should. "It’s an honor yet jarring to experience it because this story is about what happened in 1970s and some of the topics and themes are still just as relevant today," Henderson tells us noting the disparity. "We are just holding a mirror to America and the political climate that we still find ourselves in. My reps sent me the character breakdown for a self-tape. My favorite part about playing Margaret Sloan was learning about her. I had no idea she was real until the audition. So I, not only, booked my first show but I learned about an unsung hero. That’s such a blessing and gift in itself. I still sometimes go down the rabbit hole to find out more about her. She will always be with me and I’m honored I was introduced to her in this way," Henderson says.
'Mrs. America' drops new episodes Wednesdays only on Hulu.