Anna Diop dives into Lesley-Ann Brandt’s life, career triumphs, and firm commitment to social activism

PHOTOS / MAKEUPJulianne Kaye
TALENTLesley-Ann Brandt
STYLING / HAIR BRAIDERRobiat Balogun
INTERVIEW: Anna Diop
PRODUCER: Jasmine Perrier

Illustration: Jenny Sorto (@unblissfull)

Ever since Lesley-Ann Brandt decided to become an actress, she was ready for whatever was coming her way to reach her goal. Born in Cape Town, the South African actress reminisces about “a very insular life” in her native country. She moved with her family to New Zealand a week before her 18th birthday, where she debuted her acting career. Filled with audacity, she took on the lead role of Naevia in Starz’ international TV series Spartacus, before moving to Los Angeles to conquer Hollywood. Her journey took a new turn when she joined the world of Lucifer and brought to screen the fierce pansexual demon Mazikeen “Maze” who is a prime figure of female empowerment with her strengths and vulnerabilities. Part of Lesley-Ann’s ability to deliver such an amazing performance comes from her connection with her character that she approaches as “an immigrant from Hell.” Here, Lesley-Ann talks to Titans’ star Anna Diop — who is also one of the powerful ladies of the DCTV world opening the door to social change — about her multicultural background, staying true to her character on Lucifer, and using actively her voice to set the world on the right path.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

LESLEY-ANN BRANDT: Hey guys!

ANNA DIOP: Hey gorgeous!

LAB: There you are — look at you! Are you in Toronto?

AD: I’m not in Toronto yet, I’ve been in LA for a couple of weeks. I was in Houston with my family and then they asked me to come out to LA. [It was] really last minute. We’re going to Toronto on [September] 23rd.

LAB: That’s when we’re supposed to start, on the 23rd. 

AD: Yes, it’s all happening. Everyone’s going to go soon. Frankly, we’re all lucky now to have jobs.

LAB: I miss acting so I am looking forward to being creative and a different way.

AD: Well, I thank you for having me do this. As soon as they asked me I was like, “I love Lesley.” She’s everything that’s right with the world. 

LAB: So we should start with how we know each other. When I knew that Anna was cast in her show [Titans], I was being very supportive of her casting because there was a lot of noise around you playing your character on the show, being a black woman. And then through this covered period of these terrible, consistent killings of black men, women, and children, we came together with these amazing women who are also part of the DC world. Collectively, we leaned into each other with our experiences and our feelings about what was happening presently, but also past trauma. That’s actually been one of the most amazing things for me out of this. I said this to you guys on Zoom, it’s like finding your tribe of women who understand what working in this business is like. 

AD: It was incredible acting with you and the other women — because we’ve each been fighting our own wars and our battles alone, and then this movement happened and we all came together, constantly sharing and supporting each other. It was such an insane moment, and I’ll always remember it.

LAB: It’s like my soul talks, and there’s a lot going on out there.

AD: I want to talk a bit about your childhood and South Africa. You were born in Cape Town. How old were you when you [went] to New Zealand?

LAB: I was about to turn 18 — about a week before my 18th birthday. 

AD: Tell me a bit about what growing up in Cape Town was like.

LAB: When you’re from Africa, born and raised there, you’re always tethered to that continent and there’s a blood love for it. I didn’t really realize how much I loved my country until I moved out — which is sad when you think about it. But I was also born in 1981 — you’re growing up in apartheid, you’re in segregated schools. My life was very insular. I could only go to school with people who looked like me. And that defines your life, those were laws. I didn’t really realize how that racist ideology inserted its tentacles in a way that leaves and has left these deep scars on society, people’s psyche, and how they think. So growing up in South Africa didn’t prepare me for the world because I thought the world was segregated. I definitely saw a lot of things that children shouldn’t see like police and violence. Now, you are constantly aware of your surroundings. I [always] joke that I have a little buck knife that I sleep with [laughs].

AD: Always with the knives [laughs].

LAB: Always ready to cut, I don’t know, something [laughs]. But you always grow up with a sense of, “watch your back.” I carry that even now. My childhood was also when Nelson Mandela was released and he became the first Black president. There was this immense pride — we did this as a country. But I also remember walking to class the first time when I was allowed to go to school with white children. It was very awkward — 40, 30 eyes looking at you, the teacher who was not prepared for this. When I look back now, I actually have a lot of empathy for these teachers because they were supposed to be our teachers, our psychologists, the school counselors. There was a lot of pressure on them. That being said, we weren’t the born-free generation, my baby cousin is what we call the born-free generation. We sort of had our foot in both South Africas. At the time, I couldn’t really conceptualize what that meant as a 10-year old. It wasn’t until I stepped out of South Africa and went into New Zealand, where there aren’t many black people. I didn’t know where my place was. 17 is a hard age to move because you’re leaving your culture, your friends, your family, your country, your language, your accent, your identity — who you are. It took me a good two years to figure out how to never lose who I am, but also to embrace something new and adapt. My parents sacrificed a lot to give my brother and myself an opportunity to travel. Even in that, they couldn’t afford the international fees for studying, so I never went to university. I remember landing in New Zealand, feeling that this was a new beginning.

AD: That blows my mind. How did acting happen for you?

LAB: I didn’t think that this was an option for someone like me where I was from. No one I knew was an actor. Those dreams weren’t allowed. When I got to New Zealand, I started doing little modeling here and there, I was doing commercials, and I was doing really well in them. They became more and more performance-based in the sense of, “You’re not just pretty girl number two standing there.” It was like, “No, we need you to act, actually.” My aunts, uncles, and grandparents were like, “You’ve always had a bit of a performer.” I sang in the choir in church and I did drama in elementary school. My high school’s never cast me in any of the school plays, funnily enough.

AD: You didn’t make the cut. They’re kicking themselves.

LAB: No, didn’t make the cut! [Laughs] Also, when I think about it, I go like, “I don’t think the stories really resonated with me. That’s not my life.” I didn’t have a nanny and a nice house. But I had a casting director pull me aside one day after an audition and she said, “Look, I really think you could have a career, so you need to start taking this seriously.” But the industry in New Zealand is much smaller than Hollywood. So I tried to find a teacher and theater classes here and there. And I was working full time — I was working at Red Bull, and then I had a job as an IT recruitment consultant [laughs].

AD: Wow. 

LAB: I remember distinctly at 25 having a midlife crisis where I was like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing — I’m good at this, I’m good at sales.” My dad always said, “You can sell milk to a cow, you have this ability to be passionate about something and convince someone else.” But I never knew that it was something I could do as a career, so I tried it for six months and then I ended up becoming the recruitment consultant because I went to interview for a job there and they were like, “We don’t have anything that fits your resume, but we like you, so please come and work for us.” [Laughs] I started hiring data analysts and these really nerdy, smart computer people. But I was dying inside because I was so unhappy. During that time, I auditioned for a half-hour comedy and I booked one of the leads. It was the best resignation ever because I said, “I’m going to be an actress and I’m not going to do this job anymore.” [Laughs] I didn’t care what I was getting paid. I remember being so upset with [my boyfriend at the time] because he was like, “That’s great, but what is he going to pay?” And I was like, “I don’t care if he pays me two dollars. I auditioned and I booked a job.” When I showed up for that audition, I was a princess from this fictional island. I went in a bikini, I didn’t know you don’t do this. I remember the casting director going, “Lesley-Ann Brandt, who are you?” [Laughs] Anna, I brought a friend to my test because she really loved one of the actors that was going to be in the show with me [laughs]. 

AD: That is super funny. 

LAB: I got there, they did the screen test with me and Craig Parker, who I ended up also doing Spartacus with — he is a big, lovely, beautiful New Zealand actor.  

AD: Usually as an actor, you’re booking a co-star, another co-star, then a guest star, and another guest. But you went from booking a lead on a series!

LAB: I remember the first day — you know, when you get your lunch and you’re like, “Where do I sit?” I was just this new girl and [Craig Parker] came instantly next to me and he said, “It’s a bit like the first day of school, isn’t it? Come on and sit down over here.” And we built this relationship where he would say, “Darling, can you try this?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” No ego, nothing — because I was like, “I’m living my dream here.” I do still approach my work with no ego. I fight for my choices. And if I disagree with something, I’ll have the conversation. Then that show finished and my next show was Spartacus. Let me tell you a funny story about that: I auditioned for that role of Naevia and for a local New Zealand show at the same time. After my audition for Spartacus, I called my agent and I said, “I booked the job.” She was like, “What? Lesley-Ann, it’s not how it works. Well, the New Zealand show wants to offer you the role.” I said, “Please say ‘no thank you’ because I’m going to do the American one.” An hour later, she went, “You booked Spartacus.” It’s like the blind confidence of someone who knew absolutely nothing.

AD: What made you think you could become an actor? I always say I was just naive enough to be audacious.

LAB: Yes, I had exactly that. I was not afraid of falling on my face and getting back up again. That’s the same way I did my move to Hollywood. I was like, “I could go via Australia but there’s really no one who looks like me on TV. I don’t think there’s going to be many opportunities for me there.” I was already in my mid, late twenties, and if my goal was Hollywood, [why not] go straight to the thousand-piece puzzle and just go there? [Laughs] We paid my apartment rent — three months on Craigslist, where I had no idea it could be a dodgy potential deal. I was just like, “Here I am.”

AD: I think it takes that.

LAB: Were you born here or in Senegal, and moved here with your family?

AD: I was born and raised there until six though, and then moved to Houston. Like you at 17 I was like, “I’m going to Hollywood. I’m going to do this, I can do this, I got this,” and just left.

LAB: I remember that being a feel for me and I made a deal with myself — that I would not go back to New Zealand until I booked my show. 

AD: A show in the States.

LAB: Also, I couldn’t afford to go back. Let’s be real there [laughs]. Girls didn’t have money to pay for visas, an apartment, live, and book a ticket. But I didn’t go back until I booked Luciferd. And I had a lot of people from New Zealand come for one month and then it wouldn’t work out. In my mind, I remember seeing that [and] going, “You have to immerse yourself here. You have to understand the culture. You have to know the different vernaculars. You have to be able to conversationally speak with an American accent.” My first audition was horrible. In New Zealand, there’s a camera and a casting director. There’s not 14 producers looking at you going, “Act and be good.” I used to have a nervous tic — I would shiver and my leg would shake. I stumbled with the papers and [in New Zealand], we get enough time to prepare. I remember [a producer] saying, “Well, you’re not in New Zealand now.” I can’t remember his name, but I’m so grateful to this producer.

AD: Well, let’s talk about Lucifer. Maze is the most fun to watch, and it’s because you bring so much. She’s so dynamic and you don’t know what she’s going to do next. And she’s sexy, bold, powerful, and fine. It looks like you have a lot of fun playing her. How did you approach doing the character? What choices did you make beforehand and how did it evolve now that you’re in season five?

LAB: I play her like the immigrant [I am] who went from South Africa to New Zealand, except she’s an immigrant from Hell. For my audition for Maze, I went in full leather — leather pants, leather bra. I had a hoodie on and I took it off. I got weird looks from girls in the room [laughs]. But I saw someone who was just who she was. She had her own style and flavor. She was from Hell so she had to feel otherworldly. And I did read some of the comic books [which] were actually very progressive for the time — I love that she was into both men and women in the books, and she was the leader of this army of demons. She is Lucifer’s right-hand man, and even in the comic books, she seems to be the only one who is able to sit him right without fear, even though he is the Devil. I loved her power coming through the pages, so it was very important to me to try and find that. We did spend a lot of time trying to find the tone of our show. At times, I think it was confusing when you go back and watch those earlier seasons. We’re different to you guys — [for instance] you have the definite comic book feel in [The Flash and Supergirl].

AD: That’s a tough thing there, trying to be true to the character — especially this character that is so specific in who she is, and you are true to her and honest to her. 

LAB: I did have to fight for making sure she didn’t sound too modern, even though she had been on Earth for five years. Because she still has to feel like this otherworldly not of here person creature, demon. I have to honor that side of her while she’s discovering humanity and being introduced to humans and forging these relationships. That was definitely a balance of back and forth with writers. But I’m glad I fought for her because it’s never from a place of ego. I just want to tell the truth. If it’s not real to me in the moment, that’s not going to translate through TV. I think going from Fox to Netflix opened up a whole other side of our show. Even what’s on air right now on Netflix is our first Netflix version of Lucifer. Last year we were on Netflix, but they had taken their pitch from the network, because we got saved. This season was written for Netflix. 

AD: That’s so fantastic! Every time I log into Netflix, it’s number one, two, or three. I guess we can segway a bit into your personal life now and where you’re at emotionally and mentally at the moment. Obviously, since March [and] Covid hit the States the way it did and we’ve gone into quarantine, life has changed. There’s a lot of uncertainty, we’re being challenged for the first time in a long time, and we’re also facing social issues in a way we’ve never had to sit down and face social issues. In my opinion, the BLM movement has gained so much steam and so much traction in the last few months. What has this year been like for you on a national scale and a personal scale?

LAB: [Sighs] It’s put things in perspective for me in a way that hasn’t before, and that makes me sad sometimes — it takes an epidemic or this time at home to think about those things in that way. But the two-fold thing is seeing how vulnerable we all are, regardless of how much money you have, what your status is. You know that a virus can take hold, can get you really uncomfortable and anxious. And you’re seeing how fragile particularly America is — its health care, its politics, and its humanity — which I’ve struggled with as being an immigrant here. I do have a son and I think about the environment he’s being raised in. And then with the Black Lives Matter movement, it really brought up a lot for my family. My father was calling me, checking in because they’re watching from New Zealand and they’re watching their daughter relive what they did in apartheid — police brutality. My mother was telling me stories about her police showing up at their door and beating her brothers up just for fun, so it was very scary for them. They were 20 and 21 when they had me, so they were babies trying to keep this little girl alive, trying to provide, trying to survive. I’ve been here for 10 years, and I did feel a real responsibility because while I do have my own experiences of racism, the American Black experience is very different. In 2020, we do see the guys in the white cloaks, the swastikas, and the Confederate flags. Racism is way more subtle, too, and it happens every single day. It was painful to see black men, children, and women still with that, happening in broad daylight. I found myself lost for words, trying to explain that to my family and friends abroad. My father was like, “I did everything that everyone is doing over there in the States.” And my mother [who] is the kindest, most soft-spoken woman, said, “You have to fight. You have to go out there. That’s what we had to do. We had to disrupt it.” Knowing what’s at stake with this coming election, you go, “How do you not fight? How do you not get in the streets and march?” There is countless examples of reparations that are owed where black communities were looted for businesses, for land, housing, all of it. So it has to start somewhere.

AD: The looting and the exploitation of black bodies has existed longer than the country even has. We have a history, we have to make amends for it.

LAB: You’re right! Look at my books — I was reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I think when you are white, it’s a very hard concept to understand because what it means is self reflection. I have a white husband and he has to reflect on the fact that he’s a good person, he’s not racist, but he has benefitted off of the system that rewards a lighter hue. And he’s an actor, too. We talk about that word “diversity” that gets thrown around. I’m like, “Your agents are not good agents to any actors [if] they’re telling you you’re not getting your jobs because black, brown people or Asian actors, are taking.” First of all, no one’s taking anything. What it means now is that the playing field has been leveled. I’ve had to hustle and other people have had to hustle all their lives. I was the girlfriend, the best friend, or the chick who died, I wasn’t offered leads. So it feels uncomfortable when you’ve always been in the driving seat, and I understand that. But at the same time, I’m like, “That’s your work to do.” I’ve said that to my husband. We have the most uncomfortable conversations from a place of love. But it’s a constant conversation.

AD: Yes, because he’s American.

LAB: He’s American from Massachusetts, born in the 70s. His life experience is so completely different to mine. But we have a son, so our fiduciary responsibility as parents is that we prepare him for the world he is going to be living in. Now, we can fight to make sure that that world is better and different to the world we grew up in. But that change may come slow. So we still have to give him the tools, the armor, the voice, the passion, the empathy, the kindness, the love, the information, the experience, the exposure. In Cape Town, I grew up around mosques so I’ve never had any issue with different religions, embracing people from different backgrounds. I want that for my child because I do find America is very insular. 

AD: Very much so. Well, you guys are doing an incredible [job]. That is the perfect last question, what helps you stay grounded and sane? I think I know the answer to this.

LAB: I will say my family for sure, not just my son and my husband, but my connection to family in South Africa, my parents. But I started praying more and meditating. I was raised in the church, and taking 20 minutes to meditate has been really good for my mind, my soul, and my creativity, to be honest with you. I did step away from practicing my faith every day and that has a lot to do with living so far from my parents. I think my parents and my family always bring me back. They are like, “This red carpet means nothing. You’re going to come and do the dishes like you did when you were a child.” [Laughs]

AD: I relate to that so deeply — family does bring you all the way back. I just came back from Houston where my parents and my little brother live, and my family is very devout. So it forced me to go back into that practice daily that I really need. I haven’t spent five weeks with my family since I was 17, and I was the happiest at that time. It’s because I was with the people that I love the most around me.

LAB: That’s what I realized. The other day, Kingston said, “I’m grateful for the man who grew the rice that I’m eating.” So you go, “You’re three and you get it more than most adults.” I never want him to lose that. I never forget my privilege, who I’m from, and where I’m from. I never forget that there are millions of little girls like me in South Africa and around the world who have dreams, who have needs, who want to feel safe and be loved. And I always want my son to see kindness and empathy as a strength to be shared. That’s how I was raised. You have to have some babies, Anna [laughs].

AD: I want to! I was watching you and Kingston, it’s the most beautiful thing. And you’re doing such a gorgeous job, you’re such an incredible mother. I love you, I adore you, I respect you, and admire you. Thank you for all of this.

LAB: I love you too and I love all the work that you’re doing. You’re doing the work to open doors for women who will come after you. And it’s done so gracefully. I’m happy to have you in my life, I really am. Thank you!

AD: Thank you!

LAB: Alright, bye mamma!

AD: Bye!

LUCIFER IS STREAMING NOW ON NETFLIX

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