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Dionne Brown Knows How Important This Character Is

Dionne Brown Knows How Important This Character Is

Upon its 2019 release, Candice Carty-Williams’ novel Queenie became something of a bible for clueless 20-something-year-olds everywhere. The story is one we’ve grown fond of in pop culture: A young woman reckoning with her past and making some less-than-wise life decisions before embarking on a transformative journey of self-acceptance.

But Queenie has an edge to it. It’s dark; its themes grapple with domestic abuse, childhood trauma, rough sex and the challenges of emigration. And the novel sold big. It made the Sunday Times Bestseller List and won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2020, making Carty-Williams the first Black author to claim the top prize. Its resonance with young women was palpable, yet her protagonist felt unique.

Queenie Jenkins is a British-Jamaican 25-year-old who, after being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, comes to understand the depths of her upbringing and its impact on her self-esteem. She’s in a job that doesn’t satisfy her, in a workplace riddled with microaggressions. She shuns her mother who is trying to repair their fractured relationship and instead opts for the self-medicative route of alcohol and casual flings.

For Channel 4 and Hulu‘s TV adaptation of the book, enter rising star Dionne Brown. From Jamaican heritage herself, the 28-year-old studied at the National Youth Theatre — which boasts Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, and Rosamund Pike among its alumni — before attending the Arts Educational School in London.

It’s Brown’s first lead role, and she embodies the character just as audiences envisioned. During a recent conversation with THR, Brown talks about becoming Queenie.


I’m sure Candice Carty-Williams‘ reputation preceded her. Had you read Queenie before you knew this role was up for grabs?

Her reputation does precede her. But I hadn’t read the book. I met Candice before the casting for Queenie. I met her when I went up for Champion [the 2023 BBC One series created by Carty-Williams]. The book was on my list, but in drama school I had 500 books on my list, and I didn’t get to it. I think there were things that I was doing in that [Champion] audition that she was able to observe — idiosyncrasies in my behavior that were similar to how she viewed and wrote Queenie. It’s good that I didn’t read it, because I probably would have fan-girled over her a little bit.

When I was finishing up Criminal Record (2024), this project I was shooting with Apple, [they] reached out to my team and just asked me to tape for Queenie. I was like, “Oh, fantastic. I’ve got the book on my list. Now’s the perfect time to read it.”

Dionne Brown and Candice Carty-Williams on the set of Queenie.

Channel 4

And how did you feel landing the part? Did the nerves kick in quite swiftly?

I was so excited. I was literally screaming in the kitchen with my agents. And then it was like, “Shit. I gotta do it now.” I think the nerves followed me like a monkey on my back, probably until the first week of shooting. I was talking to the block one director [Joelle Mae David, who directed the first four episodes]. She was like, “How are you feeling about everything?” And I was like, “I’m scared.” And she was like, “Why?” And I said, “The book meant so much for so many people. And now there’s this visual representation of this literary gold and I have to personify it.”

I have my interpretations as Dionne, and my interpretations as Dionne the actor. But what if that doesn’t land, and then I’m that girl that fucked it up? [David] was like, “Dionne, you’re supposed to be here. I was in all your rounds. I’ve seen all your tapes. Everyone on this set has seen what you’ve bought to the character. It’s on purpose that you’re here. We got work to do.” All I can do is the best I can do. If it resonates, it does, and if it doesn’t… [shrugs].

We’re familiar with the “messy millennial woman” in the cultural zeitgeist now. We have Fleabag and Arabella in I May Destroy You, for example. What makes Queenie’s story different?

She’s a different person, isn’t she? Maybe the circumstances. Arabella seems to be trying to do things for herself and she seems to be taking control of her trauma. Queenie does too, but not until a certain point. I think we see her journey of figuring out how to take control of it, how to process it. Arabella was going to therapy but in Queenie, therapy is taboo. It’s taboo in the Caribbean and African culture in general. Like, mental health issues — what’s that?

Candice writes about this reluctance to show weakness amongst Queenie’s family and community. We see it in her grandparents who emigrated from Jamaica, and it’s framed around a generational denial of ill mental health and the benefit of therapy. Did this ring true for you?

A hundred and ten percent. There are some things within the community and the culture that are oddly quite taboo — very hush-hush and pushed under the rug, because I think they connote some sort of ineptitude. I can’t even articulate it fully because it’s not a sentiment that I believe in, but I see it in people, my family members that are older, the ones that came before me. I can’t explain it to you.

The conversations are completely different now. We’ll be in the pub having drinks with our friends, and it’s like, “Have you thought about going and doing some therapy?” Like, “Yeah, I referred myself last week, I’m just gonna go and have a chat with somebody about it.” That’s all it is. You’re just gonna have a chat. But in [Afro-Caribbean] culture, communication is not a coping mechanism, not in any capacity. It’s like, no, we don’t do that. Be quiet. It’s keep calm and carry on. So yeah, I can relate.

Queenie is of British-Jamaican heritage, like you. She’s strong-willed but sensitive. She’s independent but leans on the women in her life. What parts of her, as a character, do you find most relatable?

Our sensitivity for sure. I was just having this conversation with someone on the weekend, and I was like, “She’s gentle,” and he was like, “I don’t think she’s gentle.” And I found myself being a bit like, no, she is, she just doesn’t know how to release it. She is so gentle. She just doesn’t know how to get there. And that’s what she’s she’s telling Tom [Queenie’s ex-boyfriend]. She’s saying, “This isn’t easy for me, I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to release it to you. I don’t know how to let you in.” She wants to because she’s in love with him, but she’s just uncomfortable. It’s literally like having a mosquito bite and you’re gonna cut a chunk out of your leg trying to soothe the itch.

I just relate with that level of sensitivity of not understanding why things hurt so much and wanting to be a bit more militant, or to sit in yourself a bit more comfortably, but knowing that between those two things, there’s a lot of mess in the middle.

Even her relationship with Tom. He dragged up all of her abandonment issues when he left, because he left the same way [as her mother and stepfather did]. He went and he just didn’t come back. That’s traumatizing. Imagine being in a long-term relationship with someone, and they’re like, “I need a break,” and then you just never hear from them again. That’s heinous. But what does she do? She absorbs it all, and she makes it her fault: “I’m still the little girl that who got abandoned by her mum and didn’t have a dad.”

How did you prepare for the role, and were there any other performances or work you drew inspiration from?

The book was a bible. I was always in the book. Candice would come into the green room and I’d be reading the book, and I’d just read it again and again and again. A big part of prep for me was talking to her. And then after we’d be done talking, brainstorm, brainstorm, make notes, make notes.

Sometimes I’d see Candice, and I’d be like, “You wrote this line in the book, however many years ago, do you remember what you were thinking when you wrote that?” And there were times where we’d be talking about it, and I’d be arguing with her [laughs]. There were times I almost had to be like, “I’m not trying to be rude, because I know that you wrote it … But what if, when she says that, she means this,” and Candice would be like, “Maybe.” I needed to create choices for her. So I think the prep was the book and Candice was a massive, massive reference. And then a little bit of myself.

“The book was a bible,” says Brown of preparing for the role of Queenie. “I was always in the book.”

Latoya Okuneye/Lionsgate/Hulu

Another part of the story that is particularly poignant is when Queenie embarks on her casual sex journey, it’s mostly with white men. But her most meaningful romantic connection is with Frank (played by Samuel Adewunmi), a Black man. We don’t get to see how Frank and Queenie’s relationship blossoms, but how do you envision his impact on Queenie going forward?

I feel like we do see it blossom a bit over the show. It doesn’t just happen. One minute, they’re cool, and then it’s literally just the little things that happen when you do start to like somebody. But he can see her, and he knows her. There’s the scene where Kyazike [one of Queenie’s best friends, a member of her group chat affectionately named “The Corgis”] says, “She’s not like the girls that you deal with. If you mess with her, you’re gonna break her.” That’s a big thing to say to somebody, especially to a man trying to come for a woman.

I remember when we were shooting the last scene, and Sam had to deliver the line to say, “I don’t know everything that happened between your parents, but what your dad did to your mum, I’m never going to do that.” I just remember really trying to listen to him to see if I believed him. And she just says, “I know.”

I think it’s about visibility. She doesn’t not like black men because they’re not her preference. They’re not her preference because they traumatized her. There’s a very, very big difference, and she likes white men too. That’s okay. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

We see Queenie deal with a lot of microaggressions. At work, among her friends, and in relationships. And we see her push back against them. By the end of the series, she is setting boundaries and figuring out a new career that will creatively satisfy her. What is Queenie representing to Black women, and women everywhere?

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She is just representing the ability to preach a form of self-reliance and self-confidence. I’m sure you’ve been in spaces where you’ve realized, “This space wasn’t really built for me. It wasn’t made for me in mind at all. Like, I’m not a thought here. I’m not a forethought. Everyone’s kind of looking through me. No one’s really listening to me. No one really values what values what it is that I have to say.”

But [you] know that you want to be in that space, you want to be in that field, and you want to progress. And I think she’s just fighting for it. She’s fighting for what she wants. She’s trying to tell the stories that she thinks are important to her and important to London culture in general. London’s such a melting pot of culture. It’s something that doesn’t mean just one thing anymore. There are so many things that go towards British culture now.

That’s my next question again! The show is a bit of a love letter to Brixton, or at least South London, in lots of ways. I know you’re a North London girl at heart, but what role does South London play as a backdrop for Queenie?

It’s her roots. I’m not from South London, but when I go to the south there’s something that feels homey to me because it is so culturally rich. It’s all about her paying homage to where she came from. She’s trying to go somewhere, but she’s so proud of where she’s from. And it makes up such a big part of her personhood. I’m a North Londoner, but I’m Caribbean. I’m Jamaican. So when I go to Brixton, I know where to go to find things that I can’t find in North London. I know where to go in North London to find those things as well, but it’s that little pocket. You got to know which shop to go to to get the right bun and cheese.

What part of playing Queenie did you find the most daunting and why?

The sex. Because I’m a princess as well. I’m sensitive. If I kiss somebody, I like them. And Queenie’s doing a lot that’s casual. Obviously, this is my job. But some of it was heavy. We read the book, and it would have been heavy if it was just with one person, but it was like, I gotta do this with four different people and they’re strangers, these boys.

I didn’t have intimacy training in drama school. I didn’t have that experience. There were so many things that I just didn’t know. I shot the first scene with Guy [played by Joseph Ollman], which is the first time he and Queenie have contact. And my scene partner, Joe, he had to spank me for that. We go over everything, but I didn’t know that he could nap it. I didn’t know that he wouldn’t actually be hitting me. I thought I’m just gonna get slapped all day. And then I was going through stuff with Adelaide Waldrop, my intimacy coordinator. She was just like, “No, it’s not 1995. No one has to hit you. Like, we don’t have to do that to get the take.” This is why intimacy coordinators are super important.

What was your favorite thing about playing Queenie?

All the people. Your friends are your chosen family, and then obviously you have your family and you can’t pick your family. But I remember being at the table read and looking around, and everyone was reading and I just remember thinking, this is going to be so much fun. Because everybody’s just so good, everybody is just like their character, and everybody is really, really trying, and everybody’s really involved and invested. Anytime Bellah [playing Kyazike] was in, I’d be in the makeup trailer, like yes! She’s in tomorrow. Anytime all The Corgis were in. All the family scenes. It was so real. I come from a big family and it was actually like shooting with my family.

Would you like to see a season two of Queenie and how likely is that?

I would love to see what Queenie does next, but I can’t say how likely it is. That is a good question for the writer.

Some quick fire questions, then. Brixton or Peckham?


Best place for a night out in South London?

Frank’s Cafe.

Fastest way to heal a broken heart?

Just accept it. Cry. Go to therapy.

All episodes of Queenie are now available to stream on Channel 4 and Hulu.

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