(Featured image courtesy of Nicholas Yu)
When Maryam Basir moved to New York City, she didn’t expect to start a career in acting at all, much less become the lead of her own network show. She relocated to the Big Apple with the goal of starting her own business, but she found that the two career paths weren’t that different after all. “The biz, it really is that: the business.” Instead of marketing your product or your services, you’re marketing yourself. “You have to be able to organize your time. You have to be able to delegate when certain things need to happen in other places.” Basir has found that her entrepreneurial spirit and business-oriented mind has been essential when it comes to keeping track of her money. It’s easy to get used to an expensive lifestyle as an actor, but “I see now how a lot of the actors you see blow a lot of their money.” Ultimately, “it’s good to have an entrepreneurial mind while thinking about a career in the arts. It’s not just art.”
Maryam’s eye for business was something she’d cultivated over the years, and even from a young age, she had the natural instinct for seeking out opportunity and trying new things. “I’d always had an entrepreneurial mind… I was ten years old braiding people’s hair and charging five dollars. I used to make jewelry and sell it at the art fair in Ann Arbor, me and my sisters.” So when she arrived in New York and people began recommending acting and modeling jobs to her, she followed the opportunities and found herself going down a path she loved even more.
“As a kid, I always loved going to the movies or watching movies on TV. I was always inspired by it because of the art of acting.” It’s easy for children to believe that everything they’re seeing on the screen is real, but once Basir’s mother explained that all the blood was ketchup and that there were a million tricks directors used to make fabricated scenes seem real, the stories from behind the camera became just as fascinating as the scripted ones. “As a kid, I didn’t really know that I was going to be an actor. I think it influenced a lot of different parts of my life just as far as culturally. Growing up and seeing different things, it made me know that there are lots of different ways to express yourself, not just one thing or two things.” When she started pursuing artistic job opportunities, everything naturally began to fall into place, and a day full of work didn’t even feel like work. “I say it was the path of least resistance… I’m like, ‘This must be what it is, what I’m supposed to be doing.’”
If there’s one show that seems to be a rite of passage for all actors, it’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Innumerable Oscar winners, box office stars, and indie critical darlings have passed through the SVU set throughout the show’s run, and last year, Maryam became the latest rising star to tell one of NBC’s true crime stories. “It was one of my favorite acting experiences of all time. Mariska Hargitay is so incredible.” Hargitay directed Basir’s episode, and from the audition room to the final take, Basir felt honored to be working with the long-running star of the series in such a close capacity. In the first audition, Maryam was already feeling confident about booking the role, but when she arrived for the callback and saw the dozen or so people (including Hargitay) sitting in front of her, the intimidation began to set in. “But as I was walking out, I heard Mariska say, ‘Red light.’ So I’m like, ‘What does red light mean?’” Quick Google searches didn’t give the answer, but shortly after that callback, Basir received the call that she’d been offered the part. “I was like, ‘Okay, red light must mean they’re stopping the audition process. At the time, I thought they meant, ‘Red light, she’s out of here.’”
After more than twenty years on the air, Law & Order has become one of the most well-oiled machines on television, and that strong routine was apparent as soon as Basir walked on set for her first scene. “It felt like a hundred people, as far as the PAs, the ADs, and the producers, with extras everywhere.” However, having Hargitay at the helm of the episode alleviated all of Maryam’s worries. “She said, ‘You have everything that you need… All the emotions, just feel it and say it. You don’t have to overact.’” That time and care taken to build every scene on a rock-solid foundation of confidence was what made SVU such a cherished experience for Basir, and “it was a little scary, but sometimes you just have to jump into your fears, and that’s how you get over them.” Working with performers-turned-directors only increases that sense of comfort, Basir emphasizing that “it made a big difference, because they know how you feel. They see both sides of it.” Hargitay had been in Maryam’s shoes before, so she innately understood what actors need to hear and how to create a productive, collaborative environment for every performer on set. “She talked to me and said, ‘You have everything you need. You remind me of myself.’ That was the biggest compliment ever. I was like, ‘Oh my God, Mariska! I remind her of herself!’” At the end of the day, the best advice Maryam received from the veteran was to continue on in the exact same way she had been, intuitively feeling her way through every scene, and that would be what would take her far. “That show’s been around since I was a kid, and that’s like the chupacabra. It just makes you go forward like, ‘Okay. I’m going to conquer this.’”
Earlier this year, Basir was nominated for the distinguished Hollywood and African Prestigious Award (or Hapaward) for Best Actress in an Independent Film for her work as Monica in the BET Christmas movie Holiday Heartbreak. After hearing the news, she almost couldn’t believe it. It seemed unbelievable. But she recalled what her mother would always tell her: “You’re supposed to be there. Don’t think it’s not believable or attainable for somebody like yourself.” Just being included in a category with actresses like Taylor Russell (A24’s Waves) was “a huge honor,” and for a while, Maryam couldn’t even imagine winning. Though, after traveling to Los Angeles for the ceremony, she couldn’t help but imagine it, “like doing this Jedi mind trick telling them to call my name… At first, I was kind of scared to say it, because sometimes you’re scared to do things because they might not work, but I just said, ‘What the heck. Let me just do it.’” Of course, in living proof that manifestation could work after all, she did win. At first, the entire experience felt surreal, but Basir quickly regained her confidence and realized that this was simply a confirmation of the hard work that she’d put into the role and her career as a whole. As she celebrated the honor, she came to realize, “I have to walk into my purpose. This is part of it.”
More than anything else, the series that feels inextricably tied to Maryam’s purpose is Lace. Maryam has received rave reviews as the titular character of ALLBLK’s new legal drama, which is unsurprising given the fact that she’s already been named as the ideal lead of the show. Basir’s manager had been driving in a nor’easter storm when he received a call from Michelle Ebony Hardy and Katrina Y. Nelson, creators of the show, specifically asking for a meeting. “It was a Friday. [My manager] said, ‘They wanted to have a video call with you today, but I told them to let you read the script, and then we’ll have a call on Monday.’” Right off the bat, Basir loved the script, immediately thinking, “‘This is the kind of content I want to be doing.’ If it’s right as an actor, you do a variety of things, but this was like a dream role. It was a dream show.”
The enthusiasm from both sides came to a head during that Monday video call, when the three women came together for a meeting where they dug into Lace as a character and discovered who she was at her core. “Later, they had me do some scenes on video… but three was no actual audition process.” The pair of creators had seen Maryam’s work in other projects and told her, “‘We’ve been looking at you, and we want you for this role.’” But it wasn’t just about Maryam’s acting; they’d seen an appreciation post she’d made for the cast and crew of Holiday Heartbreak, and the genuineness of her gratitude towards everyone she’d worked with had made her an obvious choice for someone they wanted on their production. “They said they wanted somebody who looks good, who can act for the role, but who’s also going to have that personality to be able to go out and represent the show. It was an honor, and it still is.”
The care that the creators took in picking Basir was obviously reciprocated in the work she returned to them. “Before we even shot, I met with Skyh [Alvester] Black, who plays Othello, just to get it started.” The relationship between Lacey and Othello drives a large part of the series, and after meeting with director Jamal Hill, the two dedicated performers spent about five hours simply working on background character development. Most actors build backstories for their roles beyond what’s in the script, to better help inform every decision the character makes on screen, but this was the first time Maryam had dug so deep for a part. “We went into things that are seen, things that are unseen, what I was wearing the first time he saw me and vice versa… reasons for everything, which makes the acting so much better because now you have context.” That process of finding the nuggets of subtext and nuance was crucial to Maryam, and she was pleased to discover that she had an enthusiastic partner in Skyh Alvester Black.
There are more legal dramas on TV than it’s possible for one person to watch, but the intelligent, multidimensional protagonist Lacey McCullough is truly what makes Lace stand out from the pack. “She’s every woman. She has cajones… She’s not afraid of the scandal. She’s not going to run away from the scandal. She even creates the scandal.” Basir hopes that viewers can relate to Lacey’s confident nature and find strength in her daring attitude in the same way Basir herself has. “Sometimes, in my everyday life, I’m like, ‘What would Lacey McCullough do in this situation?’” The episode-a-week schedule for Lace’s release is a unique one for a streaming service, but Maryam loves the suspense that format gives to every twist and turn. “There’s so many dimensions and levels to this, and people just have to tune in to be able to see all the exciting things that are happening. Whenever they dig her into a hole, she always climbs out.” At the end of every episode, you never know what Lacey’s “plan behind the plan” will be, but Maryam is thrilled with how the suspense has continued to heighten the audience’s excitement.
ALLBLK proudly proclaims on the front page of it’s website that it’s not just a channel, it’s “an invitation to a world of streaming entertainment that’s inclusively, but unapologetically – Black.” Even in the rapidly growing television landscape, it’s still rare to find programming that takes the care to celebrate previously unrepresented cultures, but ALLBLK has risen to the occasion with ease. Basir said, “It’s getting better, but there are so many times where you’ll look at a network, and the whole entire network is white. It’s not called All White, but you look around and there’s no representation of yourself.” However, she took care to highlight that “ALLBLK is not all Black either… We have people from different cultures that are all contributing to it, but it is unapologetically Black. As a network, we’re going to highlight our content in a place where we’re celebrated and not being made to fit into a certain stereotype of what Black is supposed to be.” Working on such a progressive platform has been an incredible experience for Maryam, and she hopes that the service’s tagline won’t deter any viewers from tuning in to Lace or any of their other shows, because “it’s for everybody. It’s just celebrating that culture, Black culture.”
As for upcoming roles, audiences can see Basir starring in the high-stakes action thriller Bet on Ben. The film follows Ben Burke (Robert Laenen), an ex-con whose first love (Basir) is kidnapped as collateral in an arms deal gone wrong. “I worked with Martez Moore. He was incredible, like a young Samuel L. Jackson in this role, so that was cool. I’m looking forward to it and what comes from it.” The film is currently on the festival circuit. Basir has also filmed a to-be-announced project with Omari Hardwick and Amin Joseph in Detroit that is set to be released early next year.
Maryam hopes to continue working in action projects, in “the kind of roles that Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron would play.” As an anime fan, she loves seeing the quick-paced energy of that world replicated in superhero movies, and “I don’t think we get enough representation, so as a Black woman, I would love to be a part of that.” However, she never wants to close her mind to anything that might cross her path. “I never expected to play an attorney on Lace, but that just came up. I’m open to new, exciting projects that are going to make me feel something, so I’m just eager to work on whatever’s good and good content.”
“Every day, I’m getting all these surprises. It’s a great time.”
Lace is currently streaming its first season on ALLBLK.