‘Queen Sugar’: Dawn-Lyen Gardner Previews Charley’s Dark Turn in the Season Finale

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Queen Sugar started out as an intimate family drama. Now it’s part of a national tragedy. The acclaimed OWN series, created by filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma), ends its first season Wednesday with the three Bordelon siblings still trying to save their late dad’s Louisiana sugarcane farm. But the stakes were recently raised—higher than ever imaginable—when the kids learned that the ancestors of the nearby farmers who are trying to drive them out of business once owned Bordelon ancestors as slaves. And they even lynched a few. Now middle sib Charley Bordelon—played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner—is about to do something highly unorthodox to make sure the farm stays afloat. Gardner gave us the lowdown.

Were you shocked to see the length your character will go to keep the Bordelons from financial disaster?
Even before the season finale you really questioned what makes Charley tick. No matter how big the mountain, no matter how morally twisted the road, she is relentless. You see her genius and her incomparable drive. That’s why she’s a great sports manager. It’s what turned her husband, Davis [Timon Kyle Durrett, pictured above with Gardner] into a basketball superstar. Does she go too far? Yes. But she will not be beaten. She is a person of strong morals, yet she’s about to do something dark and questionable to come out on top. Like they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. But is Charley really on a path to hell or is she on a path to transforming the family’s twisted history? It’s crazy. It’s extremely tricky territory. But, then, this whole season has been like that. We actors are always sitting in the makeup trailer completely on fire going, “Did you see the next script? Did you see the next script?”

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Can you play Charley without judging her?
It’s hard sometimes! I have never played a character that I’m more in love with than Charley but half the time I want to smack her! She’s complicated, contradictory, hypocritical. She’s difficult and painful and abrasive. It can be very tempting to want your character to be liked all the time and to have your character be understood, but playing Charley has forced me to let go of that. She has been a big lesson to me, a big part of my growth as an actor and as a human being. At any given time she’s juggling seven plates. Her reality is that she’s financially dependent and completely enmeshed in her husband’s career and, now, his sex scandal. She does not have an identity outside of that, so she’s on a journey of redefining herself. Everything from her house in Los Angeles to her child is tied to the husband. If he goes down, everything goes down. Including the farm. [Laughs] So I do understand her questionable motives, even when I want to shake her.

The series really shifted when it became clear that the neighboring farms completely surround the Bordelon farm, geographically speaking. And then the slavery reveal really raised the threat level.
Our show went from micro to macro with that one reveal. We went from a very familiar, relatable domestic crisis to the absolute epic. We went from showing injustice—the personal, singular kind we see every day—to touching upon a national, social, racial injustice that has gone on for centuries. And there’s no going back from here. We all feel like we’re part of a larger national conversation about race and history. We’re asking our audience to really look at how we’re living today, and at the injustices that continue every day. This is so much bigger than a TV show.

In the middle of all this, Charley is on the verge of a romance with Remy (Dondre Whitfield) that’s so sweet, so pure, so right. Will she screw it up?
The audience is losing their minds over that relationship. They’re so frustrated. They’re, like, “He’s such a catch! C’mon, already!” From the moment Remy and Charley met, they recognized something very special in each other. They know it and they cannot unknow it. But Charley is in grief. She’s grieving the loss of her marriage and her identity as the “perfect” wife and mom. She’s grieving the loss of trust and the loss of her father. Remember, she was the only one in the family who didn’t get to see him before he died. So there’s a lot of messiness coming into this relationship with Remy. It makes sense that it would take a while for anything to happen between them, no matter how much the audience wants it to happen. How can Charley open up to this new possibility when her life is literally crumbling? And Remy is such a great guy. She doesn’t quite know what to do with that. He doesn’t want anything from her. He feels no need to change her or fix anything. He doesn’t need her to be perfect, and that’s a very new thing for Charley.

There are at least three good reasons to cry buckets in every Queen Sugar episode. How do you guys get through it?
[Laughs] We don’t! The cast watched the last eight episodes of the season on [executive producer] Oprah Winfrey’s private jet as we flew to New York to support Ava at the New York Film Festival when she premiered her movie 13th, and we were sobbing all the way. Binge-watching and sobbing!

Queen Sugar, Season finale, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 10/9c, OWN