While luck might be when talent meets preparation, magic is the ability to commune with natural forces to work in your favor. And, It might be the social distancing talking but I think Demetria McKinney might really be a witch. No, I don’t mean in the colorful language way, or even the #BlackGirlMagic way despite the fact that she is definitely repping the hashtag hard. No, I mean in the Rochelle from The Craft, Hermione from Harry Potter, Storm from the X Men (who we both believe is more witch than mutant), type of way. She is enchanting. Her voice has this warmth and friendliness that within seconds you are enveloped by this comfortable aura that you aren’t sure if you’ve been hit with a level seven disarm spell or are talking to your favorite cousin. It is that ability to endear herself to you that that has been the spell she has cast on everyone since her stellar portrayal of the complicated Janine Payne on House of Payne and continued with a resume that includes stints on screens, stage and even in the recording booth. With this much magic in her bag, it was inevitable that this woman who physically doesn’t seem to age, daughter of military parents, has faced homeless and being a single mother, forges a 20-year career in entertainment and now lands the role of a Drill Sergeant to an army of militarized witches in a parallel world where Matriarchy is the law of the land in Freeform’s new series Motherland: Fort Salem.
In the series, McKinney plays Anacostia, a tough as nails drill sergeant in a parallel world where gender roles are reversed. The Salem witch trials were more than just a footnote in history books but a real thing that when witches faced extension they bargained to become a new weapon to be used. Now, young witches are drafted into military service and it is Anacostia who gets them ready for war but also to live. McKinney’s balance of passion, presence and nurturing give Anacostia the chance to be added to the pantheon of memorable drill sergeants like Hartman, Foley, Highway, Toomey or Apone as well as add another iconic Black witch to the roles like Calypso, Nora, Rochelle, Prudence Blanchard, Hermione, Angelina, and Tituba. We spoke to Mckinney about her upcoming role.
Cassius Life: What interested you in this role?
Demetria McKinney: There were a couple of things that interested me in this show. The opportunity to be in a fantasy landscape was really intriguing. I love that. I love Marvel. Storm is one of my favorite superheroes. I watch Dragon Ball Z and all that kind of stuff. So to be able to stretch my legs in that genre was really attractive to me. But the bigger thing was the prospect of women ushering us into a new era. Even if it is in a parallel dimension. We’re being given an opportunity to flex our muscles in the ways they say were weaknesses. They wanted to persecute witches, witches are saving lives. They wanted to talk about our vulnerabilities being weakness and we are using them to challenge our strengths. And we’re doing that without making anyone else feel inferior? They were very careful about inclusion. They were careful about having the opportunity to show different roles being portrayed by different people. Men raising the children, women being the warrior. It was a really cool concept and an idea that I think will help today’s climate and make it a little better.
But the bigger thing was the prospect of women ushering us into a new era. Even if it is in a parallel dimension.
CL: Tell us about Anacostia
DM: [Laughs] What can I say about her? She’s tough as nails. She plays no games. She’s very no-nonsense. But as hard as she goes with these girls, as much as she seems not to care, it’s really because she does. She knows what war can be and can do to people. She’s experienced it. She grew up being raised by General Adler (Lyne Renee) herself, so she has a more intricate view of what goes not only into warcraft on the field but what goes into the planning and the measures that have to be taken.
When these young ladies are drafted they may not be fully aware of their powers or how to harness them or use them in a way that is really optimal. So she understands the role she plays as a drill sergeant in these young ladies’ lives cannot be one where you’re My Little Pony, but you can’t just be a drill sergeant all the time and I think she starts to learn that a little bit later.
CL: How did you prepare for the role?
DM: So it was a couple of things. My mother and father were both in the military. My mother retired as a Master Sergeant so I saw the discipline. I know when the bed wasn’t made right what was going to happen. I knew that we had a regimented schedule. I understood the consequences of not following orders very precisely. And I definitely integrated that. But as far as me playing the maternal role that stems from a real-life situation and I think because I was a single mom I had to play both roles. There was no gender. No wait till your daddy gets home or your dad is going to teach you how to go potty as a toddler or yes you have testosterone that I know nothing about that but that’s not an excuse for this. Because the roles were so reversed in this alternative America, that’s something that I have lived my whole motherhood life. So I brought elements of that into it. Now with my son, when he was acting up, he got me. But when he wasn’t, I loved on him and I taught him in ways that were inventive because everybody learns differently and everybody’s situation makes them react differently. But I brought a lot of that into the nature that is part of Anacostia’s character.
CL: There have been some pretty iconic Drill Sergeant roles do you think this can be that breakout role?
DM: What I focus on is telling the truth of the character and in truth Anacostia’s prowess is undeniable. Like when you first see her you don’t even see her. You see people’s reactions to her. She hasn’t said a word. She doesn’t have to. You haven’t seen her face. There’s a back story to her. It’s just people’s reactions to her let’s you know that she is a force. Her presence, her very energy in the room is commanding. And so that element is what introduces you to her and lays the foundation for who she is. As you continue to build on her what I think will make Anacostia more attractive is the different layers as you crawl up the floors of her building. She is very much a powerhouse. She is strong. She can be a bit scary. But as the story evolves and she has the opportunity to evolve you realize that like every other character in this she has a lot to learn too. And because of that, I think we all have a lot of different strings to pull and things to offer and I feel that it will make her unforgettable.
CL: There have been some memorable witches played by African American women. Rachel True’s Rochelle from The Craft, Rutina Wesley’s Nora from Queen Sugar, and so on. But in the fantasy space as a whole the roles have been few and far between. Do you think your role will move that along?
DM: When it comes to roles for Black women in this space it’s a huge leap forward. That’s one of the things I loved about Storm cause I have always considered her more of a witch myself. Her history, the way she is able to manipulate weather and all those different things really spoke a different kind of energy versus the superhero type of thing. The difference between a witch and a superhero is the perception of the people. With Anacostia getting the opportunity to be a powerful witch in this sense, it’s not just about her witchcraft. It’s not just about her magic. It’s also about her ability to be strong as a human being. She understands the lives at stake. She’s not so militant that she’s above the humanity of it all. And as it pertains to the African American aspect, let’s look at it like this. I decided to go natural years ago. I was always so concerned about what would happen when people some me walk in with a fro instead of a silk press. So when I went out for the audition for Freeform they saw my hair and they loved it. And they wanted to make that part of who Anacostia was. It leaned to me being able to say, you know I want her hair to kind of line up with what is happening in her life, in the war, in the troops. I want this hair to manifest what’s happening in real-time along with the story. So that’s part of the Black Girl Magic I think that FreeForm, in its inclusive nature, in its desire to bridge the gap between people, they paid particular attention to those details and making sure there was a couple of strong African American Women in this. We’re dealing with LGBTQ, men may play a different role but it doesn’t diminish them. We’re really taking the power of everybody and putting it on a pedestal.
The difference between a witch and a superhero is the perception of the people..
CL: Did you channel any famous witches to prepare for this role?
DM: There’s always been witches that I’ve watched. Whether it’s been Angelina Jolie as Maleficent or the young lady Noemi Harris who played Calypso in Pirates of the Caribbean. There’s a different range. The cool thing was I could watch all of that, I could see all of that and I could admire all of that but not all of that could fit into this witch. Because we’re taking the magic and making it a tool versus a personality. I think it makes it a little bit of a different type of witch. At first, we’re women, so when these young girls come in at first, they’re scared. You don’t have time to just sit and focus on how pretty the lights are. You realized that this is connected to life and death. This is connected to pride, humility, fear, vulnerability, passion, sexuality. Like it’s an actual tool to make you the best you you can be and even if that means in war, so be it.
CL: What is your favorite part about playing Anacostia?
DM: [Laughs.] I get to be a badass. I’ve never gotten to be this person. I’m very goofy naturally. I’m silly. I don’t take myself very seriously. I’ve always been a tomboy so it’s fun to dress up in the heels and the cutesy moves and tell the comedic side of things but to be as strong and as stern and as non-concerned about the look of me. We all made it a point to be as close to who we naturally are. There’s not hella makeup. No glitz to it. You’re in the mud. You’re getting dirty. You’re fighting for something. And I have never had the opportunity to completely immerse myself into something like that where it wasn’t about a giggle. And life lessons weren’t taught in a pretty little bow at the end. That’s all great, but telling this kind of a story like this is rugged, raw, real and with an added fantasy aspect to it.
“Motherland: Fort Salem” comes on Wednesdays at 9 pm EST on Freeform.*