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How Gina Torres Made the Strong Female Character Her Signature Role

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ach week, we present an influential woman whose career and style has inspired the Silkarmour team to aim higher and dress better. This week’s Silkarmour woman is actress Gina Torres.

 

It was in the middle of a highly anticipated theatre audition, in which Gina Torres stood alone on a dark stage, being condescendingly instructed by a disembodied voice through a sound system when she decided she refused to be taken for a fool. Storming down the centre of the stage, she demanded that the production team start over and audition her properly; laying the foundations for her zero-tolerance policy on poor treatment, an attitude which has secured her some of the most coveted leading roles in science-fiction and legal dramas to date.

Torres has never struggled with typecasting; unless one can consider a stream of strong, independent characters a disadvantage. Establishing a name for herself through a series of medieval fantasy roles, including Nebula in Hercules, Cleopatra in the cult-hit Xenia: Warrior Princess and gun-slinging, alien-slaying Zoe Washburne in Firefly, it came as no surprise when ABC announced that new legal drama Suits would feature Torres as Jessica Pearson; the cool and calculating managing partner of leading New York firm, Pearson Hardman. Hailed as the reason to watch Suits, a fast-talking and egotistical white man is what, as journalists noted, we’d expect from a legal drama but the cut-throat, humour-laced, pop-culture-referencing quips that Pearson throws out during her verbal take-downs is what gives the show it’s addictive nature. The matriarch that is loved as much as she is feared is a character that everyone can identify in their own life and it’s a quality that Torres has nurtured from the start;  “The joy I derive from her intellect is in the fact that she's smarter than everyone else around her…smarter than all the cocky white dudes under her employment. As a leader, Jessica has found a way to be both loved and feared—cultivating obedience and extreme loyalty.”

Woman of the Week: Gina Torres

Now that Suits is the tenth most pirated show in the world, it would seem that Torres’s performance is having an impact. “I’ve had a lot of female lawyers thank me for the character of Jessica” says Torres, “they’re always so grateful that I’m representing them; Jessica’s become a poster girl for female lawyers.” Although the show does disclose that Pearson’s position as a black female managing partner is aspirational, the fictional element in which the crux of the plot pivots on is manoeuvred to illustrate how absurd it is that a female or a black female for that matter, can’t be head of a leading law firm. Torres reiterates this; “Jessica was conceived as a man – but here I am, a black woman in a world of white men. The strength of her character is that, in Suits, we never play on that. Her drive and her ambition has nothing to do with her gender or cultural background.” To hammer the point home, one episode sees Pearson squares up to her legal opposition (formerly a mentor) and confronts him about her name having an asterix early on in her career, identifying her as fulfilment of a law-firm’s diversity quota, rather than just a successful applicant. In thanking him for his past actions (and trying to upper-cut her firm in the present), she stares him down with undeniable venom, telling him point-blank; “You woke the dragon Charles. How do you like me now?”

Woman of the Week: Gina Torres

Shop the look: Cashmere Jacket by EmmaJane Knight | Cashmere Pencil Skirt by EmmaJane Knight | Lavra V-Back Balloon Sleeve Shirt by Rose & Willard | The Deal Closer Satchel by She Lion | Lovell Heels By Lucy Choi | White Brilliant Earrings by ORA

Now that Torres has mastered the art of the strong female character, it comes as no surprise that she has a history of calling out the underlying racism that still plagues the film and television industry. Commenting on the incidences where Torres was told she wasn’t how the producers ‘envisioned’ the potential character in question (something else her Suits co-star Meghan Markle has also experienced), she notes how the tactics to find a white actress when coloured actors apply are subtle to the untrained eye, but clear as day to those inside the circle. “They can’t really say that out loud, but you know what it is because they go a ‘different way’ [in casting] …and you see what the different way was each and every time - it was the white way.” But a woman who made a name for herself wrestling with demi-gods and warrior royalty didn’t take any of it lying down, brushing off the resistance with a simple matter-of-fact attitude; “I could crawl up into a ball in a corner and cry or I could just go to the next one and prove them wrong. And here I am…25 years later." That said, she’s also used the prejudices of the industry to her advantage. “For this industry, I’m impossibly tall…either you’re a ball-buster or the not-so-attractive girlfriend standing by the lead…[but] when you fall within the cracks, you thank God for sci-fi, because they’ll give you a gun, and they’ll say, ‘Go over there and conquer that world!’”

Woman of the Week: Gina Torres

An integral part of Jessica’s character is inevitably her wardrobe. With her tailored work dresses, peplum-jacket suits and enviable bag collection, Jessica Pearson’s wardrobe is the embodiment of both what it means to be a professional woman and the transformative power of fashion. Fully aware that the “girls have to keep up with the boys” in the style stakes, Suits costume designer Jolie Andreatta developed Pearson’s aesthetic on “old-world wealth”, keen to highlight that Pearson’s character is not the product of preferential treatment as a black woman in law, but through sheer hard work. “Style is in her blood and it comes naturally when she shops” Andreatta said, “I prefer to think that she is a collector, she is aware of what’s happening in fashion because it’s a tool of representation.” Adorning dresses by L’Wren Scott, Roland Mouret, Carolina Herrera and Ralph Lauren with vintage pearls and Jimmy Choo, Torres takes full advantage of Pearson’s use of her “unapologetic feminine fabulous authority” when conducting herself in her office, only truly stepping into character when she puts the Louboutins on.

As Suits returns for its sixth season today, viewers can look forward to seeing Torres take Pearson through the new territory of vulnerability. Pearson will no longer be the smooth-talking, office-strutting power woman but a law-firm owner fighting to retain what is rightly hers. “Every decision she’s made is being judged and scrutinized by the very people who either forced her to and/or were complicit in the making of them” Torres said. That said, she also points out that learning from her mistakes and seeing her former partners and colleagues leaps to her defence is what Pearson needs to heal; and a reminder to women in similar positions of power that they are not alone in the struggle. Others having unwavering faith in you is “something that would make even the strongest and smartest and most bad-ass woman in the world, take a breath, and believe again.”

 

Career Golden Nuggets

On the job hunt: “Losing a job is not the end of the world. Your job is the one you get. You don’t get somebody else’s job, and nobody gets yours.”

On committing to a niche career: “It’s important to learn your business and how it works. It’s important to surround yourself with people who are as passionate about business as you are about the arts, but it’s also important to get passionate about your business because it is your livelihood.”

On creating your own reality: “Jessica Pearson isn't a unicorn. She's not a mythological creature. She's an example of so many women out there that are ruling their part of the world and doing an incredible job.”

 

Woman of the Week

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