With 13 screen credits in the last eight years, Brandee Evans isn’t a seasoned actress just yet. “To this day, I don’t have an acting reel because I’m so new,” she admits to ELLE.com. But the P-Valley star has already lived so many lives, she’s more than equipped to handle anything Hollywood throws at her.

Before becoming a bonafide TV star, Evans was the chair of a high school English department and taught Hip-Hop in Heels classes in her native Memphis, Tennessee. Dancing took her all around the world, from NBA games to the BET Experience, where she coached Tina Knowles on how to strut in stilettos. During a much-needed vacation in Los Angeles, Evans went to an audition on a whim—and ended up booking a Lil Wayne tour. She wrote a resignation letter to the school from the tour bus.

“That’s just five percent of the story,” Evans says in her fabulous southern drawl. “I’m writing a book now.” The modest fraction is easy to believe, since that story doesn’t even cover her entire pre-P-Valley narrative: When she was tired of dancing but found herself low on funds, a friend emailed her Katori Hall’s sizzling script about strippers at a club in the Mississippi Delta. Evans was immediately drawn to the marquee role of Mercedes, the tough-as-nails dancer just a few weeks shy of her final trip up the pole before pursuing her dance coach dreams. When we meet her in the first episode of the series, she’s rocking a sliding upside down on a pole and rocking a lime-green G-string.

“I didn’t even see the dance in it first,” the actress says. “I saw the ‘slanguage,’ as Katori calls it. The first line sounds like my homegirl back home. It sounds like me, my mom, my grandma. It sounds like Memphis.” Evans was desperate to ace her audition—she barely got into the room after multiple rejections from production—and when she finally landed a slot, one of her homegirls overnighted a wig, while another did her makeup for free. “You know I don’t have a job—I can’t afford [this]—but please do my makeup and make me look like a pretty stripper,” Evans told her.

Whether it was the actress’s electrifying choreography to Ne-Yo’s “Mirror”—complete with a chair!—or the fact that she, a preacher’s daughter from Memphis, sees herself in Mercedes, Evans wowed the room. “The rest is history,” she says proudly.

Evans talks to ELLE about being surrounded by women in front of and behind the camera, as well as bikini lines, letting go of the pressure to be strong, and finding joy.

P-Valley allows you to combine your love of dancing and acting. Was that what initially drew you to the role of Mercedes?

It actually is not. When P-Valley came around, I was tired of dancing. I had told my manager, Debbie, “Don’t put me out on anything dance-related anymore.” Not that I didn’t love it anymore, but I’m a caregiver. I’ve been caring for my mother for I don’t know how many years. I taught dance classes in order to [get enough] money to get her out of a nursing home and make life better for her, but I was burnt out. I’ve danced in Japan, London, and all over the United States trying to do classes, [to the point] where sometimes I lost money because not enough people came. I was like, “I don’t want to two-step nothing anymore.”

I read the P-Valley script and I was like, this woman’s a PK—a preacher’s kid? I’m a PK. She coaches dancing? I coach dancing all over the world and I win. I’m competitive. She has a toxic relationship with her mother? Oh my God. Toxic was the key word in my relationship with my mom growing up. This was meant to be.

[P-Valley] shows that these women are not just their bodies. People think I’m more open than I am, [but] my father and mother raised me very conservative. I was a little nervous about that part of it, [but] my father was so supportive. When I called him, the first thing he said was, “This is what you’ve been working on. Go live your dream and do your job.” Once daddy approved, I didn’t care what the world thought. These women’s stories deserve to be told. It doesn’t matter if you agree with it or not. This is through a woman’s gaze, not a man’s. You’re seeing what’s going on in the women’s souls and hearts.

Like you, Mercedes empowers girls and women through dance. What inspires you to do that?

My motto is, “Sexy is confidence, not your dress size.” I’ll have a woman who is 110 pounds and a woman who’s 210 or 310 pounds. We’re all beautiful ladies. We’re all sexy. We’re all confident. I didn’t realize I had insecurities I had to let go of. I didn’t like my legs until P-Valley. During Hip-Hop in Heels, I would wear shorts to get comfortable with it. I have stretch marks. I have little dimples. But what woman doesn’t? Let’s just be real about it.

It was amazing to be around eight female directors lifting us up. Our line producer’s a woman [as well as] our showrunner and creator. We’ve got a female DP. Everywhere I turned, there was a woman encouraging and empowering me. A lot of times we compete with each other, like, she looks better than me. She’s smaller. She’s thicker. She’s curvier. Not on P-Valley. Everybody is hot, confident and strong. I’ve never in my life been on a job where my showrunner comes up to me and goes, “You don’t have to lose weight.” The first thing I thought when the show got picked up was, I’m going to get really tiny, so I can look better on camera. Because that’s what I’ve heard my whole life: “You’re a little too thick onstage. You’re a little too curvy.” That’s just my body. I’m made like a coke bottle. My grandmama was. Mama was and is. And finally, I can embrace it.

There are few greater feelings that women boosting up other women.

It was like a sorority. Who would you rather be around when you’re feeling bloated? Another woman who gets it. It was like, “I’ve got to be in a thong today, y’all.” [They were like], “We got you, girl. I’m going to tell you what camera angle to look out for, so you know when to suck in.”

Our episode 1 director, Karena Evans, said, “Trust that I am getting the best shot of you all the time.” Of course, that first episode was very intimidating. She came up to us and goes, “Don’t worry because I’m behind the camera making sure you look great.” It was like [having] a best friend, because only your best friend [would go], “Hold your stomach tight. Turn your shoulder that way because it looks better.”

“Everywhere I turned, there was a woman encouraging and empowering me.”

I love that it was a space where you could talk about holding in your tummy without judgment. We don’t talk enough about things like stretch marks. We’re just not supposed to have them.

They’re photoshopped out of magazine photos. Like, let’s talk about the bikini line. How many times have we all tried to get laser [treatment] or bleaching creams because we’ve got ingrown hairs? To see women who looked like me made me feel normal.

Was there an intimacy consultant on set?

Yes, we had two. They played no games as far as making sure we felt comfortable at all times. Even the director would come from behind the screen and ask, “Are you comfortable with him touching you here? Do you want to practice? Do you need some time? Are you okay?” It got to the point when I was like, “We are on episode 5. We are ok!” Sometimes I forgot that we were in the club. We’d be talking in the background with a thong, like, “What you doing tomorrow? Let me see your baby. Oh, he’s so cute.” We became a family on that set.

You mentioned earlier that Mercedes and her mother have a toxic relationship. What was most important for you to convey in those scenes?

Vulnerability. Mercedes is so strong in the club. She puts up a hard façade. She’s never going to let the other girls see [anything else]. But there’s something about your mama that can bring that wall down and get you to the core. I was able to pull from my own experiences. I had a stillbirth and went to nationals in Orlando, Florida. There were kids everywhere. That is the saddest place for a mother who has just lost a child. I put on a smile and acted like the world was fine. Then I went back to my room and cried. With Mercedes and her mom, I cannot keep that up [and act] like everything’s okay. I want to show that that’s the one trigger for Mercedes that can break her.

Meryl Streep said at an award show, “Take your broken heart and make it into art,” and it made me think about all the things that have happened to me. P-Valley has been therapy for me. I’m able to release some of those things I’ve built up. That’s how I’m able to play certain themes so authentically. I can’t tell you a lot of them right now, because it will give the story away. There’s a lot of hurt these ladies have gone through that Brandee has gone through too.

What brings you joy?

My mother. She’s here with me now. To be able to care for her—oh gosh, you’re going to make me tear up—means everything to me. I wanted to make life better for my mother. She has multiple sclerosis and early onset Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t fully know what’s going on. But the smile on her face [lets me] know that she still knows [some things]. That’s Brandee searching for that validation: “Mama, did I make you proud?” Anything I can do to make her life better makes me happy.

Originally Printed on Elle.com by

Candice Frederick Contributor Candice Frederick is a freelance TV/film critic living in New York City.