Award-winning actress Charmaine Bingwa wears many hats. She’s the creative force behind the upcoming webseries Little Sista, which will premiere on the re-designed Revry network in early to mid July. The series follows the eponymous main character’s attempts to mentor an at-risk girl as part of a court-mandated Big Brother, Big Sister program. Needless to say, hilarity ensues. Little Sista is already generating festival buzz, winning the award for Best Screenplay at the LGBT Toronto Film Festival and earning selections in the Web Series Festival Global, Hollywood, Out Fest LA, Sicily Web Fest, Roma Cinema DOC, and Melbourne Web Fest. Charmaine hopes the series is a stepping stone towards a more inclusive tapestry of LGBT characters in media.
Cliché: You’ve given award-winning performances on stage. What have your experiences with theater taught you about being an actress?
Charmaine Bingwa: My experiences in the theater have taught me EVERYTHING. I can’t speak highly enough about how working in the theater is the ultimate acting apprenticeship. Rehearsing every day and being able to live as a character for months at a time allows you to go so deep in your exploration. I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to work with some of the finest actors. Seeing how they work helped me form my own process. Theater lives and dies on the craft – physicality, dramatic stakes, siphoning the truth of the text and finding a way to do it night after night as if it’s the first time. The thought of it is electrifying to me. Last year in Australia I was in five different theatre productions and appeared before audiences 79 times – you can’t buy that kind of experience or confidence.
Where did the idea to create a web series come from?
I was having breakfast with a friend and I was telling him about how I was a mentor in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters Program, and he was like “WTF, you??!!” So, I kind of built the show around this reversal of expectation and seemed to strike comedy gold!
Tell us about the plot of your new web series, Little Sista.
Little Sista is about a girl with commitment phobia who must learn to grow up when she is paired with an at-risk youth in a Big Brother, Big Sister program. Charmaine, a thirty-something black lesbian, is a wounded child in an adult’s body. She’s self-absorbed, terrified of commitment, and oblivious to the needs of others. But when a judge with a sense of irony orders her to mentor an at-risk young girl, she identifies with the kid’s difficult childhood and attempts to teach Lucy the life lessons her own parents failed to.
This comedy web-series normalizes ethnic diversity, LGBTQ+ relationships, substitute families, and shows how easy it is to let a world of selfishness preside.
Little Sista isn’t just about telling ‘gay stories’ and putting ‘minorities’ on screen. It’s about normalizing same-sex relationships, and exploring human stories that we can all connect to on some level, with a main character who just happens to dig other chicks. Like Transparent it’s a boundary pushing rollercoaster ride about dysfunctional people who have depth.
Your character, also named Charmaine, doesn’t really have her life together – she won’t listen to authority, can’t commit to her girlfriend, and has to do community service. Do you think looking after a child changes her perspective on things and in what way?
I do. I think she has led this hedonistic life where she can do whatever she wants, whenever she wants – and it’s not until she comes face-to-face with someone truly in need that she begins to question her life philosophy. Of course, Lucy must prove herself to be cool, first by threatening Charmaine’s shady ex-flatmate with a water pistol full of urine… a pretty standard initiation!
You wrote, produced, and directed Little Sista. How did it feel having almost complete creative autonomy over a project? Was it nerve-wracking?
Terrifying. But I’ve learned to love the things that terrify me as they cause me to grow the most. There is nothing more satisfying than doing something that I initially doubted I could do.
Little Sista is already winning awards on the festival circuit. What does it mean to you to be able to bring LGBT narratives to screen?
It’s my mission to normalize the LGBTQ+ community. There has been so much progress – marriage equality exists in many parts of the world, laws preventing discrimination based on sexuality exist – but there is still a stigma around it. Suicide is the leading cause of death in people aged 10 to 24, five times more likely for LGBTQ+ youth compared to heterosexuals. I want the next generation to grow up knowing it’s okay to be exactly who they are. Hopefully this story goes some way to help that issue. The way people have embraced Little Sista thus far fills me with hope.
How would you like to see LGBT roles and storylines continue to diversify in media?
I just want to see LGBT stories told in a way that is as valid as heterosexual stories. We need stories that are as diverse as people. And TV writers need to stop killing off gay characters… grrr!
Talk about your other upcoming project, The Pitch.
I met the team making the film through a friend and I immediately clicked with them. They offered me the role of yoga teacher, Summer Akers, who is a little too devoted to her yoga guru. She is crazy, so it was fun! And it got super-steamy filming in an actual hot yoga studio.
You’re also an accomplished guitarist and singer. What attracted you to guitar initially? Do you remember the first song you learned how to play?
I was about to start high school and my parents suggested I learn an instrument – they said no to my first request for drums, so I settled on the guitar. I love that it’s both a melodic and harmonic instrument, and it’s a perfect songwriting tool.
The first song I learned was ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries. A song I still love today – RIP Dolores O’Riordan *prayer hands emoji*.
What are the differences between performing as a singer versus as an actress? Have you ever learned a lesson through singing that has helped you with acting or vice versa?
I personally don’t see much difference between performing as a singer versus an actress – I treat them the same way. You have a message and a need to communicate and you use your body to do so. One of my favorite things I stole from the singing realm that I use in the acting world is that your body doesn’t lie; when you tell the truth, your physicality sings harmoniously with your message. Also, always utilize your breath, voice and consciousness.
If you could serenade one person, who would it be and what song would you pick?
Kristen Stewart with Madonna’s Like a Prayer (just like in episode 7!)
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Everyone Wants to be Charmaine Bingwa’s Little Sista. Photo Credit: Paul Smith.