In 'Clipped,' Cleopatra Coleman spreads her wings

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In 'Clipped,' Cleopatra Coleman spreads her wings
Cleopatra Coleman in New York, May 19, 2024. The actor’s versatility has allowed her to stay relatively anonymous, but that may change with her new docudrama about an NBA scandal. (Jingyu Lin/The New York Times)

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- Cleopatra Coleman began with red, swirling it toward pink with a fine-tipped brush. An oval appeared on the paper, and then smaller marks joined it — ears, eyebrows, a line for a nose. “I always draw this woman,” Coleman said. “I don’t know why.”

This was on a bright May morning and Coleman, a star of the FX limited series “Clipped,” which premiered Tuesday on Hulu, was at Happy Medium, an art cafe around the corner from her temporary apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She had passed it on walks with her dog, George, a rescue Yorkiepoo, and had often felt jealous of the customers there at night, on dates. So this morning, on a day off from filming a new series, “Black Rabbit,” she had taken herself on a date. She had even dressed for the occasion, in a thrift-store T-shirt with a New York State Summer School for the Arts logo. Charcoal and pottery tempted her, but she settled on watercolor.

To the picture, Coleman, 36, added a long neck, small breasts, two teeth. More colors came — purple, sunset orange, hints of green — all representing different emotions. Then she took a fresh sheet and began again, painting the same figure in different shades. Since the early days of the pandemic, she has drawn and painted this woman hundreds of times.

“It’s always the same woman,” she said.

In her professional life, Coleman is almost never the same woman. An actress since her teens, she has bounded among genres and forms. Although her look is distinct — high forehead, full lips, limpid brown eyes — she is often nearly unrecognizable from one role (“The Last Man on Earth,” say, or “Dopesick”) to the next (“Infinity Pool,” “Rebel Moon”). It’s a versatility that has allowed her to stay relatively anonymous. But given her audacious performance in “Clipped,” as V. Stiviano, the personal assistant to Donald Sterling, the disgraced former owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, and the promise of “Black Rabbit,” a starry drama set in the world of Manhattan nightlife due out next year, Coleman’s name and face are about to become much better known.

That’s what her colleagues want for her. “I hope she breaks the (expletive) out,” Gina Welch, who created “Clipped,” said in an interview. “She’s such a star.”

And Mo McRae, who directed her in the film “A Lot of Nothing,” doesn’t understand why it hasn’t happened already.

“It is shocking to me — I’ve thought about it a lot and it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “She’s extremely talented, she’s professional, she’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, she’s all of the things.”

According to Coleman, celebrity has never been her goal. As a woman obsessed with painting someone else’s portrait, she prefers to disappear into her roles. “You just put it out there,” she said, daubing yellow onto her picture. “It’s not your job to tell someone how to feel. None of it’s yours. You’re just a vessel.”

Coleman grew up in Byron Bay, Australia, the daughter of a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother, hippies with strong artistic leanings. Her first experience of performance was clambering to the front during a belly dance class that her mother led. She studied ballet and modern dance and made her acting debut in one of her father’s short films. Acting was, for her, an irresistible calling. She liked Byron Bay, but by the time she was a teenager, she persuaded her parents to leave.

“I’m very, very blessed to grow up in such an open, creative community where it’s not weird to want to be an artist,” she said. “But it’s also a small town, and so ambition doesn’t really go with that.”

The family moved to Melbourne. Although her parents were no longer romantically involved, they all lived together at first, the better to support her. Quickly she was cast in a commercial and then in roles on children’s television. That was fine for a few years, but as a mixed race actress she sometimes felt limited by what the Australian industry offered her. She knew that the writers and directors never had someone who looked like her in mind.

“I had to be undeniable,” she said. “I had to literally go in and change their minds completely.”

She often played tough girls back then or sexualized characters, even though sexuality is a quality she rarely leads with, in life or work. After high school, she visited Los Angeles and then moved there a few years later, as soon as she was out of her teens.

Hollywood brought more opportunities, but despite her experience, she still had to fight for every audition. She took whatever was available — comedy, drama, horror, satire, science fiction — and used to feel self-conscious about that. “I thought, ‘Oh, do I need to pick a lane?’” Eventually she realized she was creating her own lane. And while there’s not much overlap between a loopy sitcom like “The Last Man on Earth” and an eat-the-rich horror film such as “Infinity Pool,” she often found herself in projects that attempted an exaggerated or heightened reality.

Coleman thinks that she understands why. “I can go there,” she said. “I’m intense, man. That’s all I can say.”

Mary Steenburgen, her co-star and eventual romantic interest on “The Last Man on Earth,” had another theory. “She has an ability to go deep into her own sense of truth,” she said of Coleman. “Cleo has this beautiful belief in her character and the moment.”

That belief served her well in “Clipped,” playing a character who could easily be dismissed as a bimbo, a gold digger, or a fame-hungry grifter leveraging her intimate relationship with the wealthy NBA owner Sterling, — played by Ed O’Neill in the series — for riches and renown. The real Stiviano did eventually achieve a kind of fame when she recorded Sterling making racist remarks that were later leaked to TMZ, touching off a scandal that resulted in Sterling’s ouster from the league in 2014.

Welch, the showrunner, said V. was like an Edith Wharton heroine: “unapologetically ambitious and materialistic and vain. You want to see them eat the world.” But as played by Coleman, V. invites compassion — she is as naive as she is calculating, as good-hearted as she is manipulative and ambitious. She accepts a duplex and a Ferrari as her due. But she is also in the process of adopting two young boys, a fact true of the real-life Stiviano. (The production attempted to contact Stiviano, but she did not participate in the show or in the podcast it was based on, “The Sterling Affairs.”)

Welch said that Coleman “wanted to make sure that people still felt empathy for the character.” It worked, at least during filming. Welch found herself writing more for V. and shaping episodes in favor of the character’s point of view, a tribute to Coleman’s performance.

Coleman could relate to the character’s ambition and to her status as an outsider in a world she longs to join. “I just saw her as an outlier and a misfit and I know what that feels like,” she said.

Other elements came harder. V. is overtly sexual, a quality Coleman hasn’t played that often. But for the character, she saw it as means to an end, another tool. “She wasn’t comfortable with it,” she said of Stiviano. “So I didn’t have to pretend that I was comfortable with it.”

Whether in a pantsuit or French lingerie, V. stands out and takes up a lot of space, which felt strange to an actress used to disappearing. In her off hours, Coleman lives quietly — reading, writing, taking her dog, who has become something of a local celebrity, to dog parks. (“There’s a reason why he’s not here, because he would completely pull focus,” she joked.)

Coleman finished off the second painting. She couldn’t say exactly what her subject represents, but in her face Coleman saw humor and resilience, she said. “She’s sardonic and she looks like she’s been through hell, but she’s cool with it because she knows she’s going to be OK.”

Resilience has kept Coleman going for 20 years, throughout a career in which she has rarely occupied the spotlight. So even if she isn’t looking for fame, and is mildly allergic to celebrity, she’s curious about this next professional phase.

“For me, it’s about, ‘Ooh, this is available to me now, this juicy character,’ ” she said. “That’s what’s exciting, and I hope that continues. Because I have so much more to give.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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