As slick, stylish and visually arresting as a pricey pop video, Selah and The Spades is one of the year’s most original teen dramas. The film’s lead, 21-year-old New York native Lovie Simone is no different. She’s already made waves on her home turf as a regular in US megachurch drama series Greenleaf – in which she plays a rebellious preacher’s daughter who just so happens to have Oprah Winfrey for an aunt – but with Selah and The Spades, this rising talent is well on her way to becoming a fully-fledged global star.
A hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Selah and The Spades tells the story of a fancy boarding school in Pennsylvania and the warring factions of party-loving, pill-popping kids that populate it. Since the Malory Towers and St Trinian’s tales of the 1940s, boarding schools have been the perfect place to play out the ups and downs of young adult life. With no parents around, teenagers run amok, causing untold havoc. In Selah and The Spades they do all that and more.
The brainchild of first-time director Tayarisha Poe, school senior Selah – played calmly and cooly by Simone – heads up one of these factions. But she’s also looking for someone to take over her position by the end of the school year. Poe has described the film’s set-up as “The Godfather meets The Baby-Sitters Club”. We ask Lovie if she’s succeeded in creating that vision. “Most definitely, yes!” she says with a laugh.
The character of Selah is a complex one. She is, ostensibly, the leader of a criminal gang, but she’s also just a normal teenager trying to work out the world and her place in it. It’s a role not entirely dissimilar to her ‘bad girl’ character in Greenleaf. “People like to have this stigma with teenagers, that they’re this certain way,” explains Simone, who’s currently self-isolating with her family in Georgia, after her New York shoot for crime series Power Book III: Raising Kanan was called off due to COVID-19. “I feel like I play the girls who show you, or emphasise, that gap, of the shadow self.” They’re not truly bad, the characters Simone plays – they’re just misunderstood. “It’s all about duality. Selah grabs control of the bad life in school because she’s oppressed at home. Everything plays off of something. I love characters like that.”
“There are not a lot of teen dramas [about] black kids growing up that don’t involve drugs”
The multidimensional character of 17-year-old Selah wasn’t just what appealed to Simone about the film, which is being released via Amazon Prime Video. “There are not a lot of teen dramas where you see the lives of black kids growing up and having it not involve drugs in a sense that it makes or breaks them,” says Simone. “And I haven’t seen black kids in a boarding school ever, I’ve never seen that story be told. It’s very refreshing.”
At first Simone auditioned for a totally different role; that of Paloma, the junior who Selah sees a potential successor in. “She was so similar to how I was in high school and I thought, ‘I definitely could play that girl’.” But one “magical” FaceTime with director Poe later and Simone shifted gears and went for the lead. “Our energy from the start was very pure,” she says of her relationship with Poe. “It was very big sister-little sister. Tayarisha is who I look up to in the director’s realm and artistically. I love her.”
Born and raised in The Bronx, New York, Simone went to middle school in the bustling city but high school in the leafy upstate area. Professional acting began at nine – her first job was in a back-to-school commercial for department store JCPenney – but she’d been dreaming of a life on screen or stage for years before. “I’ve always wanted to be an actress or a storyteller,” Simone reveals. “When I was young I would have moments in my room alone when I’d be in front of the mirror crying and then I would accept my award. I was really dramatic and I always knew it had to go somewhere.”
“I’ve always wanted to be an actress or a storyteller”
Her big break came when she was 16 and won the role in Greenleaf. Since then she’s popped up in an episode of Orange Is The New Black and scored her first film roles alongside ASAP Rocky and Jennifer Hudson in 2018’s All Rise and in 2019 mystery drama Share.
Lovie Simone’s entire family moved with her down to Georgia from New York so filming could begin on Greenleaf. “My mom wasn’t comfortable with me being alone and neither was I to be honest, so I was really happy that they came,” explains Simone, who has three brothers and sisters including a twin. But you won’t catch Simone sending her twin to the studio on days she doesn’t feel like filming. No-one would fall for it. “We’re actually fraternal – so I’m 5”3’ and she’s 5”10’ – we look more like cousins a lot of the time to people.”
Her twin, Yorie Oppong, is just as creative as Simone though. She’s currently working on her own neo-soul musical career and recently published a book of poetry called Greenhouse. “It’s about finding yourself and identifying with your pain, but not over identifying,” says a proud Simone of the collection. “It’s really good for people who are finding themselves or going through break-ups or trying to get some inner clarity.”
And though they might not look alike, Simone and her twin have recently been experiencing a pretty spooky psychic connection. “At first I didn’t think it was real, but it’s starting to pick up now and it’s getting a little scary!” exclaims Simone. “In the morning, whenever I’m walking to my door she’s walking there too and we’ll touch the handle at the same time. And whenever I’m thinking something, she’ll be like… ‘did you just think that too?’ And I’ll be like, ‘yeah!’”
“‘The Craft’ reboot is very diverse – you have a Jewish girl, a black girl and a trans girl all together as witches”
It’s pretty fitting then, that Simone has just finished shooting a remake of goth classic The Craft. She only watched the 1996 original the night before her audition for one of the four teenage witches, but she was instantly smitten. “I watched it to see what was up and what kind of energy I should have going into it and I fell in love!” she beams. “After I saw it I was like, ‘I have to get this, there’s no way I’m gonna leave that room tomorrow without getting this part’.”
Helmed by Zoe Lister-Jones, who directed, wrote and starred in 2017’s underrated indie romcom Band Aid, Simone says the new version of The Craft brings a fresh attitude to the almost quarter of a century old flick. “You can relate to it more,” she says of the reboot, the release date of which is now pending due to coronavirus. “It has more technology, and it has realistic issues that are going on now. And it’s very diverse; you have a Jewish girl and a black girl and a trans girl all together as witches. The way our personalities blended was so different yet so beautiful and I can’t wait for people to see that because I feel like there are a lot of friendship groups like that in the world.”
Filming in Toronto with a cast that included fellow up-and-comers Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising), Gideon Adlon (Blockers) and Zoey Luna (Pose) as the main coven, the actors bonded in an appropriately magical way during filming. “We went out a lot together,” says Simone, waxing lyrical about an FKA Twigs show the gang attended. “But we also stayed in a lot together. We did full moon rituals and it was really powerful and empowering. We would write down affirmations and things that we wanted to let go of on a piece of paper and then burn it.”
It’s an experience that has stuck with her beyond their time on set. “Witchcraft isn’t all that society says it is – it’s a different form of healing, a form of feminine healing,” explains Simone, who has taken lessons learned from the film into her everyday life. “I’ve tried to read tarot a little but I feel like my forms of witchcraft are very body and grounding-like,” explains Simone. “I like to make teas and I like to do yoga and I like to make food. Cooking is also a form of witchcraft; something you cook up in five minutes can taste better than something from a restaurant just because the energy that you put into it was so much better.”
“Cooking is also a form of witchcraft”
Working with The Craft’s Zoe Lister-Jones and Selah and The Spades’ Tayarisha Poe wasn’t just a fulfilling experience as an actor, but has also inspired Simone to get behind the lens herself. “I feel like I always had that want there, that fire burning for it,” says Simone of her aspirations to direct. “But Tayarisha and Zoe make it seem so easy; they know what they want, it’s very obvious what they want. I loved seeing that and I want that for myself. I also love the way they carry themselves and how they talk to people on set too. They don’t have to yell and they don’t have to be mean or do a whole bunch of unnecessary things to get people’s attention; they’re just people. It’s very humbling”.
It’s a project though that’ll have to join the massive list of numerous other plans for Simone’s future. Currently writing a novel about her own life, she’s also planning to work on a collection of short stories. Then she’s going to “start making my edible garden, with spices and tomatoes” and she’s also set herself the challenge of reading 100 books this year. So far she’s gone through just seven. “But I plan on getting really far during this quarantine!” she offers, hopefully.
We don’t doubt that she’ll get all of it done, however. Still only 21, she’s already got a successful stint as a YouTube influencer in the bag, making cosmetics and hair videos as her acting work started to take off. She still likes to do her own make-up and hair for shoots and red carpet events. “I feel like I go through so many lives,” explains Simone. “One of my past lives was very into the cosmetics world. I felt like I had to because I was getting into the industry and not a lot of people knew about black girl hair and not a lot of people knew about makeup that looked right on brown skin. I had to learn myself,” she explains. “I feel like that’s a part of every black girl’s life; she has a period where she had to learn how to braid and do her hair. That was my point in time.”
So what’s Lovie Simone’s next life going to entail? She says her dream role would be to play a ‘warrior’. “I would love to do fighting and there to be a lot of action and a lot of drama,” she says, excitedly. “And I would like to preferably be in the woods!” Would you do your own stunts!? “I actually would!” We don’t doubt her for a second.
‘Selah and The Spades’ arrives on Amazon Prime Video on April 17