The thing Michael Michele remembers from when she was starting out as an actor was losing her first big representatives in the entertainment industry because she wanted to be more than a pretty face on screen.
"I wanted to play and represent a certain type of woman, and they said -- and I'm not just being illustrative; I'm going to tell you verbatim what they said to me -- they said, 'Listen, we can put you in some short skirts and some heels, and you can be sexy, and we'll all make a lot of money," Michele recalls. "I said, but that's not what I have an interest in doing. I'd like to play lawyers. I'd like to play cops. I'd like to play doctors."
Fast-forward some 30 years and you'll see from her career that Michele, now 54, accomplished exactly what she set out to do. After starring with Wesley Snipes In 1991's New Jack City, Michele went on to play cops, docs and lawyers in shows including Homicide: Life on the Street, ER, House, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit -- with time in between to star in films including the comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and opposite Will Smith as Veronica Porché Ali in the biopic Ali.
But she admits "it took a lot of work" to earn those roles, and she credits her award-winning turn as Detective Rene Sheppard on the gritty Homicide series in 1998 as the turning point in her career. "I was OK with never being uber-famous or uber-wealthy. It's just not why I came into the business. And quite frankly, I'm still not either of those things. It was the type of voice I wanted, not only for myself, but just for women and specifically women of color," Michele says in an interview for CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast series.
A single mother, she took time off to care for her son and thought her career was mostly over. But Michele said she was lured back to TV in large part by producer Ava Duvernay, who gave her a recurring role in the family drama Queen Sugar. In 2019, she was cast as Dominique Devereaux, Blake Carrington's half-sister, in The CW's reboot of the popular 1980s TV soap opera Dynasty. The part of the "mixed race, jet-set diva" was first created by actress Diahann Carroll, who wanted to be "the first black bitch on television" so much that she approached producer Aaron Spelling about becoming part of the prime time show. The Dynasty reboot, now in season 4, has more humor and campiness than the original, and Michele's Dominique is now the CEO of a fashion company as well as the show's outlandish troublemaker, Michele says.
It's a role that's an "absolute blast," though she admits she was also afraid that she couldn't play the part "because It's over the top," she explains. "Like I said, I had lived in the world of cop, docs and lawyers for a great part of my career. And I had been typecast and enjoyed being typecast in those roles. [But] Dynasty has given me the opportunity to loosen the reins a little bit and to do something that is outlandish at times and fun."
When I ask her, though, if she thinks Hollywood and the entertainment industry are doing a better job casting women in high-profile roles, Michele is cautiously optimistic.
"I think it's better today, because there are more women in the room making decisions," she says. "When you have more women in positions of power, you'll see greater roles for women."
And she also says that while Black Lives Matter helped force some action in getting the entertainment industry to rethink casting and representation, "success is not equitable."
"I often say to people, when you turn on the television, what do you see? Not when you turn on your particular programming choice; what do you see if you are just sitting down in front of the television and you're scrolling through, you know, 600, 700, 800 channels. The overwhelming majority of what you see are not people of color, are not women of color. You have a few roles here, a few roles there, but they're still rarefied opportunities."
I also spoke with Michele about how she's weathered the pandemic and about the tech she'd love created just for her. And of course, we talked about her current obsession.
Listen to my entire conversation with Michele on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. You can also subscribe to I'm So Obsessed on your favorite podcast app. In each episode, Patrick Holland or I catch up with an artist, actor or creator to learn about work, career and current obsessions.