Javicia Leslie, co-star in CBS God Friended Me, talks new episodes, her faith, and how being a part of the show helped heal a rift between the actress and her estranged father.
With 10.5 million views this month alone, CBS’ newest dramedy, God Friended Me, has been declared one of the “unlikeliest of hits” for the fall season. But the series, which tackles the subjects of God, faith and social media, received a full-season order last week, proving the cynics wrong about faith-based network shows. Co-star Javicia Leslie is particularly thrilled with the news, believing the series has the power to not only inspire people, but also provide healing.
“A huge part of what I feel our world needs right now, is understanding that my connection to you isn’t about a set of rules and laws that were given by a religion or government,” said Leslie, who plays the role of Ali Finer in the show. “It’s about a person-to-person respect. This show does an amazing job representing several different voices and I pray we continue to have the opportunity to shoot these episodes because the more we’re here, the more we’re going to be able to speak for people that haven’t been heard.”
It was the opportunity to be one of the people representing those voices that first drew Javicia to audition for the role of Ali. Functioning as both a sister and the pillar of wisdom when her atheist brother Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall) is suddenly Facebook friended by “God,” Leslie says Ali was a character she really wanted to venture into, someone who served as a bridge in a disconnected family.
“I love the idea of psychology and the idea of understanding people based off their past circumstances,” said Leslie. “That’s really who Ali is. She kind of psychoanalyses the situations and more than anything she loves to help people. I also love the fact that this was a black woman who was a lesbian, which I feel like, to be a part of that movement on network TV, it’s very powerful to me.”
While the show’s public message of human connectivity struck a chord with Leslie right from the start, she believes the most impactful experience she’s gained from working on the series was the personal healing she received through the on-camera relationship between Ali and her father, Rev. Arthur Finer (Joe Morton).
“I grew up in a single-parent household, my mom raised me, and I really didn’t have a relationship with my dad,” said Leslie. “To be able to fall into this relationship and live into this relationship and have that father-daughter bond has been super powerful. When I’m on set, I’m living it with so much joy thinking, ‘This is what it would have been like.'”
Leslie originally got into acting because of her desire to be, as she puts it, “about 20 different things,” from a lawyer, to a dancer, to a teacher. Leslie figured that by becoming an actor, she could embody all the things she’d always wanted to be, including experiencing a real father-daughter relationship and, along the way, discovering that nothing is perfect.
“I’m in a show where I get to have something I always wanted as a child, and what I took from this was that my real father may not ever be the father that I’ve always wanted, but he’s there, he’s human, he makes mistakes,” said Leslie, who opened up communication lines with her father for the first time soon after beginning the show. “We can never go back in time, but what I can say is, ‘I get it, you suck at the job but it’s OK. I forgive you. From this point on, let’s give it what we can give.’ We don’t talk a lot but we’ll text each other here and there, and that’s more than we’ve done in the past.”
In God Friended Me, social media and texting is used as a tool to connect people through “God” sending Miles “friend suggestions,” for people he begins to notice and help in his day-to-day life. Rather than going with the popular stigma that social media accounts and cell phones are hindering person-to-person relationships, the series illustrates it as almost a launch platform for getting to know people. It’s a “safe space” Leslie has recently utilized with her father.
“We might not all be ready to sit around a table and talk about things, but being able to sit behind your phone and your computer, if you’re doing it in a respectful way, is just as powerful of a tool until you’re ready to talk to people face-to-face,” said Leslie. “I may not be ready to sit in front of my father, but to be able to send him a text message is just as powerful to me.”
At the heart of this show is the importance of learning to communicate, openly, without bias or judgement and accepting people as they are. Leslie believes that, more often than not, it’s one’s own expectations of people that get in the way of being able to love one another. The actress has experienced this phenomenon not only as a daughter, but also as a Christian.
“People are who they are,” said Leslie. “We’re all different. But just because we’re different, doesn’t mean I have to love you any less. The difference between religion and faith is that religion is taught to us and faith is lived through us. I’ve chosen to walk with faith in Christ, but it’s my choice. Religion is a lot of, ‘Here’s what you’re supposed to do,’ and what I love about this show is it goes away from forcing something to just living in something.”
She adds, “All our characters are different religions and you’d never know it because we’re all sitting in the bar and seeing each other for who we are. There shouldn’t be a division just because I was raised differently.”
God Friended Me’s upcoming episodes are going to be delving even further into the personal lives of the Finer family. From Arthur learning to accept his daughter living the life of a gay woman, to Ali playing a bit of match-maker for her father. There’s even going to be an introduction of the reverend’s brother, played by guest star Malik Yoba from New York Undercover.
“Continue to tune in because as the show goes on, everyone’s going to have someone they’re going to be able to connect to,” said Leslie. “Another thing this show teaches you is that you can’t figure anything out by yourself. The point of friends and the point of family is that we’re all a community and we’re stronger together than we are separate.”
God Friended me is now streaming on CBS.com and Amazon Prime. What are you most excited to see in the upcoming episodes? Leave your response in the comments below.