Liz Jenkins talks American Horror Story, Black-ish and her journey thus far

Liz Jenkins Headshots courtesy Liz Jenkins
Liz Jenkins Headshots courtesy Liz Jenkins /

Liz Jenkins has made minor appearances in many of your favorite shows, but she’s been a standout in the role of Miss Biggs on Black-ish.

Every now and then, as you are watching a show you love, a character appears in a small role and steals an episode. I personally love to find actors who appear in these roles and make it clear that they are destined for much more. One of those actors for me was Liz Jenkins when she made her first appearance on Black-ish as the substitute teacher, Miss Biggs. She immediately had a new fan and it’s been fun to watch the character grow since that initial monologue.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Liz about her character on Black-ish, her 10-year journey to this point, and what she’d like to do in the future.

Hidden Remote: So Liz, jumping right in. How did you get into acting?

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Liz Jenkins: When I was in first grade, my first grade teacher’s name was Miss Durke. We had this presentation and afterward, mine was very lively as you can imagine, she took me aside and told me that I was going to be a performer or an actor.

Honestly, she was the first person outside of myself who really saw something like that in me. I definitely was a kid that would watch TV and say: “I want to do that” but she kind of made me feel like it could be a reality. It really became a focus of mine after that.

HR: Your pinned tweet mentions how good your year has been thus far. I have your first credited role as an appearance on Southland back in 2009. What has the journey been like for you over the past 10 years?

LJ: It has been a true roller-coaster. When I first moved here [Los Angeles] I think one of my first auditions was the one I booked for Southland, and even though I went to undergraduate school for performing and I went to grad school for theatre and acting, I didn’t really know what I was doing when I got out here. I can honestly say some of those first bookings, like Southland, were because the casting director saw- I like to say, a little “nugget” in me.

That casting director actually cast me in multiple things since then. It took me a little bit of time to find my stride going into the audition room and that’s definitely included me grounding myself and finding who I was as an actor. I knew I wanted to be an actor but I didn’t know who I was as an actor and that’s super important when you go into an audition room.

HR: So how did you come into the role of Miss Biggs?

LJ: I was actually in the middle of filming American Horror Story. It was the second-to-last day of being on set with that very intense show and my agent at the time was like: “You have this audition.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m on set. Can I send in a self tape?” My agent was like: “You know what, don’t stress about it. Another role will come along.”

I remember being like no, no, no please ask if we can do the self tape. I hadn’t even seen the breakdown for the character yet but I just knew, as a plus size African-American actress, that you’ve kind of got to grab all of the things that are coming at you. I rarely, rarely say no or pass on an audition.

That character wasn’t supposed to be recurring. In the first episode she was a substitute teacher. I just had the best time on that set and something in my heart was like, I think you could play around here. I have about 10 years of improv training so I decided to improv a little bit and they really liked it. Then they brought me back again and I had the same energy and the same attack on the character and they brought me back again. That’s kind of been my journey with Miss Biggs. It’s like the ultimate, trusting who I am as an actor and it turned into a recurring role on the show. Then she got a raise on the show! She went from the substitute and now she’s the principal of the school!

Liz Jenkins in Father’s Day
Liz Jenkins in Father’s Day /

HR: I remember that first scene when the character walked in the room and how she attacked the students. People are used to the meek substitute that is easy to take advantage of but she was the complete opposite of that. How much of that was you and how much of that was in the script?

LJ: The writer of the episode was Lindsey Shockley and that was in the script. Like the monologue of, “I’m your substitute teacher, yes my name is also my body type.” was all in the script. I didn’t improvise a single word. The craziest thing about how amazing her writing was is that I could build this character in her attitude, and heart, and attack based on that one monologue alone. It was such great writing. It was all the information I needed to build this character so the writing was absolutely the jumping board for me creating the personality of Miss Biggs.

HR: With the next Miss Biggs episode being your 6th in the role, this will be the longest that you have ever been in one role, so how does that feel?

LJ: Really good. I forget sometimes how good it feels which is why I pinned that tweet on my Twitter. My goal has always been to work consistently and nothing is more consistent than being able to go back to the same role and keep building it and giving it life and I don’t want to ever forget that.

As this character continues to come back, she’s actually coming back for two more episodes, it feels like I’m doing the right thing. I never really doubted myself truly but sometimes I felt like I was doubting myself. I think all actors have a little bit of doubt sometimes. So this has been a huge reminder to me that I’m on the right path. My path is just going to take a little longer but I’m absolutely ready to wait and ready to keep climbing.

HR: Early in your career you played 5 different nurses and now, including the Ravens House episodes, you’ve done nine total episodes now as a teacher. Are you worried about being typecast as a teacher?

LJ: You know, I’m not because actually teachers are a diverse populace of people so you can cast me as a teacher in so many different things. There’s going to be so many different ways to portray that role. I mean, I guess all professions are very diverse but I’ve always been very honored to play teachers. Especially on Twitter when I play Miss Biggs, when people write me and they’re like: “Oh my gosh! I’m a teacher, I wish I could say that!” I saw somebody say: “Oh my gosh I’m a substitute! This is me!” It’s super relatable and I love it. Teachers deserve all the respect and acknowledgement and if I can be a part of that in a small way by portraying a teacher in my career then bring it on. I’ll do it all day every day.

HR: Speaking of work and employment, you had a web series called Werk that you co-wrote. Is writing another passion of yours?

LJ: Writing has become a passion of mine after I moved here because, as I said earlier, being a plus size African-American woman there’s a limitation on what I’m allowed to do. At least 5 years ago, you didn’t see a lot of women that looked like me in certain comedic films that are very, very popular. Step Brothers is one of my favorite movies but I can’t think of a comparable movie with a big black woman in it. Unless they’re playing like a sassy cop or a sassy nurse. That’s [Step Brothers] my sense of humor and I’m so attached to it.

HR: Over the course of the years you have made several appearances on big time shows. Which role, and I’m going to exclude Miss Biggs, which roles or appearances have been your favorites?

LJ: Hmm, I’ll say Southland was obviously great because it was my very first time and every step of the way I was very taken care of. It was a great entrance into this world.

There’s a director, Larry Teng, that I’ve worked with a few times on Medium, NCIS: LA and Criminal Minds. Every time I work with him it’s like an on-camera Master Class.

Liz Jenkins – American Horror Story Season 7 Finale via FX
Liz Jenkins – American Horror Story Season 7 Finale via FX /

Then I have to say American Horror Story, man, like I really love that show, particularly that season. When that audition came around I was like oh my gosh and I remember the audition feeling different. The casting director for that show was also very good and very patient and it just felt good when I left the room. So when I booked it I was like oh my gosh I’m going to be on a show that I actually love.

The character, Gloria, in the episode ended up being such an important part of the finale. I didn’t know that in the audition I just did this one scene so when I got the rest of the script I’m like oh my gosh! I see she’s getting close with Evan Peters’ character and they’re plotting something and then she double crosses him. It was just a really thrilling experience. American Horror Story has this great fandom, so I probably got the most response out of that show.

HR: Do you have a dream role or people who you would love to work with as co-stars?

LJ: I have to say last night before I went to bed it kind of dawned on me that I’ve worked with some of my favorite actresses just in the past two or three years: Sarah Paulson, Viola Davis, Tracee Ellis Ross, Pamela Adlon. These are some of the actresses that I, for years, looked up to and to say that I’ve actually worked with them, in scenes? I have to go back to my pinned tweet. I’ve got to remind myself, that’s huge. That’s really huge.

Other dreams. I think I have more dream directors. I’d love to work with Adam McKay. I think what he’s doing in comedy and drama is amazing and I kinda like to dabble in both. I like Judd Apatow a lot. I think he creates great comedies as well.

I think my dream role would be just being able to carry a comedy. Another dream role would be being in a comedy ensemble movie. Wet Hot American Summer is a favorite of mine as well and first of all I think filming something like that would be ridiculously fun and second of all I don’t want to be sassy. Like we’re sitting here having this interview, you can probably tell I’m not very sassy. I can be, and I can book those roles but yeah just being able to be do something funny is a dream of mine. Something funny and not stereotypical I guess.

HR: So you’re getting regular work right now. Is there any advice you’d offer to somebody who is maybe where you were 5-10 years ago?

LJ: Yeah I mean I try to keep my Instagram fairly realistic because of this question that you’re asking. Because it is a roller coaster and there are highs and lows and I think that sometimes when people are on social media and they follow other actors you only see the highs so you feel like you’re missing out on something and you’re comparing a lot.

It’s just so important to have a well-rounded view of this industry and of your own life. Even if that means unfollowing people that are clearly only posting the positives. I’m more of the, here’s a picture of me eating a bag of Cheetos knowing that I’m going to get sick because I’m lactose intolerant but I’m doing it because I didn’t book a role. That’s my reality. So I guess that is my best advice.

You can catch Liz Jenkins in the upcoming Black History episode of Black-ish