Essence Atkins may be three decades into her career, but the Ambitions star doesn't take her long-standing success in Hollywood for granted. Though OWN's sizzling drama has approached its midseason finale, the veteran isn't pulling any breaks. "I'm on my way to acting class," she beams seconds into our call.
Essence may have landed a role on The Cosby Show after acing her first-ever audition as a teen and later became a familiar face on television as Yvette in the 90s sitcom Smart Guy, yet she doesn't move with an air of conceit. Her longevity is no mystery. She continues to approach the business as a student eager to grow and equipped to execute.
Best known for her work in comedy, the Marlon alum steps into unchartered territory on Ambitions, displaying another layer of her immense talent as Amara Hughes. Season one finds the assistant U.S. attorney tracking corruption in Atlanta's City Hall all while attempting to save her marriage after infidelity—a fight that takes a grim turn after an old foe and the sins of her past invade her world.
In this xoChat, Essence hints at what's to come when the OWN drama returns and bares her heart as she discusses finding balance between motherhood and career, giving herself permission to evolve past her mistakes, and tackling intimacy onscreen in her single season.
xoNecole: ‘Ambitions’ is a departure from what a lot of your fans know you for. What makes taking on this project both exciting and challenging?
Essence Atkins: The challenge, really for me, is being away from my son. We shot the show on location in Atlanta, so I was gone for seven months. I flew back and forth to be [in Los Angeles] as much as possible, and the production team was so amazing at making sure that I had pockets of time when I could come home. A one-hour drama schedule is so different. Doing a sitcom, the hours aren't so long. It's almost like having a 9 to 5 except for the days you shoot in front of a live audience. When I was shooting Marlon, it was a 15-minute drive from my house.
It was easier in terms of getting to work and the production side of it. What was so fun was exactly that: playing a character that so many people aren't used to seeing me play. Amara is way less together than most of them. As successful as she is, there are many aspects of her life that are a hot mess and in turmoil, and that was exhilarating for me to play someone who is so flawed, who has so many broken bits and so many pieces where she is so human. As I age and mature, I find that my life and complexities are much more interesting than when I was younger and the roles were more about being cute and fun and the object of someone's desire. Amara's story is really about her growth and pain, and I love that.
Something I imagine that bonds you to your character is family. Amara is working on preserving her marriage, and we also see how she grapples with her daughter being away at boarding school. What have you learned about yourself when trying to strike a balance between motherhood and the demands of your job?
I'm grateful to have a partner, even though we're not married any longer, who's supportive. My ex-husband is really involved and is a great parent to our son. I'm really fortunate that he works with me really well in terms of making sure that our son has stability and consistency even though my life isn't very stable. I know that a lot of single moms are truly doing it on their own, and I can say that I do have help, and I have help in someone who loves my son as much as I do. There's a lot of grace I have to give myself when I miss stuff. Being away from my son, I miss certain milestones and big moments in his life, and I can get buried in guilt sometimes about that.
At the same time, I understand that part of the benefit of my career and success is that it affords him a life that a lot of kids can't have in terms of extracurricular activities and access and the way he gets to do things and move in life. There are definitely moments where I beat myself up about not being able to be there physically, but I have also learned in this journey of being away from him, working on Ambitions in particular, how resilient he is and how okay he is. He did great in first grade, and I was gone for almost all of it. He finished with straight As on the principal's list, and he did exceedingly well. I think that, ultimately, kids are incredibly adaptable and as long as they know that they're loved, they really can flourish, and he knows that he's loved, and that was something that I was assured of in this season.
Essence Atkins in 'Ambitions'
Courtesy of OWN
"There's a lot of grace I have to give myself when I miss stuff. Being away from my son, I miss certain milestones and big moments in his life, and I can get buried in guilt sometimes about that."
[Your character in 'Ambitions'] Amara is really going through it right now. She’s determined to save her marriage, but just when her husband is ready to let go of her infidelity, her past literally shows up to haunt her. Where does she go from here?
There are so many question marks. The next seven episodes after the midseason finale are so action packed. As far as Amara goes, the one thing I can say is, she's going to go through it even more than she already has. You learn what a person is really about in times of great trouble, and how a person behaves in adversity is very indicative of who they are, so I think that people will really get to know and fall in love with Amara and what she's about. I also say when there's love, there is a possibility of resurrection. I believe that love and hope can really make miracles happen, and I believe that her and [her husband] Titus love each other.
When I look at Amara’s life, there are so many people reminding her of where she used to be. Has there ever been a time in your life when someone wouldn’t let go of their memory of you or afford you space to grow? If so, how did you overcome that?
Not that long ago, I had to let go of a long-term friend for that very reason because they were holding onto a grievance, something I had done that really hurt them, but it was from literally 30 years prior. I thought, 'If you're still holding onto this, I don't know how we can be friends because you somehow feel like I owe you something, and I feel like we've moved past that. I can't go back and erase what I did, but if you haven't forgiven me after all of this, then what is it that we're doing here?'
It was really painful to let go because it was a long-term friendship and somebody I still love to this day and wish them well. If people continue to hold on to who you used to be, you can stay stuck if you stay stuck to them. I have no desire to remain barred by who I used to be. I'm a product of my own evolution, and I work really hard on myself to improve myself and if that's not seen, then you're not looking at me anymore. You're looking at who I used to be.
Courtesy of OWN/Photographer: Peggy Sirota
"I have no desire to remain barred by who I used to be. I'm a product of my own evolution, and I work really hard on myself to improve myself and if that's not seen, then you're not looking at me anymore. You're looking at who I used to be."
You opened up about your divorce three years ago. When it comes to your personal life today, is romance a priority for you at the moment or has it taken a backseat?
It's taken a backseat big time. There's not a whole lot of opportunity for me to date. I definitely need someone who understands that I don't get to be spontaneous. I don't get to Netflix and chill. I have a son, I have a life, I have a career. There's a lot of moving pieces, so whoever I'm partnered with has to understand there are priorities and there are a lot of things to be considered in having time to spend together. It's not that I'm opposed to romance or partnership. I just don't prioritize it the way I did when I was single and didn't have a child (laughs). It's just a different dynamic. It would be nice. Somebody actually asked me the other day if I would get married again. I would like to think that I would get to a place where I would want to.
Even though romance isn’t centered in your life right now, it’s definitely centered in Amara’s. This series brings a lot of heat to the screen. How did you adjust to the amount of steamy scenes you have to take on?
Oh, honey. Prayer and squats (laughs). There's the outside confidence, which is just making sure that I feel good and look good to me and that I'm proud of how my body is and not feeling any kind of shame so I can be unabashed in that dynamic. But there's also the prayer aspect, which I really say honestly, because I don't have regular intimacy in my life and to go to set and kiss all day and be hugged up on somebody and then go to an empty apartment...there was a lot of pain in that for me because I'm pretending to be in love and have this great relationship but in real life, there's a deficit. The contrast of what was happening onscreen versus what was happening in real life was glaring at times. You make out all day, but in real life the only people kissing you are being paid to do so, and that can be excruciatingly ouch (laughs). I have incredible friends who get it. When you're talking about whatever your obstacles or problems are, you want people who are going to encourage you but who also aren't going to dismiss it. There's sadness in that, and the people in my life get that.
"There was a lot of pain in that for me because I'm pretending to be in love and have this great relationship but in real life, there's a deficit. The contrast of what was happening onscreen versus what was happening in real life was glaring at times."
Aside from stretching your talent on ‘Ambitions’, you’ve set your eyes on producing and expanding as a creative all around. When you look ahead, what are you most excited about?
I just produced an independent feature called Open along with my friends Terri Vaughn and Cas Sigers who have a production company in Atlanta called Nina Holiday. It's about a couple in an open marriage, and I'm really excited about that. We just started putting together a rough edit, and it'll be coming out next year. I also starred in the project. I'm looking forward to not just being in front of the camera, but bringing things to life that my friends are the leading ladies and men of. Success to me is not just about me and what I'm doing. Success to me is about the opportunities that I help create for others that deserve it.
For more Essence, follow her on Instagram. And be sure to catch the midseason finale of Ambitions tonight (August 27) on OWN at 10 p.m. ET/PT.