Essence Atkins Talks 'Ambitions', Co-Parenting & Granting Herself Permission To Grow

"I have no desire to remain barred by who I used to be. I'm a product of my own evolution."

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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.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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