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‘Bel-Air,’ ‘The Endgame’ stars and friends of 15 years talk breaking into Hollywood

Cassandra Freeman and Ryan Michelle Bathé opened up about being support systems for each other as two Black actors trying to make it in the industry.
The actors, who said they feel like family, spoke to TODAY about their friendship, championing each other’s success and the significance of Hollywood supporting more films and shows that feature leading Black female characters.
The actors, who said they feel like family, spoke to TODAY about their friendship, championing each other’s success and the significance of Hollywood supporting more films and shows that feature leading Black female characters.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

​Two of the most-talked-about winter premieres this season, star actors and best friends Ryan Michelle Bathé and Cassandra Freeman. Bathé leads “The Endgame,” as a highly-skilled FBI agent while Freeman puts her spin on respected matriarch Vivian Banks in “Bel-Air.” 

The breakout roles mark one of the biggest moments in Bathé and Freeman’s careers so far, and their support for each other helped get them to this pivotal point.

Bathé and Freeman became friends about 15 years ago after participating in the Guthrie Experience, an acting program in Minneapolis that includes other famous alumni like Mahershala Ali and fellow “The Endgame” co-star Morena Baccarin

As two newly trained Black actors hoping to make it in the industry, Freeman and Bathé bonded over their shared experiences of pursuing roles while overcoming self doubt and character tropes. They looked to each other for guidance and encouragement in a cutthroat business.  

The actors, who said they feel like family, spoke to TODAY about their friendship, championing each other’s success and the significance of Hollywood supporting more films and shows that feature leading Black female characters.  

TODAY: How did you meet each other? 

Freeman: I was literally trying to figure this out today. 

Bathé: I remember. Do you remember? 

Freeman: No.

The Endgame - Season Pilot
Ryan Michelle Bathé as Val from the new NBC show, "The Endgame."Eric Liebowitz / NBC

Bathé: I remember! We met through Sterling. The first time I met you was when you were doing Intimate Apparel at the Guthrie (Theater) with Sterling Kelby Brown

Freeman: That’s what I figured because Ryan and I both went to NYU, but at different times–me, her and Sterling. We all went there. 

Bathé: Our paths never crossed in New York, or not really. It wasn’t until Guthrie that we actually were able to sit down. You see somebody at an audition, that’s not always the most fruitful place to start a friendship. 

Freeman: Yeah, it’s different if you booked something versus sitting in a waiting room trying to book something. 

Bathé: When the checks are clearing and coming in, you’re much happier.

Freeman: That’s right. You got more space to have a conversation, that’s for sure.  

TODAY: What year was it?

 Freeman: I would think 2007?

Bathé: Yeah. Sounds about right. Six, seven–right in there. When did you graduate from NYU?

Freeman: Well, 2005. But I did the Guthrie Experience in 2004. Then in 2005 we graduated. 

Bel-Air - Season 1
Cassandra Freeman plays Vivian Banks in Peacock's "Bel Air"Adam Rose / Peacock

Bathé: Yeah, I remember it was after “Inside Man.” Because when you booked “Inside Man” it was all anybody could talk about. Like, ‘You hear about that girl from NYU? She graduated two weeks ago and she (booked) a movie.’ 

Freeman: The rumor was like, “Girl, she didn’t even graduate yet and she booked it!” 

Bathé: It was like (a) tall tale. You got taller and taller. She’s 5’10.” She’s six feet tall. She’s 6’ 4”. I was like, ‘Who is this girl that everybody is talking about?’ I was like, ‘If I hear one more word about this Cassie-eight-foot-tall-Freeman…’

Freeman: And I always heard about you through Sterling. I remember the long talks Sterling and I would have at the Guthrie about the love of his life. I feel like I could be making this up, but y’all weren’t engaged yet, right? 

Bathé: No. 

Freeman: I have a memory of him telling me that he was going to propose to you.

Bathé: No way!

TODAY: After you two became friends, how did it feel having this support system of someone who was going through the same experience?  

Freeman: I can just say that because Ryan is older than me I looked up to Ryan. Every time I would see Ryan I always felt like I was running to my older sister or my guidance counselor or like Maya Angelou.

If you are going to get trained as an actress, especially if you are a woman of color, go in there with a sense of self.

Ryan Michelle Bathé told today

I always felt like I would turn to Ryan, whether I bumped into her on the street or I had an audition, and I would search her eyes for ‘Am I okay? Am I on the right track? Is all this going to work out?’ I never saw Ryan in a room (and thought), ‘S—, she’s in the room. I’m not going to get this.’ Instead, I’d be like, ‘Oh, okay, she’s here. Okay, maybe one of us has a chance. I think that’s how Ryan and I always thought about it. We always had such good energy. I feel like Ryan and I, in general, always felt like, ‘If it’s not me, and it’s you, then it’s still a win. If it’s not you (but) one of the other girls that we know who we think are great actresses, then it was still a win. It never felt like ‘Oh, someone’s going to take this opportunity.’ Don’t you feel that way Ryan?

Bathé: I would say 1,000%. For sure. It’s a tough business and it feels like a grind. But when you know that there’s somebody out there who made the same choices and put themselves in the same kind of track. It kind of feels…

Freeman: Like a sorority?

Bathé: Yeah a sorority. A reflection in a way. It felt very much like there was a whole other kind world that I was entering into that I didn’t quite understand. So when Cassie showed up on the scene and had a similar vocabulary, it was like, ‘Oh, finally, I’m not alone in this.’  

(L-R) Ryan Michelle Bathé, Amirah Vann, Cassandra Freedman and Kelly McCreary at a 2019 "Entertainment Weekly" party celebrating the Emmys.
(L-R) Ryan Michelle Bathé, Amirah Vann, Cassandra Freedman and Kelly McCreary at a 2019 "Entertainment Weekly" party celebrating the Emmys. Courtesy Cassandra Freeman

Freeman: I love to tell this story about the first audition for something that was the lead in Marci Phillips’ office (executive director of ABC casting). I was having a mental breakdown in my mind. It was like, ‘Wait a minute, but no one trained me to be the lead of anything. Am I allowed to do this?’ I was like, ‘Yes, that’s why you’re here.’ Girl, I had a whole conversation in my head about that. It took some time. Did you have anything like that that happened to you?  

That’s one reason why I wanted to act– I wanted to show the world we’re so much more expansive than these small tropes that we see over and over again.

Freeman told today

Bathé: No, but you know what? It (was) the opposite for me because I came out of NYU so broken and bruised and battered as a human being.In my mind, my conversation was ‘Get up. Get off the mat. You can’t let them win.’

That is not to say that one should not go get trained as an actress. That’s not what we are saying. But we are saying that if you are going to get trained as an actress, especially if you are a woman of color, go in there with a sense of self. Find a way to remind yourself of your sense of self in spite of whatever happens in those three or four years.

Related: How ‘Harlem’ creator Tracy Oliver is making her mark in Hollywood

TODAY: How do you feel about the industry recently supporting more shows with Black female leads like ‘Harlem’ and ‘Run The World?’  

Freeman: I think, obviously, there’s a renaissance happening when it comes to Black storytelling. I feel like this probably came around because so many of us grew up as kids in the 90s (and felt like), ‘But there’s so much more.’ Even what we’re seeing now–there’s so much more to what it is to be a woman of color in America. So, it’s so nice to start to see the beginning of a lot of these stories coming to light. I always say (that when) I was a little kid, I would look at all these movies and films and think, ‘Does my type of Black woman not exist in the world?’ That’s one reason why I wanted to act– I wanted to show the world we’re so much more expansive than these small tropes that we see over and over again. The women in my family are bigger than that. So it’s exciting to see some of this happening. Both those shows are great examples of the spectrum that exists.

Related: 4 Black actors in mostly white sitcoms reflect on their experience and impact

But in general, where it’s a Black woman, a white woman, Asian woman, (or) Latina woman, we contain multitudes. I really don’t think we’ve even hit the surface of all the stories that there are to tell because women are still oppressed globally, even in America. So, the more we get the opportunity to actually write, direct and voice (projects), especially in Black skin–it just feels sort of riveting and really satisfying to see and be a part of.

Bathé: When (President Barack) Obama was elected, I said, ‘This is going to change the game.’ I said, ‘Because everything (Michelle Obama) puts on her body sells.’ Let’s think about what television and movies, particularly television, started as–they wanted to sell stuff to people. The thing that we have been told as Black women (for) the reason why (we aren’t cast is) ‘Well, it’s not me. I would love to cast a Black woman as a lead in anything, but it doesn’t sell overseas. It’s not us. It’s other people.’ When Michelle Obama came out and was like, ‘I’m going to show you how we can sell some J. Crew (and) Jason Wu,’ I said, ‘Watch. Everything is going to change.’ I was right. 

The Inaugural Ball
U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance together during The Inaugural Ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on January 21, 2013 in Washington, United States.Michael Kovac / WireImage

Freeman: Believe Black women.

Bathé: Yes, believe Black women!  Then, it happened to coincide with something I didn’t see coming, which was streamers and this whole other need for content. 

Freeman: People are trying to be more niche about their content, too. I think that’s a big part of it. Because of all of these streamers, you have to be specific with your niche now. People are willing to take chances. 

Bathé: My youngest of my two sons has loved “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Ring.” Can I just tell you how thrilled I am that there’s this little Black boy who not only grew up with “Black Panther” but now sees this gorgeous Asian man as his superhero? I just get chills thinking about stuff like that. There are kids who are going to grow up who think that that’s not only normal but dope. 

Related: 15 movies about Black history to watch with your family

Freeman: Let me tell you, the more we see everyone the less we need these boxes. 

TODAY: Do you have an ideal future project you want to work on together?  

Bathé: Yes! We want to do a movie that’s a buddy comedy, where we just get into hijinks and mayhem. Two Black women. We’ve seen it with everybody but us, and I think that it’s time. 

Freeman: I was even thinking ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ is so funny. 

Bathé: I just got chills, Cassie. I think that’s it. It’s like a remake of ‘Jumpin Jack Flash.’ 

Freeman: This is why I love you so much. Ryan, the people I have collected in my life are the ones who allow me to be as weird as funny and yet as serious as I want to be. I realized, overtime, that’s you too. You are up to hijinks in your real life. Sterling is always like, ‘You and Ryan, y’all must be related.’ I’m like, ‘We probably are!’ 

Bathé: He says that all the time. Cassie and I really feel like cousins. The way our brains work and the things that we get into.  

God only knows what will happen when we get on a set together. Dear Lord, let’s hope we don’t set anything on fire. 

Freeman: We’ll just be setting people on fire with our joy. 

Bathé: Maybe that’s it! Fire and joy. Your character’s name will be fire and my character’s name will be joy. 

Freeman: There you go, America. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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