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Olivia Washington on ‘I’m A Virgo’ Flora and Cootie Romance, Season 2, and One-Dimensional Female Roles


There’s something beautiful in the bizarre, disquieting alchemy of Boots Riley’s new Prime Video series I’m A Virgo, in which a 13-foot-tall giant by the name of Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) falls for a burger cook named Flora, whose cells vibrate at a frequency far faster than that of your average patty-flipper. The very existence of Cootie and Flora and their super-abilities in this universe questions how and why we value normality; after all, we often find ourselves drawn toward specific people not because they’re “average,” but because they’re our particular brand of odd. Actress Olivia Washington, who plays Flora, describes this affinity like extra-terrestrials discovering they inhabit the same foreign planet. When you find your “alien,” she explains, it’s like returning home.

But what makes Cootie and Flora’s burgeoning romance in season 1 so mesmerizing to watch is not its ease, but the relative lack thereof. Flora, deemed autistic as a child because of her inability to communicate at the tempo of those around her, yearns for Cootie to share his innermost thoughts as he’s pulled to the brink of revolution.

“I don’t want to tell you everything that’s in my head,” Cootie reveals to her as he begins to embrace his status as a “villain.”

 

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“Then what kind of connection do you want to have?” Flora asks. “I mean, we can just sit in a room and, like, eat and fuck and watch TV, but—I like those things, but months for you is years for me, and if you can’t talk to me now, then—”

“I don’t want you to think I’m crazy,” says Cootie.

To which Flora replies, “Cootie … I welcome crazy. I need some damn crazy in my life.”

It’s a sentiment many viewers will recognize in their own relationships, and one Washington says she and Jerome treasured—even if it required they stare for hours at both scaled-up and miniaturized dolls rather than each other’s actual faces. These forced perspective techniques and challenging character work pushed Washington not only to re-consider her skills as an actress but to assess her desires for a career that’s finally accomplishing lift-off. Both her parents, Denzel and Pauletta Washington, and her brother, John David Washington, have earned enormous success in Hollywood. In work like I’m A Virgo—Washington’s first major on-screen role—she’s found her alien.

Below, Washington discusses evolving the role of the “love interest,” trusting her own quirks, and her thoughts on a potential season 2.

Flora is a version of a trope we’ve seen many times before in comic book media: the super-speedy superhuman, à la The Flash or Quicksilver. But Flora doesn’t feel like a hero we’ve seen before. How—or perhaps why—did that appeal to you?

What drew me is that she sees the world in her specific way. Others might see [her speed] as something that’s not enabling her to live a normal life. She’s living in her reality, and her reality is that everybody else around her is actually the different person, not her.

Specifically for Flora, her upbringing was that they thought she had these disabilities and that she would live this kind of different life. However, it is her strength; it is her superpower. It is the thing that she can use to change the world.

You’ve already spoken at length about the technical challenges of filming I’m A Virgo, and particularly the sex scenes you shared with Jharrel Jerome—or, at least, the doll version of him. But I’m interested in how those technical challenges forced you to learn new skills as an actress. What was that like?

Yeah, it was really about trust. I couldn’t rely on seeing what Jharrel was doing to kind of react. But I could rely on the amount of time that we spent together on and off-set: the rehearsal process that Boots took us all under before we started shooting, and then, less rehearsal, but just us hanging out with each other and really feeling the energy of our cast members. Jharrel and I would get in long conversations about our love of what we do—so trusting that and not hiding from it, but expanding my muscle of creativity and imagination.

I mean, from another technical aspect, we were wearing earpieces, so if we weren’t in the same room, I could hear [Jharrel] and after a certain amount of time we would be like, Oh, I know what face you’re making. So you react to what you’re hearing—looking at this giant and hearing Jharrel and vice versa. And every time that we could be in the same room, we would kind of be crouching behind the camera or the doll version of ourselves, but averting our eyes so you don’t ever look.

olivia washington posing next to a vase

Dominic Miller

You’ve said in other interviews, as well, that what Boots wanted from you as an actress in this role is something you’d been discouraged from in other roles. Do you mind clarifying what you meant by that?

Ordinarily, I would say—in the past—when you’re playing girlfriends or wives or these romantic interests … No shade, but it is very formulaic. It’s, I’m going to tell my strong male counterpart not to do the strong brave thing. “Don’t do that brave thing! You should be more sensible!”

And Boots said, “No, [Flora’s] actually really down for everything that [Cootie] is doing. She wants to be a part of it, and she also wants to add her two cents in.”

Less specifically, my little quirks and oddities as a person are, like, how I want to express a form of art that might not look clean, cute, or pretty. I felt, in this space, connected to her deeply—to a reality, a real person.

What do you think Flora and Cootie see in each other that no one else had recognized in them up to that point?

Oh, I love that question. So there’s this desire for discovery that they both hold. What I just feel so tenderly about is … We can all be so cynical. We can all be so cold. The world is harsh. So when you find somebody who holds—I always call it your “little alien”—when you find somebody with whom your aliens can speak to each other, it’s so special.

So [Flora] finds somebody that she is surprised by, pleasantly surprised by, which is to me just a larger form of what love is. It’s like when you fall in love with someone: Oh, I didn’t know that existed in the world.

I appreciated that, even with how well the two connect and how much they understand each other, their romance is not cutesy and sanitized. I loved that they got annoyed with each other about hygiene and poor communication. Why did that feel so important to portray as part of their relationship?

We love watching people fall in love. We might not watching them be in love. But I think that all, again, speaks to Boots’ creativity. When somebody that you care deeply about is doing something extremely annoying, and you’re like, I hate you and I love you at the same time. How do you portray that?

And again, Boots takes these ideas that are not uncommon, stories that are not unheard of, and he completely shifts the perspective and the lens in which we’re looking at it. So I love the fact that you get this moment of honesty between the two. Because it makes you remember that everybody goes to the bathroom, everybody has to blow their nose, even the greatest of the greatest. So it was such a beautiful little tender moment between the two of them.

olivia washington posing with her hand partially obscuring her face in shadow

Dominic Miller

I want to ask about a line in episode 6, when Flora tells Cootie, “I’m not bored because my life moves slowly. I’m bored because people are so predictable.” What did you make of that line? What is she trying to communicate to him?

Boots said this a while ago, and it just really rings true these days. Us as human beings have such a deep desire to connect to people. And I think for Flora, the quality of the connection is integral to the connection.

So many people have these kind of surface-level desires to connect. I think what [Flora] means is that so many people don’t want to hit below the surface. And if you’re building something worth its salt, if you will, you have to dig into the earth, at whatever pace you want to move at.

I found that to be so beautiful that Boots wrote that and made that a kind of engine for her. Because again, she is a young woman who’s not stuck at home. She’s out in the world and she is in search of the lid to her pot. And she wants it to be great. Because why not?

Doing this project, what do you feel you’ve since realized about what you ultimately want from your career?

Wow. I’m constantly learning about the business elements of the career. However, I want more. I have a deep desire to continue to tell stories at this kind of level and deeply and fully. You can’t make me go back to the one-dimensional female role. Don’t make me go back.

It’s so exciting to be in this space and to create in this way and not have to be one thing for someone else’s character advancement. So I want more of this and to continue to work with incredibly talented up-and-coming or established writer-directors.

Do you find that you are seeing more opportunities for that kind of work?

In the world, absolutely. There are some incredible filmmakers—and shout out to the incredible new class of young Black female creatives that are up-and-coming. And there’s some spectacular films in the indie world that have been catching a lot of attention, rightfully so.

It’s extremely inspiring to know that we are no longer stuck playing small—in every capacity, not just as an actor.

jharrel jerome as cootie and olivia washington as flora in im a virgo season 1

Amazon Prime Video

If there is a season 2 of I’m A Virgo, would you be interested in returning? And what would you want to see in terms of Flora’s continued story?

You see, it’s hard to answer the second part. The first part? Absolutely. I’ll do anything that Boots makes. So I’m like, it is not even a negotiation.

But also reiterating the same sentiment, Boots Riley is one of the most creative people I’ve ever worked with. So, who am I to say what he’s going to create [for Flora]? I would think too small. I mean, who knows where we will go? Where we pick up from? [Smiles.] I might know, but not that I’m going to share.

I’m just so excited to continue to be in this world. I would love nothing more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Headshot of Lauren Puckett-Pope

Culture Writer

Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE. 



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