The Cruella actress tells HG why she isn't shy about her success.

Morgan Noll
May 25, 2021 @ 4:45 pm
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kirby howell-baptiste
Credit: Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Kirby Howell-Baptiste knows she's earned her success. In the past four years, the British actress has scored recurring roles on hit TV shows like NBC's The Good Place, BBC's Killing Eve, and Paramount Plus' Why Women Kill. Currently, she's doing press tours for her role as Anita Darling in Disney's Cruella—the 101 Dalmatians prequel film starring Emma Stone in the titular role—and has parts in two more films set to release this year. To a new fan, it may seem like Howell-Baptiste's success is happening all at once, but the 34-year-old confidently tells HelloGiggles over video call that she's "worked at it for a very, very long time."

It's true. The London-born-and-raised star first enrolled in acting classes at the age of 12 and went on to earn a degree from the East 15 Acting School before moving to L.A. in 2011 to continue her studies and career. Ahead of her more recent work, Howell-Baptiste also had roles in the 2017 film A Dog's Purpose and the Netflix series Love. Her two decades of acting experience are part of what keeps her self-assured, even when working on big productions alongside prominent Hollywood stars. "As for imposter syndrome, that's not something I have and I don't think that's me being cocky," she says. "This is an industry that's very hard and you have to have very thick skin to continue in it."

Not only does Howell-Baptiste resist the narrative of imposter syndrome for herself, but she also wishes it wasn't so common for others to experience that level of self-doubt—especially when so many people are never forced to question their ability. "I feel like the people who should have imposter syndrome don't and the people who do should not," she says.

In more specific terms, those who do have imposter syndrome are often women, especially women of color, and those who don't are often white men. In fact, a 2020 study found that 75% of executive women across industries report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career and 74% believe their male counterparts don't experience feelings of self-doubt as much as female leaders do. Yet despite this, "most women are overqualified for the job that they're doing," Howell-Baptiste believes.

This is why she makes it clear that, although she didn't expect to get the part in Disney's Cruella (out Friday in theaters and on Disney+), it wasn't due to self-doubt. The actress simply felt like her audition for Anita—Cruella De Vil's childhood friend who grew up to work as a journalist—went "horribly wrong."

"I was very, very overworked at the point I was [auditioning]," she recalls. "I was working on a show with incredibly long hours...and so I think mentally your barometer is way off and you can't really judge anyway." When she got a call notifying her that she did, in fact, get the part, she says it was "such a surprise" but also "so exciting."

And the role suits her well, too. Not only does Cruella take place in Howell-Baptiste's familiar home of London, but her quiet yet ambitious character also exhibits some of the traits she hopes she embodies herself. "I think Anita has a lovely way of being very generous and accepting and nonjudgmental; she sort of takes people as they are," she says.

In the film, Anita offers press help to Cruella on her quest to get revenge on the Baroness, the film's legendary fashion villain played by Emma Thompson. While Howell-Baptiste hopes to have Anita's empathy in real life, she says she would love to play a role like the Baroness, a character who, in her words, "just does not care about anything" on screen.

The actress notes a particular scene in which the Baroness mindlessly throws her entire lunch out the window, calling it a "clutching of the pearls moment" to watch. "I thought, 'Oh, how fun is that?' Because it's so opposite to who Emma Thompson really is," Howell-Baptiste says. The actress is itching to play a villain herself someday because she thinks "it's just kind of therapeutic to let out your dark side," adding, "I think it just gives you creative liberty in your acting as well to kind of do whatever."

While Howell-Baptiste has already worked with an impressive list of major stars, like two award-winning Emmas in Cruella, she also names Olivia Coleman, of The Crown and Fleabag, as someone who she'd love to work with someday. "I think she has such an amazing career that she seamlessly flits between comedy and drama," the Cruella star says, "And that's something I really admire and something that I hope I do and would love to keep doing."

Another dream? Becoming a Bond girl à la Grace Jones. "I remember seeing Grace Jones in a James Bond film and I remember being like, 'Oh, I want to do that,'" Howell-Baptiste says. "Grace Jones is so iconic that I think that's my idea of being a Bond girl and that's burnt into my brain."

All of these aspirations don't seem too far out of reach considering the impressive resume Howell-Baptiste has already built and the network of women she has on her side. The actress notes Kristen Bell, with whom she first worked on The Good Place, followed by the Veronica Mars revival and, most recently, the upcoming comedy Queenpins, as "someone who is walking the walk" when it comes to women supporting women in Hollywood.

She attributes the actress as the reason she got her part in Queenpins. "I honest to God can tell you that I would not have gotten the role if it was not for her going to bat for me, with producers and with finances and things like that," she says. "I love working with women in this industry who understand that their role is sort of to leverage their power to help other people who can't necessarily get in those rooms yet or don't have those opportunities."

Howell-Baptiste calls herself "really fortunate" to be coming up as an actress in a time where this type of support is more common, since it is especially needed for women of color. She says she thinks back about older Black actresses, like Mo'Nique and Sheryl Lee Ralph, who "didn't have those opportunities and didn't have diversity initiatives and this and that and really just had to fight tooth and nail to show how talented they were."

As Hollywood changes, so does the role actors play in society; with social media and large followings, celebrities are often expected to double as activists. Yet while Howell-Baptiste has often used her platform to highlight current issues, like the death of Breonna Taylor and the recent attacks on Gaza, she says she "personally wouldn't label" herself as an activist.

"I think that we're in a time where that [term] has been somewhat commodified," she explains, adding that, it can be "dangerous" when people speak on issues just because they're "fashionable or trendy."

"Sometimes there's this sort of like 'follow the leader' [mindset] without a lot of thought or research, which can be harmful," she adds.

Instead of speaking on issues just to follow a trend, Howell-Baptiste says she does so because there are certain things she just "can't not speak about," specifically noting the particularly high rates of police brutality in L.A., where she currently resides. And while she's not an activist, she does believe it's her job to never "turn a blind eye," noting that the label she chooses for herself instead is about compassion.

Says the star, "I think of myself as an empathetic human who is part of the fabric of this earth and I think part of our job is caring for each other." Just like her character Anita, empathy is Howell-Baptiste's driving force.