I'm sitting in my trailer with my mom in Toronto, Canada, where we're shooting the sixth season of US TV drama, Suits. This in itself is a novelty: my mom is sitting in my trailer, on a show in which I am a lead character, and that has a viewership of more than 1.7 million. It's surreal. We never would have dreamed that this would be my reality. Our reality.
Just a year ago, I was in a van heading back from Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda. I was there as an advocate for UN Women; I had a week of meetings with female parliamentarians in the city's capital, Kigali, celebrating the fact that 64% of the Rwandan government are women – the first in the world where women hold a majority. I was also speaking with grassroots-level female leadership at the refugee camp just outside the area. Driving back on the dusty roads that day, I received an email from my managers asking whether I'd attend the Baftas. I had never been and had always romanticised it. A high-end jewellery company was going to fly me in, dress me in the fanciest of gowns, and I would travel straight from Kigali to Heathrow, London, to the make-up chair and on to the red carpet.
My brain, heart and spirit couldn't shift gears that quickly, from the purpose-driven work I had been doing all week in Rwanda to the polished glamour of an awards show. 'No,' my heart said. And it wasn't a soft whisper; it was a lion's roar. I looked out the car window and saw a world of verdant beauty that had been riddled with genocide and unrest only 22 years ago, but had recovered with a decisive choice to overcome. The rolling fields, the goats and thump-thump of the ground as we drove – to me, it was bucolic bliss. It was love at its core. And in that moment, my gut said no because while my two worlds can coexist, I've learned that being able to keep a foot in both is a delicate balance. No, they are not mutually exclusive but guiding my heart through the swinging pendulum from Hollywood fantasy to third-world reality is challenging in its own way.
Reflecting on where I came from helps me to appreciate and balance what I have now. I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My mother was a free-spirited clinical therapist and I had the most hard-working father, a television lighting director by trade. My mum raised me to be a global citizen, with eyes open to sometimes harsh realities. We spent time travelling to remote places, taking trips to Oaxaca in southern Mexico where I saw children peddling Chiclets candy for a few extra pesos to bring home.
With fame comes opportunity, but it also includes responsibility – to advocate and share, to focus less on glass slippers and more on pushing through glass ceilings. And, if I'm lucky enough, to inspire.
My father worked behind the scenes of a soap opera and a sitcom, surrounded by multimillion dollar budgets, and crew lunches that included filet mignon and enough sweets to make you think you were at Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Twenty years later, I would ask my show executives to ensure that our extra filet mignon and sweets aplenty were donated to a soup kitchen I'd been volunteering at. And they said yes. My parents came from little so they made a choice to give a lot: buying turkeys for homeless shelters at Thanksgiving, delivering meals to people in hospices, giving spare change to those asking for it. It's what I grew up seeing, so it's what I grew up being: a young adult with a social consciousness to do what I could and speak up when I knew something was wrong.
Sitting in a school classroom when I was 11 years old, a dish-washing liquid commercial came on a TV with the tagline, 'Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.' The boys yelled out, 'Yeah, that's where women belong. In the kitchen.' My little freckled face became red with anger. I went home and wrote letters to feminist civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred, plus a kids' news programme host, and Hillary Clinton (our first lady at the time). They all pledged support. A few months later, the commercial was changed to 'People all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.'
I spoke about this in a speech I gave for International Women's Day with UN Women. A testament to the fighting spirit I had as a girl, and the responsibility I now feel as a woman and as an actress. The moment Suits became successful and I realised people (especially young girls) were listening to what I had to say, I knew I needed to be saying something of value. This is also, in part, why I started my website, thetig.com. I knew that girls were checking it for fashion tips, but by including thoughtful pieces about self-empowerment, or featuring dynamic women such as the Pakistani poet and writer Fatima Bhutto, I was hoping to integrate social consciousness and subjects of higher value than selfies. A subtle means to pepper in what matters.And don't get me wrong – the entertainment industry matters: it gives people an escape, a catalyst to laugh and to balance the realities of life. Plus, my gig as a working actor is the hand that feeds me. Without that, I could never be the hand that feeds another at this level. Were it not for my show and website, I would never have been asked to be a global ambassador for World Vision or an advocate for UN Women, both of which are honours I relish. While most become star struck by A-list actors, you'll only see me in awe of leaders effecting change. Politician and diplomat Madeleine Albright, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. These are my heroes. These are my celebrities.
When I gave a speech for International Women's Day, and Ban Ki-moon led the standing ovation, I thought, 'This right here is the point.' To use whatever status I have as an actress to make a tangible impact. I've never wanted to be a lady who lunches; I've always wanted to be a woman who works. And this type of work is what feeds my soul. The degree to which I can do that both on and off camera is a direct perk of my job.
There is a myth that those who do humanitarian work have a saviour mentality, but the relationship is reciprocal. I returned to Rwanda earlier this year as Global Ambassador for World Vision and met a young girl named Claire, who was on the third hour of her walk to bring her father medicine. I was struck by the steadfast nature in which she did it. There was no other option, so she powered on. These simple acts of grace are the most powerful anchor to what's important. And in the entertainment industry, often riddled with superfluous demands, my barometer of what is valuable is validated on these trips. Not to mention, when I share my photos with my friends, they note that I never look happier than I do when I am on field missions. It's a different smile than the one for the paparazzi – it doesn't require any retouching.
With fame comes opportunity, but it also includes responsibility – to advocate and share, to focus less on glass slippers and more on pushing through glass ceilings. And, if I'm lucky enough, to inspire. A truly impactful moment for me was when a teenage girl, Emily, shared a letter saying my aid work inspired her to do a humanitarian trip to Costa Rica; she's there as I write this piece. I check her Twitter updates and see myself in her, remembering my days volunteering on LA's Skid Row when I was her age. I see what Emily is doing and I think yes. This incredible young woman has decided to be the change she wishes to see in the world. Whatever small part I had to do with that is the most affirming and humbling part of my life.