9-1-1: Lone Star returns this Jan. 24, and that means more Gina Torres as Tommy Vega, the “badass paramedic captain” who is navigating a demanding career on top of being a mother and recent widow. This season, after a fling with her much younger brother-in-law (“She did that,” Torres laughs), Tommy realizes she doesn’t have to guard her heart anymore and is welcoming love in her life again, Torres shares.
Ahead of the Season 4 premiere, Torres sat down with Wondermind to talk all things mental health, from redefining what success means to her to preparing for the uncertainties of life and why “panda time” is the key to so much.
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WM: How are you doing lately?
Gina Torres: I'm good. I've been tired; I've been overwhelmed. But for the most part, good and feeling happy, like I'm on the right path.
WM: You've been in Hollywood for three decades now. What has your career taught you about mental health and its importance?
GT: [In] the creative's life—not just actors, but any person that dares to enter the world of the arts—the discipline is different because it requires so much of yourself and not just in a labor sense, not just in a physical sense. It requires a kind of mental and emotional agility to be able to survive. That is true when you are successful as well as when you're not being as successful as you would like to be or not being as busy as you would like to be. Both ends of the spectrum are equally difficult to navigate.
I think most people think, Oh, she has it all. All her dreams are coming true. But there's a great deal of sacrifice that comes with living that kind of life, and it's very time-consuming, and it takes up a lot of emotional space as well.
WM: You've spoken about the uncertainty of being an actor and not knowing when your next job will come. That can be scary, so how do you keep that from taking over your mindset?
GT: It's very scary, especially if you've worked quite a bit. Sometimes the struggle in and of itself keeps you going because you're reaching for something. You know it's there; you can smell it, but you haven't tasted it yet. Knowing that if I could just get here, it's going to be OK. There's something that drives you toward that goal. … There's something kind of delicious about that fight if you're not solely goal-oriented.
So what happens, which is what happens to all of us, is you have a little bit of success—let's say you get three jobs in a row, and you're really busy for six months, and then nothing. The nothing can last three weeks; the nothing could last three months; the nothing can last a year. When you’re coming down from that rush, you start feeling like, What did I do wrong? What's wrong with me? What do I need to do differently? It so often has nothing to do with you and has everything to do with the choice that's put in front of whoever's making the decision.
Try to remember that there is no job that is yours that anyone can take away from you. And there is no job that's not yours that you can snatch away [laughs]. It sounds better in Spanish, but my mom always used to say, “There isn't another cow that's gonna eat your grass. Your grass is your grass.” We're always looking over at that other pasture and that other fat cow over there, but no, your grass is your grass, and you have to dance with the realities of being in a business where you know it comes with the lunch—the ups and downs just come with the lunch.
WM: What time period stands out to you in your mental health journey?
GT: There are a couple, and they're related to the same thing. It's not exclusive to women, but it’s specific to women. It’s the idea of having it all and giving yourself a timeframe when you're starting out. When you're 19, you make your list: By the time I’m 25 (at least, that was the ideal age when I was growing up), I'm going to meet the man of my dreams, and I'm going to get married. By the time I'm 30, 32, I'm going to have a kid. By that time, Steven Spielberg and I are going to be really good friends. You know, all the things.
You turn 28, and that first one of your classmates gets married. Or you turn 25 and have zero prospects—you're in musical theater where 90% of men are gay, and that's your life [laughs].
I remember at 30, I had two girlfriends that were pregnant. I was like, Huh. How about that? Still no prospects. I'm in New Zealand wearing a brass bra and peekaboo suede pants during a recurring role on Hercules, and I’m being very well-paid for entertaining, fun nonsense, and my friends are having lives that mean something. [I’m wondering], Will I ever have that? Because now I'm 30.
[My first husband and I] knew each other for a long time, but we didn't get married till I was 34, and I didn't get pregnant till I was 38. I remember it took me that entire year to turn 35 because that was the magical number when women aren't hot anymore, when it's like you graduate to a whole other place. Not that I was ever the ingenue—let's just be clear about that—but I was like, Wow, did I miss it? And this was a while ago, and it’s changed because women my age have refused to be pigeonholed in this way.
For my own mental health and joy, I had to reassess and redefine what success meant for me. What you realize is that people equate success with, like, 2% of actors. So what are the other 98% of us doing? Well, if we’re fortunate enough, [a percentage of us] are keeping a roof over our heads, making all our bills in time, maybe making enough to go on vacation a couple of times a year, putting our kids through school, making sure our fridges and our pantries are full. That's being a successful actor. When you realize how hard it is and what the odds are, there are successful working-class actors out there.
So is it enough that I get to have the life that I have doing what I love to do? If it means I'm never on the side of a building. If it means I'm “aren't you that girl in…?” If that's all I get, is that enough? The answer for me was yes. It's not yes for everybody, but the answer for me was yes. … This is my joy; I get to do it and get paid for it. I could check off all those boxes. Yes, my bills are paid. Yes, I got to buy that place in New York; I'll always have a home. And then I got married, and then I had my kid, and then that was just a whole other like, Damn, am I gonna be a good mother? That’s a whole other box [laughs].
WM: If you could give yourself a pep talk right now, what would you say?
GT: It’s OK to take that nap today. Take that nap. … It's so important to restore and give yourself permission to feel all the feels. One of my best-kept secrets is that I'm actually an introvert, so I don't do particularly well in a room full of strangers. If I had my druthers, it wouldn't happen very often, but because of what I do, it is required. So there is an armor that goes on. This is where being an actor sort of comes in because there's Gina the public person that needs to show up for these events … and all that energy is incredibly overwhelming. I think you find that to be true in more actors and performers than you’d think because we're kind of open vessels, so we receive a lot of stuff. To protect myself from that, I just need to take myself out of the equation. I need to go away. I need to restore. I need quiet and to just go off on my own. I call it my panda time. I just need to climb up the mountain, get fat on bamboo, and don't bother.
WM: What other parting words of wisdom can you share with us?
GT: For anyone who's reading this, balance can be elusive—but only if you think of it as something that is a permanent state. Being balanced is a fluid state of being. Sometimes the scales are equal, but sometimes they teeter, sometimes they totter. If you know that's going to happen, then you're not setting yourself up for failure. Balance is a fluid beast. [It makes a difference] the more you can do to nurture yourself and surround yourself with people that support you and love you. It's not a crime to lean on anybody; it's not a crime to ask for help when you need it. Even if you think it's a small thing, if it's what you need, then it's not small—it's essential in that moment. That's the best way to prepare for all of that fluidity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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