Raven-Symone returns to network that made her famous
Raven-Symone is focused, unsmiling as she stands behind the door of a high school gymnasium.
She breaks her gaze only to mouth lines of dialogue or burst into song, rehearsing snippets from the musical episode she’s filming as the crew chatters on the other side of the door.
Symone, a TV veteran at just age 32, hardly needs the practice, but she’s game — bringing the same energy take after take, each time injecting her familiar vivacious attitude into her movements. This is the set of “Raven’s Home,” now in its second season as a spinoff of “That’s So Raven,” the landmark Disney Channel series that skyrocketed her to fame in 2003.
She is still playing Raven Baxter, but the psychic teen in “That’s So Raven,” whose misleading visions caused hilarious trouble, is now a divorced mother of twins, one of whom has inherited her psychic abilities. The twins may be the lead characters — played by Navia Ziraili Robinson and Issac Ryan Brown — but the spinoff still relies on Symone’s physical comedy and dramatic exclamations, including her signature “Oh, snap!”
Symone clumsily stumbles, trips and dances with exaggerated movements, punctuated with sudden outbursts. It’s this expressive — and physical — brand of comedy that helped “That’s So Raven” become an international hit. Even without translation, TV viewers around the world enjoy her performances, says Adam Bonnett, Disney’s executive vice president of original programming.
“That’s So Raven,” Disney Channel’s first original multi-cam sitcom, ran for 100 episodes and became one of the network’s highest-rated shows at the time, changing the way the network approached its programming.
“People always talk about ‘Lizzie McGuire’ (2001), ‘Even Stevens’ (2000) — and those were great shows that got us a lot of attention,” Bonnett says, “but it wasn’t until ‘That’s So Raven’ came on that we really exploded.”
Symone grew up on the 1990s sitcoms “The Cosby Show” and “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” but her career has been sandwiched by Disney, the network that allowed her to make history as the first African-American woman with her own name in the title of a TV comedy series since 1939’s “The Ethel Waters Show.”
Symone’s post-“That’s So Raven” resume is impressive — she starred in ABC Family’s short-lived “The State of Georgia” and showcased her powerful voice on Broadway in 2012’s “Sister Act” before becoming a controversial co-host of ABC’s daytime talk show “The View.” Now, she’s returned to her comfort zone, a kids show on the Disney Channel.
“There is a place in your life where you can be uncomfortably comfortable,” she says in a conference room of the “Raven’s Home” set in Hollywood.
Comfortable, because she is playing the same character in a familiar high school setting, reunited with some of the network executives and staff that have watched her grow since she was 15. Uncomfortable, because this time, the actress has an active behind-the-scenes role as an executive producer of the series.
“When you learn to get on a tight rope, you’re not just going to jump up on the tallest building, Symone says. “You’re going to start a little bit low to the ground so you have a net to catch you. I’m continuously having to make choices (as executive producer) that I didn’t have to make before, in a place where I know that if I fall, there’s someone to catch me.”
Even though she’s never had a completely fallow period, there was a time when Symone considered herself retired. It was after her time on Broadway, starring in “Sister Act,” the musical adaption of the hit film that starred Whoopi Goldberg, and before she joined Goldberg, who produced the stage production, as a co-host on “The View.” She had no interest in returning to showbiz.
“I actually didn’t want to do anything, because the entertainment industry will drain you and then spit you out if you’re not what they want and then leave you for dead,” Symone says, before abruptly laughing.
Yet here she is. There was no big “Raven’s Home” hoopla, no big comeback story with the first season. After a conversation with Disney executives, Symone resigned from “The View,” packed her bags in New York and came home. Her team even referred to the new show as “Raven’s Home” before they had an official title for it.
At Disney, Symone is judged by her performance, her professionalism and her work ethic, not by the controversy in her past.
For most of her career, Symone was extremely private about her personal life, but faced backlash after a 2014 interview with Oprah Winfrey in which she confirmed that she was in a happy relationship with a woman, but didn’t want to be labeled “gay” and also didn’t want to be labeled African-American. More controversial statements followed on “The View,” particularly about race.
She made headlines in 2015 for placing some blame on a young student who was slammed to the ground from her desk by a police officer and again with her comments in a segment about black names on “The View,” for which she later apologized.
“I’m not about to hire you if your name is Watermelondrea. It’s just not going to happen. I’m not going to hire you,” she said.
When she got comfortable enough to talk more openly about her sexuality in a 2016 episode of “It Got Better,” she says some people in the industry didn’t want to deal with her. It led to “conversations that I don’t feel should have went the way they went, just because I think people had a preconceived notion of what I was,” she says.
But she was emboldened by the Disney Channel welcoming her despite the furor.
“Disney understood me,” Symone says. “They knew it’s not about my sexual orientation. It’s about having fun, it’s about family, it’s about comedy, it’s about good content … . I love them forever for embracing me.”
And in her role as executive producer, she’s pushed for the show to focus on social issues, such as divorce, gender roles and financial instability.
Having completed her actor’s bucket list at 18, Symone is looking forward to a simple life — to starting a family and painting in her free time. She also hopes to continue working behind the scenes on family TV shows.
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