Actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner

Actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner is living the life of our dreams. Gardner eats cleaner than possibly anyone we’ve ever met, but balances that out with her favorite fried chicken and greens in New Orleans; her bosses are Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey – two of the most inspirational women in the industry; she swears by meditation and loves pancakes almost as much as we do. Need we say more?

Gardner’s new show Queen Sugar is making major waves in the entertainment industry, and we knew we had to sit down with her to get the inside scoop on filming and how she connects to her character. Read along for her all organic beauty routine, favorite yoga practices, and restaurant recommendations. It’s the perfect start to your weekend!

From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?

Oh – ideal – that’s a tricky word…Well, in a dream world free of dire health outcomes: PANCAKES! Topped with everything: butter, syrup, berries, chocolate, all of it! After all of that I would likely sleep through lunch, only to wake to dinner at Fedora in the West Village, where I would order everything single thing on the menu.

But you know, back in the real world, I think an ideal food day would begin with the perfect green smoothie, followed by a large helping of Chef Aimee’s Macro Salad at Sun In Bloom in Brooklyn for lunch. For dinner, I would probably eat a meal that I’ve made myself, something like chicken roasted over sweet potatoes and onions, with a side of kale and bok choy, cooked with olive oil, sea salt and garlic. Simple heaven.

How do you always start your day? What are your words to yourself upon waking up?

Prayer and meditation are how I am always aiming to start my day – it is an infinitely better day when I do. Lately, I’ve been jumping on the phone almost immediately when I wake up, to figure out what I need to handle for the day. It’s not a healthy habit. When I can resist the impulse to jump on the phone and instead take twenty minutes to just get quiet, my ability to think and focus is night and day.

What do you personally draw inspiration from?

Well, I’m incredibly lucky, because two of my heroes happen to be my bosses. Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey are walking, talking inspiration – I am continually blown away by the power of intention and the clarity of purpose they both work from. Outside of them, my family is really my greatest muse; I spend a lot of time with them, and I just see so much heroism when I look at them.  They fascinate and inspire me. I’m also very connected to music. I often create to music – whether it’s a character, or breaking down a script, or exploring an idea for something I am writing. 

How do you practice beauty from the inside out?

Yoga. I swear by the Ultimate Yogi DVD program. It’s like P90X for yogis. Diet, sleep and stress reduction are also huge parts of my wellness – all of those elements are a part of something that I practice called the Auto-Immune Protocol, or AIP. It’s basically a whole-person, anti-inflammation approach to health – and it has massively shifted my energy level and thinking…It’s hard to get used to – no gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, and a lot more! But it’s ultimately about learning what is best for my body.

I am a big massage and acupuncture person, too. When I am doing all of those things – yoga, AIP diet, meditation, sleep, body work – I feel like a superwoman!

I also recently got into surfing, and I’ve become slightly obsessed with it. I was literally terrified of the ocean two months ago, which is actually why I went surfing to begin with – I wanted to face that fear. And I did! It was way too fun to be scary – it profoundly shifted my relationship with the ocean and with fear itself, really.

Can you tell us your morning and nightly skincare routines?

Gladly! For the past six years, I’ve used an organic skin care line called Ilike Skin Care.  I love, love, love this line. It’s made in Hungary and is incredibly potent for an organic line. Most of what’s in it could be eaten, it’s that good for your body. In the morning, I use their Mineral Face Wash, followed by their Rosehip Toner and Rosehip Serum. I also add in Radha Beauty’s Vitamin C serum with hyalauronic acid – my face LOVES that stuff. I usually finish with either Ilike’s Apple and Lemon Moisturizer, or if I’m really dry, Ilike’s Roseship Moisturizer.

At night, I do most of the same stuff, except I start with olive or coconut oil to remove eye makeup, and then Ilike’s Lemon Cleansing Milk to remove face makeup. I almost always add a little Clairsonic session at night too, especially if I’ve been on a set all day; and then an Ilike mask – I’ll do an exfoliating mask one twice a week.

Sunscreen-wise, I love Suntegrity’s 5-in-1 Face Sunscreen.

What’s the best advice you have ever received? The worst?

The best: “Do it on your terms.”

The worst: “Just accept that things will never change.” That is literally the opposite of what I believe – which is that things ALWAYS change.

How do you relate to Charley, your character on Queen Sugar?

I love that woman. I love her passion, I love her willingness to take on her life after it’s been smashed to pieces. She is no one’s victim. I love her constant courage to take action – she does not have a “sit back and see” bone in her body, which can lead her running smack dab into the things that she doesn’t like to see about herself. I think what she and I share most is this “fix it” impulse – which can be destructive when out of balance, because there is a certain need for control naturally built into that impulse. But it comes from such a place of love and wanting to help, as well as a natural mindset to build something, to create something. I think through so much of this season, that mindset is colliding with her grief, and you just want to wrap her up in a hug. Or get her some tea and a massage. She makes you stand up and cheer for her, and then want to smack her in the next second. And I think she’s very relatable because of that.

What was the best part of working on a project with Oprah at the helm?

It feels almost impossible to answer that question, because there are so many phenomenally amazing things about Oprah being at the helm…I think for me, the tone that she sets has been the most powerful part of this experience – watching and feeling everyone come to the table with so much love, passion, creativity, belief, positivity. Wow. Everything about this experience continues to overwhelm me in the best way. It’s changed my life.

Why is this project relevant right now?

Queen Sugar is relevant in so many ways – chief among them, in how Ava and Oprah approached it. From the beginning, it was a priority to Ava to create a fully inclusive crew from top to bottom. I have seen more women and people of color behind the camera, in pre-production, in post-production, and on the set than I have ever seen before – possibly more than on most sets I’ve been on combined. That is a statement. That is a very intentional way of creating. That is calling Hollywood to a higher game with regard to inclusion.

But if you didn’t know any of that, if you were to just watch the show, I think what makes QS undeniably relevant is the content. We are having such layered, urgent conversations in the show, about identity, family, legacy, history, reinvention, culture, oppression, love – it is a reflection of the moment we’re in, as a country. We’re asking very specific questions about who we are, who we can be, how we know ourselves – and it’s not through a white male gaze that we are asking these questions, which is a gaze that often goes unacknowledged or unchallenged. It’s through a culturally specific human gaze, which invites all folks to the conversation acknowledging those cultural differences, and allowing them to lean into what they recognize, know and understand about what they’re seeing.  It’s allowing people to see themselves in characters that they normally might not, every week. And that is transformative.

What advice would you give young women trying to be confident in who they are and body image?

LOVE ALL OF YOU. Because the world is waiting for exactly what you are here to give it… All of you is on purpose.

What’s one item you think every woman should own?

A dream.

What’s always in your fridge?

Coconut water, kale, avocado and chocolate.

What are your favorite cities for food? What restaurants do you go to in each?

Gratefully, the three cities that I called home this year all have incredibly rich culinary scenes. In NYC, my favorite stomping grounds are spots in my neighborhood like Harlem Public and Tsion Cafe – I could get drunk on the collard greens there, they are so good. Sun in Bloom in Brooklyn has some of the best vegan food on the planet. Fedora in the West Village reigns as my place of choice for a celebratory meal. Hu Kitchen and Bareburger in midtown are go-to’s for me, especially for the AIP (autoimmune protocol) diet.

In LA, I’m in love with Cassia in Santa Monica. I am also a Tender Greens addict.

NOLA’s food is beyond. Peche is unbelievable. There were all of these small places, like this spot near my apartment called Mimi’s – a tiny little bar with a restaurant upstairs that killed. And I basically lived at St. Roch Market, specifically at a vendor stall called Good Bird. I went there so often, the folks at Good Bird started making my order as soon as I walked in. They called it the Dawn Special.

In the same vein as ‘what is the new black’ in fashion, what’s the new potato right now?

Coconut oil is the new butter. But it’s actually sort of the new everything. Makeup remover, soap, lube – EVERYTHING.

I also think real is the new perfect, and smart is the new sexy. ‘Bout time!

Check out our interview with Dawn-Lyen’s co-star Rutina Wesley here, and read why Danielle Walker loves coconut oil!

Dawn-Lyen Gardner, photographed at Tsion Cafe in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann