Out actress Carlease Burke on playing a leading lady on “Crowded”

Technically NBC’s new comedy Crowded doesn’t premiere until next week, but tonight, we’re getting a special one-hour after The Voice. The new multi-cam sitcom follows Carrie Preston and Patrick Warburton as Mike and Martina, parents to two millennial daughters, Stella and Shea, who decide to move back home. Out actress Carlease Burke plays Mike’s stepmother (married to Stacy Keach), creating a blended family that creates all kinds of fun and quirky comic situations, especially as Stella (Mia Serafino) comes out as not-so-straight. (We’ll have an interview with her later this week.)

504842264via NBC

An actress for close to 30 years, Carlease has played all kinds of roles on television and film including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heroes and Shameless, but on Crowded, it is the first time she’ll be a series regular, a leading lady in a small ensemble cast that is all about learning to live with and love your family.

We spoke with Carlease about the show and if she’ll ever reprise her role as Roberta the lesbian truck driver on Shameless.

AfterEllen.com: Tell us how you describe your character.

Carlease Burke: Well Alice Moore is the grandmother by marriage to the two millennials that move back home with their parents, and I understand that that’s very common these days, called the boomerang generation. That’s what we discovered in our research. You throw ’em out there, the kids, and then somehow they come back. So I play the grandmother by marriage. Stacy Keach is my husband, and he’s the father of Patrick Warburton‘s character. But I’ve been int eh family for 20 years so I’ve known the girls since they were little, and they call me Grandma.


AE: And I hope they respect Grandma!

CB: Oh absolutely! They love Grandma. They know to respect me, but I’m also cool. But I’m not trying to be cool like their parents are; I’m just cool cuz I’m cool, and so they love me, and I love them.

Crowded - Season 1Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC

AE: How does Grandma feel about Mia’s character being sexually fluid?

CB: Actually, she kind of gets a kick out of it. She doesn’t like to let her husband, Bob, know how much she really enjoys it but sometimes there are moments and there are episodes when Mia’s character, Stella, when she shows out, secretly inside I’m like, “That’s my granddaughter! That’s my boo!” And she says things sometimes that I would say and do. But I have to keep it together because I’m the grandmother, but I’m like, yeah, that’s my girl.


AE: So you’re the grandma everyone wants to hang out with.

CB: I think so! The buzz is already out there that I’m the coolest grandma on TV, and we’re not even on TV yet.


AE: What drew you to the project?

CB: Well it was just an audition, and it was toward the end of pilot season. My manager called me up and said I had an audition for Todd Milliner and Suzanne Martin, who I had been sort of courting for many years because I did an episode of Hot in Cleveland and there was a connection between me and Todd Milliner and Suzanne Martin, and I just felt like there was something there. And they were a production company that I always wanted to work with. So I just very quietly, through social media, kept in touch. But I don’t even know if it had anything to do with the audition. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But we all agree that I nailed it. We all agree. The role was not written for an African-American woman because it’s actually Suzanne’s story–her own personal story. 


AE: So they fell in love with you, then?

CB: That’s the word on the street. 


AE: Have you played a role like this before?

CB: No, actually I haven’t. I haven’t been a series regular before; that ‘s number one. And I haven’t played a lot of love interests. I haven’t been the leading lady. And I’m not the leading lady in this show, but I’m one of them, and I get to have a romance with an amazing actor and an amazing man, and I have not had that opportunity before. I like it. I really do.


AE: One of my favorite roles of yours was on Shameless.

CB: Ah, yes! Love Roberta Bob.


AE: Do you think there’s ever any chance you could reprise that role?

CB: It doesn’t seem that way because I did Season 1 and the one episode in Season 2 and now they’re on Season 7, so I don’t know how they could bring her back. Anything could happen but I’m quite happy on the show that I am and I’m not allowed to do a lot of other guest star roles. But if they called me back, I would definitely go back. I love Roberta Bob; I love playing that character. You know I know Roberta Bobs.


AE: Have you played a lot of other lesbian roles?

CB: No, that was the only one I can think of.


AE: Do you find that you don’t read as gay to people?

CB: That could be it. I know in my own personal life I’ve gone through a transition from being straight to being a lesbian, I thought, for maybe 11 years and now I might be more in the bisexual category, but I don’t really like labels, and I’m just following the course of my life. I like people. It’s the same thing with race: I see what’s inside. It’s not necessarily about race, gender, color, nationality for me. It’s about the human being. So I don’t know if I read that way, but it’s interesting, I said, I got cast as a leading lady, as a wife, as a step-mother so I don’t know. It could be that my roles are following my life. But I’m still a member of the LGBT community and always will be, and that’s my family.


AE: What do you think queer people will like about this show?

CB: There’s something there for everybody. We do explore some gay themes from time to time. We exemplify a blended family because of the interracialness. But for me, when I think about a blended family and the fact that I get to play an interracial relationship with a black son who was raised by a white dad since he was eight years old, it also reminds me of all the gay and lesbian blended families as well, the gay and lesbian couples that have raised children that don’t look like them and obviously did not come from them and from their DNA. I think there’s a message there that blended families look different than traditional families. It has changed. It has totally changed.

Crowded - Season 1Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC

A one-hour preview of Crowded airs tonight after The Voice with an official premiere on March 20th on NBC.