Throughout our interview, I'm struck by Lauren E. Banks' steady tone of voice and approachable personality. In fact, it doesn't even feel like an interview. As we chat over the phone, it feels more like a conversation between two acquaintances. We hop back and forth between topics. She tells me about the time she hiked on an active volcano (yes, really). She opens up about her daily wellness practice, and what it feels like to confidently, and proudly, wear her natural hair (more on that later); she talks candidly about what it's like to adopt and become a character, which she does almost every single day as a professional actor.
Currently, Banks is starring on Showtime's new drama series, City on a Hill, alongside Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge. Working on the set of major network show means spending a lot of time in the hair and makeup chair, and Banks has put in her hours. Along the way, she's gleaned some tips, tricks, and product recommendations for keeping her vegan beauty routine on track. Keep scrolling to read more about her favorite vegan products, as well as learn her best piece of meditation advice, and find out just what exactly it was like to hike an active volcano (because I was curious).
BYRDIE: Has becoming an actor and spending so much time on-set changed the way you feel or think about beauty? How has that shaped your beauty philosophy?
Lauren E. Banks: I don't think about beauty in a traditional sense, I guess, or a myopic scope in terms of vanity and praise. I think about beauty in terms of healthiness and happiness. I find that's what I'm more concerned with and more interested in, which is what beauty looks like from the inside-out, not the outside-in.
One of the times when I felt most beautiful, truly, I was like, "Oh, I feel so beautiful right now," was after having taken an overnight hike from 11:30 at night until 6:30 in the morning, in Bali, on what is actually an active volcano called Mount Agung. I went through hell getting up that mountain. It was a physical challenge at first and then became a physical and mental challenge in the middle of the volcano. And then about around about an hour six, It was a full on spiritual, mental, physical challenge; Once I made it to the top with the people I was hiking with, I felt a sense of ease and calm and true connection with the world. I got to the top, my friend took a picture, and I was like, "Yo, I don't have a bit of makeup on my face, but I feel so beautiful."
BYRDIE: As far as being an actor and taking on the persona of someone else, would you say that it has helped you appreciate other forms of beauty that maybe didn't consider before?
LEB: Absolutely. My job is to empathize. When I'm taking on another character, I cannot judge my character. We look at other people, and we judge them, but when I'm playing a character, even when she makes a mistake, even with her flaws, I can't judge her, because if I do, then I can't be her. By embracing flaws and embracing weaknesses, I get to emphasize with them, and then I get to truly live out that experience. I love it because I get to reflect both the hopes of the horrors of life.
BYRDIE: Have you picked up any makeup tips or tricks from makeup artists you've worked with onset?
LEB: Within the past year, I found out that I had an allergy to lanolin. It's in almost everything—so many makeup products. I just assumed wearing makeup was uncomfortable, in terms of the itchy feeling my skin would feel or even the reaction my skin would have after wearing makeup. I just assumed, "Oh, it's just from makeup. That's just inherently what makeup does." Only after I realized that I had lanolin allergy, did I explore other products. Vegan lip balms—I think it's the Shea Moisture vegan lip balm—I take it everywhere. I have one in my car, I have one in my purse, I have one in my back pocket, I have one under my bed, under my pillow, everywhere. It's so important. I would put on so much chapstick and my lips would only be more chapped, but it was only because they were responding to the lanolin allergy that I had.
BYRDIE: I know lanolin is in so many beauty products, so it must be kind of tough to vet every product you use now.
LEB: Yes, but at the same time, I just stick to the stuff I know. Also, on set, the makeup department for our show is so incredible with helping me with that research. I had found out about the allergy maybe a month before we started shooting and I hadn't been able to do much research. They came with a million ideas. It could have come off as a hassle, but they were happy to embrace the challenge and help me.
[Note: Banks uses Botnia skincare products exclusively. She uses the Gentle Cleanser ($42), the Eye Cream ($47), the Daily Face Cream ($50), and the Replenishing Oil ($55) daily, switching products in and out as her skin needs them. Botnia's skincare formulas are vegan].
BYRDIE: You have incredible hair. What's your routine?
LEB: When I was in North Carolina, and even in DC, I took for granted how much moisture was naturally in the air. So when I went to grad school, in New Haven, I experienced a total hair transformation. My hair was brittle, it was breaking off, It was not holding and receiving moisture. That was largely due to the fact that I was in a cold climate.
I left school and I went to a hairstylist who specialized in natural and curly hair—the healthiness of it, not the management of it. Now, because I'm in different climates any day of the week, based on where I am in the country or the world, I have to wash my hair a lot more. I was telling my friend the other day, before I embraced my natural hair, which was in college, I wasn't taught to care for my hair by societal standards of beauty. I was taught to "manage" my hair, which suggested that my hair was unruly. It created this negative connotation that therefore relationship to my hair. So I just thought I had to manage it. What do I have to do to manage it? Brush it down or iron it out, or do whatever to manage it. Now, my regimen is about taking care of it. It's not about managing it, it's about how healthy it is. I care for my hair in the same way my paternal grandfather cared for his garden. Like, your hair needs water. Water it. You know what I mean?
It's so funny, especially for black women or people who identify African American, you're told you shouldn't wash your hair as much because you'll catch a cold and stuff like that. I think that came out of the understanding that if you washed your hair, you would make it return back to his natural state, and the idea of its natural state was not beautiful. So now I do the exact opposite. I wash my hair more often. I don't load it up with a lot of products. I don't manage it. Now, it's curly, and it's big, and it's long. It's amazing, psychologically what that is.
Now that I can say I work in Hollywood, I understand that it comes with a certain platform for representation. We just had our premiere last night, and I found myself in general conscious of pictures. You know, when they say pictures are worth 1000 words, they really are. I'm aware that those 1000 words tell a story. When I wear my hair in its natural state, and I wear that hair confidently and lovingly, my hope is that any young girl that has hair like me—I hope the story that she reads in that picture is that you are beautiful just as you are. This is beauty, too.
BYRDIE: Is there a specific product that you like using on it?
LEB: The only product that I use besides water and oil is Innersense, which is a vegan shampoo and conditioner line. I use DevaCurl. The Buildup Buster ($28) is amazing. They're vegan products. They're healthy. And they're not going to stay around longer than I need them too.
BYRDIE: Do you exclusively use vegan products now?
LEB: I guess I can't say exclusively. In production, we use a lot of vegan products, but I think they might mix them with other things. For myself, though, I exclusively use vegan products.
BYRDIE: Is it true that you aspired to be an Olympic track athlete when you were younger? What does your current fitness routine look like?
LEB: My fitness routine is a direct reflection of my process for acting. I don't necessarily work out for the sake of working out. If I'm doing an exercise, it may look to like someone like 'oh, you're working out,' but no, I'm doing yoga or literally just stretching for an hour every other day in order to prepare my body to endure this whole next week of 12 hour shooting days. Ultimately, I do yoga every other day. I stretch for an hour (just plain stretching), and I drink a gallon of water every day when I'm in production.
I use a lot of the principles that I understand about sports and translate them over into my preparation for acting, like, I know that a race is not won on the day of the track meet. It's in the 3-4 weeks, to a month, in preparation for it. That's the mentality I translate over to the work that we do on screen. We have to turn around really quickly. We have maybe two takes to get it right. There's no way that I can expect myself or my body to show up and just do that kind of work at a high level, consistently, without layering in a process. Exercise is an inherent part of that process.
BYRDIE: So fitness is a preparation for your professional life. Do you engage in any forms of self care to center yourself or to boost confidence?
LEB: I meditate every day. I meditate for no less than 10 minutes a day every morning. I wake up in the morning, I pray, and then I meditate. Meditation is exactly what I need to quiet everything, even my own thoughts. The cost of what I do and what we do as actors can be is so high sometimes. People talk about in terms of "going there" and taking on a character's traumatic experiences and allowing your body to carry them. When I go through that, actually onset or onstage or wherever I am, my body doesn't know the difference. My nervous system is saying, "oh, we're in a crisis." You know what I mean? So, meditation, hydration, and yoga are essential. That's how I prepare and that's how I recover at the end of the day or at the end of a production process.
BYRDIE: Do you have any advice for someone who's just starting out with meditation?
LEB: I know what works for me, which is making sure I'm in a clean environment. If I'm meditating in a room that's junkie it's just not gonna work, right? There are already too many visual distractions in that room. If I go to a place that's clean and peaceful, then I can begin the next step in the process, which is to quiet my thoughts. Of course a thought is going to come up. You're going to think about what you forgot to say to your mom before you got of the phone. You're going to think about the thing someone said last week that's still bothering you. Just embrace it. Say to your mind, "It's okay, let's go back to our breath. Let's go back to literally visualizing the air flowing in and out our mouth, or visualizing a color and, and seeing that color come into our body as we inhale, and go out of our body as we exhale." It's truly just a theme, or a focal point, so that when you do get distracted, you have something to come back to. Eventually what you will find is that you don't even need to use those tactics. At this point, my body is like, "When are we going to be quiet? When are we going to do our thing?" At the beginning of the day, it's like, "We're not starting today until you meditate.' At the end of the day it's like, and "I want meditation now."
BYRDIE: Do you have any beauty icons from the past or present that you look to for inspiration in your own life?
LEB: Angela Bassett and Meryl Streep have been icons in my life since I was a young girl. They are champions of the art form for me. I think, when talking about beauty and what we talked about earlier, the things I find the most beautiful are our sense of freedom. When an actor embraces the character, and they have a complete abandon of their own ego, and they relinquish it to a character, we then get to experience life in its purest way, and we appreciate that. Those two women, for me, do that, and I find that they also move through life with a particular kind of freedom that I super admire. They are my beauty icons, for sure.
Being a runner, Marion Jones was also my icon. At one time during the the Sydney Olympics, which was around 2000, she was the fastest woman in the world. She was my icon because of the really enormous, great feats that she was accomplishing, and I wanted to beat every one of her records. But since then, I've gotten to know her, through her memoirs and books and as a woman, and she still possesses that beauty, but she's also a mother, and she's also a teacher; her focus now is on being the best human being she can be.
You can catch Lauren E. Banks in City on a Hill, which is available on Showtime now. Next up, read our exclusive interview with pro surfer Kelia Moniz.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.