Deborah Ayorinde on Embracing the Grace of Elinor Dashwood In 'Sense & Sensibility'

Deborah Ayorinde and Dan Jeannotte in "Sense and Sensibility"

Deborah Ayorinde and Dan Jeannotte in "Sense and Sensibility"

(Photo: Hallmark Media/Steffan Hill)

The Americana sheen of the Hallmark Channel makes it one of the last places to look for Anglophile-friendly content. Sure, we all love their cozy Christmas movies about overworked big-city girls who are reminded of the simple joys of small-town living and reconnect with handsome former high school crushes who now wear a lot of flannel. However, they’re very much their own thing. But given Hallmark’s near-obsessive focus on stories about romance and love, it’s surprising it took this long for the network to attempt a Jane Austen adaptation. With its new Sense & Sensibility, that finally changes — but with the addition of a welcome, contemporary twist. 

Presented under the network’s Mahogany banner — which aims to celebrate and uplift Black culture — this Sense & Sensibility looks quite different from its predecessors. Not only is the Dashwood family portrayed by a quartet of Black actresses, but several of the story’s other major characters, including suitors Colonel Brandon (Akil Largie) and Willoughby (Victor Hugo) and acquaintance Lucy Steele (Victoria Ekanoye). It seems surprising that this hasn't happened before in the Year of our Lord 2024, but here we are. 

The film is a remarkably faithful adaptation, complete with a Regency period setting, sumptuous costumes, and a focus on the relationship between the sisters at its center. Admittedly, it’s not a particularly race-conscious version of Austen’s classic; however, the representation inherent in allowing a new subset of readers the chance to see themselves in a story they love is a powerful thing. 

During an Austen-themed lunch at the 2024 Television Critics Association Winter press tour, we had the chance to chat with star Deborah Ayorinde (True Detective), who plays the eldest Dashwood sister on bringing such a classic story to life with Black actors, Elinor’s quiet strength, and more. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
 Deborah Ayorinde and Susan Lawson-Reynolds in "Sense and Sensibility"

 Deborah Ayorinde and Susan Lawson-Reynolds in "Sense and Sensibility"

(Photo: Hallmark Media/Steffan Hill)

Telly Visions: I can’t believe, in 2024, it’s groundbreaking to have a cast of Black women leading a Jane Austen adaptation…and yet. How did it feel to be a part of that and bring this story to audiences that maybe aren’t as familiar with it because they didn’t think it was for them or had people who looked like them in it?

Deborah Ayorinde: I’m one of those people. I actually am! That’s why I’m so appreciative of Vanessa [Riley, author, and Sense & Sensibility's historical advisor) because I didn’t know I could play this. I’ve never done this period in this way before. So it was really groundbreaking and eye-opening for me, because [I realized] wait a minute: This is a world of characters and stories that can be i! It feels amazing. And for someone else that looks like me, a little girl that looks like me, to be able to see that they can do that, they can be that the story is for me too. That, for me, is what it’s about. 

I’ve done a lot of roles that vary from A to Z. The reason that I do that is that I want to put out the message that you can be anything, you can do anything, and you can’t just look at someone and say, oh, this person, they’re going to have only this kind of story, you know? So it makes me very proud to be part of it.

TV: Hopefully, it opens more doors to doing more adaptations like this. 

Ayorinde: Oh, I’ve caught the bug now. 

TV: Pride & Prejudice coming up next!

Ayorinde: Oh, I’m ready. I think I could do it. And the stories are so juicy! 

Deborah Ayorinde in "Sense and Sensibility"

Deborah Ayorinde in "Sense and Sensibility"

(Photo: Hallmark Media/Steffan Hill)

TV: Why do you think it is that Jane Austen is still so popular? These books are hundreds of years old, and we’re all still obsessed with them. 

Ayorinde: To be honest with you, before I did this film, I didn’t know much about Jane Austen. I knew Pride & Prejudice. I didn’t know much about Sense & Sensibility. But I’ve learned so much in this process. She was ahead of her time, Austen. A lot of her stories are still relevant today, and all the drama that was happening back are still things we go through now. 

TV: I mean, we’ve all dated a Willoughby let’s be real. 

Ayorinde: Oh my gosh, I was so mad at Willoughby when I read the novel! That’s why we still relate, though, and that was why it was easy for me to play. Despite the different time periods, the story is so relevant. 

TV: What did you like the most about Elinor as a character? How did you get into figuring out who she was for you?

Ayorinde: I like her grace. I learned a lot from her about having grace. In order not to ruin it for anyone unfamiliar with the story, there is a situation where most [people] probably would have focused more on how they felt rather than a.) the facts or b.) trying to understand the other person and showing them grace because that’s what they need. 

TV: She’s nicer to Edward than I would have been.

Ayorinde: Oh my gosh, that opened my eyes so much. I thought I knew about grace, but Elinor took it up a notch. It’s the thing I admire about her the most. 

Deborah Ayorinde and Dan Jeannotte in "Sense and Sensibility"

Deborah Ayorinde and Dan Jeannotte in "Sense and Sensibility"

(Photo: Hallmark Media/Steffan Hill)

TV: I also love Elinor’s relationship with Marianne, and I’m so sorry Bethany Antonia [who plays the middle Dashwood sister] couldn’t be here so I could ask her about this too! But — you guys shot this movie so quickly, in just 15 days. Yet the relationship between you still feels so grounded and real. How did you find that bond between the two of you so fast?

Ayorinde: It was easy, honestly. There are some people that you meet, and it’s like you’ve known them forever. And she is so open. She’s so open and so loving, and she takes everyone in. I can be a bit shy when I first meet people, and I’ve always been that way, so it was nice to work with someone who would talk to that new person and make a group chat. The way she brought us all together and ensured we all got to know each other warmed my heart. She’s a beautiful person. The whole cast are beautiful people who made that fifteen-day shoot and being away from home during the holidays much, much easier. 

TV: I’ll end by asking about Elinor and Edward because I love them together. They’re so not Lizzie and Darcy; they’re so normal and nerdy and obviously love each other. But that scene at the very end, when Elinor starts crying, and Edward tells her it was her the whole time — talk to me about making that magic happen because it was whew. My heart!

Ayorinde: It was what my heart needed, to be honest. You know, the strike had just ended — and the strike for actors was hard for a lot of us. Financially and emotionally, it was a lot. Plus, the news and everything going on in the world. This was what my heart needed: to do a project that was [about] simple, beautiful love. 

That scene sums it up for me. And Dan [Jeannotte, who plays Edward], he’s such a beautiful person. He’s so kind and so open. This project was exactly what I needed to remind me of why I do this. To me, it’s all about love, and we all need that right now. 

Sense & Sensibility is currently streaming on Peacock.

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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