Though Raney Branch (02C) now boasts roles in television shows such as “The Originals,” “Being Mary Jane” and “Bones,” the Emory alumnus first took to Los Angeles in 2007 with just $800 in her pocket, hoping to make it in acting.
Branch graduated with a major in environmental studies and a minor in Arabic. In Fall 2007, despite her lack of industry experience, Branch decided to drive cross-country armed with her acting ambitions. She arrived in Los Angeles a week later to find the Writers Guild of America mid-strike, causing major films and TV shows to postpone shooting. Unable to book roles and with no place to live, Branch’s introduction to Hollywood did not pan out as she originally envisioned.
“I didn’t know anyone when I moved to L.A.,” Branch said. “I actually ended up staying on the couch of a guy who also graduated from Emory. I slept on his couch for three weeks [while looking for a job and apartment], and that was my introduction to L.A.”
In 2012, while booking commercials, Branch was contacted by an L.A.-based manager (who no longer is her manager) whom she had met while waiting tables in New York.
“A manager in L.A. [asked me to join his team after seeing my commercials],” Branch said. “And then we started booking [TV shows], and I have been working ever since.”
In 2016, she landed her first lead role as Indera in the TV movie “Ringside,” which aired on TV One. Later that same year, she booked a recurring guest star role on the Fox Show “Bones,” and in 2017, she became a recurring guest star on Season 5 of the BET show “Being Mary Jane.”
Branch is now filming the movie “Pride and Prejudice in Atlanta” as lead role Jane Bennet. She was asked to audition for the part after working with the Atlanta-based production company Swirls Films on “Ringside.” “Pride and Prejudice in Atlanta” is a modern adaption of Jane Austen’s beloved book, featuring a predominantly African-American cast and set in metro-Atlanta.
“‘Pride and Prejudice’ is actually one of my favorite books and favorite film[s] ever,” Branch said. “I have seen every adaptation of [the book]. Any version of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ anything based on [it], I have seen it.”
The actress is also involved with independent digital series “Black Girls Guide to Fertility,” where she recurs as Ava Thomas, a romance writer who documents her struggles with infertility. Though the actress and Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar did not participate in any Emory affiliated theater groups, she was a member of women a capella group The Gathering and the now defunct EN-ACTE program. EN-ACTE was a theater group that visited low income and underserved communities of color throughout the metro-Atlanta area to teach sex education and promote self-expression through art. Branch also kept busy by kept busy serving as the service chair for Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (AKA) and retaining membership in the Black Student Alliance (BSA), Indian Cultural Exchange (ICE), Pakistani Student Association (PSA), Arab Cultural Alliance (ACA) and The Office for Racial and Cultural Engagement (RACE).
“[EN-ACTE produced musicals] … and took them to schools [and community centers] throughout the metro-Atlanta region,” Branch said. “[Our target was] high risk student[s] … who looked like us [and] who could identify with us in a safe space.”
The group would often “help these kids create their own art so they could better express themselves. We were dealing with sex education, condom negotiation, partner abuse [and] HIV education.”
As part of her work with EN-ACTE, Branch participated in a long-term intervention program in a juvenile detention center, which began with a performance and continued with workshops. The children had many questions about sex education and consent after the show, which provided for many their first opportunity to talk about these issues in a safe space, according to Branch.
Then Executive Artistic Director of EN-ACTE Ken Hornbeck recounted how Branch made it a goal to never judge any of the children when the group went to the juvenile detention center.
“She was genuine, non-judgmental and very real with them,” Hornbeck said. “She didn’t look down at them at all, she was like ‘You know, everyone has a story’ … which is why I always took her along [to the workshops].”
Hornbeck added that Branch stays true to her humble roots.
“She doesn’t forget where she is from,” Hornbeck said. “A lot of people that reach a level of success want to leave everything behind, and I don’t think that is true of her.”
Apart from film productions, Branch is also working on a virtual reality immersive project that will bring historical experiences of African-Americans beyond slave narratives to larger audiences. She said she hopes the project will give voice to the African diaspora, so that it is meaningful not only to African American women, but also to Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian women. The project is currently in the pre-production phase, as she continues to seek sources of funding, but she hopes to make it public in museums nationwide between 2020 and 2021.
Branch’s success has also allowed her to help the homeless community in Atlanta and Los Angeles, through Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles and Atlanta, L.A. Rescue Mission and Atlanta Mission.
“People oftentimes stereotype the homeless as drug addicts or mentally ill, but also today we got a lot of people who are displaced from housing because there is not enough affordable housing in the L.A. city limits,” Branch said. “And that is also the case in Atlanta.”
Although Branch has achieved success from her roles in films and TV shows, she said she recognizes that it required hard work and dedication.
“There is no such thing as an overnight success,” Branch said. “You have to invest in your dreams [both] financially and emotionally. Your character is way more important than your bank account, and if you find yourself going against your moral code then I implore you … to do something else.”