In the opening scenes of the new Netflix drama, Warrior Nun, the dying leader of a secret convent of elite combatant nuns warns Mary, one of her fellow sisters, that she should not “trust anyone.” Thus starts a season-long journey for “Shotgun” Mary, who is everything you’d expect from someone with that nickname: She’s physical, intimidating, and lets her shotguns (and fists) do the talking. She is nothing at all like Oxford University trained Toya Turner, the bright and bubbly actress who inhabits the character. The role stretched the Chicagoan in new directions as an artist, but based on all the praise Turner has received since series premiered, she played Mary just right—one in a series of recent choices she’s made that have contributed to a career on the rise.
But it was a different story leading up to her casting in Warrior Nun. Before this role came along, Turner was at a crossroads as an actress. Though she’d found some success in Chicago performing in small roles based in the city, she decided to visit L.A. to determine if she should move there. That trip led Turner to audition for the role of Mary.
“I probably wouldn’t have gotten the role if I hadn’t chosen to move to L.A. There have been ups and downs, and you get told different things, like ‘You’re going to be a small fish in a big pond,’ but I’m grateful. It was a good move. I’m grateful!”
Turner would also travel to Spain to play Mary, her first leading role in a Hollywood series. It was there she first read some of the Warrior Nun Areala comics and got a feel for how progressive and controversial the franchise is. “The first issue I read was about Sister Shannon sleeping with another woman, a black woman, and I was like, hmm…I see where this is going.”
Both criticized and embraced by Catholic readers, the comics on which the TV series is based have been a lightning rod for attention for decades, but the new TV series hasn’t evoked the same level of controversy. Instead, much of the focus has been positively placed on the acting and the action sequences in the show. The sisters all received martial arts training for their roles, something Turner didn’t quite experience growing up (“My training was having six brothers!”). She was also challenged by the physicality of using real weapons at times, including the guns that Mary brandishes.
But camaraderie among the sisters made for a special shoot, despite the challenges. Turner gushes about the other actresses, one minute commenting on just how cute Olivia Delcán (Sister Camilla) is and the next about how close she and Lorena Andrea, whose Sister Lillith has an adversarial relationship with Mary, became. “That’s my girl,” she says of Andrea, who herself shines as a sister dealing with centuries of pressure to become the next leader of the group. Andrea and Turner became so close that they made the move out to L.A. together, continuing this sisterhood that developed among the cast. “We really tried to be like family to each other,” Turner remembers, adding that the girls were especially kind to her since she was furthest from home.
The intimacy among the actresses seems a case of life imitating art, something which series creator Simon Barry must have been excited to witness, since the closeness of the sisters is of vital importance to the series, and for Mary’s arc in particular. The other significant character that all the sisters are attached to is Tristan Ulloa’s Father Vincent. He and Turner get to chew up the scenery quite often in the later episodes of the season. Their relationship is exceptionally important: Her words lead Vincent to embrace his past, significant for several important scenes in the last two episodes, and he pushes Mary away from a vendetta and toward the real reason she continues to fight. “She could walk away at any time,” Turner explains. “But she loves her sisters.”
The story of that sisterhood and the conspiracy and villains the nuns encounter has been well-received, currently at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes. And Turner has been enjoying all the affirmation about the show and toward her work. “It’s different,” she laughs, though she’s has been able to retain her humility with all that’s happening around her, positive and negative. Although the series has been catching fire, COVID-19 has stalled Hollywood productions. There’s some sign that things are going to pick up soon for the film industry, but in the meantime, acting auditions have dried up. Even so, Turner remains optimistic with a mantra of being grateful, and has used her time wisely: reading, journaling, and meditating each morning when she wakes. She’s also returned to her passion for reading. It’s been a time of positivity and growth, and of looking forward.
And even with fewer roles available, Turner continues to find work, including in voice over, to which she’s not inexperienced, having worked on The Incredibles 2 (“When I heard my voice on the trailer, I lost my sh**!”). Of course, there’s also the hope that at some point, a second season of Warrior Nun will come calling:
“I’m going to say it. I think we’re going to get another season. We need a season two! I want them to explore Mary’s background more. I want to see her mom. I hope they get Angela Bassett, even though she looks younger than me!”
We probably won’t know for quite a while whether a second season of Warrior Nun will be greenlit, or whether Angela Bassett would make Turner’s dreams comes true by playing Mary’s mom, but one thing’s for certain: With so much up in the air, Toya Turner is making all the right moves. And as her star rises, it won’t be long before the Hollywood pond won’t be looking quite so big anymore.