June Diane Raphael is proving celebrity activism doesn’t have to be cringey

The Grace and Frankie star talked to Mic about pro-vaccine thirst traps, building sacred spaces, and her love of “messy women.”

Illustration by Dewey Saunders
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Way back in July 2021, when everyone was still chasing their perfect, invigorating hot vax summer, June Diane Raphael was having an alarming jab-related revelation. The actress posted a PSA on Instagram: “Warning,” she wrote to her 430,000 followers. “There is a side effect from the COVID vaccine. I’ve been getting hotter every day since I had my second shot.”

She added: “No one is talking about this but it’s very serious.”

“It’s been an ongoing journey,” Raphael, who’s currently starring in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, says with a laugh when I ask her about it over Zoom. “It makes you hotter because it’s like, you’re able to do more things. You’re able to get your services done. There’s a direct line — I’m sorry, there is.”

Then she turns serious for a moment: “I do wish these sorts of PSAs, and the rollout for the vaccine, had done more interesting marketing.”

Two days after posting her vaccine “warning,” Raphael hosted an Instagram Live with Dr. Kate Grossman, a Missouri-based pulmonary specialist and critical care physician. The discussion, which she billed as a mission to “get to the bottom of this” whole hotness issue, was actually meant to dispel some of the myths and conspiracy theories around the vaccine. She then released a subsequent conversation with Grossman as a bonus episode of her podcast, The Deep Dive, this time role-playing the part of a skeptical unvaxxed person.

In an era rife with cringey celebrity activism, from the infamous “Imagine” video to spoken word poems for Vladimir Putin, Raphael’s authentic and informed messaging stands out. A lot of people have been clamoring mostly for the rich and famous to stop posting, to sit this one — any one — out. But Raphael isn’t cowed. “How I feel is like, I’m a citizen, I pay taxes,” she says. “I have every right to speak about an issue I care about.”

“However you’re on-ramping toward activism and being part of ‘the work’ in general to make our world a better place, there’s room and space for all of us.”

The difference is that where other stars center themselves in their statements (or songs), Raphael focuses on building community. She cosplays extreme celebrity vanity — but then she uses that to hook people into a COVID conversation with an actual doctor. She posts a red carpet pic — but it’s from her polling center in L.A., and in the caption she encourages followers to support progressive candidates, whom she shouts out by name. She uploads a clip of herself dancing awkwardly, a dig at Donald Trump — but it’s October 2020 and she’s plugging early and mail-in voting.

“I am somebody who’s done work in activist space my whole life. It’s not new to me,” she says. “I understand the critique [about celebrities posting], but I will never make a single person ever feel badly about showing up and using whatever platform they have to create change. … People show up in a multitude of ways. However you’re on-ramping toward activism and being part of ‘the work’ in general to make our world a better place, there’s room and space for all of us.”

The same principles apply to her acting choices. Raphael has portrayed a slew of very bold, very beloved characters, from unabashed lesbian gynecologist Sadie in New Girl to the hyper-focused, hyper-competent chief of staff Maggie Millikin in Long Shot. Most recently, she’s brought her signature sharp tongue to Grace and Frankie, portraying Brianna, the outspoken older daughter — and business successor — of Jane Fonda’s character Grace.

But it’s not that Raphael specifically seeks out “strong” women characters — “that feels so relative to me,” she says — so much as she’s “definitely more attracted to roles in which women are in spaces they’re not necessarily supposed to be in.”

“I love messy women who are kind of all over the place. I’m drawn to them.”

Crucially, too, these women have flaws. Or, as Raphael puts it, they’re “kind of demented in their own ways.” They’re high-achieving and inspirationally confident, but they’re not perfect. Nor are they ice queens waiting for the right man to crack their lives open. “The scope of our humanity is so much bigger than being a ‘strong powerful woman.’ … We’re multiple things!” Raphael says. “In my own life, I love messy women who are kind of all over the place. I’m drawn to them, it’s what all of my girlfriends and I are. We connect over the power of our lives, and also the mess of it.”

Of course, there’s a difference between identifying a good role and being the right person for the job. Raphael is very clear about which way the river flows here. “I think I have the confidence and the sense of myself in the world that I’m happy to bring to these characters,” she says. Truly, she does seem to embody an authentic ease: When I told a friend Raphael had appeared on Zoom with impeccable hair and makeup, wearing a long cardigan while comfortably perched on the floor, she remarked, “I think that is very June.”

As for Grace and Frankie, it's clearly a star vehicle, with Fonda and Lily Tomlin as the titular duo, joined by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston as their respective ex-husbands. But Brianna in particular has really struck a chord with audiences. For seven years, she’s been the straight talker — a crucial underpinning of the overall dynamic. The show is legitimately funny, but it’s also unmistakably a sitcom, with a wacky setup that periodically opens up for real moments of sincerity. Without Brianna’s (mostly) loving barbs and permanent willingness to say exactly what she thinks, it would risk becoming too saccharine.

As Raphael approached the end of Grace and Frankie — the show’s final 12 episodes drop Friday — one challenge she and the writers faced was wrapping up a sitcom’s arc without undermining her character. “I was very nervous about driving toward an ending that ended up with her being married or pregnant or anything like that because I just really felt like that was not for her,” Raphael says.

Raphael (third from left) with fellow Grace and Frankie stars Brooklyn Decker, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, at a premiere event for the show’s final season.

Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Season six ended with Brianna proposing to her boyfriend, Barry — but only because he needed some sort of commitment, and only on the condition that their engagement be indefinite. For a woman whose drive and assuredness have defined her, buckling on a crucial belief might seem out of character. But it wouldn’t be Brianna’s style to give up something she loves without a fight. Again: Strong woman is not synonymous with ice queen.

That said, while getting down on one knee felt acceptable, walking into an obstetrics office wouldn’t be. “To even call it a choice for Brianna always felt wrong,” Raphael says of Brianna’s child-free life. “It was never a choice, because she was never gonna do it.”

Raphael says she discussed the end of Brianna’s journey with showrunners Howard Morris and Marta Kauffman and felt “really aligned” with them about it. “I love where she leaves off, and I love imagining what the rest of her journey is,” she says. “I’m really going to miss her. It sounds so weird every time I talk about it.”

Fortunately, Raphael has organized a few other projects that allow her to explore, as she puts it, the “fullness of women’s lives and the spaces we hold.” There’s the Jane Club, the L.A. coworking space Raphael co-founded in 2018. The goal at the time was to create a physical haven for working mothers, complete with childcare and career support alongside opportunities to take political action. The idea was part The Wing, part WeWork, but with a specific focus on honoring caregiving and intentionality. They hosted gun control activist Shannon Watts; they facilitated phone banking for their members.

The Jane Club took off — and then, less than two years later, COVID cut off in-person gathering. Those first few weeks of lockdown were a critical time. “We practiced some pretty radical transparency with our community,” Raphael says, explaining the Jane Club leadership team’s choice to openly share their fear and grief with members. That honesty, she thinks, was essential to building the sense of trust that allowed the community to not only survive, but thrive online.

The Jane Club’s physical space did eventually close, but the digital community lives on — and has expanded across the U.S. and to several other countries. The full membership offers work sprints and daily meditations, but also still includes virtual social justice seminars. “We try to keep our space as sacred as possible,” Raphael says.

A similar dynamic grounds The Deep Dive, the podcast she created and debuted in April 2021 with actress Jessica St. Clair. The way Raphael and St. Clair move fluidly through their discussions — most of which, at their core, are about what it’s like to exist as a woman today — will likely feel pretty familiar to a lot of listeners, as the two go from random asides to deep conversations to inside jokes and back again. The vibe mirrors the natural intimacy of a FaceTime with your best friend.

“Balancing extreme vulnerability and power to me is really the crux of the podcast,” Raphael says. “We talk a lot about grief, we talk a lot about shame, we talk a lot about domestic responsibilities that we feel we’re failing at. And I think the reason the Deep Divers have become so kind of rabid in their fanbase is because, you know, they feel the same.”

When we were talking about the Jane Club, Raphael stressed at one point how important it is that she and the rest of the executive team “are part of the community, and not separate from it on a private island somewhere.” A few minutes before that, when we were talking about The Deep Dive, she said, “The thing I most want people to get out of the podcast is a sense of community.” In reflecting on Brianna’s journey through Grace and Frankie, she noted that the character is “important to a lot of people” and so she wanted to be very careful to honor “the reasons women have really connected to Brianna.”

Connection, community — it’s always part of the calculation. It’s the reason she posts thirst traps-turned-PSAs on Instagram, and the reason she lets people listen in on the discussions she’s having with her best friend. It might even be the reason she runs for office one day. She’s tentatively contemplating something in public education, but she hasn’t started courting donors or anything. It’s more about feeling empowered enough to consider it at all.

“If we’re willing to write a tweet and get our thoughts out there and complain about the system and what the system has done to us, then we have to consider getting into the system to change it,” Raphael tells me. If anyone has a clear idea of how to turn online activity into action, it’s her.