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“It’s So Much Bigger Than Me”: KJ Smith Talks Her Journey On and Off Screen

In an exclusive conversation with Hollywood Melanin, actress KJ Smith talked about the force behind her dedication to the art of acting, producing, and creating a bridge for other success stories to form. As a multifaceted woman of color, Smith plans to hold an unforgettable legacy. 

Hollywood began to take notice of Smith after her breakthrough role in OWN’s drama series Queen Sugar, created by award-winning director Ava Duvernay and Oprah Winfrey. “Queen Sugar was the role that started me on the trajectory of really believing in myself,” the Florida native shared. 

Before that life-changing moment, Smith honed her skills by often collaborating with friends and acting in their projects. “I started off doing a lot of free work, web series, and comedy skits for friends.” She was a “background artist” for years before booking her role on Queen Sugar

Getting that first big gig did not just elevate Smith as a working actor but also gave her the internal push she needed at the time. “It did more for me mentally,” she shared, “Mentally, it reminded me to keep pushing, keep going, and that’s really what this industry is about.”

The never-ending process of motivating herself, overcoming doubt and fear of not using her gift had brought Smith into a new role as a producer. Her first feature film, The Available Wife, which she produced and starred in, was launched last year and nominated for Best Narrative Feature at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF).

KJ Smith photographed by Stephon X
KJ Smith / photographed by Stephon X

In 2019 Smith landed one of the lead roles in Tyler Perry’s Sistas, a drama-comedy series that portrays life unraveling between four Black women living in Atlanta. Smith, Mignon Von, Ebony Obsidian, and Novi Brown play the main characters. The women face many complexities of thriving in their careers while managing romance.

The show, which BET has renewed for a fourth season, has been a great success. Sistas season two premiere was reported the “most socially viewed cable program,” generating over 1.8 million views on Facebook and Twitter. Smith’s character, Andi Barnes, is a high-powered attorney.

“I feel like [ Andi] represents a lot of Black women in America and all over the world honestly,” the actress said. “Right now, Black women are the most educated demographic in the country. Andi, she has it all: an education, a job, and in her mind, she has the perfect partner.”

…It’s so much bigger than me. When I made it about myself, I was unsuccessful

Personal on-screen success is not all Smith strives for. Pouring into others and working for the good of the collective community is the ultimate goal. “What I’m learning, especially through my mentees, people from my hometown, and my younger relatives, is that it’s so much bigger than me. When I made it about myself, I was unsuccessful,” she told HM. Smith wants to continue to hold the light for other people to achieve success.

Through her personal and professional journey, Smith stays focused on the bigger picture – it’s about helping others and being the example of what is possible. Part of her legacy is making the world a better place and focusing on unsheltered and fostered youth. “I want to do what women who I admire and aspired me, did for me. Which is to encourage me to keep going and be the best that I can be.” 

As Sistas continues its run, Smith continues to book more roles. Last year, she starred in Netflix’s suspense thriller, Fatal Affair, with Nia Long and Omar Epps. She also made an appearance in Kenya Barris’ comedy series #blackAF. In addition, according to a recent announcement, Smith will join the Power prequel series Power Book III: Raising Kanan in a major recurring role.


Betti Halsell, senior writer at HM

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Interviews

Taraji P. Henson Is Miss Hannigan In NBC’s Upcoming Musical Event ‘Annie Live!’

Annie Live!

Award-winning actress Taraji P Henson takes on the iconic role of Miss Hannigan in Annie Live!, a television adaptation of a beloved Broadway classic.

Henson will star as the main antagonist and head of the orphanage where Annie lives. The iconic villain in the original 1982 film was played by Carol Burnett, whom the Empire actress she admires.

Annie Live!
Pictured: (l-r) Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, Celina Smith as Annie, Sandy as Sandy the dog, Taraji P. Henson as Miss Hannigan — (Photo by: Paul Gilmore/NBC)

Henson will perform alongside Celina Smith, who portrays the show’s titular character Annie,  Harry Connick Jr. (Daddy Warbucks), Nicole Scherzinger (Grace Farrell), Megan Hilty (Lily St. Regis), and six-time Emmy-nominated actor Tituss Burgess (Rooster Hannigan).

Annie first premiered on Broadway in 1977. The show is based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie and follows a young girl who lives in an orphanage and dreams of finding her family. A rich man named Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks decides to let an orphan live at his home to promote his image. He chooses Annie. While the young girl gets accustomed to living in Warbucks’ mansion, she still longs to meet her parents.

The classic musical live event will air live on Thursday, Dec. 2, at 8/7c, exclusively on NBC. 

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Interviews

‘Dinner Party’: Imani Hakim On Co-Producing and Starring in New Thought-Provoking Drama

Imani Hakim In Dinner Party

Best known for starring in 00’s classic ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ and most recently Apple TV+’s ‘Mythic Quest’, Imani Hakim had taken on a new role as a producer (while continuing to act) in her latest feature film ‘Dinner Party‘.

The project is a collaboration between the 28-year-old Cleveland native and her partner Chris Lee. It centers around a group of childhood friends who get together for a reunion dinner accompanied by their significant others. Hakim plays Izzie, whose boyfriend Cal (played by Lee) is one of the seven reunited friends.

The dinner takes place while a verdict is incoming on a controversial sexual assault court case that has captured the nation’s attention. But, as the evening progresses, alcohol flows, and conversations occur, the group soon realizes that- they have changed just as much as the social climate around them has.

Shot in Los Angeles in just four days, ‘Dinner Party’ is a powerful visual conversation starter. The film is currently making festival rounds.

Dinner Party

HM: First of all, how did you get involved in this project?

IH: My partner Chris came up with this concept of this film, and next thing you know he started writing it. I read the script, and I fell in love. The subject matter was something I felt very passionate about, so I wanted to be a part of it. So, you know, I joined on as an actress and a co-producer.

HM: And how was that experience like?

IH: Chris and I did short films together, and this is my first feature film producing. I learned so much about being behind the camera while balancing being in front of the camera. I wouldn’t have it any other way. From the inception of the idea all the way to the end. Casting, table reads, finding locations, finances, answering questions that actors have. Also, from the creative standpoint, it’s something that I never got to exercise before. It was a challenge.

HM: I felt that Dinner Party is one long uncomfortable conversation that had to be had. In a nutshell, tell us what the movie is about?

IH: The ‘Dinner Party’ is about a group of friends who are getting together after ten years of not seeing each other. The basic premise is – “if you met your friends today, would you still f*ck with them?” Over the course of this dinner, they realize they had changed as much as their social climate has changed. So things are coming to hay during the course of this dinner party. It’s like a slow burner – so much underlying tension – from microaggression to sexual assault. We get to really watch this group of millennials navigate this very difficult conversation. The challenging part that these friends are facing is to communicate that they are new versions of themselves.

HM: How does your character Izzie play into this whole story?

Izzie is bearing witness to the dynamic. She’s like the fly on the wall witnessing the fallout. She is important because she is the only Black person in the room and has this intuitive spirit. There is a lot happening under the surface, and she has to figure out what’s going on. 

HM: The conversations in this diverse group during the dinner party are around racism, classism, sexism, sexual assault. All very relevant topics in our world today. Was the goal to create a visual debate and highlight different opinions and points of view?

IH: Ultimately yes. We are covering many taboo subjects and there is no way you can watch this film and not want to check in with yourself or check in with people around you. This film for us is a conversational starter. We love the fact that this makes people uncomfortable and we also love the fact that it inspires people to reach out to their family members or their friends about [things] they swept under the rug. So if we can do that, we’re doing our job.

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Interviews

Naturi Naughton On How Past Experiences With 3LW Helped Shape Her Character on ‘Queens’

In Queens, the audience gets a first-hand look at the dynasty built by the hip-hop quartet of women. Viewers meet them on the verge of claiming their place at the top of the music game for the second time.

The official ABC synopsis reads, “Queens follows a fractured girl group living in the shadows of their once prominent hip-hop dynasty. After their popularity skyrocketed with the success of their chart-topping single, “Nasty Girl,” they were once regarded as one of the greatest girl groups of their generation. Despite critical and commercial success, the group was plagued by internal conflict and jealousy. Estranged and out of touch, the four women, now in their 40s, reunite for a chance to recapture their fame and regain the swagger they had in the ’90s when they were legends in the hip-hop world.”

Nadine Velazquez, Brandy, Eve and Naturi Naughton / credit: ABC

Leading the group is Brandy (Moesha), who plays Naomi, aka Xplicit Lyrics. Eve (Barbershop 2) adds a sense of reality to the portrayed hip-hop group. The rapper and actress stars as Brianna, who channels Professor Sex when she is performing her lyrics. As the “Satisfied” rapper returns to the screen, she does so with a new company – multiple sources have celebrated her first pregnancy. 

Carrying the group’s flair is Nadine Velazquez (My Name is Earl), who embodies her role as Valeria. She calls herself Butter Pecan while on stage. Rounding up the hip-hop girl gang is Naturi Naughton (Power), who makes sure her character Jill is known as the ‘Da Thrill.’

Naughton is no stranger to girl groups. At age 15, the singer turned actor joined 3LW. The ‘3 little women’ are best known for their hit singles No More (Baby I’ma Do Right) and Playas Gon’ Play.  Naughton was reportedly forced out of the group in 2002.

Today, the Queens star is in a much better place mentally and professionally. Naughton shared with us during our 1:1 interview that some of the painful experiences from her teenage years helped shape her character on the show. “Some of the pain that I went through being in a girl group, being in the business when people were dictating how I should dress, how I should talk, how I should act, how I should look. I actually can connect to that experience, so I use that.” Watch our full interview above.

Queens series premiere aired on Tuesday, October 19. The remaining episodes are set to drop weekly. 

Bites of promo were served to the public back in May, shining a light on the “heyday” of the girl group, set in the 90s. The trailer was released in September, giving the audience a full view of the group in the present day. The series is produced by ABC Signature, and the pilot episode is written by Zahir McGhee and directed by Tim Story.


Betti Halsell, senior writer – Hollywood Melanin

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