From the moment you are graced with her presence, you are met with charismatic charm, non-stop laughter and inspiration. I had the opportunity to speak with award-winning actress, Kellita Smith about her career in Hollywood, an emotional reflection of her days as a co-star of the (late) legendary Bernie Mac, the importance of women in film and bringing life to her role as former National Guard Lieutenant Roberta Warren, a ex-National Guard member and survivor of the zombie apocalypse in Syfy’s hit series, Z-Nation, now heading into its sixth season.
Parlé Mag: Karl Schafer, is an incredible writer and he created this show, Z-Nation that really grabs the audience and holds your attention from beginning to end. What was your first impression of the series?
Kellita Smith: When I read the script, I had to come back and ask him what goes through his mind when he’s writing. Is he smoking weed? [laughing] He’s writing about cannibalism and things of that nature and it blew my mind! And he told me, “No, I don’t do any of that. I don’t write with people in mind, I write circumstances. And the show reflects what would happen in those particular circumstances.”
Parlé Mag: Tell me more about your character in the show, Roberta Warren.
Kellita Smith: Initially, it was just Lieutenant Warren, he didn’t know if that character was going to be a man or a woman. Karl created an individual that had a plight and a purpose and that transpired into Lt. Roberta Warren.
Parlé Mag: This part was evidently made for you because you have since been the first African-American woman to be the lead on a Syfy series. What drew you to this project?
Kellita Smith: The writing. I was looking to do something different, because all of us [actresses] started to be in the same room for the same job. We’ll show up to an audition, twelve African-American women who had known each other for over twenty years, looking to get the same job. But this individual created by Karl, toted a machete and carried a .45 Beretta, and I remember thinking, “Oh, she’s a bad ass?!” Of course, I didn’t know it was a woman but as I’m reading over the few pages of the script I had been given, I am piecing together who this person is. I just thought to myself, “What could I do different?” I had been taking martial arts for a year or so at that point. Which I had been taking so that I could learn to protect myself. So I put these two together. And afterwards, Karl told me that I did the opposite of everyone else who chose to come in and show either emotion whereas I borrowed a technique from Andy Garcia where I was crying, but wasn’t doing so visibly but you could hear it.
A group of survivors must cross the country with a possible cure for the zombie apocalypse. The holder of the cure, a zombie-human hybrid named Murphy, may not be so cooperative.
Parlé Mag: With you doing martial arts, was it an easy transition to do your own stunts?
Kellita Smith: It was very exhilarating. I just pulled some ex-boyfriends out of my diary and envisioned them![laughing] It was easy though, we have great stunt coordinators. They are so committed and I just marvel at their level of dedication-it made it so much fun!
Parlé Mag: So you guys had a good working chemistry then?
Kellita Smith: Yes, exactly! When you are doing a fight scene or anything with weapons, if someone doesn’t trust you, it makes it harder because they tend to flinch, or be skiddish or going against the natural rhythm. These extras, are incredible, so much so that most of the time we were able to shoot the scenes in one or two takes and then we’re done!
Parlé Mag: I would assume that works in any role that you play when you have that connection where you can anticipate what they are going to do in order to be in tandem with one another. It translates on screen as realistic and organic.
Kellita Smith: Yes, that’s the best way to describe it. And, I’m a former dancer so I live for being synced with someone.
Parlé Mag: You are a talent of all trades!
Kellita Smith: Well, [laughs] when you are an inner-city child that grew up in Oakland, you only have a couple choices at the rec center.
Parlé Mag: I’m from a small town in North Carolina, so I get it.
(We got off track for several minutes to talk about my upbringing in Greenville, NC; my country accent that makes me sound young, and how meticulous people in North Carolina are about their lawn care. [LAUGHS])
Parlé Mag: Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about how you got started acting because you went to school for political science.
Kellita Smith: GIRL! Yeeesss. Then I saw the library and it had ALL the books, and I realized that I was required to know what was in ALL of those books. So I got a job and got fired. I got fired three times actually. I was with, at the time, a childhood sweetheart that went on to be in the NBA and a lady told me one day, “You don’t belong here.”
Parlé Mag: Gee, thanks lady.
Kellita Smith: No, it was FANTASTIC! Ultimately, she was right. I just knew that I needed a paycheck, but that wasn’t the environment for me. I didn’t fit in anywhere until I decided to do something for me! I wasn’t sure what that was in my early 20s because I didn’t even know how to gamble on me. Even though [we] didn’t make it through his career, what my ex taught me was how to believe in a dream. He showed me what it looked like to meditate your way to what you want out of life. He focused, immensely on being a basketball star-not just an athlete, but a star. He wasn’t the tallest one or what most people would think is basketball material, but he believed in himself. That sense of purpose and determination, made me reflect on what it was that i believed about me. I tried an acting class, I was awful. JUST AWFUL! I mean, awul!!! But I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the art of acting. I learned what passion meant. No one can teach you that, it is a self discovery. It was the best discovery that i could have ever sensationalized my life with. We’re focused more on how it should look and how it should be, we’re not taught to go after things. I went after what it was that I wanted.
Parlé Mag: I couldn’t agree more. I became familiar with your talent during your role as everybody’s favorite auntie, Aunt Wanda on the Bernie Mac show—
Kellita Smith: Girl stop, you’re only 12. You were doing your homework and found my IMDB!
Parlé Mag: I’m young but I got some age on me, too! Talk to me about what it was like being a part of that cast. All of you were exceptionally talented and brought a unique persona that gave that raw, organic chemistry.
Kellita Smith: Uh, it was everything. I still get emotional. I know you’re like, “Bitch its been over ten years, let it go!’
Parlé Mag: Absolutely not. His comedic genius paved the way for so many of the talents we are enjoying today and he left behind an incredible legacy. For anyone that knew him, whether through the tv screens or in person, it’s a surreal feeling that he’s no longer on this Earth.
Kellita Smith: His legacy should be enjoyed and not mourned, that’s the type of person that he was. I think the best part of that experience, was him. It was who he was. It was what he stood for. And it was everything that he did to be able to get to that place where they would green light a show for him. We were able to highlight issues that were happening in black homes on national television—something that wasn’t happening in black shows at that time. It is absolutely him—this was a half hour show of a different genre that got an Emmy in its first season. Yes, the cast was great because he picked us out of a sea of people! He’s was the type of man that trusted and believed in himself, and with that he rose to the top. I can’t say it enough, it was him.
Parlé Mag: One of the things that I admired the most about the show is that it brought to television, what we were seeing in our homes but not reflected elsewhere when it comes to families.
Kellita Smith: Exactly. It was amazing. The craziest part about it, is that I don’t get to call him and share these memories with him. We [the cast] got together a few months ago; there’s things they do remember and a lot they don’t because they were kids at the time and I am still trying to figure out how to close the gap for them.
Parlé Mag: I’m sure it’s an honor for them to even have those moments of reflection and be able to cherish what they can recall about their time working with him and on the show.
Switching gears a bit, you are an immense supporter of women in writing and women being filmmakers. Talk to me about that.
Kellita Smith: I think the reason I champion women writers, women producers, women directors and women in the forefront of making creative decisions is because we give the breath that allows truth to breathe. Men are methodical so to speak and ready to move forward in a scene, whereas women want to personify those raw emotions and the revelation of how you would feel in that moment. It’s in the way we tell stories and knowing when and how to give authentic sensitivity.That’s why we love women like Meryl Streep and Viola Davis, because they know how perform and give a beat of breath so that [we] as the viewers, can catch up to their feelings.
Parlé Mag: What can we expect from you next?
Kellita Smith: Girl, I don’t know after this menopause! No, seriously. I am looking forward to shooting another season of Z-Nation. I am still on the show, In The Cut as well. I am looking to produce some projects for other people, not just myself. It’s too many talented people that I know that haven’t gotten a chance to not even shine, but play. They’ll shine on their own, but I want to create avenues that allow them to play. I want to be the person who create jobs for everyone. To be able to come to work and see 84 people who are a part of not just something I wrote, but something they also believe in. That would be amazing, it’s like Santa! So that’s what I’m working towards, I want to be Santa… with a small waist!
Kellita won an NAACP Theatre Image Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the play “Feelings” at The Hudson Theater and received NAACP Theatre Award nomination for Best Actress in The Thirteenth Thorn at Complex Theater. She performed “One Woman, Two Lives” at The Imagined Life Theater, “No Place to be Somebody” at the K.C. Theatre Company and was recently named a lifetime member of the prestigious Actor’s Studio. Amid her many talents, she also lends her name and time to the New Image Homeless Shelter in Los Angeles, California.
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