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Sunday, December 21, 2014

An Actor's Life

An Actor’s Life: KJ Smith Interview

by Evan Jackson

KJ Smith is an actress with a diverse resume and has a real knack for comedy. Even when I spoke with her I found myself not laughing at her but with her. She has appeared in Kevin Hart’s Real Husbands of Hollywood, Lebron James’ hit show Survivor’s Remorse on Starz, and in January she will be in Lifetime’s Whitney Houston bio pic directed by Angela Basset. All of this success didn’t come without her hard work and her ability to jump off the screen. Her delivery makes her stand out and demands you pay attention to her performance. She’s also a co-creator, alongside stylist Vic Styles, of the web series Cheap Chicks appearing on Black&Sexy.TV. At the helm of her own series and a budding acting career KJ Smith is grounded by being grateful and bound for stardom.   

What compelled you to become an actor?
I was not fulfilled with anything that I did. I was told to get a business degree. I didn’t begin to see the real possibility to become an actor until after my undergrad degree and going into graduate school. I always found myself drawn to television and the entertainment industry. As a kid I wasnt really into cartoons, I would watch shows on Nick at Nite. I would stay up past eight to see Lucy, Dick Van Dyke and Bewitched.  

While I was in grad school, I auditioned to be a reporter. I thought why not? I was pursuing a Public Relations degree and did have intentions to be a reporter. I enjoyed the experience of being on camera and that is when I knew I wanted to be an actress. I wanted the opportunity to entertain people.

What was the moment you knew acting was the right path for you?
Im actually discovering it now in this year. Ive been acting for five years and that first year I was just trying to survive. In this moment, Im more successful than Ive ever been as a working actor. I had decided that there was no plan B. I didnt come this far to come this far. All these sacrifices Ive made I knew that it would pay off and it has.

What have been some of your biggest sacrifices that youve had to make?
Currently…its my hair! {Laughs} I have a brand to look after and if I come into an audition with a different hair style, then whats on my head shot, then that will throw off the people making the decisions to cast roles. Overall Ive sacrificed so much and lost it all at one point or another. Im the only person in my family to move 3,000 miles away from home. I had this dream and burning desire that I had to seek out and I had to give myself the chance to maximize the opportunity. It is difficult around the Holidays to schedule visits back home in Tallahassee, Florida because I might be waiting on a call back for a role or in the midst of booking a role. I am willing to make those sacrifices because at the end of the day its not about me. When my family calls me to encourage me or my cousins ask for advice Im grateful. 

I have to give credit to my older sister who sets a great example. My sister did it first, to follow through to become a reporter like she always said she wanted to be. She showed me you can really follow your dreams, be successful, all while giving in your insight to the next generation. 

Is it something in your personality that draws to these comedic roles?
To this day I cant deliver a joke, but I try my best to bring my personality to the characters I portray. I think its innate in me to bring my own comedic touch to the roles. I enjoy comedy more than the deep roles.

In your dramatic roles such as The Therapist, where you play a therapist who suddenly loses everything, what places do you tap into for the heavier content?
Some deep dark places that nobody wants to go to (laughs). I think back to painful experiences where I felt that emotion of anger, desperation, fear etc. and use that in my performances. I know that is a dangerous state of mind when you are dealing with your own experiences, but as of now I do that for my heavier roles. I have been assaulted before and taken advantage of so when I play characters in similar circumstances, I can relate to them and translate that into my performances. It is difficult to be stuck in that space and at some point you have to get out of it. Its depressing! Its a relief to be done with those roles because of the heavy subject matter.

Was it a hard decision when you did your first nudity scene in the show Survivors Remorse?
No! It wasnt a hard decision, I love my body and I think it is beautiful. There is nothing ugly about being naked and there was nothing derogatory about the scene. I had many people call me and ask me how I did it and how I felt about it.

Does being a showrunner for your series Cheap Chicks give you a better perspective as an actor?
Being a co-creator of my show Cheap Chicks makes me appreciate the process. I have become more patient and grateful for the support. I appreciate the producers and directors and all the hard work they have to do. Before, I would want to know when a project would be out or how long it will take. After becoming a creator of a show Ive learned to relax and enjoy the process. Now Im like, I got this!

 How did you get involved in the web series Black Boots?
Geno Brooks, the director and creator brought me in on the project. He likes to bring the same people and the same crew that he knows will bring integrity to the project. We have been working together for several years now.

What are some dream roles that you want to play?
Superhero! Ive always wanted to play a superhero or either a role like Jennifer Lawrence has in Hunger games or Zoe Saldana in Avatar. I want to play a villain because it would be fun to play a character opposite of my personality. Villains make the hero! They are disenfranchised, angry, and hell bent on going against societal norms. Thats powerful, isnt it?  Thats determination and Id love the chance to play a role like that.

What are your future aspirations as an actor?
 My immediate goals are to star in a feature film that hits theaters and in the coming years Star on an iconic sitcom. Like Martin, Seinfield or Friends, shows that people know the episode automatically when you bring it up. Long term, I see myself producing my own projects. I want to pick and choose the projects Im a part of.  I dont want to be in an audition room five years from now, I want to be the one auditioning people. I want to hire people and give actors opportunities like Angela Basset did for me with the upcoming Whitney movie on LifeTime. I auditioned for a role and did not get it, but she offered me another role because she was impressed with my audition. I was grateful that she saw something in me and allowed me to be a part of the movie.
Where can people reach you and see your work?
You can see me on a new show Man and Wife. Also In the upcoming Whitney movie on LifeTime. And in a National food chain commercial.

Twitter: @MsKjSmith
Instagram: @mskjsmith
YouTube: KJ Smith


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Artistry In Motion

Artistry in Motion: Jacqui Martinez
Jacqui Martinez at work, photo taken by Dylan Cohen

By Evan Jackson 

Jacqui Martinez is an artist in the truest form. She is a painter, visual artist, set designer and educator currently attending NYU Steinhardt’s Master’s program for Art Education. Her uncut artistic style manages to give you a feel of the new with the flavor of the old school. Her angst and love is fluent throughout her work. Jacqui’s paintings range from old world to contemporary with an influence of her Honduran heritage and her love of the Hip Hop culture. She always seems to be on the go; whether it’s teaching art/theater workshops in Arusha Tanzania, being an art educator in her community or taking adventures around the world that inspire her artwork. Where will Jacqui take flight next? I don’t know and you probably won’t know either, but the strength and the passion in her artistry will remain intact. 

Which artists inspired you to become an artist?
A person that inspired me as an artist is Frida Kahlo. I did research on her in high school and I was really drawn to her work. As I looked further into it, I was inspired by what she represented: An artist who truly and literally healed through art. Her work is unapologetic, raw, and amazing. Also it takes serious courage to paint a self-portrait, something I still haven’t done. Frida practiced that all the time. Justin Bua is one of my favorite technical painters. I like the exaggerations of his art and the content of his work. I have a love hate relationship with Picasso, but admire the path he’s paved They all have taught me staying true to yourself is the only real way not to compromise your soul.

When do you feel like you came into your own as an artist and how did you develop your artistic style?
I would say experimentation and allowing myself to be influenced by everything around me. I love to surround myself by creative atmospheres, whether its theater or a concert, a museum or even coloring with children.

My work is influenced by graffiti too. Graffiti is the epitome of exaggeration and bold art. Coming from a movement that has created a culture of incredible thinkers and artists: Hip Hop. I’m a fan. You develop your style by committing to your work. I would find myself in a zone painting for ten hours straight and not noticing until my back would give out and my vision was blurred. You do find yourself as an artist getting stuck in your style and that is problematic at times. At that point you’re not evolving because you’re too attached and not objective about your art. Sometimes you need to start all over on a piece of work. Sometimes you’ll have to take risks. I love painting faces and twisting the most beautiful features. I paint subjects that also address the current states of our communities in a political, cultural, and spiritual platform.

How does your experience as an educator influence your artwork?
The reason why I love working with the youth is because I feel they are closer to the truth and are more open.  It’s such a give-give relationship. They would create artwork and I would show them mine, and to feed off of energy that has honest reciprocation is golden. The current day art curriculums are very basic, especially in low income areas. I would see art programs get shut down across the country while prisons were getting built. They’re firing art teachers because the lack of investment.
What I do as an art educator is critically dive into topics and encourage creative solutions. My curriculum incorporates her/history, ancestry, Hip Hop, poetry, theater, amongst other creative mediums. I have gotten my curriculum shut down before and push back from administrations, but I always fight for the side of the student. Anything that benefits them, I’ll always fight for. I also feel there are not enough practicing artists teaching art. If you’re an artist you have to practice your craft every day in order to teach it with mastery or you’re cheating the student.

So now I attend NYU Steinhardt’s Master program for Art Education and Community Practice. Most of the program is based on the strategies to improve social justice inside and outside the institutional framework.
Your hard work as a set designer came full circle when you along with the ensemble to Evren Odcikin’s play The Oldest Profession got nominated by Bay Area Theatre Critics for Best Ensemble and Best Specialty. Visually how did come up with the set design?
It is a collaborative process and working with Evren was great because he articulates his vision so well! I learned a lot in working with a great team. We first read the play, then share thoughts, read again, share more, execute and make things happen. Through the process, I would share my ideas on the set design and then implement them.  You don’t only have to think creatively, but be creative in how you communicate with the director. The designer’s responsibility is to take the vision of the director and creatively find the execution by also including your input.
Evren wanted a set that was seamless and with the right mood. Veaudville New York. I was able to design and build the set. One of my favorite plays I’ve worked on.

You seem to be a global citizen of the world. Anywhere you go, whether it is doing art/theater workshops in Arusha Tanzania or Mexico you fit right into the culture. Why do you think that’s the case?
I wouldn’t say I necessarily fit in but I understand my privilege. I have to be humble as I can be when I visit new places. I have to attribute my humbleness to how my parents raised me. You have to be respectful of cultures when you travel and also be engaging with the people. I have a real love for the work and maybe people pick up on it and maybe they don’t but my responsibility is to share, show love and respect everything. When you travel you have to also be open  for things to change. Changing is a must when you’re elevated.

What are some places around the world that has had the biggest impact on you not only as an artist but a person?
Mexico had the most impact on me out of all the places I’ve travelled. I had driven through Mexico and it would take me two weeks to get to Honduras, home. So I never have really known Mexico. There was a Moonaguas collective, an organized trip I was a part of, and we stopped at a shelter for immigrants who were traveling north, most of them from Honduras. Some of these people in the shelter had traveled for miles on end from their home to come to the United States for a better life. I met a young man, who had traveled by foot. His feet were beaten up and bloodied. He couldn’t walk. He told me though, if that train, the beast,  comes he has to run to get on it. He was desperate and passionate. That experience hit home for me and made me realize that this border was created to kill and divide people. Keep different people out. Keep the people with less opportunities out. My parents made that journey so I can be here, be an artist. That trip changed my art, my approach to teaching and me.

Arusha, Tanzania also changed the kind of womyn I am becoming. I was humbled and spiritually transformed. I was hosted by the United African Alliance Community Center where I was able to teach art, theater and some Spanish. The founders are Pete O’Neal and Charlotte O’Neal who are incredible people that have created an amazing community in Arusha.  

What are your future aspirations?
 I want to continue to travel and understand the culture of travel to enhance perspective. I also want to open an art school one day. It would provide tools of consciousness. I want to include professionals, artists and educators to teach themes and subjects that highlight the strengths of the arts. My goals are always evolving.

 Where can people reach you and see your artwork?
People can reach me and take a look at my work on my website. You can also keep up to date with all my adventures through Instagram.
follow me @jacquiwar

Jacqui Martinez at Mount Meru in Tanzania Arusha

Jacqui Martinez at the United African Alliance Community Center

Feel Young, Be Bold, Live Regal

Feel Young, Be Bold, Live Regal