Interview: Amy Bell
Samora Smallwood is an award winning, classically trained actor, writer, & cool feminist of West African & Caucasian descent. She is fluent in French, proficient in Spanish & a lover of action who is trained in stage combat, fighting for TV & Film, and archery. She is an elected Councillor at ACTRA as well as the founder of The Actors Work Studio, an innovative acting studio in Toronto. Samora’s recent work includes the lead role in Lifetime’s thriller “Death She Wrote”, Star Trek, Discovery, Star Trek Short Treks (in an Emmy award-winning episode), The Expanse, American Gods, Coroner, Shadowhunters, Good Witch, Murdoch Mysteries and an episode of Frankie Drake.
We got to talk to Samora about her latest project 'The Kings of Napa' and her role of Maddi Brewer.
Thanks for talking to revamp, what made you want to go into the acting industry?
Thanks for taking time to chat! I have always loved performing. Storytelling is a huge part of community and family on both sides of my cultural background: Newfoundland and West-Africa.
Do you remember your first role in the acting world and how has it changed from now?
I do! My first role was as the Weird Sisters (or the Witches) in Macbeth, in school. It was such fun! I’ll never forget that buzzy feeling. My first professional role was in a Neil Simon play “Lost in Yonkers.” What’s changed? To keep it brief; TV and Film is a different beast entirely, from theater because so many skills have had to be refined and tweaked. I know myself more profoundly now and I am confident in sharing authentically. In the beginning actors often mask or start far away from themselves. I start with me now.
How did you land the part of Maddi Brewer for The Kings of Napa?
I heard through the grapevine the show was coming so I asked my rep to reach out for an audition. As a biracial woman, I often feel that our industry and our world wants so badly to “check a box” when it comes to diversity, that someone like me is considered “not white enough, not black enough” to check any box. When I first saw the role, I felt maybe I’m “not black enough” for this but I just said I’m going to dress up, have fun, and go for it! Because when you see names like Oprah Winfrey, Matthew Cherry, and Janine Sherman Barrois you HAVE TO! I sent in my first or second take, and booked it! The lesson for me that I think many people can relate to is that when you aren’t precious or overthinking, or discounting yourself, the joy and fun and ease come into play. I understood Maddi from the first moment. I enjoyed the freedom of being sexy, confident and playful that she provided. And the female friendships with August King and Bridgette Pierce rang so real and so true, I just dove in.
When you got told that you got the role, how did you start preparing for it and who was the first person you told?
The first person I told was my partner who is also a performer. He simply said, “told you,” because as soon as we finished taping the audition he said, “you booked that.” It’s important to have artists in your life who root for you and understand the grind and the deep well of hope you must continually draw from as you go after your dream. Then I told my mom. My biggest supporter. She was thrilled! My preparation included creating Maddi’s backstory, and tracking where her people came from. My imaginative work traced her family all the way back to West Africa, then to New Orleans, where her father met her mother, and then to California where she went to university and met her best friend, August King. I always like to start where a character comes from, because it informs everything they do. It helps design a voice for the character as well. As a Canadian actor, dialect and vocal training is a big part of my work, and Maddi has a certain melody, a song almost, that I could hear in my head. It’s actually one of the most fun parts of being an actor!
What made this role interesting to you?
The fact that our show was created by a woman of color (who is also our showrunner), to celebrate black excellence was absolutely thrilling! Diversity, equity, and representation is a huge passion of mine. Secondly, Maddi is written to jump off the page just like all the Kings of Napa characters are. The writing is superb. Maddi is unapologetic, she owns her sensuality, she’s confident, she’s a doctor, she has it going on! So, playing her was a real gift from God and the Universe imploring me to be bold.
What was it like behind the scenes of you filming this and learning your lines?
I have so much respect for the team, our crew, and our cast who worked tirelessly to create the Kings of Napa during a global pandemic. Shooting a TV show is very different now than the “before times.” My theater training made me very good at learning lines, so that’s a blessing because now it’s a reflex. The best part of the behind the scenes experience on this show is our cast. We are truly friends. They are the kindest, coolest, most talented people and we all became very close during filming and talk constantly to this day. I believe in them so much, and the feeling is always reciprocated. I think it’s a great takeaway about the culture of the workplace. It all flows from the leader, and Janine Sherman Barrois, our showrunner-creator, is one of the most thoughtful, genuinely kind people, and I think her instincts in selecting the cast reflects that.
You also are the owner of The Actors work studio, what made you want to set something like this up?
Thanks for asking! I wanted to create a place that is “by actors, for actors” where the work is not based on understanding story and character, but focused on building an actors confidence and authenticity. So many studios use shame, bullying and elitism to belittle actors. The actors come out of these places nervous wrecks who have no idea how to trust their own instincts. Also, my years as ACTRA Toronto’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee Co-Chair showed me the deep need for BIPOC performers to embrace what makes them different, rather than try to change to fit the status quo. Because performers of colour, or LGBTQ+ performers for example don’t audition or work as much, at The Actors Work Studio we work with lead roles to prepare for those big auditions, so that no one can say “they weren’t ready.” “Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready” and “be you, and do it on 10” are two of our mantras.
If anyone reading this wants to get into the acting industry, what would be a piece of advice you would give to them?
Take the craft seriously, don’t listen to the naysayers, develop a spiritual practice, and read. Read books. Study the world. Watch documentaries, see how other people live. Watch foreign films. Study. Believe in yourself, and if that doesn’t come naturally, find a healing practice that helps with self-love and self-worth otherwise this industry can eat you alive.
Are there any other things in the pipeline you are working on at the moment?
I have several exciting things in the pipeline, but what I’m most passionate about is a series I’ve created that is in development. It’s called “Gone” and it is an 8-episode crime thriller that tells the story of a disgraced female cop on the hunt for a mythical sex-trafficking kingpin. It’s a story about race, gender, trauma, and it's generational effect. It’s a very personal story and is ultimately a story of healing. I’m working on it currently with award-winning director Gloria Kim. Empowering women and BIPOC creative voices through storytelling is my passion and “Gone” is the first project of ours that aims to upend traditional genres that are usually seen through the male lens, and tell those stories from the female and BIPOC perspective. I could not be more thrilled.