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You attended both FSU and FAMU, which is rare though because the campuses are directly across the street from each other, there’s somewhat of a rivalry there. And of course a storied history. I went to Florida State for my parents. After undergrad, I did my graduate program at FAMU, where I was one in a class of 10. It was a completely different experience, one I appreciate and still benefit from to this day. My professors were like: “You cannot hide among the student body here and just get an A”. No, they made sure you learned. I made straight A’s while I was there. I was always more of a natural student, and got by that way, but at FAMU I learned to work hard to get my good grades and that is where I really learned, and studied, and applied my knowledge. Great experience.
You are from Tallahassee, Florida. Did you know T-Pain coming up? He’s been open about the hardships he faced while growing up there. Take us to KJ Smith’s Tallahassee. One thing I’ll say is that Tallahassee Pain is one of my favorite entertainers of all time. T-Pain was a huge inspiration for me. He was like the one artist from my hometown who really made it big in the entertainment world. You know, one pitfall with being in Tallahassee is that you can easily get too comfortable. Nice people, nice weather, you can afford a nice home for comparatively very little there. And your community members genuinely expect you to graduate school, marry your prom date, have five kids and that’s your life. I was like no way (Laughs!). I’m going to take some chances in life, truly challenge myself to work hard and achieve my goals. I wanted to tell stories that positively impacted people’s lives, and to have those stories told through me.
I feel like “The Family Business” is BET’s answer to FOX’s “Empire”, a power-family centered drama where wealth and enterprise test morals, spirituality, and togetherness. From a fan standpoint, how is this popular genre of television germane to us, as a people, and what if anything do they contribute to our culture? What I’ve always found interesting is when I would go to school and a white student would have a Scarface shirt on (Laughs!). Representation is important even down to gangsters in film. We didn’t have The Godfather, Sopranos, Scarface, or Good Fellas and Casino represented by our culture – where wealth and power and family and business was being handled by OG’s. So I think having our series like The Family Business, Power, and Empire gives us a broadened perspective. Let’s idoloize our own, put Ernie Hudson on that list. So I think it’s dope, and I think it’s important. Now, I hope it reinforces the idea of family and attaining money, not hood rich or ghetto fabulous or gun violence. The Duncan family is wealthy, not ghetto fabulous.
Read any good books lately? I know you’re an avid reader. I read a book recently called Children of Blood and Bone (by author Tomi Adeyemi) and started dreaming about all sorts of things. And I hadn’t dreamt in some time, not in recent memory, so the book restored something within me, a sense of imagination and adventure and curiosity my mind had been missing.
Who is Sasha Duncan and what elements does she add to the show, how does she advance the overall story? Sasha is an international hit woman. It was hard for me to prepare for the role but I was up for the challenge. Sasha! I don’t think I would have even been able to play her a year ago. She’s the most confident person in the world. A cold blooded character. Real twisted, hot and cold at the same time. She doesn’t switch, she is simultaneously that frozen and heated all at once. In preparing for the role I had to stop trying to find the good in her and just understand that she is evil, she’s a bad person. At first I wondered if KJ the person could adapt to people coming up to her on the street and saying “You play that bitch on TV! I hate you Sasha (Laughs!)” I can only hope Sasha, her scenes, and the show are that memorable.
How was it working with Cassi Davis, Patrice Lovely, Tyler Perry and that group for “A Madea Family Funeral”? The film opens in theaters March 1st, just in time for you to rock a spring season look on the red carpet. Tone. Let. Me. Tell you about these people. They kept me laughing the entire time. Filming this movie, about a family funeral mind you, was divine timing. My father had just passed, and I still took this role because it was important to me, and also because I knew I needed to stay busy and keep my mind right. I was so sad and depressed on set, at first. And TP (Tyler Perry) is my God daddy. He don’t know it yet, but he is (Laughs!). He and my costars, the entire crew, truly lifted my spirits. Talented, generous, tireless, and about his business. That’s TP. He is so dynamic, I learned so much working with him. I can’t wait for the premiere!
North Florida to So Cal, how was that lifestyle adjustment? I lost weight on accident. I couldn’t find a barbeque place (Laughs!). People in LA are more aware of healthier food options, so there wasn’t a barbaque joint anywhere but I found a juice bar on every corner. If I wanted a nice organic salad it was accessible. And you know what, I hadn’t met an Armenian person, wasn’t familiar with their food, fashion, or culture until I moved to LA. That, and interacting with so many Asian people, was somewhat of a culture shock. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know, how much I hadn’t been exposed to. I was seeing 80-year-olds running in in the park, when I commonly saw people that age living a much older, unhealthy reality. A lot of basic stereotypes were completely obliterated.
There are so many Black women as sources of inspiration. What a time to be alive!KJ Smith
Great time to be a woman of color in Hollywood. And I say that in the sense of, Black women have always honored and celebrated themselves, but now you are being honored and celebrated. How does it feel to be entering the prime of your career surrounded by so much success and opportunity and Black girl royalty? I feel like every minute was worth it. Every time I cried, or couldn’t pay my rent, or had to make one sacrifice or another. It all prepared me for this. There are so many Black women as sources of inspiration. What a time to be alive! Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe, all of these beautiful and talented women making moves behind the scenes as well. And Michelle Obama, too. I love Michelle. Seeing Angela Bassett transitioning from acting to directing is huge to me also. I would love to make a similar transition at some point. All these amazing examples existing in our time of excellence. I got out here and was like, ‘People are getting in limousines and being driven to spa days?’ I want in! Put me on! But now, it’s not about the fame, I want to be great. My time is now.
You received a very warm fan reception at the Hollywood Christmas Parade. You seemed a little surprised to be so well known. Are you still getting used to your increased popularity? Yes! Yes! It’s mind blowing. It’s a dream. This little girl walked up to me and said: ‘You are on my favorite show.’ And I almost fainted. I am gradually learning to accept that I am no longer the reluctant messiah. I remember a couple years ago someone asked me to mentor them and I’m thinking, girl! Mentor you?! I was about to ask you to mentor me (Laughs!). I’m figuring me out, and having a wonderful time doing so. It’s new every time. I never want to be jaded, nor entitled; never played the same character twice, and that is by design. I just want to continue to grow as an actress and keep challenging myself.
Many people abandon their blessing to chase someone else’s, and find themselves lost. Mainly because, in truth, they aren’t even on their own path. How do you remain centered, and focused in the midst of maintaining a career in Hollywood where you are surrounded by distractions? I tried it the other way. Not being true to myself, attempting to follow the trend of the moment. It’s unfulfilling, dissatisfying, and miserable. I tried everything under the sun from going to school for my parents, then graduate school, to being young in a serious relationship because I was told that is where I should be in my life. I even tried to be the long weave Instagram model (Laughs!)… I check in with myself now, though, and I do it on a daily basis. I research myself. I play way too many characters to not stay grounded and focused on maintaining my own unique identity. So I refill my cup daily. Because, listen. I’ma be real with you (Laughs!). It will drive you insane if you don’t center yourself. I do it with prayer, meditation, and finding my peace.
I am going to ask you the same question twice, first physically and again metaphysically. (1) Where are you from, where are you now, and where are you headed? (2) Where are you from, where are you now, and where are you headed? I am from the earth. I am now in Los Angeles. And I am headed to the gym… I am coming from a place of beliefs that don’t serve me, my culture, or my future legacy. I am currently free from judgement and in ownership of my truth, and resident to my place of self-worth and belonging. I am headed to another galaxy. Headed off the charts. Headed to my best self. Headed to a place in life and in spirit I never imagined possible . And I so love myself and where I’m headed.