Ink Tone Swep Images Jennamchele Looks Alex Clough MUA Rosalinda Macias Hair Candi Russell Creative Asst Khas Swep Location Howling Juice, Culver City Arts District, Los Angeles, CA
Watching episodes of “On My Block” is entertaining, and as a viewer I found myself immersed in the dialogue; particularly the exchanges between yourself and character Jamal Turner, played by Brett Gray. How challenging is it to have a command of your lines in such a dialogue driven series?
Because I hadn’t done a comedy before this, it’s absolutely challenging. People consider OMB as a dramedy, but it’s a comedy. So at certain points when I will want to relax the dialogue, or intensify things by applying certain pauses, the team wants me to keep a certain pace throughout. In the moment, I’m like ‘why can’t I be this way or that way’ because when you’re filming frame by frame you can’t see the big picture. Once it all comes together – I get it… I am an actress who has to memorize her lines backwards and forwards, because if I don’t, it won’t sound natural on camera.
Do you relate to your character Monse Finnie? You do an outstanding job of becoming her on screen.
I just try to place myself in her circumstance, then enter and remain in that moment. I try to remember how I was at her age, because I was also very fiery at that adolescent stage. I also try to place myself in the environment Monse is from, South Central Los Angeles. They are faced with a lot of tough challenges, and although we address these topics with humor, you can tell they are each overwhelmed by their circumstances. Monse may be the most inundated, you know, having to face the challenges of the community while also trying to become a young woman.
What would you identify as glaring differences between yourself and Monse? How about the greatest similarity?
Monse acts before she thinks and leads with her heart, which gets her in situations that are tough to break free from. She puts everything and everyone close to her before herself. I try to think before I do anything, and I make certain it’s in my best interest… On the similarity side we’re both headstrong. We both experienced a lot as young teens. I’m not a loud headstrong person, that’s not my personality. I’m humble but headstrong (Laughs!). I can hear you and completely understand every word but not take your advice. Then, too, I may keep that solution to myself entirely. Monse? She has to state things more outwardly. She has no filter.
In some episodes you were like the only female character in every scene, this truly makes you stand out even more. Is that ideal for you or would you prefer gender balance amongst your costars on OMB and in future roles?
I’d never had to do that before; be the only female for entire scenes one after another. I didn’t find it challenging, but refreshing because there are so many stereotypes surrounding girls having male friends. It was a learning process for me. Having read the script, I wasn’t sure how Monse would handle her surroundings; her male dominated environment. I have three older brothers, no sisters, so they were my protectors, my guides. That’s how I cultivated my understanding of Monse in that same dynamic with Cesar, Ruby, and Jamal. I spoke to them as I would my older brothers.
How do you feel Monse being raised by a single father contributes to her tomboy toughness? Because given that she is still very vulnerable and sensitive at points.
I think for Monse to be raised by her father and not know her mother, that other side of her makes her want to figure out who she is at such a young age. She is growing up faster than those around her, and her father can’t help her out. She needs a female perspective, a grown woman – the woman who brought her into this world. She’s going through high school, puberty, friendships, dating, society, the relationship with her father, just so much and all at once. But her father has helped her become stronger and courageous, that is for sure. A lot of people relate to Monse’s strength and admire her for it. A lot of times when a man makes an over sexualized comment from a place of bigotry women brush it off, but not Monse. Nothing is brushed off, she calls you out. That’s not something she is going to let go. She is addressing it. Her father made her demand the respect of others and to have self respect as well.
Describe your early life growing up in Baltimore. What was your childhood experience like in the Capri household and your surrounding community?
My childhood was amazing. Regardless of any situation I was put in, my mom has always been there. She is my rock, I call her my angel. My father is very much in my life as well. When we were living in Baltimore, before we moved to Atlanta, my mom would come home from a long day’s work and still make time for me. I never wanted for anything. Everything I wanted, she worked hard to provide for me and I am so grateful for her. She was at all my practices, games, rehearsals, all that after school stuff that wears parents out (Laughs!).
What compelled you to pursue a career on screen? You’re a natural.
The fact that I come from an artsy family. My father is a musician, and he also draws, writes, and plays every instrument. My mother was a dancer and wanted to be an actress, but didn’t have the support. My parents wanted me to pursue a college degree first, so I did – then everything happened while I was in college. First I was an extra in “Neighbors 2”, then I was an extra in “Hidden Figures”. Now, mind you… both of these movies were filmed in ATL, and I was attending college in Savannah. It’s a four hour drive each way, so I would make the trip to Atlanta; slept at my aunts home in her basement, just to do it. Both times! I wanted it that bad – to be an extra, a non-speaking role. I had this strong intuition it would be bigger than that, though. Like, I had to do this. Turns out one of the actresses from Hidden Figures was having a seminar in Atlanta. I attended, and the reel I created there is what ultimately landed me the lead role in OMB.
I get a sense of consciousness from you, I can tell you’re woke. Given your increasing celebrity, are there any particular subjects you plan to bring to light?
There are so many, but I don’t believe in speaking on things specifically until I’ve done my homework and fully know what I’m talking about. Having said that, breast cancer is important to me. I’m high risk, two of my family members have battled with breast cancer. I’m told by doctors to get checked every three-to-six months. If I need to, I’m certain many women may need to as well. But there are just so many things that need more attention and involvement. Teen suicide, poverty, homelessness. Having lived in B-More and ATL, I never thought I would see even more homelessness here in LA. I couldn’t believe how many people I saw homeless here, it was really shocking and continues to be. I can’t get used to seeing something like that.
Baltimore’s violent crime rate has consistently ranked above the national average for decades, but since the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 this number has only increased annually. Why? What’s wrong? Why is such chaos the norm in your city?
In the weirdest way I think it’s designed to happen like that. My dad and I were just talking about this very dilemma. Every urban B-More neighborhood is like this: Liquor store, corner store, projects, ghetto, then another liquor store, corner store, and so on. Every so many blocks the city planning cycle repeats itself. But once you go past the harbor you don’t see any of this. Instead you’ll find clean neighborhoods, smaller schools, nice restaurants. Those things are set up there to keep all black people in one place, it’s like we’re surrounded by poisons and intoxicants, and over-priced goods; cramped in too closely housing wise. There are so many factors.
What’s the driving force, in your opinion? Feel me, like who’s the engineer doing the social engineering?
It certainly doesn’t help that various establishments had the homes and projects in certain neighborhoods torn down. They bought the property and kicked people out. They will say it’s helping, that it’s just a byproduct of gentrification, but it’s not. So many residents have been there for generations, people who have never left Baltimore before. And the police brutality doesn’t help either. That is what is contributing to the violence… Baltimore is a great city, a culturally driven arts city. Philly, New York, and B-More are three cities I’ve seen that are just filled with art and culture. There needs to be more community meetings accompanied by something bigger on business and political levels. But actively, and with positive focus. Don’t act like you care when you don’t, there’s a lot of that as well. They treat Baltimore like a third world city.
You relocated to Atlanta for a while and then here to LA as your demand has grown. How has the relocation to the West Coast been? Your mom said they don’t season the food here! And I agree with her.
(Laughs!) I’m trying to adjust, I thank God that my mom is here to ease the transition. LA was a necessary move for my career – but Tone, they don’t believe in cooking with grease or seasoning (Laughs!). The food in LA doesn’t have much taste. I ask people on set all the time, like extras and people who have been living in LA for years, if they know where I can get some actual food, good food. ‘Girl! You got to go to Compton and Crenshaw, Long Beach, we gotta take you to the hood’ (Laughs!)! I’m like – just to eat?! Can a girl have some fried catfish?!… I love the weather, though. The scenery, it’s beautiful in LA. And there is lots of opportunity for creatives, that is a breath of fresh air.
From the moment you appeared on screen in March of last year fans have adored you, both on the show and off. Did you anticipate being so well received as an actor?
No, not at all. To be honest I didn’t anticipate any of this. I am still wrapping my head around doing what I love for a living. It’s mindboggling, going from zero to a thousand like I have, because all of this took place in the last few years. I was a college student prior to this. I work with actors, meet aspiring actors and seasoned actors, who have been at this for years; still grinding toward their big break. It’s about finding your big opportunity and seizing that moment… I feel extremely blessed, grateful to God and humbled by it all.
You exude confidence, but also humility. Those qualities are rare in combination. Where does your sense of self actualization derive from? You move with a sense of purpose.
My family. My mom is a very strong, independent woman. She’s one of the sweetest people, very genuine, very giving. I have an old soul. I love things that people will be shocked to know I’ve even heard of, like classic jazz music, classic films. I’m wise beyond my years, and that had a big impact on who I chose to hang around, and what I decided to involve myself with.
You evoke iconic actress Diahann Carroll, she always exuded a very calm sense of power without being overly dramatic. You even look like her. She passed away on the day of your cover shoot, at age 84. As an homage to Diahann, I wanted to pay tribute to some of her work by reviewing a film of hers with you… This is a scene from Diahann’s 1961 film “Paris Blues”, starring she and Sidney Poitier. It was shot on location in Paris. After you watch the short clip I’m going to ask you a few questions pertaining to the scene: Watch
What message do you feel Diahann is sending Sidney’s character?
For one, that everyone should remember where they come from and stick close to their roots. He’s trying to convince her to move to Paris permanently when she is just there to study, and she is not going to conform to that pressure. What else I got from watching that clip is how important it is to her to remain independent as a woman, and as a thinker. Diahann did so much for women actresses of color in her films by following her heart when taking on select roles. She was expected to be a housewife in that era, not a Hollywood star. What she portrayed in the film and in life was to follow your heart and think for yourself.
Diahann was very young at the time, as you are now. How pivotal is that stage in an actresses life and career?
I want to do projects that are meaningful. As opposed to only taking on big budget films, I am also interested in independent films that may only be seen by a festival of people but may have a greater impact on society as a whole; work I can look back on admirably. Having a body of work I can be proud of is important to me. I don’t want to be in a box, either. I don’t want to play the same role over and over in every project. Everyone is so focused on what is going on in our personal lives it overshadows our work, our profession.
If you starred as Diahann’s character in the “Paris Blues” remake, who could command a great Sidney as your co-starring leading man?
(Screams!) You are going to get me in trouble!!!… I feel that actor Daniel Kaluuya could pull it off, he’d play a great Poitier. And I just finished a project with my good friend Shane Paul McGhie. He would also do well in that lead role.
I’m going to ask you one question, for you to answer twice – once literally, and again metaphysically: Where are you coming from, where are you now, and where are you headed?
I am coming from yesterday’s audition. I am currently in the kitchen cleaning up while drinking a smoothie (Laughs!). Later today I am headed to acting class…. Hmmmm. I think I am coming from a place of uncertainty and a little anxiety. And I am now very motivated and hungry and willing to step outside of my comfort zone, work harder and harder and challenge myself while avoiding stereotypes. Hopefully I will make all of my dreams a reality while remaining humble, grateful, and true to who I am.