by Hani Yassine
The Lance – Arts & Culture Writer
When you are in the thick of your studies, where it seems the mountain of work is as long lasting as a bottomless pit, you come to forget about the challenges which may occur post-graduation, specifically the realization of your struggles not quite ending once you triumphantly clutch your degree. Above all else, that occasion can signify the beginning of new challenges entirely, and for Samora Smallwood, part of overcoming those hurdles falls into the tried, yet true notion of firmly believing in your own capabilities and using yourself as a selling point.
Born in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and currently based in Toronto, Smallwood graduated from UWindsor’s BFA Acting program, kickstarting a career that would lead to numerous screen and theatre credits. From being classically trained and versed in the works of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams to appearing in television series such as ‘Suits’ and ‘Designated Survivor’, she shares her experiences with The Lance. From realizing her childhood dream, feeling a sense of momentum in her career and learning some valuable lessons along the way, she touches upon aspects of her work as an actor, highlighting the challenges any determined student may run into beyond the classroom and following graduation.
What inspired you to become an actor?
When I was a little kid I loved to put on impressions for my family. Making them laugh was gold to me. Then I upgraded to putting on shows for the neighbourhood. I asked (begged) my mom to buy Disney soundtracks like The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. I would have (force) my siblings to learn ALL of the musical numbers and some very fine choreography. Then we would actually charge the neighbours money to watch our rendition of The Circle of Life. I think we actually did a version of Under the Sea on skates. It was insane, but to this day I think about it and laugh. My childhood was really special.
How long have you been active in TV and film? Did you initially have intentions to work in the industry, or did it come along while you were pursuing theatre projects?
After I graduated, I spent the summer in New York. If you have never spent a summer in New York City I am telling you to DO IT. It was fantastic. The city is so vibrant and alive, I loved it. I met an acting teacher, Benard Hopkins, who was teaching at Stella Adler and he told me something I’ll never forget. And let me tell you this guy was the real deal, he played Othello on Broadway for Pete’s sake. He said “while you’re young and beautiful you go do television and movies and make your money. Then you come back home to the Theatre”.
What have been some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced thus far?
The biggest challenge in this game is maintaining your self-confidence. You get knocked down, you get rejected and there is always someone who knows about a better you for you to be. If your nose were smaller, if you dropped 15 pounds. I found the best way to get rid of the nagging self-doubt is to work harder. If you know you are putting in the work then nobody can put you down.
What are some of the work you are most proud of and why?
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Feminist or whatever but I seem to play strong women often. Maybe you can just read on my face that nobody would buy me as the whispering trophy wife or girlfriend because this year alone I have played a Marine, a Detective, a U.N attache, Coretta Scott King, and a recovering addict. All strong roles that go beyond their relationship to a man. This is what makes me most proud. I can’t wait for the next part of this journey.
When did you begin to notice the momentum shift in your career? Was there any sense of elation as a result?
The momentum really started to change, as sappy as it sounds, when I stopped trying to be someone else. In this industry, as an actor, you can get sucked into becoming obsessed with what “they” want. I know I did. And in this hopping from one foot to the next, I really lost sight of me. The parts of myself that I was busy trying to hide, are the things my friends and family love the most. When I had that “aha” moment I started to look closely at the actors we all love & respect the most: Robert Deniro, Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Shelley Winters, Marilyn Monroe, Will Smith, etc they ALL brought a spark of themselves to their roles. And that started the momentum and hell yes I felt elated! You Are Good Enough is on a big post-it right next to the door, so I have to see it when I walk out of the house. And it’s true. For everyone.
What is your upcoming series, The Shelter, all about? What makes it a unique series?
Thank you for asking! I had a blast shooting The Shelter. We shot “on location” which just means I wasn’t going home every night. It shot out of town, and they put me up, which was actually super helpful for my focus and getting into and staying in character. Without giving too much away, The Shelter is set in a Dystopian society and follows a small group of survivors. Themes of regret, shame, sacrifice, family, and survival are examined and the question “At the end of the world who has your back? What’s important to you?” is at the forefront. It’s a really light-hearted story, obviously. (laughing) Seriously, though I’m really grateful for the opportunity because it is without a doubt the most emotionally challenging role I’ve done, and although it hurt, and although long days in that bunker seemed never-ending, I can’t wait for everyone to see it.
What are some of the biggest lessons you learned at your time at UWindsor that you apply to your career to this day?
Hands down, no question about it, being at UWindsor taught me a work ethic. Ask anyone who’s done theatre and they’ll tell you: there’s no shortcut. You can’t fake it. You have to do the work. There were times when I was in shows and my little sister, Lili, would stay up with me all night helping me learn lines. For hours. And she was just a kid, That is why when I get to the Oscars for the first time, she’s coming down that red carpet with me.
What advice would you give to an acting student who’s just about to graduate and embark on their careers?
Get rid of your ego. If you receive notes, just try it. Don’t get defensive. I did that for years, and it just gets in the way. And definitely, read scripts, read as many scripts as you can get your hands on. Learn your script analysis, because the good writers can make you weep with a comma.
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