K.J. Smith gets candid about producing and starring in her new film, “The Available
Wife,” overcoming depression, the effects of social-distancing on the creative process,
and breaking generational curses for her future legacy.
I did not know what to expect as I prepared for my interview with K.J. Smith. I
paced back and forth in front of my television set as ‘Sistas’ played out in real time on the flat screen. I finally collapsed the entire weight of my body onto the living room sofa. My fingers traced the grey and white pattern that checkered the exterior of the armrest as I relaxed my head against my forearm. With eyes closed, I took a deep breath. “Finally,” I thought to myself. “I actually, have the opportunity to interview K.J. Smith.” I could not be more excited. Much to my surprise, I was thrilled to learn more about K.J Smith than I had hoped for during our interview. She made herself available to me as an open book and I eagerly read each page learning more and more about K.J; the leading lady and her legacy.
“The Available Wife” is K.J.’s most recent venture. She not only stars in this film but she
produces the film as well. We began our phone interview with understanding what it felt like to tackle the role of producer and leading lady for the first time.
Photo by: Marcus Owens
BCN: “I'm super excited about this [film], particularly because you produced it, not just
because you are a lead actress. That means I know you have your hands involved in a lot of what's going on. So, what has the experience of taking on producer and lead actress
simultaneously been like for you?”
K.J.: “Um, it's a lot! (Laughs) It requires a lot of leadership, which is something I'm growing into. I am taking it one day at a time; learning and recognizing the things I don't know and asking for help. Especially from the producer’s perspective, saying, ‘Okay, how can I help? ‘What are the things that can add value to this project?’ ‘What are the things that we need?’ And the lead actress perspective is leading by example.”
She went on to explain that she considers herself the “hype-lead,” responsible for making sure each person on her crew is always smiling and having a wonderful time. Getting to know each person that plays a role in making this film is a reward that K.J does not take for granted.
K.J.: “This should be a party! We do what we love for a living. I don't want anybody on my
set, feeling unseen, unheard, or unknown. So, I want to get to know everyone’s name. It is very important for me. My name is Khaneshia JaNea Smith. I went many, many years with people not knowing and understanding my name at all. I knew that [would be] essential on my set. ‘Hey, what's your name? How are you doing? Oh, you are from Ohio? Well thanks for joining our set!’ It is simple things like that right? With the energy in getting to know each other-getting to know each department; we can all make something really beautiful and I'm very proud of what we make.” Impressed with her incredible leadership skills, I inquire more about her new film, “The Available Wife.” I pause to reflect the irony of the film’s title. How does a married woman classify herself as available? What exactly does that mean?
K.J.: “You know, I think wife has a stigma because they make it seem as though okay, you're tied down. You can only do one thing. Well this particular wife makes herself available for several different things and you'll find out when you watch this movie!”
BCN: “Okay! Well I cannot wait to see what this is about! - So, you play the character, Nicole. Can you tell me a little more about your character and what it took to adjust to this kind of character mentally?
K.J.: “Nicole is basically a woman who has been put in a position, [a bad position] by someone that she loves and someone that she thought cared about her. And so, she said ‘Okay, I'm going to take life by the horns! I'm going to do what I want!’ Moving forward she operated and functioned in life from a place of control [or] resentment, you know? From the perspective of not doing things she loved to do but doing things she had to do and never allowing herself to be put in that position again.” It seemed to me that “Nicole” was a woman who had found herself lucky enough to have been chosen as a man’s wife, but is so mirthless in her role that she would make herself available to whatever benign possibilities lie outside of the realm of marriage. K.J. quickly revealed that she immediately found difficulty in relating to this character. K.J. “I myself, K.J. Smith, had to find ways to relate to the character immediately. When I read it, I was like, ‘I'm not like her at all! I love to love! I love people you know? I love having morals and a moral compass and all that stuff. Even though this character was a stretch from who I am, I was honest with myself and found ways that we were similar. I had to do what I had to do in this business to make it as well. What I had to do was cut ties with people that weren’t serving goodness in life.
K.J.: “I had to move away from my family, I had to make sacrifices. I wasn't in a good circumstance myself. I wasn't on the streets or anything like that but I was in a job I hated. I was hanging around people who didn't support or love me. So, when I think about it, I'm like wow! I did have to make some choices that were hard. I did have to make some choices that I battle with because, you know, [people will tell you] ‘Why would you move away from your family? You want to just abandon your family like that?’ I had to do it for me! Those were my circumstances and I had to do it for me! So those are the ways I was able to relate to Nicole.
She did handle it a little bit differently but when you have the motivation, you use it in your acting.” The Available Wife has been nominated at this year’s 2020 American Black Film Festival. You could almost hear the smile dancing across her lips as she described the amazing feeling of validation that comes from having your peers recognize all of your hard work. “It means that my peers in this industry feel like a film that I was on the front end and back end of is valued in an industry that I worked my butt of to get into and excel in,” K.J. humbly explained. I could easily infer that K.J. is a natural born leader based on the way she takes care of her staff and the accomplishments she has already culminated. She currently stars in Tyler Perry’s 'Sistas,’ currently airing on BET. Her conversation is infectious, and her energy is contagious. In learning more about her new film I decide to address social-distancing and the effect it may or may not have had on the film’s production as well as K.J.’s overall sense of creativity.
BCN: “Has social distancing helped you and your creative process? I know it's been hard on a lot of people but do you feel like this time alone has actually motivated you at all?
K.J.: Yeah, I've had a lot of ups and downs myself actually. I'm used to being around people all the time on set or on in the gym; you name it. So initially, it struck me really hard. I'm like, ‘Wait, we're not doing that photo shoot?’ ‘We're not doing a press tour?’ ‘What do you mean everything was canceled?’ And this industry is so cyclical -the industry is so up and down. It's so uncertain and it's so insecure. So, for me to have my first show out, is like (laughs) ‘Oh my God, 2020 is gone! I work year after year after year to get to this very moment and you mean to tell me I can't continue to do this thing? Well, I had a really hard time. Initially it was very lonely. I ended up flying my mom out because I had a small battle with depression at the time. So, I flew my mom out and I talk about depression because it's real and people need to know it exists and people need to feel okay.” K.J. began to passionately describe her experience with depression as I continued listening.
“Because it's about overcoming it, that’s what we have to talk about. Those are the stories you need to remind people; that people come out of it!
After realizing, you know what? I've been [broke] before. I mean, I’ve not known what food I'm going to eat before. I've been in a tiny little studio apartment in LA that I could touch both walls with my 5-foot 4 wing span! So, I was like, wait, what's the worst that could happen? I'll go back to a life that I had before? And that's fine because I know how to get back here.” Depression is a subject that seems taboo in the black community. Mental health is not something that black people have always had the privilege to ruminate let alone, seek professional help to manage. The mentality ingrained in our roots is to survive at all cost but most of us are still learning what it means to live. As K.J. and I pressed forward in our discussion about depression, I asked K.J. to talk about a specific time that she felt defeated and
what helped to pull her out of that dark place.
BCN: “Can you talk about a time where you felt like you wanted to give up on achieving your success as an actress or on anything that was important to you? Can you talk about a time where you felt like you wanted to give up on that thing? And what helped you come out of that dark place?” K.J. wordlessly sighed a deep breath and I could hear her voice break and then tremble as she spoke her next words.
K.J: “I just remember sitting in a McDonald's parking lot on Santa Monica (it’s still there).
And the only thing I could afford was the dollar menu. I did have a car because I did bring my car with me from Florida but it was my first month here and things were so, so bad. I had no money [and] I was so unhappy. Then I show up at this audition and I see all these women! [I ask myself] ‘Is there a production company that's producing women who look like this?’ Because nobody looks like this in real life. This is not real. Wow.”
K.J. Continued: “And I remember leaving that audition feeling so low and feeling like [I’m]
not ready. Like I had made the biggest mistake of my life coming to LA because everyone told me that people were mean, that everyone's going to take advantage of you (and it's so expensive). They told me all the negative things and that was the first [dark] moment. I ended up working at the Beverly Center and I was making, I think, $7 and 50 cents [with] a college degree! It was a job at a retail store in the mall, but I was optimistic! This is where it began. I went on my first audition, and I was sitting in that parking lot. I said ‘Okay, I'm just going to pack my car up and drive home because it was just a blip.’ [That] was the first time I remember giving up and I'm so glad I didn't. I'm so glad.” After coming to the realization that giving up was never an option, K.J. booked her first national commercial just three months after moving to L.A. The commercial she booked was for Neutrogena, a well-known skin care brand. We indulged in laughter as K.J. reminisced on the calls that quickly came pouring in once the commercial aired.
K.J.: “They were like, ‘You’re famous!’ and I had no clue the journey that I would go on after that one commercial. It took me ten more months to book another commercial and then the rest is history!” I then asked K.J. what it feels like to be part of an industry as competitive as the world of show business. After all, hundreds of thousands of television shows and films are being produced regularly. Casting directors are always searching for newer faces, fresh talent.
BCN: “I feel like you're definitely setting yourself apart and making a name for yourself. What do you think sets you apart from this generation of actors? Actors who are out there right now [hoping] to become the next K.J. Smith. What sets you apart from those actors and even the ones who are to follow you?”
K.J.: “I really admire the actresses that came before me. They opened the door for me. They set me up. I really feel that everyone who came before me; and I’m talking about Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge, Pam Grier and Diahann Carrol. To my personal faves! You know, Nia Long, Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Regina King, Regina Hall, and Gabrielle Union just to name a few.’”
BCN: “Oh yes!”
K.J: “I’m honored to be a part of this unique sorority of Black Women in Hollywood. I'm sure I missed some people - like Angela Bassett and Viola Davis, who I would be remiss if I missed out on [mentioning.] Those beautiful black women who I adore and love have set me up. I've always called myself “the middle child” in this industry because I'm not there at all yet but I'm also not where I was, you know, in the beginning stages. So, I think what I do for the generation behind me is I remove some of the taboo [of] of what it means to be an actress. Now I'm removing the taboo of what it means to be a leading lady.”
K.J. Continued: “I talk about the issues that I'm going through. I literally tell people play by play my journey! I tell people what the hell is going on! I tell people about my worst audition. I tell people about my best audition! I tell people about the depression that I've gone through! I tell people about every part of this life because when I say all [of] these things that have happened to me in the last year; I was completely unprepared for. I worked with Lisa Raye and she plays my mom [on tv ]. And for the first time, I was able to sit down with someone I consider an icon in my world. I had the opportunity to sit down with Lisa Raye and she said,‘You need to find someone like me in this business who can put you up on game.’ I've had a pretty long career and that happened this year!” K.J. Continued: “I felt like I had to navigate by myself and I did; just navigate it all alone. And then I realized, whoa! I have women out here who want to help me, women out here who want to put me on game, who want to teach me what to do and what not to do. It is my duty to do that for the people behind me. I do it in a very different way. I do it on social media. I do it on social media because I want to reach the masses of young women who want to do this! The second thing I'm doing is producing my own content for younger girls. I just produced a film this weekend called ‘Black Excellence.’ I was the executive producer on that and I had three beautiful chocolate, black women on my set. I made sure their hair was good! I made sure their makeup was good! I mean, their clothes were good! -Not on my watch, okay? Black women are going to be respected. Black women are going to be appreciated and they are going to be glorified! They are going to be uplifted in my projects. I do what I do so that I can
pave the way and make it easy for the generation after me.”
BCN: “You can’t see me but I’m starting a slow clap right now! Wow!”
K.J.: (Laughs hysterically)
K.J. went on to add, “I want to do what I love. I want to change my legacy. I want to change my lineage and I want to make the world a better place. You know, I had to go through a lot in this business and I just don't want other people to have to go through it. I hope that I can build my platform to a place where I can help other black people in this world; not just in this industry, but in everything. I tell people all the time, I found my purpose. And my purpose is to help people! Acting is my means to an end and I'm good at it! I'm enjoying it. And so, I'm working because I do what I love, but it's my means to an end. My end is helping people and helping my family out of generational poverty [while] inspiring other black people, encouraging other black people, and helping other black people to flourish into whatever they want to do! I was looking out on my set this weekend and I [thought], ‘I helped put money into every one of these people’s pockets.’ I'm in a place now where I'm able to hire who I want. I'm able to, you know, put money in people's pockets and it feels incredible. It feels like I'm moving the culture forward. I'm adding value because somebody did that for me!
"Tyler Perry did that for Me! I'm Now Paying it Forward."
So, it feels really good and I just want to do that for the rest of my life.”
Tyler Perry has definitely played a pivotal role in the progression of K.J. Smith’s career. She is most recognized as “Andi,” in Tyler Perry’s, Sistas currently airing on BET. I could not let our interview end without inquiring about what is to be anticipated for the upcoming season!
BCN: “So, we were just talking about your experience working with Tyler Perry and we kind of segued into talking about Sistas, which is now in its second season. I know that you play “Andi.” (And by the way, I love your character! Phenomenal). I just want to know if you can tell us a little bit about what we can expect for “Andi” in this upcoming season?”
K.J.: “We left her [Andi] she was downtrodden, she was broken, and she was broke-literally! “Andi” basically says that she's going to reclaim her power. So, she makes some questionable choices in order to do that. She's not as vulnerable and exposed as she was last year. She really decides to take charge and take over and she's much more opinionated this year than she was before. I feel like people take advantage of her and she became kind of the ‘whipping boy’ of every scenario she was in and now she's like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Oh, no, no, no! I'm going to change my life. I have to do it!’ So, I like “Andi” this year and I hope everyone else does too!”
As our conversation drew to an end, I wanted one last opportunity to connect with K.J. on a meaningful note. In doing so, I asked her to tell me about the one person she would consider giving flowers to today as a way to honor, love, and respect their memory before their gone.
“K.J.: “Oh! My grandmother, always. I would give my grandma the world. I can't wait to give my grandma the world! Whatever she wants right now. She called me up like, “JaNea,” (that's what she calls me) You know what? I need a new pair of shoes” And I'm like, “Send me the shoes mom!” (laughs) She gets what she wants, whenever she wants. That’s my grandma and she can have whatever she wants. I would love to give her flowers. She is the matriarch of my family. She has been through so many trials and tribulations. She went through the whole civil rights movement. She's from the dirty south! She’s a beautiful black woman and she's still maintained her integrity, grace, her class, and she has budding successful grandchildren because of it. We are going to change not only our family legacy but the world, so she deserves it all.”
“The Available Wife” will premiere at the American Black Film Festival fall which kicks off
August 21st, 2020.
Written By: Neonna Mincey