SPOTLIGHT: Samora Smallwood

Samora Smallwood is an award winning, classically trained actor, writer, & cool feminist of West African & Caucasian descent. Samora 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 Co-Chair of ACTRA's Diversity Committee as well as the founder of The Actors Work Studio, an innovative acting studio in Toronto. Samora's recent television work includes Star Trek Discovery, Star Trek Short Treks, The Expanse, American Gods, Coroner, The Shelter, Shadowhunters, and an episode of Frankie Drake Mysteries involving a story close to her heart about white passing & black identity in Canada. Upcoming projects include “Daughter Dearest”, “Counting on Christmas” & “Toni & Solo” & the feature film “Queen of the Morning Calm” which premiered at the Whistler Film Festival & is directed by 2020 Canadian Screen Award nominated Director Gloria Kim.

Samora won The Theatre Windsor Award for “Best Actress” for her portrayal of May Henning in Norm Foster’s “The Affections of May” & is nominated for a 2020 ACTRA award nomination for Best Series Ensemble for her work in “Tokens”. Samora's passion is telling fresh stories and promoting diversity on-screen and behind the camera. She was recently a jury member for The Female Eye Film Festival as well as a selected participant in The Reelworld Film Festival's "Emerging 20" Talent to Watch Program. Samora is also a passionate public speaker whose recent work includes hosting panels at TIFF, The Toronto Black Film Festival, Official International Women’s Day & ACTRA Toronto.

Samora has a number of upcoming projects including the Warner Bros, Oprah Winfrey Network series "The Kings of Napa" set to premiere in January 2022.

Samora, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to do this interview - and to be a part of our elite jury panel for the first season of the Crystalline Film Festival! We were going to ask if the pandemic had affected you the way it had affected many other artists, but it’s clear nothing can slow you down!

The pandemic has had a profound effect on everyone, myself included. The mental health piece is so important to talk about. I’ve experienced the mental health hardships we all have: wondering what’s going to happen, if there is a future to be had, how to make it through, trying to find motivation, etc. As an actor, your existence is already so unsure. You book a job and almost immediately begin to wonder when & if the next one is coming. In the pandemic, especially when we were going through varying levels of lockdown, it was incredibly stressful because even though I was blessed to work consistently it was very strange to worry daily if the production would get shut down. I was surprised to find my prep as an actor very affected because I needed to dig deeper to find the focus required as we weren’t sure if we would even make it to set. Another side effect of the pandemic was the scheduling challenges . Because many productions experienced delays due to COVID, two great jobs I had booked no longer were possible. By the time production was back up and running, other jobs were set to begin, so I had the hard decision of selecting which job to do. It’s a privilege to have offers on table, but it’s honestly heartbreaking to feel like you’re letting people down when you can’t possibly do two jobs you’d love to do. Then, seeing those projects come out with actors in the role you would have played is difficult, I can’t lie! But I like to think of it as being a part of someone else’s blessing. The reciprocal nature of positive energy feels good.

That is such a fantastic way of looking at it, thank you for sharing that! Now, you have quite the impressive resume, absolutely stacked with incredible projects and infamous roles - it must have been quite the journey! Would you delve into the process of how you became the Samora Smallwood we love and admire, today?

Aww, thank you! That’s so kind. It’s sort of surreal, to be honest, to see myself working as an actor and making a living at it. That seemed like a dream, so to be doing that is a huge blessing! It’s honestly in my gratitude journal every single day, I never take it for granted. For me, confidence and self worth come naturally, but there is always that gnawing voice, (at least for me) picking on me for my body, my talent, my worthiness. I’m really ambitious and have huge goals yet to be achieved. One silver lining to the COVID pandemic and the lockdowns was I made a decision to finally confront this imposter syndrome and work on my healing. For me that meant connecting to my inner child, meditating, and doing lots of breathwork. It really helped me connect to my inner light and my worthiness. Those who know me, know that I believe that positivity plus intention plus hard work is how to #ManifestY0Shit. The journey to “becoming” a version of me that is standing in her power truly came from surrounding myself with other believers, and using the light I was given as a way to shine possibility into every area of my belief system. I also make it my life to shine that light on others. Seeing the potential in every beautiful artist makes life joyful, and also makes it easier to see that in me. That really helped, plus I have a very strong work ethic and loads of stamina. I never give up, I work hard, and I have tons of vision and good ideas. All of it together has helped me stay the course. For anyone reading, if I were to give one piece of takeaway advice: avoid looking at or obsessing over the past. What’s done is done, move forward in love and light. The future is yours to create.

Well I know I definitely needed to hear that advice - I’m certain our readers needed to hear it, as well. I’m sure it’s no secret that your students, colleagues, and even mentors are inspired by you, not only by your dynamic presence both on- and off-screen, but by your incredibly infectious energy and positivity. Can you explain your Manifest Yo Shit mantra and how it came to be?

Ha! Yes!!! Okay, so “Manifestation” is a huge buzzword and industry in and of itself at this point. When I first started delving into my spirituality and wanting to change from a negative, limiting mindset I came across these manifestation meditations. By visualizing and manifesting I started to see my life change. Mostly, my happiness. I made a conscious effort to see the possibility and STOP SAYING NEGATIVE THINGS TO MYSELF. I became a friend to myself. By doing this, I was able to create a reality in which, instead of chasing, I began to invite and believe. I have to keep it real though. A lot of the people I saw online preaching about manifestation seemed to be rich or thin or privileged or living in the lap of luxury, or were “to the manor born.” I was not. I was raised by a single mother, we didn’t have fancy trips and I didn’t take elite acting classes as a kid. It didn’t resonate with me, the very privileged “manifestation” videos of people meditating in front of their massive estate pools in their early 20s. So it just came to me one day: I am “manifesting my shit.” It’s more reflective of where I come from. The idea that you don’t have to have rich parents, that no matter where you come from you have the power and the right to believe in your dreams and make them a reality. I started #ManifestYoShit videos and products and it caught on. Our last launch of Manifest Yo Shit merchandise sold out!! New, expanded line coming soon. :)

Wow, Samora, what an incredible journey! It’s clear that you’re the Master of Manifestation - and speaking of manifestation, congratulations on the second season of Tokens! This webseries plays such an important role in both the industry and society as a whole, forcing them to confront their unconscious biases. What can you tell us about this incredible project? And what was it like, being an actor, stepping into the role of Costumer?

I’m so happy we’re coming back and the creator, Winnifred Jong, is a good friend now and I’m so proud of her. She is a master manifester, too!!! The role of Jenn is cool because she encapsulates my real experience (since she was written for me) of being bi-racial and being seen as “not quite black enough & not white enough either.” She’s one of the BIPOC characters on the show who has strong opinions about the micro- and often macro-aggressions that people of colour encounter in our industry. Season 2 is especially exciting because the story pivots from straight comedy to incorporate BLM and the global uprising to demand racial equity that popped off after George Floyd’s brutal murder. It’s still incredibly hilarious with send-ups of the clueless mad dash to bring in “Diversity Trainers” and also includes incredibly touching moments of emotional resonance about what we felt in the black community (and the global community) after the violent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, etc..

What incredibly important topics to cover - and what a palatable way of delivery for more of the close-minded individuals out there. As fellow artists and advocates for social change, I think we can agree that it is vital to use our platform to affect those changes. Can you describe your journey to Co-Chair of the ACTRA Diversity Committee, and what it means to you?

It’s really important to me to fight to create good change in our industry. For me that means equity for women and for people of colour. Our work at ACTRA includes diversity of all kinds: ethnic, religious, physical, sexual, gender, cultural, racial, etc. Our work is always centered on getting access to opportunities for our diverse members, and more training. I’m proud to have created the “Different Lens: Demo Reel Initiative,” along with my co-chair, which partnered selected ACTRA members with Writers Guild members and Directors to create & shoot demo reel scenes. It was a huge endeavour with massive support from ACTRA Toronto and industry partners like Whites, Urban Post, and more. We also facilitated many workshops with decision-makers in our industry from casting directors to producers to directors so that diverse performers can get experience auditioning for and networking with industry leaders. The work is meaningful to me because knowing I am making a difference for diverse performers is hugely humbling. I believe so passionately that our world is better when women, people of colour, and traditionally marginalized voices are heard and given a platform. We need diverse stories now, more than ever, and my life will always be devoted to this work.

We know there is still a long way to go in the fight for justice and equity for the BIPOC community. As a woman of colour, what does a just and equitable society look like for you? Are you comfortable touching on this topic for our readers?

BIPOC people need to be listened to and believed. Women need to be listened to and believed. LGBTQ+ people need to be listened to and believed. No more checking a box and hiring people to fulfill a quota. We have seen that having one lone diverse voice doesn’t work and isn’t fair to or healthy for that person. Real representation will require an overhaul and the only way to do it is by relinquishing the power to diverse voices now. Real change isn’t possible when the privileged class is the one calling all the shots. That model doesn’t shift the power dynamics that we have seen do not work. More funding for diverse stories. More people of colour in positions of power to greenlight projects. Believe women, believe BIPOC people, believe believe believe. “All Lives Matter” is a violent rebuttal. If you are feeling triggered by the push for racial and gender equity, it will be necessary for you to do the work to unpack that. Why would equity threaten you? Is mediocrity a birthright you want to claim? Education is your responsibility. Pass the stage to the underrepresented voices instead of asking them to do free labour to educate you. Prove your allyship and educate yourself, and come back ready and willing to help and work together.

Samora, thank you for your vulnerability. We appreciate your sharing your wisdom with our readers. In terms of shaping the future, you also somehow find the time to assist actors with The Actors Work Studio workshops and one-on-one audition coaching which begs the question: How do you do it? Are you actually secretly Wonder Woman? (and would you even tell us if you were?) How did The Actors Work Studio come to be?

I can’t tell my secrets!!!! Haha. My stamina and energy is a blessing. The Actors Work Studio came from what I saw as a need to have a place “For Actors By Actors,” where confidence-building and craft go hand in hand. I was tired of Svengali-style coaches who feel more like cult leaders. I am a working actor out here auditioning, so I know what’s going on, and wanted to offer actors that perspective. I also wanted to offer actors a safe place to explore their authentic voices and not try to be what some coach wants, and lastly I aim to create an affordable way to train consistently. I support the actor, period. Each member of the #AWSfam is cherished and a unique individual. That’s how we approach the work and I’m so grateful to be in a position to offer this to the community.

Simply amazing - you are truly awe-inspiring. While we remain unclear about your capacity for superpowers, there’s no question about your capacity for ass-whooping. As Samora, it’s love and light, but when the camera’s rolling, there’s a ferocity and femme fatale side to you that positively pops on screen. As someone who loves action and has training in stage combat, what is your favourite part about these badass roles?

Aw, thank you! I am currently manifesting a big, badass action role. So thank you! Commanding my power onscreen and using my physicality is my favourite part. Also, as a healthy body type I hope to be a role model to women who aren’t stick figures. You don’t have to starve yourself to earn your dream. I am strong and fit and that doesn’t have to be a size 2, 4 or whatever.

As performers, ourselves, we always love to ask: will you please describe your dream role? Who and what is she? What’s her backstory? Victorious, or vanquished?

Hmmm….my “dream role” is always a multi-faceted woman, someone real. Emotionally resonant roles that touch members of the community. I’d love to do a Biopic, play someone who kicks ass and uses weapons in an action film, and also the lead in a romantic comedy ‘cause I’m funny and cute and, when I need to just chill, I love to watch a quality rom-com.

In addition to the vast breadth of experience as a performer and writer, you also bring experience as a film festival juror! Samora, please give our readers and filmmakers an idea of the kinds of things you’re looking for when making your decisions on the panel - is there anything that is make-or-break for you? What are you most excited to see?

Good story and character arcs. Grounded authentic performances, daring use of framing and camera movement, and vision and risk-taking from the directors.

Well, it’s evident that you’re an extremely busy woman, kicking butt and taking names! We so appreciate your candour, but do have one more burning question on our minds. What was it about the Crystalline Film Festival that made you so eager to participate as a juror?

I love vision. I adore people who create their destiny aka “Manifest Yo Shit” which is what the creators of the Crystalline Film Festival are doing. Connecting with like-minded artists is huge!!! I am here for it. Big time.

Samora, once more - thank you so much for taking the time to join us today, and for being a part of our jury panel! The Crystalline Film Festival is so privileged to have you!

Thank you! It’s my pleasure.

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