AUP. Ep. 36 Tasha Smith: Iron Sharpens Iron


Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

Completed: 1/19/21

Cortney Wills: [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture, and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio, and this week we’re speaking with Tasha Smith. Lots of people know Tasha Smith from the numerous roles that she has taken on, on TV and in film projects like Jumping the Broom, Why Did I Get Married, For Better or Worse, Empire. She’s been on a lot of stuff, but did you know she’s also a very in-demand acting coach who has guided amazing artists through some very challenging performances? I mean, she got Mary J. Blige ready for her Oscar-nominated role in Mudbound. She coached Andra Day for her starring role in the United States vs. Billie Holiday, for which she won an Academy Award for. She is behind some very brilliant performances, and she’s been teaching acting for 20 years. She’s also an executive producer and now director of so many fantastic projects, most recently BMF. She directed several episodes of that and is an executive producer on the show, and she also directed the first episode of Our Kind of People. She has directed episodes of Star, Black Lightning, P-Valley, 9-1-1, Big Sky. I mean, the list goes on and on. She is like booked and busy when it comes to directing. And so of course, I have so many questions for Tasha, whose career I have followed for such a long time about how she wound up here in this really kind of powerful position. What that has taken and what the challenges of that still are. We also get into a discussion about criticizing projects from creators of color when they don’t meet our standards when they could be better when they’re lacking in some area versus feeling like we need to support Black creators at all costs to keep that door open for more to come through it. So that was a really interesting conversation and it does, you know, a warning gets a little choppy because Tasha like I said, is booked and busy, so she had to jump in her car. But I wanted to share this conversation with you guys because I think it’s an important one. Here we go. Tasha, I have been so just in awe of the work that you’ve been doing lately, not only on BMF but also on Our Kind of People. And I feel like a lot of folks don’t really understand the enormity of everything that you do. I was doing a little research, and I don’t think that I knew that you coached Mary J. Blige for Mudbound, which was such an incredible performance. And I really just wanted to talk to you, obviously about BMF, because that’s my favorite drama this year, but also about your road from the start to now, where you’re directing amazing things and are just in such a unique position, I think, for a Black woman in Hollywood. [00:03:11][188.0]

Tasha Smith: [00:03:12] Yeah, you know what sis? When I think about how people are always talking about doing things for the culture and things like that. When I started my acting school, it was really for the culture. It was me wanting to empower my community with information that would make them confident and equipped to do the things that they desire to do. Knowing that Mary had this dream to really act, to act, that was her dream. You know what I mean? She wanted to really take it seriously. Be confident. Have the right information because she’s an artist and she does the work, whether it’s her in the studio, whether it’s her preparing for a concert, whether it’s her preparing for whatever it is, she’s willing to do the work that it takes to be great at whatever it is, right? So for me to be able to be a bridge to help empower my folks to have the information so that they can be equipped to do what they love to do? That was the intention of my heart at the time. I didn’t know that I was learning to be great myself. Like, I didn’t know that teaching was going to equip me to be a great director. I didn’t know that I was in my own training ground period because I was so focused on helping other people, and I feel like it was very genuine. And God just opened up the doors and also gave me the revelation that this wasn’t just for them, but it was for you as well, because it’s the same level of like confidence and vision is what empowered me with that. I’m confident and equipped as a director because of 20 years of teaching acting. 20. [00:05:11][119.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:05:11] Yeah. And I mean, the effect is just so obvious. I mean, Mary got an Oscar nod for that performance, which, you know, she had done other stuff, but I would argue that that was her first real big, major role, like acting her face off and that’s that’s skilled, you know, it takes people so many years to cultivate that and the fact that you had a hand in that was just so impressive to me. [00:05:37][26.2]

Tasha Smith: [00:05:38] And let’s not forget about Andra Day in United States vs. Billie Holiday. Like girl, I prepare for damn near year. And guess what? It’s all the most exciting thing that I could do. And as a director sis, I want to be a part of not only those Oscar opportunities for myself, but my God for the actors that I get to work with. If I could contribute in a way that I can freakin help them to get that I’m all for it. [00:06:08][30.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:06:09] You reminded me, Andra told me that about you. She told me that you because I was like, Girl, like, really? How the f did you do this? Because you really did this? And she said it was Tasha. And she told me about working with you and how much confidence she had going in, how overwhelmed she was at the beginning, but how truly confident she felt once those cameras started rolling. And again, that’s just another example of what your input resulted in. That was such a groundbreaking performance from her. And I know that she credits you almost entirely for getting her ready for that. I wondered for you. Like, what is the biggest challenge, would you say in the teaching? In the coaching, particularly of Black women? Like what is the secret or what is the biggest challenge that you had to figure out in doing that? [00:06:58][49.6]

Tasha Smith: [00:06:59] It’s not a challenge for me because there’s something I want to do. (Yeah). It’s not like someone’s holding a gun to my head saying, you have to do this. I love empowering my people. I love contributing to my culture. I love working with Black women. It’s like, I want us to be great. So it’s not a challenge. It’s not like, Oh, I’m helping another Black woman be great. So that’s challenging. No, it’s not challenging. It’s actually exciting. And it’s actually an incredible opportunity. So that’s not a challenge. If anything, I have more challenges as a director than I have as a teacher. As a Black woman, directing is like, you go off into this world that’s usually run by men, white men and Black men. And it’s like you’re trying to navigate how to fit in and not lose yourself. Like, I’m not into that code switching shit. I’m consistent. I like to be who I am. That’s how I’m able to create. I’m loud, I’m Black. I’m a woman. That’s never going to change. I’ve been like this my entire life. I’ve grown. I’ve gotten better. But the personality of Tasha Smith is what it is. Some people like it. Some people don’t. I’ve had to be OK with not giving a shit about who don’t like it. There was a time I was like, I’m gonna go on to set, I’m not going to make friends with people. I’m not going- I’m just going to be by myself and reserved. And, you know, but guess what? That’s not how I create. That’s not how I live. That’s not how I can be my greatest self. It’s like, I’m going, Hey, what’s up, y’all? How y’all doing? That’s who I am. Some people like it, some people don’t. And f*ck the ones that don’t. [00:08:47][107.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:08:48] All of that and I talked to Randy before BMF came out. I saw the whole enchilada before it hit the airwaves, and he said that you were absolutely the right pick and that both of you have a rep for being, he called it high energy, but I knew exactly what he was saying. Like, both of you to me are very yourselves. You are very consistent in your personalities and in your visions, and it’s like, take it or leave it. But this is what it is, and this is what comes with all the greatness. [00:09:18][30.6]

Tasha Smith: [00:09:19] And that’s really what you just gotta be OK with, you. You walk into these rooms, you’re the only color in the room and you just got to say, But guess what? Be yourself. That’s why they hired you. (Yeah), and that’s that. And you know, and I’m having a good ass time, too. [00:09:34][14.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:09:34] Oh, I love to hear that. I remember your directorial debut. I think it was like, Oh God, what was like six years ago at ABF for Boxed In? [00:09:42][8.2]

Tasha Smith: [00:09:43] Oh yeah. [00:09:43][0.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:09:44] Yeah. And now, I mean, seeing what all you have done, I mean, you have directed episodes of such powerful programing leading up to now, where you are executive producing and directing some episodes of BMF that I have to tell you was so not what I expected it to be. I really thought I was getting Power part 15, and it was not that. And I was just mesmerized by the execution of the episodes, especially the early ones that you directed. Like, I haven’t seen TV like that since The Wire. [00:10:22][37.4]

Tasha Smith: [00:10:23] Yeah, and you know, I did The Corner with Charles Dutton, which was the prequel to The Wire. And you know, I’ve learned a lot. I always say I’ve been raised by wolves like the people that have inspired me creatively. You know, are the Charles Dutton’s of the world? Are the Lee Daniels of the world. And not only that, but I know that world. But it was important in setting the tone for BMF, I had a lot of good prep time and I was able to map out the vision very specifically. And it was important to me that it was a family drama, not just a crime story. And it was important to me that people would empathize with these characters and not just be some tongue in cheek, shoot them up, bang, bang, dope and that kind of thing for us to really be invested in the characters. [00:11:26][62.7]

Cortney Wills: [00:11:27] I think everyone in that show, I can’t think of a performance that was lacking. I think all of the actors really like, stepped up and did a great job. I’m particularly interested in what it took to direct Little Meech, because that is so wild to me that he even was able to do this. [00:11:44][17.0]

Tasha Smith: [00:11:44] Listen, I told Little Meech for two years, myself and my teachers at my school. It was like a collaborative effort of a community. You know, when they say, you know, it takes a village to raise a child. He truly had a village. I mean, Tiffany Black, Larry B, Kevin Benson and myself, like, we all surrounded that kid and we were just tag team and I’m coaching him, pushing him, stretching him. And then when it was time for me to direct, I had a ton of rehearsal. I was very involved in the casting process because I was not going to phone it in. I wanted the right actor that could tell the story. Period. The first person I was able to cast was Russell Hornsby, who I have been a fan of for the last 25 years. I saw him in the theater. I work with him. He’s just an incredible artist. And I thought that he would bring Charles Flannery to life. And then there’s this woman named Micole Brianna White that I had seen in a play years ago with Russell Hornsby. And as we were going through the casting process to see who miss Lucille Flannery was, I said to Russell, so I said, Do you remember Micole? I haven’t seen her in a long time. Nobody knew who this woman was. But I remembered her from the theater and I hadn’t seen her. I didn’t even know she was still acting. But I asked the casting director, Kim Coleman, because she please reach out to her. And I asked Russell to reach out to her, and she ended up coming in and kicking ass. And I was able to convince 50 and the network and everyone why it was important for her to be Miss Lucille, you know. And then, you know, I found Eric Kofi-Abrefa in London, when Kim Coleman brought him to me. I found out that he was really good friends with a mentor of mine named Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and I had called her about him, I said, I met this kid. I saw you. You were liking his Instagram page like, Do you know this kid? And she’s like, That’s my son. He’s incredible. She vouched form and he became my number one choice, and he went through the process and we were able to convince everyone else on why he was the perfect Lamar. You know, it was like going through that casting. I just wanted solid actors, actors that had substance, gravitas and charisma that could make these characters come to life. And Little Meech worked his ass off. Not only did he go through the process of being trained for two years, but then he also went through the process of rehearsal, focus and commitment during the time that we were filming. And here we are. [00:14:44][179.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:14:44] My gosh, yes, Micole, I remembered her from Fresh Prince. You remember that episode of Fresh Prince? Or She’s like a nerd? [00:14:50][6.1]

Tasha Smith: [00:14:51] Oh, you did- no I don’t. [00:14:53][1.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:14:53] Oh my god, it’s like such a great episode. I was screaming when I saw her, and Lamar is truly the scariest character since Omar, for sure. I mean, same feeling like, Oh shit, he’s coming. What is he going to do? (Right). Such a great job Tasha, what do you think was the biggest challenge? I know Randy told me, God, like just getting the content, like having to go to prison to visit Big Meech and not have a notepad or recorder to record what he is saying. I understand all of these obstacles that came with creating the series and writing it. But when it came to directing a story that so many people know or thought that they knew and feel invested in, like what was it like to take that on and how did you decide where to start? Because I’m watching BMF going, there could be easily 10 seasons of this. Like, right now, we’re barely scratching the surface of these people’s stories after season one. So like, how did you kind of plot that out, big picture wise? [00:15:56][62.7]

Tasha Smith: [00:15:56] I mean, for me, I worked with the material that Randy had written, and I wanted to make that come alive. I did a series of like look books, and I mean, I mapped everything out. I storyboarded. I was very specific about the world that I wanted to create. So I did a lot of research and I laid my vision out on paper before I put it in front of the camera. I was just very detailed about it. And sometimes, you know, as an artist, it’s difficult to get everyone on your page. You have these big ideas and these big dreams and this vision, and you have to get everyone on board with it. I mean, it could be down to why locations are important. And for me, it’s like every detail was important to tell the story because when you think about doing things for our culture, it’s like, I didn’t want to have step on any visual part of BMF. I didn’t want to have step. I was willing to make every sacrifice, but I didn’t want to not stay committed to what I believed in. And sometimes as a creative, everyone may not see what you see, but you have to still trust your vision. You have to trust yourself. It can be something as small as we can’t use that location. Well, why? Well, because it’s the finale, and I want this to be big. You know how you could be making something like gumbo and you may need that filet powder or whatever. And somebody might say you don’t need that ingredient, but you’re like, I need that ingredient. Like, I can’t make a sweet potato pie without vanilla extract. I need that sh*t. I need it. I can’t make it without it. It’s not gonna taste the same. And so it’s almost like that when you’re creating every piece of ingredient is important and primal to the overall vision period. Other people might think you’re being too much for being over the top. It’s not, but you know, I need that to tell the story period and making sacrifices to do it. And that’s it. And so when you think about the great artists, they’re not going to jeopardize anything, not one stroke of that brush. They’re going to make sure they get everything right and perfect according to their vision. And that’s me. I’m invested in everything I do and every moment and every second of everything is important. [00:18:41][164.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:18:42] I could talk to you about BMF forever. It is my favorite drama of 2021, for sure. But I do want to get into a little bit of Our Kind of People, which I watched your episodes first and I was I was all in like, I was like, I am down for this. I love what I am looking at. I don’t really care what they’re talking about, but just looking at Yaya, take up all of that space and the lighting and the hair, like it just felt like a thing, like it felt like a moment. I think subsequent episodes are maybe not as strong, but that’s OK. Like, every show that we do doesn’t have to be, Oh my God, this is so important or this is so serious. [00:19:25][43.5]

Tasha Smith: [00:19:27] I don’t know, I don’t agree with you, (really?) I feel like it should be, and I feel like whoever the people were, that came after me because I set the tone for that show. I directed the pilot. And so I said, This is on BMF. Guess what? Every episode is great. You know why? Because — is great Slick is great, 50’s great, It’s like everyone came in with the same intention. I mean, you’re going to see other episodes of Our Kind of People that I’m sure is going to be great. But I’m just saying like, we have to have high standards when it comes to our art. [00:20:03][35.7]

Cortney Wills: [00:20:04] Yeah, I mean, OK, yeah, let’s let’s be real. Yeah, Our Kind of People kind of fell apart after those first couple of episodes, and- [00:20:11][7.0]

Tasha Smith: [00:20:12] and it’s okay for you to say that and feel that. [00:20:15][2.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:20:15] Yeah, but I also felt like, you know, to me, it is a very soapy. It’s a nighttime soap opera, right, and I’m thinking about the soaps that are on all day, every day, you know, with all the white people for 40 years and like, is that great, compelling art and and television? No, but it’s popular and it serves a purpose. It probably brings in all the ad dollars for all the dishwashing detergent and diapers, and it keeps a certain demographic of people entertained. And I struggle with, you know, as we increase our representation, as we get more Black folks in the room behind the camera calling shots. I struggle with the idea that in order for us to keep that position. We cannot drop the ball when for years I’ve seen, you know, the the white shows being shitty and on for, you know, 10 and 15 seasons. And so I think I try to like make excuses for projects from Black creators that are not up to my standards. And I wonder when the time is where where we don’t have to do that, I feel protective. You know what I mean? I feel like it’s a big deal that this show got green lit, so I want to champion it because. No matter how it is, it’s a big it’s a it’s a it’s a move in the right direction and then it’s like, OK, well, at what point do we transition to, no, and the shit has to be good and it should be good. And if it’s not good, you know, we can call it out. That’s a struggle for me as a Black critic. Right now. [00:21:56][100.8]

Tasha Smith: [00:21:59] I understand And we need to encourage ourselves. You know how the Bible talks about iron sharpening iron? Yes. And I feel like when we’re together, we need to encourage and empower each other to just continue to raise the bar and to not criticize the one that do or don’t, but to try to inspire, you know, the people within our community to raise the bar. I mean, just me teaching acting, too. Mainly, I have the majority of the actors in my school are Black, and I try to inspire them to raise the bar. And because a lot of times we don’t get second and third and fourth chances. I mean, we’re still fighting to get into the Oscars and get to the Emmys and do all that. But we have to continue to raise the bar in our production value and not allow mediocre to become our great. We have to keep pushing ourselves, challenging ourselves, challenging one another without the kind of criticism that causes you to second guess yourself or not, be confident in yourself as a creator. When I think about actors that come to my school, it’s information they never had, so I can’t criticize what level they’re on or aren’t on with their instrument. Because guess what? They may not have gotten all of the attention in the other classes or the other school. Sometimes because you’re the only Black person in the hall or in the class, you might get a pass. Oh, it’s great, but it’s not great. It’s not great. We have more work to do. But sometimes in those environments, you get a pass, maybe to not have to be as great because you’re the only person in the class of color. So we’ll let you slide and just be okay. But we may put more time into other people, and I feel like we have to put time into ourselves and to encourage our selves and our community of friends to just continue to raise the bar. Like, I love my group of friends because they always push me to be better. You know, when I think about Angela Bassett, when I think about Lee Daniels, when I think about Charles Dutton, it’s certain people that have inspired me, you know, and even, you know, not just them, but there is a guy named Matthew Gross and — Simon. and these incredible producers that I work with that push me. I remember I was, I’m doing Big Sky, and I thought I found the location and the guy was like, Matthew Gross is like, That’s not the way location. You’re getting tired. You’re ready to quit. We’re not stopping. I don’t care how long we got to drive, how far we got to drive and how much we have to do. Let’s keep pushing till we get it right. Boom ended up finding the right location. Sometimes we have to be willing to go the extra mile. Whether it’s in our prep time, our study time, our rehearsal time, you know, asking more questions like it’s okay to go the extra mile because there is gold when you go the extra mile. [00:25:11][192.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:12] God I forgot about Big Sky. You just reminded me of that show, which I also love, and it made me remember something I wanted to ask you, which is, is there a tangible difference for you when you’re working on a show helmed by, you know, the David E. Kelley’s of the World vs. when the EP is of color, you know, when it’s a care and just production like is there still a difference, whether it’s in the resources you’re provided or your check, or how free you are to be your whole self and bring your whole personality to that set? You said you don’t like code switching, but how much of that is required? [00:25:48][35.8]

Tasha Smith: [00:25:49] I get criticized from white people and from Black people. You know what I mean? It doesn’t matter what you know what it is like. You can’t please everybody. You know, you have some people that love your strength. Some people that’s intimidated by it. Some people that are inspired by it some people that are envious of it. So you just have to live your life. It all has its own set of challenges. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to do the same thing and that’s create great art. And as long as you can stay true to yourself, you’ll be able to navigate. All you can do is be honest, be kind, and be sincere. You know about what you’re doing. Period. [00:26:32][43.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:26:33] Thank you so much for your time today and your candor. It is such a pleasure. I am over here. Just cheering my face off for you, so excited for what’s next and just so proud of you, it’s been so fun to watch your career evolve. [00:26:46][13.0]

Tasha Smith: [00:26:46] Thank you, sis. And let’s keep trying to support one another even when the sh*t ain’t great. Or when you might feel it’s not. Let’s keep encouraging our community. Let’s keep inspiring one another. And remember, iron sharpens iron. [00:27:02][15.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:27:04] I love that. Thank you so much. You have a great weekend. [00:27:06][1.9]

Tasha Smith: [00:27:07] Okay, sis you too. [00:27:07][0.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:27:12] Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments and suggestions to [email protected]. Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Cortney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up, check us out on Instagram @ActingUp.Pod. [00:27:12][0.0]