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Interview: Samora Smallwood talks acting, upcoming roles and diversity in film

Actor Samora Smallwood is a Canadian television and film star. Samora has appeared in Suits and Designated Survivor over the summer and has an upcoming recurring role on SyFy’s The Expanse and Shadowhunters. You can also catch Samora on the Amazon web series The Shelter premiering February 1st. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Samora to speak about her work. The following were the conversation highlights.

those unfamiliar with Samora Smallwood, tell us a little about your background.
Samora Smallwood is an enigmatic force to be reckoned with. (laughing)

I was going for that hoity-toity dramatic voice-over style for the intro to this interview. (Sorry I’m weird.) I started in theatre where my favorites were August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. I was born in Newfoundland and I’m half African (my dad is from Cabo Verde). I think they call that “Open Ethnicity”. (laughing)

When did you know that you wanted to start acting?
Pretty much as soon as I got laughs and attention from the adults in my world. I’ve always craved power and control (very attractive traits for a child) and making them laugh was like a drug. I started writing and directing skits and plays and I actually held a casting (I didn’t know that’s what it was called) in the shed where I made the neighbor-kids audition for a part in my play. I think I even made my little sister audition to play a cat or something.

Who are some of your favourite actors in the film industry?
Oh my gosh, there are so many! I’m always studying, and this time of year is my favorite to go watch movies alone. I love Denzel Washington, Jessica Chastain, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Daniel Kaluuya, Margot Robbie, Angelina Jolie and Mahershala Ali. I could go on and on, I really do love and respect actors.

If you had the opportunity to act alongside Denzel in one his past movies which one would it be and why?
Amazing question! Man, that’s tough. Well, let’s just keep it real for a second and say Mississippi Masala because he’s so sexy! And there’s kissing! He doesn’t really do that, that much anymore. The Bone Collector because the thriller genre is my fave and Inside Man because Spike Lee. One Denzel movie?! That’s like the Sophie’s Choice of this interview! I von’t do it.

What was were your first big acting role?
My first lead role was in a play called “Here on the Flight Path”. I played an aspiring actress, Angel, and I had a song in it. It was a comedy and every night I could hear my mom cackling in the audience. Yes, she came every night. It was comforting to know that she was there and that she was never gonna let a joke bomb.

I know it’s always hard to choose one, but which one of your roles are you most proud of?
That is hard. I’m proud of them all, and grateful for each opportunity but I’d say The Shelter was tough because I could not understand her choices. And of course, you need to. It was an emotionally complex role and staying in that zone required lots of focus and I’m proud of that. Berkshire County I’m proud of because I played against type as a villain with no room for vanity. In a way it was nice because hair and make-up combined was like 15 minutes, but I gotta admit at first I was like, “No make-up? As in, like no eyebrows, nuttin’?” (laughing)

You’ve done plenty of work on television shows and a couple feature length movies. Which do you prefer?
Hmm. I like going deep for my work and I feel like films allow a little more of that. On the flip side, playing a Series Regular on a show would allow for so much character development and discovery. That’s something that is very attractive to me.

Speaking of television shows and movies, would you rather spend your free time in a movie theatre or catching a show on television?
To be honest, I love both! I make it a point to see a movie in theatre once a week. Usually a Tuesday, not gonna lie.

What have been some of your favourite movies of 2017?
2017 had some great ones. I loved Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Get Out, I Am Not Your Negro, Molly’s Game, I, Tonya, and Roman J. Israel.

What are some of your favorite television shows right now?
Right now I love Dear White People, Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, Star Trek Discovery, and This is Us for when I need a break from the deep, dark, existential abyss.

What was it like getting a role in The Expanse?
Oh man, that was a dream come true! I love that show. Sci-Fi explores real issues of morality & politics and that’s my favorite part about The Expanse. The creators Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham have created a world with rich cultures and sub-cultures. The audience can relate to both sides of disputes, even when the stakes are as high as life & death, all-out war, and racism. It’s very clever, and so well-done. I had an amazing time on-set learning from true professionals. Director, Breck Eisner, was so much fun and I learned a lot from him and from the actors on the show who are top notch.

What can viewers expect from the third season?
Well, I don’t want to ruin anything, but I can say that Season 3 will keep up the tension that was building to a breaking point in Season 2. All-out war is a real possibility and the characters are reacting in this extreme set of circumstances. I’d say expect more excitement, more action, lots of thought-provoking story, and characters facing heartbreaking decisions of right and wrong.

The Expanse features a very talented cast. Was there anyone in particular that you got to work closely with?
Oh totally! There’s one surprise Season 3 cast member I worked with whose name I can’t mention but who is to this day one of the kindest and most disarming actors I’ve worked with. I worked closely with Shawn Doyle and that man is very, very talented. I learned a lot from just watching him. I’m so thankful for that.

Can you tell us about your upcoming role on Shadowhunters?
All I can say about that is that on Shadowhunters I actually play a human! The show is great and features all different kinds of creatures from demons to faeries. I guess I’ll get my Interview with the Vampire moment on another project!

The Shelter sounds like a really interesting web series. Could you talk about how you got involved?
That’s a cool story. I was attending an industry panel and I made a promise to myself that I was not going to sit with someone I already know. I sat next to a woman who happened to be casting a project with her husband and their Los Angeles based director and writer. We talked and had a good time and within a couple days I had a script and was auditioning via Skype. So thank you to Kristina Garant for breaking the ice and supporting women!

What were your initial thoughts when reading the script?
I thought it was well written and very timely. It’s a survival story set in a dystopian society. In many ways it felt like it could be foreshadowing. Spooky.

What was your favourite scene to film?
I can’t say! My favourite scene is a spoiler. Big time.

Can you talk about the working in such an intimate environment?
We shot on location which was helpful because it was easier to get away from being “Samora”. We shot in a tight space and got to know each other closely. It helped me get and stay in the world directors Jason Mac and Robert Bellamy created. I had nightmares on that shoot!

If you could be trapped in a room with any 6 people alive in the world, who would you choose?
Yikes! There better be snacks. Other than snacks, I’d pick my partner, my mama, my sister, my brudder, my grandfather (he has amazing stories and lots of old-timey skills that would be useful), and Oprah. I feel like every situation could use a little Oprah.

The Shelter features a very diverse cast. In this day and age it’s important to see representations of all kind. Do you feel that you are represented well in the industry?
Thanks for noticing that! I am really proud of The Shelter for that. This is an interesting topic for me. Because I am bi-racial I often feel not white enough for white roles and not black enough for black roles. It can be discouraging. I grew up reading Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks, and Maya Angelou. Yet my skin is fair. I wear my hair curly and straight. I don’t fit neatly into any one category. I remain optimistic. I’m focused on honing my craft and being kind, and curious. The right roles will find me, and I’m looking forward to that.

Do you think Hollywood has an issue with diversity and inclusion?
I think we are seeing more “diversity” in film and television. What I think we are way behind on is the limitations of stereotypes. We are still seeing a lot of actors of colour appearing in projects to do with oppression and pain. And I get it, that’s part of history, but more stories about people of colour and the other aspects of our experience are needed. I loved how Get Out turned this concept on its head and looked at black pain through such a unique lens. There are too few roles for women, especially in film, and especially for women of mixed race and women of colour. The more women and people of colour who are given opportunities to write, direct and show run the better. I believe that is when we will see true change.

Do you face any of these challenges being an actress in Canada?
I do. I’m not easily categorized. People are always asking me “what are you?” and “what’s your background?” which I don’t mind per se. When it comes to the work, roles are often along racial lines and because I don’t neatly fit into either white or black I have felt some frustration as a result. Canadian television and film is less diverse than the U.S and even the U.S television shows that shoot here do not always have room for Canadian performers in substantial roles. It’s something many of my talented actor friends have felt cramped by. I was recently elected as co-chair for the ACTRA Diversity Committee and we’re pushing for more of a pledge to #SharetheScreen.

What can we expect from Samora for the rest of 2018?
I am not slowing down! I know what I want and I know who I am. And that feels good! My whole vibe is support and love through art and creativity. More of that in 2018.

Photography Credit: Robert O Photography

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