I want to do for Science Fiction and Fantasy what Jordan Peele has been working to do in the Horror genre. For so long black filmmakers and really POC filmmakers in general have been stifled under the thumb of respectability politics. Afraid to explore things deemed frivolous or unimportant because there were so few opportunities to make an impact; directors, writers and producers were under the pressure to make every project mean something for “The Culture” with a very narrow definition of what that actually means. I think movies and books and projects about our history and struggles are important, but so is our future and dreams and fantasies. I want to see more broad overarching diversity in speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and modern folktales in addition to this newly emerging diversity in horror. I want to see writing and film programs where the kids coming up are encouraged to do things outside the box to be free to be abstract and weird and creative and uniquely personal and their art can speak to anyone.
As a part of my interview series with popular culture stars, I had the pleasure of interviewing Actor, Producer and Writer Cherrae L. Stuart. Cherrae graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, with degrees in Theater and Filmmaking. In addition to acting, she’s also directed several projects available on Amazon Prime and lends her voice talents as a regular guest narrator for the Nightlight Horror Podcast. Cherrae has recently acted in NCIS-New Orleans and Return to Sender with Rosamond Pike and Nick Nolte. Currently she’s busy working as Writer, Producer and Narrator of the compelling and unique Podcast experience Good Morning Antioch, a science fiction black comedy and Co-Host of TCAD (Theatrical Conjecture and Dissertation) an “Unfancy” Entertainment News and Movie-Review show, both available now on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
Thank you so much for joining us Cherrae! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been working in the entertainment industry for a long time. I had my first manager in the first grade and worked steadily as a child performer on stage and in films. After the LA riots, my family moved to the South and I settled into expressing myself only the stage, mostly gravitating toward musical theater. I went to The University of North Carolina where I went through their dramatic arts program in conjunction with Playmakers Repertory company. I was also active in Student Television and the communication department’s film program. I found that I could never really settle on any one aspect of the industry, so I got degrees in both. I learned to edit in the film program and took directing classes in the drama program, acted in plays, made props for the professional theater company, acted in Student Television shows, wrote scripts, learned makeup. I wanted to do everything!
But I wanted to work on the types of movies and shows that I loved to watch. X-files, They Live, Tales from the Crypt, The Thing, Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Outer Limits, and of course Star Wars. I loved genre fiction, Sci-fi and horror, the weirder the better. I wanted to do projects where you didn’t typically see any black female characters and if you did see a black character, they usually died first. So that’s what pushed me into writing more and more. I always thought back to that Gandhi quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I knew that If I couldn’t find the weird crazy genre-bending projects and roles that I wanted then I would have to make them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
Well I don’t know if it’s the most interesting, but it’s definitely the coolest. I spent the last five years living and working in New Orleans. They had a great film incentive and I had an opportunity to work in the film industry, and I also had a chance to work for a really amazing company called Studio 3inc. They make parade floats and manufacture largescale props, walking head costumes, and just some of the most jaw-dropping things. Many of the artists also worked in film scenic design. So, while I was there, I hatched this scheme for a Science Fiction series that I could film indefinitely (This would eventually become Good Morning Antioch). The wonderful team at Studio 3 and Corridor Studios helped me design and fabricate a spaceship’s interior set-piece with screens and working lights that was also portable and could travel with me wherever I am. Currently those same artists are helping me create a Mystery Science Theater style exterior model. So, I literally have a spaceship at my beck and call, and I know little kid Cherrae would be so proud. High-fives all around.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I still think about this from time to time and I can’t help but laugh. Auditioning used to be this frightening mystical process that everyone in my circle dreaded as a necessary evil on the road to success. Early in my career I had a truly silly audition experience where It almost seemed like a Punk’d episode or a psychology experiment. I’m auditioning for one of my first feature films, and I am super excited and extremely nervous. I worked hard on the script, the story was right up my alley. It was a zombie dystopian thing and the scene is really emotional, and I AM READY.
I get into the room and there’s at least 5 people sitting behind a camera. No one in the room has a script. I get up there and I have my sides in my hand, but I’m not worried I have my lines memorized. I’m a professional after all. I’m thinking maybe the reader has done is so many times they’re memorized too. Before I start, I try to take command of the room, which is what we’re supposed to do. I ask, who is my reader?
Blank stares and crickets. Two or three of them are on their phones texting or playing candy crush for all I know. The guy working the camera says, “Oh there is no reader, just say your lines.” To no one, and then pause and wait for an imaginary response and react to it.
And God bless my little actor heart, I did just that and I’m sure it was ridiculous. And I practically ran out of there when I was done. I was too afraid, and too dumfounded to tell them exactly what I needed to make it work. I didn’t have the confidence then that I do now in what exactly we are doing in that room. Casting directors and producers and directors are not some mystical gatekeepers to the magical kingdom of Hollywood. They are looking to fill a position and I am there to help them do it.
I was prepared, I should have given someone my sides, and at least asked for a reader. Most likely they were newer to the process than I was. Maybe they didn’t even know that was something they needed. They’d probably done at least a dozen of these awkward struggle auditions. I could have turned their whole day around if I had asserted myself, and had the confidence in my own skill, preparation and knowledge.
I left the room kicking myself for not doing this and even some 10 years later I still think about that audition. It took quite a few more auditions for me to really get the lesson of it. I am here to give. I am here to help. I am here to facilitate those people having at least a little bit better of a day. Me being pleasant, confident and doing the best work I can do, helps the production whether I get the role or not, and that is part of the job as a performer. Once I started thinking about it in those terms that paralyzing fear that can come from auditioning melted away.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Well I am working on several amazing things right now. I am currently shopping the novel I wrote while I was in New Orleans. It’s a supernatural crime thriller that explores the nature of the universe and asks question of what everything humans believe is somehow true, what would that look like? It deals with reincarnation and the afterlife, ancient aliens and quantum manifestation of thoughts changing reality. It jumps back and forth in time and explores how choices can reverberate through generations. It’s an exciting, crazy, scary, nerdy book and I get jazzed every time I talk about it.
I am also currently working on YA novel that explores some of my own childhood in Los Angeles during the turbulent times of the LA Riots with a supernatural twist of course! I’m polishing a really fun script for a magical family film in the vein of Spy Kids set in the bayou of Louisiana.
And I’m in pre-production on an alien horror film that should begin principal photography in January.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Like I mentioned earlier, I spent the last five years working in New Orleans and let me tell you I met some of the most interesting people and out-there characters that I couldn’t make up if I tried. And boy-howdy, do I have stories, but they’re going in my writing… So, stay tuned.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Never be afraid of growth. Longevity in this industry comes from flexibility. If you find the roles that speak to you aren’t knocking down your door, take writing classes and write them. Learn cameras and audio and create things you’re passionate about. Creativity and excitement are like magnets. If you’re busy creating projects you can be excited about, other creative projects and excited people will gravitate towards you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want to do for Science Fiction and Fantasy what Jordan Peele has been working to do in the Horror genre. For so long black filmmakers and really POC filmmakers in general have been stifled under the thumb of respectability politics. Afraid to explore things deemed frivolous or unimportant because there were so few opportunities to make an impact; directors, writers and producers were under the pressure to make every project mean something for “The Culture” with a very narrow definition of what that actually means.
I think movies and books and projects about our history and struggles are important, but so is our future and dreams and fantasies. I want to see more broad overarching diversity in speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and modern folktales in addition to this newly emerging diversity in horror. I want to see writing and film programs where the kids coming up are encouraged to do things outside the box to be free to be abstract and weird and creative and uniquely personal and their art can speak to anyone.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t forget to live your life. It gets so easy to pin your life on future success. I’ll have a family after I book a big role. I’ll get a relationship when my career takes off. Sure, there is something to be said for preparation and planning, but your best work and creativity is going to come from your life. If you are not out there living it, the well will run dry.
- Don’t let anyone tell you where you belong. If I let the industry dictate my career path, I would only play drug-dealers’ girlfriends, gang-banger’s sisters, or nameless woman who’s baby got shot in a drive-by, and maybe occasionally a sassy nurse. If I dictate my own path, I can be a News Anchor on a spaceship, an Alien overlord who runs a Disney-Walmart Super-Company, or a doll that comes to life and commits murder. I’m not saying one is better than the other, I just know where I’ll have the most fun.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself. Mistakes happen, lines get flubbed, traffic sucks. As long as you take a lesson from every mistake it’s not a waste of time.
- Don’ let fear of failure keep you from playing the game. I knew I wasn’t the best writer in the world when I started, but If I let that fear of failure, or of needing help or of taking criticism stop me from trying, I wouldn’t have some of the most rewarding products of my career. I’m learning how to play the violin right now, as an adult. And I suck! I may always suck but I can’t let that stop me from trying something new, and who knows, my next audition may be for a passionate yet terrible violin rendition of hot crossed buns. I got that role on lock!
- Learn to promote yourself and your successes. You can’t make leaps in your career if nobody knows what you are doing. There is a reason why productions work into the budget and schedule, a promotional tour. Those actors, writers and directors have to share their excitement about the project to get the audience excited to watch it. You have to do that for yourself. You may miss out on people who are just waiting to hear about you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“No one in this industry is going to believe in you more than you believe in yourself.”
If I don’t have confidence in my ideas, in my talent, in my preparation, then how can I reasonably expect a director to pin their reputation on me, a producer to cut me that big check, a network to bet ad revenue on me? That kind of confidence only comes from doing the work, putting in the time to take classes, write every day, get feedback partners, learn monologues, and build relationships.
Sure, imposter syndrome’s little lying voice creeps in every once in a while, but when I know I’ve done the work, that truth is unstoppable.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been super fortunate. My parents have always supported every crazy whim and pipe-dream and idea I’ve had. I’m sure I was an exhausting frivolous child and I can never thank them enough for allowing me the freedom and the space and the safety to be exactly that.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I’m going to cheat and say two. Ava DuVernay and Jordan Peele, both of them with waffles and mimosas, and I would love to just tell them thank you, for the amazing work they are doing. Both of them whether they know it or not, have changed the game. They’ve broken down doors for people like me and would love to ask them both how can I help? How can I support them? And what can I do to take it further? I want to help cut open windows and throw down rope ladders to the ones coming up behind me, and make exciting, groundbreaking entertainment at the same time.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am most reachable these days on Twitter at @ActorOnTheEdge where my motto is “You get to the edge and then you Jump! Onward and Upward!”
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!