…I am very passionate about the homeless. I would love to find ways to battle homelessness and hunger not just by providing housing and food, but tackling the underlying issues that cause these problems in the first place. I would love to connect with other people who have expertise in these areas and create a one-stop-shop for those in need.
As a part of my series of the rising stars in popular culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kwajalyn Brown. Kwajalyn is an American actress of stage, film and television. Her most notable work is as recurring character Sheila, on “Cobra Kai”, recurring character Judge Tara Flint on “Drop Dead Diva”, and lead character April in “Honey: Rise Up and Dance”. Prior to acting, Kwajalyn was a singer who began performing and recording locally in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Although she still enjoys singing, she caught the ‘acting bug’ and decided to pursue acting as a career.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I always wanted to be an entertainer, but thought that music (singing) would be the path that I would take. After recording for a bit in my hometown, I took an extended break and later decided to put my singing aspirations aside. In 2010, a year after my father passed away suddenly, I was contemplating how I wanted my life to move forward. I suddenly got the idea to try acting! I felt that it would be therapeutic. Coincidentally, a friend sent me a casting notice for an independent short film. I auditioned, booked the role, and loved the experience so much that I decided to see if I could turn it into a career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
My first major television credit was for the pilot episode of this highly anticipated television show. Because it was also the first scene for the pilot, everyone was there! The network executives, the writer/creator, the press, the entire crew and about 300 background actors. I. Was. Terrified. I had never been on a major set before and nothing could have prepared me for the how MASSIVE it was. When I first stepped on set, I think I actually stopped breathing for a few seconds.
Well, after a short while, it was time for me to perform. It was two lines and, though I’d run them over and over in my head, I just couldn’t say them correctly. The poor director tried his best, but I couldn’t relax and just say the words. At the end of my shoot, I pretty much knew that I wouldn’t make the final cut and went back to the hotel feeling defeated and convinced I’d never work again.
A few weeks later, I booked “Drop Dead Diva”. I was ecstatic, but the script I received had way more lines that I what I remembered auditioning with. Panic soon set in, but I took some deep breaths, learned and rehearsed my lines and arrived to set determined to do my best. Well, thankfully the stars aligned and the shoot went fantastic! I started feeling like I might actually be to do this!
As fate would have it, both shows debuted within a day of each other, with the pilot episode airing first. Everyone was excited except for me, because I felt in my gut that I was on the cutting room floor. People are posting all over social media about it and, though I really appreciated the support, my stomach was in knots. Unfortunately, my feelings were correct and I watched the camera cross right past me and my lines were cut. I was sad, and more than a little embarrassed, but was hoping the next night would be better. (Especially since I’d invited a bunch of friends to a viewing party).
The next night arrives and “Diva” is on and…they kept all of my lines! Judge Flint (the character) existed now! The scenes were awesome and I couldn’t believe that I was actually watching myself on tv! Fast forward a couple of weeks later and I was asked to return and went on to work for a couple of seasons.
Working on “Diva” will always be one of the highlights of my career.
This experience taught me that while you won’t always have the best days on set, there is the wonder and beauty of second chances that could turn everything 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?
That would be when I took my first headshots. I really wanted to be seen as “sexy and powerful” so I was doing all of these poses and trying to give “the face”. What I thought I was giving and what the camera was actually catching were two totally different things (though I wasn’t aware at the time). Needless to say…they weren’t the greatest, but my naiveté caused me to send them out to all the major agencies with the confidence that they would call, clamoring to make me their next star.
Thank goodness my first agency saw my potential and signed me anyway, but insisted on new photos. My next set of headshots were MUCH better. What I learned through that experience was to just be myself and let the camera capture what was there. Nothing I tried to force was better than what was real.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am in the process of negotiating a few projects, but unfortunately I can’t speak about them just yet. I did recently complete two really awesome projects, “Love Takes Flight” (which just started airing on the Hallmark Channel) and “Tell Me Your Secrets” (slated to debut on TNT this summer)!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
That’s a tough one! I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with several people I’ve admired for a very long time and am still completely blown away by the experiences. I would say, though, that the ones that most readily come to mind are Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka (on Cobra Kai), Tyler Perry (The Haves and the Have Nots) and Brooke Elliot (Drop Dead Diva). I admire their incredible work ethics and the passion they each have for story telling and immersing themselves in their roles. They were also very warm and encouraging. I truly believe that working with each of them has made me a better actor.
There are so many great stories from being on set! Whether it’s talking about life, dancing in between takes while running lines, or trading embarrassing stories about our high school days (where one actor tried to get his hair to look like 80’s Prince to hilarious results), each experience made a distinct impression on me. They taught me that it’s great to take the job seriously but to also have fun! It’s all about balance.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One of my former acting coaches gave me some sage advice that I still try to follow whenever I can. He called it having “sustainability”. Acting is an extremely important part of our lives, but we must also practice self-care. Have outlets besides acting that are still fulfilling. Volunteer, go hiking, spend quality time with friends and family… Anything that can let you step away from ‘the business’ and breathe for a bit. I’ve also found that doing outside activities actually helps boost my creativity when it’s time to perform! They give me something to draw from to flesh out my performances.
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 am very passionate about the homeless. I would love to find ways to battle homelessness and hunger not just by providing housing and food, but tackling the underlying issues that cause these problems in the first place. I would love to connect with other people who have expertise in these areas and create a one-stop-shop for those in need.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be yourself. You don’t have to be anyone but you. Who you are is much more interesting than anyone you could try to pretend to be. There is beauty in our differences.
- You are worthy! For a long time, I struggled with feeling out of sorts in audition situations because I had this idea in my head of what an actress should look like. Because I was sometimes too focused on my appearance, I didn’t always bring my best work into the room. Once I started to love and accept myself more, I was able to just go into the room, do my best work and leave it there. While, I didn’t book EVERYTHING I auditioned for, I was proud of the work I did. THAT’S what mattered the most.
- The casting director wants you to book the job as much as you do! If the casting director asks you to audition then they see you potentially in that role and are excited to see what you bring to it. You deserve to be there, so, show up and do your thing!
- Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. If you normally only do theater, try working in front of the camera (and vice versa). If you normally play one type of character over and over, find projects that will allow you to tap into other parts of your personality and stretch your wings.
- Relationships are super important! Believe it or not, I’m an introvert and can be shy and somewhat awkward when it comes to going out and meeting new people. Especially if it involves networking or pitching myself. What I gained after pushing myself to interact more were awesome mentors, great actors to connect and create with and more self-confidence!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Decide what kind of life you really want…and then say no to everything that isn’t that”
Before becoming an actor, I had jobs that provided consistent money, benefits and other perks but…I was miserable. Don’t get me wrong. We all have to make a living and there are many fulfilling ways to do that (including corporate work). For me, however, I wasn’t truly happy until I stepped out and gave my all to my creative path. It hasn’t always been easy, and I have sacrificed a LOT to do this, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
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?
Yes! My friend Kisha Moye was with me at the beginning. When I first started auditioning, I didn’t have a tripod or real camera, so we would stack books on a table or chair and place a cell phone on top to try to get a good angle to record. After a while we’d done it so much we had it down to a science! There was major celebrating when I could finally afford a tripod and a good camera! In addition to that, when I didn’t have food, she made sure I ate. When auditions dried up or bookings didn’t happen and I started thinking that acting maybe wasn’t for me, she would encourage me to keep going. I honestly don’t know if I would have gotten this far without her help in the beginning, and I will always be thankful.
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. 🙂
That would be Jay-Z. I really admire his creativity, his business sense and his evolution as an artist. I also applaud his efforts to not only create a lasting legacy for himself and his family, but for other artists as well. I’m very inspired by the courage it took for him (and Beyoncé) to step outside the box to launch Tidal. I consistently try to challenge myself by attempting things that I would normally be terrified to do. Going against the norm isn’t easy at all, especially when most people may not see or understand your vision. I’d love to talk in-depth with him about his work and how I can incorporate some of his strategies to solidify my legacy.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
People can reach me on Instagram (@kwajalynb), Twitter (@kwajalynbrown) and Facebook!
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!