Walking a Golden Path
Guided by Her Faith, Determination and Instinct
By Phenomgirl / May 2, 2019
Proud Chicagoan, Actress, Writer, Producer, and Performing Arts alumni, Karimah Westbrook, has an impressive resume. Westbrook has accumulated a plethora of on-screen films and TV shows under her belt and she continues to knock them out. Her determination to follow her dreams is bound to inspire and motivate budding actors and actresses who desire to take a leap into the magical and sometimes grueling world of Hollywood movie making.
The talented actress can be seen in the newly released independent film "Bolden."
Karimah and the cast of the popular series "All American" on the CW network are coming back for a second season. We spoke by phone, Karimah is excited as she's in the midst of promoting her latest project. The dimpled-face beauty graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answers questions.
Lately, Chicago has been receiving some very unpleasant publicity. Tell us some good things about Chicago.
Chicago is a great city. The food is great, the people are great and we have wonderful festivals during the summer. I don’t enjoy the winter season or snow very much but that’s another thing that’s beautiful about the city, we have all four seasons. It’s lovely in the Fall to see the leaves change colors and everything blossoming in the Spring. The snow even looks pretty, it just doesn’t feel pretty. Chicago is also a very diverse city. People of all nationalities live throughout the city and from my experience, get along very well. It's a city of soul. Chicago has produced quite a number of famous and talented folks that we see or know today. I sometimes wonder why the spotlight has been put on Chicago especially after researching the actual facts and seeing that Chicago is not even in the top three for cities with high crime rates.
You started out in theater. What was your inspiration to pursue acting?
As a young child, I loved to entertain my family. My aunt had a camcorder and she recorded skits my cousins and I performed for the family. I also did plays in school. Whoopi Goldberg was my biggest inspiration growing up. I love all of her movies. Seeing an actress who looked like me, made me believe I could perform and work at her level too.
When did you make the decision to move to Hollywood?
I made the decision right after I attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts West in Pasadena, California. It was a conservatory that I got accepted into, I couldn’t audition or do anything while attending the school. I knew that I wanted to work in television and film; so after I finished the program, I moved back home to Chicago. But I had to get back to Los Angeles in order to have opportunities to audition and work in a creative environment.
You secured your first onscreen acting gig in the movie “Save the Last Dance.” How did you crash the audition? Where did that determination come from?
Yes. “Save the Last Dance” was a big studio film that was shooting in Chicago, and everybody including the actors I knew were talking about this movie. It was a big deal. The industry wasn’t as big back then like it is now in Chicago. At the time, I didn’t have an agent, but I found out when and where the next audition was taking place and I just showed up. The casting director clearly knew that I didn’t have an audition. I remember her looking around the room because I looked different than all the other girls that were there. They were definitely looking for a specific type. I approached the casting director and admitted that I didn't have an audition, but I would love to audition for the movie; and she let me. Eventually I booked a role in the movie. In terms of where my determination comes from – I was just hungry. I really wanted to work in a professional capacity. I did a lot of independent films and community plays in Chicago. So I was just determined and fearless. I stepped out on faith and said, I’m going to go for it!
You worked with the incomparable Alfre Woodard in “American Violet.” What was it like sharing screen time with her.
Alfre Woodard is an amazing person. When I met Alfre I was already obsessed with her. She’s one of my favorite actresses as well. Being on the set with her, I understood why she worked all the time. She was a very sweet, loving, beautiful spirit; got along well with everyone; just a joy to be around – very professional. You can tell she was a veteran. She really looked after the actors, just making sure everyone was okay. I loved that about her. It was a great experience working with her, and I look forward to doing it again.
In “American Fusion,” you learned to speak Mandarin Chinese. Was it mandatory that you learn Chinese for the movie? Can you still speak Chinese?
Yes. That was what was required for the role, and I ended up getting a coach to help me learn my lines in Chinese for the film. I can’t speak it fluently. I just knew the lines for the film, but it took me a while to actually comprehend the lines. Mandarin Chinese is a very – I don’t want to say delicate, but any emphasis on a vowel can completely change the meaning of a word. So I had to really practice. I was very happy with the finished product.
In the George Clooney's directed movie “Suburbicon," you played the character by the name of Daisy Myers. Was the role a true portrayal of the racism the Myers family experienced while living in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957?
Daisy Myers was a hidden figure. I was very excited to learn about her. She was known as the Rosa Parks of the north. To me that was very intriguing. There was so much racism in regards to housing, not letting African-Americans live wherever they please. This family stood their ground, stood up for their rights and said, we can live wherever we want to live. I was honored to portray someone who played a huge part in our history. The Myers in real life had four children and a newborn baby. Just imagine going through all that hatred with a newborn in the house. Their will, drive, beliefs and spirit were strong enough that they weren’t deterred. I’m very thankful for that. It’s interesting that many years later Levittown started to honor them. In the 1950's, the Myers family was once ostracized. Now, today, they're being honored. Imagine that.
How were you able to handle the scenes where derogatory racial slurs were thrown at you?
It was very hurtful working on those scenes. I empathized with the Myers family. It also revealed to me how far we’ve come, how much progress we’ve made in this country. We don’t have racism that’s so much in your face. Most people don't have to go through the things that the Myers family and our ancestors had to deal with; so I thank God for that. Working on the film was a reality check for me to live in gratitude on both sides. Being thankful that the world has changed a lot, but also being thankful for our ancestors that have come before us who did take stands to make a lot of the changes that we see today.
The CW network picked up “All American” for a second season. Fans of the show are very passionate and involved with the characters. Your role, Grace James, the mother of Spencer James is a fan favorite.
I’m so happy “All American” was renewed for season two. People definitely love the show. We’ve been getting just a fantastic response since it’s gone to Netflix. I think that people relate to my character, Grace James, because on the series I’m a single mom of two, and unfortunately that is a reality for a lot of people. Single parent households is something that’s very prevalent in this country. Women and kids may see something in the James family, and Grace they can relate to. Kids understand, have witnessed and experienced their mother giving their all, sacrificing so much just to provide a better life for them. So it just feels very real to a lot of people, and what’s great about this show is that each character has something the viewers do relate to. It’s a teen and family drama, and it reveals in an honest way real issues that kids are dealing with in this day and age. Viewers gravitate to all of that. It’s refreshing tackling important topics like self acceptance, sexual preference, friendships, family, believing in yourself and having a dream. The show reflects life on a lot of levels.
Scene from 'All American' on CW Network
So the younger viewers see themselves or someone they know in the characters on the show?
For sure. I read about it all the time. When this show first went to Netflix, and started trending, I was reading the tweets. I’ve gotten messages from fans saying the show has changed their lives. I’ve read a report from a kid, an eighth grader, who was saying if they could be like anybody in TV or in movies or in a book, they would be like Spencer James. The report listed the wonderful things that they’ve learned about Spencer James. I’m just so happy to see that because what’s great about "All American" is that not only do kids get a chance to see these characters reflect some of the things they may be going through; the show also follows the kids as they grow and experience life lessons. The viewers too are along for the journey. The show offers different perspectives through the lives of the characters. It's a fantastic way to use a series like this to educate and entertain viewers at the same time.
What other areas would you like to see Grace James explore?
What would be interesting is to perhaps showcase the pathology of families, how different things are learned and passed down. To see how parents get to the place they’re at psychologically (negative or positive) and how they deal with their children. In regards to Grace James, I’m excited to see what’s written. We have fantastic writers on “All American,” and I know they’re going to have some juicy stuff for season two; so I’m going to wait to see what they have in store for the character. As of now I don’t really have anything specifically that I would like for them to explore more of.
When do you start shooting the series?
I’m not sure when we start shooting season two. For season one we started July of last year; so if we follow the same schedule from last year, then we may start shooting season two in July of this year, 2019.
Your new movie "Bolden" is in theatres. Give us a synopsis of the movie and the role you play.
Bolden is a mythical account of Charles “Buddy” Bolden who was known to create the sound of jazz. He inspired people like Louie Armstrong. Although there is information out there about him, a lot of people aren’t aware of him. He’s definitely a part of history--black history.
Dan Pritzker, our director, was inspired upon learning about Buddy Bolden. So he made a movie about him and what he imagined Bolden's life would be like. Buddy Bolden was sent to an insane asylum, and his life was pretty tragic. Back then there wasn’t a whole lot of mental health advocates or therapists; so most people were just tossed away.
I play Buddy Bolden’s mom, Alice Bolden. As Buddy's mom, Alice wants the best for him. She wants him to do well. She wants him to be safe. Alice doesn't know how to deal with what Buddy's experiencing, so she keeps telling him, don’t do this, or don’t do that; not understanding that her son has a mental illness.
“Bolden” took 10 years to get to the big screen. Why did it take so long?
Well, “Bolden” had its' start in 2007. Back then, Dan Pritzker helmed the project and Buddy Bolden was played by actor Anthony Mackie – a fantastic cast back then as well. When Dan saw the finished product of the film, he realized that it wasn’t exactly the story that he wanted to tell. So he went back to the drawing board. A new script was produced by Dan with David Rothschild as co-write. It was more streamlined to focus on Buddy Bolden. He just kept going until he made the movie that he wanted to make, told the story that he wanted to tell. I’m very excited and happy for him. Making a film is no easy feat, and this is a big movie. It’s a period piece, there’s a lot of love and passion attached and surrounding this project. It may have taken a little over 10 years, but it was well worth it.
An impressive cast is assembled for the movie.
Yes, we have a great cast. Bolden” stars Gary Carr, a British actor. I have so much respect for the British actors – incredible work ethics. My son in “All American,” Daniel Ezra, is also a British actor. I must say I’ve observed up close and personal how incredible the discipline and work ethics of these actors are, just inspiring. I think Gary Carr did an incredible job in this film. We also have Yaya DaCosta. Yaya is such a lovely woman. I was a big fan of Yaya before I’d even met her. I remember watching her on “America’s Next Top Model,” so I was excited to meet her. Reno Wilson – talented actor. He was amazing as Louie Armstrong. I’ve met Reno over the years in Hollywood, and he’s just a great person as well, beautiful spirit. Michael Rooker, and Ian McShane. Robert Ri’chard is another actor who was in the 2007 version of the film, another great actor; really nice guy. I’m just excited for everyone – there are so many people that I could name. It’s a big cast. What I can say is that everyone was very passionate about their roles in the film, they showed up, and did the best that they could.
The movie is a visually authentic period piece.
I love period pieces in general. In “Bolden,” we have the corsets and bustles, beautiful dresses, or just big dresses with lots of fabric and patterns. The costumes help the actors get into character. Great set designs recreate the world of that era.
What can folks take away from this movie?
All the music is done by Wynton Marsalis, who’s a genius. The music is beautiful. People will be able to take away a little bit of history and innocence of knowing that there was a man named Charles “Buddy” Bolden who created the sound of jazz. I was just at the jazz fest in New Orleans. It was packed. There were people who flew in from all over. There’s a great appreciation for jazz, and I think that there will be a greater appreciation and understanding of Buddy Bolden and jazz. His was a tragic life, but he definitely made a big contribution to the genre of jazz music and the musicians, like the great Louie Armstrong, whom he inspired along the way.
What attracts you to a role?
I love roles that takes the character on a journey of pushing through. Those type of roles provide inspiration for the viewers to see someone overcome adversities, because that’s a part of life. I look at the writing, good storytelling with strong characters. I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of some really wonderful projects with meaningful stories. A lot of them mirrors some aspect of history, something that actually happened in real life. I feel blessed to be a part of those type of projects. I get excited when I feel a project is going to motive or get people to think differently and provides healthy perspectives. Also, a film that would just make people escape and laugh and forget about their day to day grind. I don’t judge any of the characters I portray. I try to find what got them to the place that they’re in now, good or bad. To me as an actor, that’s the fun part; It’s my job to reflect the life of the characters.
Do you think your deep connection to your faith has kept you grounded, especially in Hollywood?
Yes, it has. I believe in God, that’s my foundation, it's everything. Without that, I would be questioning everything. My faith has definitely caused me to be fearless in going after my dreams, causing me to believe that it’s possible for me to achieve the things that I’ve set out to do. I thought that I would be a series regular a long time ago. Sometimes a certain level of growth needs to happen within oneself in order to prepare you to receive the things that you’re seeking. So although I wanted it when I first moved to Los Angeles; in hindsight and looking back, I wasn’t emotionally or mentally prepared to handle a lot of the things when I first started. I'm more focused, responsible and mature now to take on more challenging situations. My faith has indeed played a part in me sticking to it. It has kept me in the game, kept my beliefs strong. Your faith will inspire you to take actions believing that your dreams will come to pass. You keep going and ultimately they will become a reality.
You wrote and produced award-winning projects in the past. Are you looking forward to doing the same in the future?
Absolutely. The way I see it, television and films are basically food for people. It’s an opportunity to feed people positive, entertaining and thought provoking projects. I’m looking forward to inspire folks and share knowledge of some of lessons I’ve learned. Especially in regards to the liberation of people's health and mental wellness. I’m excited about that.
You spent some time mentoring in 'A Place Called Home,' an at-risk youth center in South Central, Los Angeles?
I started as a mentor probably over a decade ago. I wanted to give back. I also thought about how it was for me as a kid growing up. My sister is about five years older, that was a big age difference for her, because she didn’t want to hang out with her little sister. I empathize with that and wanted to be a big sister to someone who needed answers to questions. I decided to get involved with A Place Called Home. In addition, I joined the Leadership Council. We produced an event every year called Stars and Stripes, which is a bowling and poker tournament to help raise money. The organization's objective is to help keep kids off the streets who are in vulnerable situations and communities. I’m always thinking about purpose: How could I play a positive role in society and in people’s lives in some capacity? I realize that we’re all vessels. It feels good to help others. But being a mentor was not without its challenges. It really stretched me, but I’m glad that I did it. Perhaps it prepared me to play a mom as an actor. I’d definitely do it again.
As an abstract painter, you sold your finished pieces at your first art show. Was this a hidden talent?
It was absolutely a hidden talent! I started taking a class on self-expression at church.
Painting stood out for me. I got some paint and bought canvases. It was so therapeutic to paint. I loved it so much. I painted everyday! I bought more canvases, more paint, and brushes. I was possessed. I was a zombie, but I loved it! I had hanged some paintings on my walls when a friend visited me from out of town. She didn’t believe that I painted the pieces and asked if I would sell her one of the paintings. I ended up selling it to her, then she encouraged me to organize an art show. I sold 12 paintings. I thought this could another stream of revenue.
So I went out and brought bigger canvases and more paint. But when I put brush to canvas, the flow wasn't there anymore. As soon as I started to think about painting for money, for income, it was not the same. I was so disturbed by that. I still have the canvases and paint. I don’t paint as much as I used to.
I actually haven’t picked up a brush in a couple of years, but that was interesting. What was coming through me before, very naturally, in a therapeutic way – it shifted. It stopped. When you do things for the love and joy of it, inspiration is there. Painting from a business perspective didn't work for me. I realized doing things for the love of it – the people will come, the art will sell, you will get booked.
What advice would you give to someone who has dreams of pursuing a career in acting?
Go for it! It’s possible for you to do it. Learn about the craft, learn about all the different techniques there are to the craft, the history of it. Learn about different actors. Learn about the industry. There’s various mediums that you can work in – theater, film, television, radio, commercials. Research the industry that you want to get into. Research the different approaches to the craft, the different teachers of the past. Ask questions. Reach out to people. Go see plays. Do plays. Create your own content. Number one, believe in yourself; because you can’t expect anyone else to believe in your talent if you don’t. Observe the actors and actresses who have inspired you. If God did it through them, God can do it through you too. So hold onto your dreams. Create a plan. I’ve always been very goal oriented and I write out everything. Even if it doesn’t go that way, at least it gives me some direction. I think if you stay in prayer, and you move forward the best way you know how, all the things that you need and the people that you need to meet will begin to show up as you move forward on your journey. I’m wishing you all the best. I know that it is possible. I am a living witness of this truth.