By Phenomgirl / June 26, 2019
Talented, outspoken and one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, Kellita "Aunt Wanda" Smith has proven there isn't a role she can't take on. From holding her own on screen with the incomparable Bernie Mac to showcasing leadership skills while being a badass as Lieutenant Roberta Warren in "Z Nation." Among her fans, Smith is known for depicting strong Black women on TV. Kellita's role on Bounce TV's comedy, "In the Cut" is no exception, the actress plays Cheryl, a feisty business savvy entrepreneur. The fifth season of "In the Cut" debuts on July 15. The Chicagoan beauty graciously spent some time to answer a few questions. She's passionate, humorous and down-to-earth. The BET Comedy Award recipient voices her concerns as an actor of color in Hollywood; and pays homage to Bernie Mac and John Singleton.
Do fans call
you Aunt Wanda?
Some people do, but I think because Bernie’s gone they don’t so much anymore. I’m quite sure some folks still call Phylicia Rashad, "Claire" or "Mrs. Huxtable."
to these characters?
Yes. They almost forget I’m the Aunt. They think I’m the Mama. That gets real confusing, I was the Mama of the show, but I was the Aunt.
The character you played,
Wanda McCullough, was
level-headed and very ambitious.
Well, they wrote that, because I would have been divorced!
Bernie Mac's character
was a big kid himself?
Oh my God, yes! But Bernie was a real leader. He was a great act to follow. Looking at the kids from the show now, they're just amazing! The kids and I are in the process of putting a project together showcasing our memories of Bernie and how much he contributed to reshaping the kids lives. He would've been proud of them. Bernie was so good, so brilliant. He was grooming me for standup. So that’s the thing I’m going to leap into. Out of homage to him and Don Rickles. When Don Rickles appeared on an episode, he pointed it out and insisted that Bernie help me. Bernie was waiting ‘til the show was over; and prior to him passing, he was booked to do the MGM Grand in Vegas. He had been auditioning women to open up the show for him. He called me and said, "Kee, I’ve been looking at women to open up my show, I’m going to do a month at the MGM Grand." I said, "yes, and I’d better have some good seats." He said, "well you’re going to have better seats, I want you to open up for me."
Your role on the
SYFY series “Z Nation"
made you the first Black female
lead in a Sci-Fi series?
Yes. Nichelle Nichols was the third in command, according to billing. In my case, it was the first time an African-American woman's name was first on the title card.
Was this role considered
to be one of your best?
I think the best role I’ve ever played was taking a chance on Kellita, by being an actor. That was my best thing I could have ever done; because every role I've gotten, I'm passionate about. There’s more that I want to do. I want to do an Egyptian epic, the female Pharaoh. I still haven’t gotten my Oscar yet. With the Lt. Warren character, she wasn’t carved out that way in the beginning. She was just one of the people who survived and had some military background. It wasn’t until the show runner watched a few episodes and decided to make her the star of the show. That was almost six years ago. I think the only Black female lead on television at the time was Kerry Washington. I don’t think Viola had gotten her show yet. Taraji hadn’t gotten hers yet either. Back then, Barack Obama was the first Black president, and Kerry and I became the first black leads on networks.
Was the show looking for an
African American woman for this role?
Yes. They were looking for a Black woman for this character and wanted to diversify the apocalypse. I can see where there may not be a lot of brown people in the apocalypse; but you must understand the survivors of anything like this would be brown people.
Did you enjoy handling weapons
on the show?
Oh yes! I was training during the downtime. Instead of me trying to go get another job, I would go to a play or learn a craft. I started learning martial arts and fencing; not thinking I was ever going to use these skills. I’ve always wanted to be able to defend myself. It just came in handy.
Fans of the Sci-Fi/horror/drama
genre are very loyal.
First of all the fans are terrific! They are so faithful, and they mean it. A few Halloweens ago, they had a little parade in West Los Angeles and one of my stylists asked a little girl who was she dressed as. She said, "my favorite character, her name is Lt. Warren." He took a picture and sent it to me. At that time, we were only in the second season of Z Nation.
Why did the show end?
Some folks were not business savvy and with the show having a Black lead. Even though I broke that barrier of being the first Black female lead in that genre, it still has its' politics attached to it. What I wanted people to also see is that I’m an actor. Just because I played Bernie Mac's wife for a period of time, that doesn't mean I can't play other characters as well.
When going out
on auditions, who were the group
of actresses you would always cross paths with?
All the ones that are working now, every last one. Niecy Nash, Regina Hall, Garcelle Beauvais, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson, and Monique. Monique and I did a movie together called “Hair Show,” where Monique was my sister, and Taraji worked in the salon. Have to mention Regina King; she and I share the same birthday. We always tell each other "Happy Birthday" every year. It's a love affair between all of us. It’s like we’ve morphed into our turn.
You've appeared in various
Black sitcoms. Did you at anytime felt like
you were being boxed in as an actor?
I was paying my rent without having to be a waitress. It was perfect timing for me when I got to Los Angeles and moved to the Valley. Black writers and the studios that produced Black sitcoms happened to be in the same area in the Valley and it was easy to get to work. It was amazing!
Comedians have been
lauded for their work
in dramatic roles. What's your thought on that?
"Because you’ve cried so much you want to laugh." Bernie used to tell this story about when he was five years old. He distinctly recalled sitting on his mother’s lap and she was crying about something; he was trying to console her. She turned the television on, and maybe it was the Ed Sullivan Show. Bill Cosby was doing his stand-up set and made her laugh in the middle of her cry. To him that was the most powerful thing he saw; Bill Cosby was able to change his mother’s mood in an instant. From then on, he knew he wanted to be a comedian. The dramatic signature is a dramatic face mask and a comedic face mask. They’re similar to each other and combined into one.
Which group has a harder time in Hollywood. Black actresses
or Black actors?
I think what’s hard is, we don’t own enough companies, period. It's not about being Black at this point. We are the temperature for fashion, music, entertainment, television, and sports. We own nothing. I’m over it.
Spike Lee and Tyler Perry
own production companies.
Are they the only two?
There are probably a couple more, but now we want to see what dollar amount, or what kind of production are being pushed out. I’m starting mine up as well. Instead of me talking the talk, I’ve still got to be able to back it up a little bit. We live in a patriarchal society; the entertainment business is governed by men. But where are ours? Who’s speaking for us? The issue is not him or her. It’s us! John Singleton was doing it. Rest in peace. John actually helped me get to the Bernie Mac Show. I had tested for “Baby Boy” to play Tyrese’s mother. John personally called to let me know I didn't get the part. But, he was so impressed with my audition and sent my tape to Vincent Cirrincione who represented Halle Berry and Taraji. I ended up signing with Vincent, and “The Bernie Mac Show” actually came within that year.
"In the Cut" was announced
as being the most-watched original series premiere
in Bounce TV's history!
Oh wonderful, I love that! I love when these things happen. Bentley Kyle Evans is the creator of "In the Cut," he also created “The Jamie Foxx Show.” He's such a talented writer. Bentley plucked Jamie from “In Living Color.” That show was a pool of freaking talent! Bentley just has that great eye for choosing talent and great prowess for comedic writing. We met while working on the "Martin" show. Then the "Jamie Fox" show came along and he created a recurring role for me as the best friend of Garcelle Beauvais.
The new season of "In the Cut"
premieres on July 15?
Yes. We just finished the fifth season in April. Now we’re looking forward to start shooting season six in October. We got picked up again in the middle of completing season five. Isn’t that great! My thing is, I’ve always liked to work in drama and comedy simultaneously, because no other actress is doing it.
Is there anyone you
would love to work with?
Vanessa Redgrave, John Malkovich and Sean Penn who directed me in my first movie, "Crossing Guard." I have to put Don Cheadle in there too.
What’s the best ingredient
needed for a great script?
You’ve got to have a wonderful story. You’ve got to have characters that actors get to embrace, because I’m better when you write something that's great; which makes me think of five different ways to portray the character. Then I can begin to show how deep the character is within me.
You've been working with the New Image
Homeless Shelter for sometime now. How did you get started?
Yes, for almost 20 years. I was feeding the homeless one Thanksgiving. As folks came up to get a plate of food I hugged and interacted with the men, women and children. During all of this, I overheard a conversation between the organizers. They ended up having more women and children come in that night. When this happens, in order to protect the children, they are sent to hotels with their mothers. But there wasn't enough money and vouchers to book the hotel rooms, funds were low. When I heard that, I went into my purse and wrote a check. I became an advocate for them ever since. I do their Christmas drive, and I give anonymous financial gifts to the mothers and pass out toys to the kids. Also, we've created a free department store for the ladies. Donating outfits to prepare the women for job interviews, getting them ready for careers. What stood out for me was how passionate the ladies were who ran the shelter. The safety of the children was a big priority. They're there to help everyone! It’s what we’ve got to do. "We need to create a Robin Hood situation, not rob the hood."