Words + Interview By: Krystal Luster
Some time ago, Chicago native Karimah Westbrook made up her mind to relocate to LA and has been active ever since. In our interview, she talks about her early beginnings, crashing the audition that landed her the role in “Save The Last Dance” and her upcoming role as Grace James in the CW’s, “All American”. Enjoy!
What was life like before fame? How did you grow up?
I’m not for sure if I’ve received fame at this point but I grew in the west suburbs of Chicago. I was raised by my mom and I have one older sister. I was very active in the arts and sports growing up.
What are your thoughts on the crime in Chicago? Do you feel there is more good to the city than what is being portrayed in the media?
To hear about the crime that is happening in Chicago is absolutely heartbreaking. Unfortunately, crimes are on the rise and take place in a lot of other cities and states but Chicago seems to get the most publicity. I wouldn’t doubt there are political reasons behind this. There is absolutely more good in Chicago than what is being portrayed in the media but unfortunately we don’t hear about the good that happens there.
Have you seen Showtime’s, “The Chi”? If so, do you believe it is an accurate portrayal of the city as a whole?
I love Showtime’s, The Chi. I think the show captures the feel of Chicago very well.
In what way was getting the role in “Save the Last Dance” unique and how was the experience overall?
Getting the role in Save the Last Dance was very unique because I didn’t have an official audition for the film. I crashed the audition and that lead to me booking a role. The experience was great, all the actors were great and it was truly a dream come true. It also positioned me to earn enough money to relocate to Los Angeles.
Explain the process of relocating to LA. How was your transition?
I believe that when you decide in your heart and mind to do something and begin to move in that direction, things start to happen to help you along your journey to getting it done. I don’t believe in coincidences and there were a number of things that happened for me and people I met that helped me during my transition.
The process of relocating to LA was surprisingly seamless from what I can remember. I did tons of research before moving and I had a checklist of things I needed to do to accomplish my goal of moving. The only thing I can remember that really sucked was getting my car to LA. I had my car shipped from Chicago through a shipping company and it took way longer than initially quoted to arrive. I learned my car fell off the thing they put the cars on to ship and they also had the windows down and it rained so everything inside of my car was wet. Thank God that it was still drivable by the time it arrived to LA but that entire situation was really stressful.
What was the biggest misconception that you had about Hollywood before you got there?
I didn’t have any misconceptions about Hollywood before moving here. I didn’t know what to expect. I honestly dismissed all the negative things I’d heard. I was walking by faith so it didn’t matter what I’d heard about Hollywood. I believed my journey would be its own. I had heard things I knew were misconceptions such as having to sleep with people to work/make it in Hollywood. I used to also hear “it’s who you know” all the time. Those were the biggest things I used to hear about Hollywood before I moved here. I didn’t know anyone here and I totally dismissed the notion of those things having to be a part of the process and took actions that felt right as well as following my instincts on what I needed to do. I just stayed focused and whoever it was meant for me to meet, I did.
In the 2003 bio-pic, “Baadasssss!”, you play the role of Ginnie. Tell us about your experience working on this critically-acclaimed project.
Working on Baadasssss! was a great experience. I cried when I read the script. I was happy when I booked the role. I was nervous when I shot the film. I was petrified when it released in theaters. I was proud of and inspired by the finished product. There were a lot of great actors in the film and Mario Van Peebles is a great actor/director. I also had a chance to meet and hang out with his dad, Melvin Van Peebles, whom the film is about when it played at film festivals. That was a real treat.
Name one thing you learned from Mario Van Peebles that has stuck with you the most.
I learned from Mario Van Peebles that as an actor you can write, star in and direct your own feature film. Mario did it with ease and grace.
What was it like working on “Suburbicon”? What do you remember most about your role as Mrs. Mayers?
Working on the set of Suburbicon was great. I always find the biggest celebrities are the most gracious and kind. The telling of the story didn’t feel very good because I had to experience racism at a heightened level in the film. What I remember the most about my role as Mrs. Mayers is her quiet determination. She was determined to not be moved by the behavior of her racist community. The Mayers knew they deserved to live wherever they chose to live and no one was going to make or force them to believe otherwise. In real life, Daisy Mayers was known as the Rosa Parks of the North.
Tell us about your upcoming role in the CW’s, “All American”. What is this series about and in what ways is Grace James relatable to your real-life experiences?
All American is a new drama series on the CW about a rising a football player from South LA who is recruited to play for Beverly Hills. The wins, losses and struggles from two families from vastly different worlds (Compton and Beverly Hills) begin to collide. I play Grace James, Spencer James’ mother. It is inspired by the life of pro football player, Spencer Paysinger.
Grace James is relatable to my real-life experiences because I’ve struggled a lot, I love hard and I’ve lost a lot but I make the best of my/any situation. I don’t give up easily and I do whatever it takes to get things done especially if I really want it. My children are my everything on this show. I would do whatever it takes to position them for success in life. I want the best for them in life. Although I don’t have kids yet in my own personal life, I do want the best for my family.
How important is it for parents to support their children’s dreams? Were your parents 100% into yours?
I think it’s very important for parents to support their children’s dreams. I grew up in a single household so my mother was very concerned, initially because to her, acting appeared to be a very unstable endeavor. She wasn’t 100% on board but that didn’t stop me. However, once I started booking acting jobs and being able to support myself, she felt more comfortable and confident in my decision.
How familiar were you with the story of Buddy Bolden prior to working in the film, “Bolden”?
I wasn’t familiar with the story of Buddy Bolden prior to landing a role in the film but working on Bolden was one of the best experiences of my career so far. I can’t wait for people to see the film once it releases!
We’ve spoken with Ser’Darius Blain who plays Willie Cornish in the film. Did you share any screen time with him at all? If so, what was it like working with him?
Unfortunately, I didn’t have an opportunity to share any screen time with Ser’Darius. I did have an opportunity to hang with him and some of the other cast members when we weren’t working. I really like Ser’Darius’s spirit. He’s genuine, very smart and talented. I hope to share some screen time with him one day. That will be fun.
List 5 things you are passionate about outside of acting.
5 things I’m passionate about outside of acting are writing, producing, being in nature/ocean, connecting with my loved ones and learning/experiencing new things.
What is your idea of a perfect vacation?
My idea of a perfect vacation is being surrounded by water or nature with no technology – only books, paper, canvases, pens, watercolor and acrylic paint and lots of organic fruit. A completely peaceful situation.
What are your thoughts on the portrayal of black women in television and films?
I think our portrayal has expanded so much in a positive light and I love it. Women from all walks of life stories are being told and that’s refreshing. It’s real.
What was it like writing and producing the short, “Best Kept Secret”? Were you a first-timer?
It was a liberating experience to star in, write and produce Best Kept Secret. I told the story I wanted to tell and yes, it was my first time writing and actually producing something.
What other projects have you written and/or produced?
I’ve written a number of projects, I have a few TV show pilots and web series I’ve created as well as a feature film. None of them have been produced, yet. I have produced other writer’s material over the years, primarily short films. Some of those films, A Fire in a Dovecot and Watts & Volts, have won awards.
What has been your worst acting experience and why?
My worse acting experience was working on an indie film where I got fired. This was when I first moved to LA. The director had fired the girl before me and called me in at the last minute. It was a lot of material and at the time I couldn’t handle it. There was a lot of pressure on set. I was so nervous, always fumbling my lines and I was eventually let go.
Are you into philanthropy? In what way do you give back?
I’ve given back in several capacities in my life. I’ve worked with at-risk youth before serving as a mentor and on the leadership council at an at-risk youth community center. I love being of service to the homeless community. I volunteer with several organizations that feed and provide clothing to the homeless. I also volunteer helping our veterans for time to time.
How would you describe the racial climate today? We are doing great things and doors are opening but at the same time, racism is becoming more “in your face” again.
Racism is as sad today as it was when our ancestors experienced it. I still believe it’s a spirit of some kind, living throughout generations and beliefs taught in households. It’s a learned behavior embraced by spirits of the past. As I’m really thinking about it, it seems like a mental illness.
Yes, black people are and will continue to do great things. It’s in our nature to do so. Today, technology can capture racist acts on video so it feels like it’s more in our faces but racism has never not existed. Truth is, there has been tremendous progress in our society, people of all nationalities are waking up but you will never really see news stories reflecting this truth. I believe there is more light in this world than darkness. The negative news and social media posts of racist acts magnify things but you can’t let it get you down. Choose your battles wisely, protect your mind, find a release and look for the good. At the end of the day, still we rise.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m still filming All American. I’m looking forward to the release of Bolden. During my break from the series, I hope to get back to writing a bit more, completing projects so they can go into production. It would be perfect if I can book a great movie role on my break. All in all, I’m looking forward to enjoying this next chapter of my life.
Follow Karimah Westbrook on Instagram and Twitter @Only1Karimah.
PHOTOGRAPHER: David Higgs – @Higgsy7
STYLIST: Brittany Diego – @brittanydiego
HAIR: Alexander Armand – @alexander_armand
MAKEUP: Sarah Huggins – @mr.sarah_