Exclusive: Vanessa Bell Calloway discusses her upcoming projects, acting career
By Christion PetermanVanessa Bell Calloway, the actress who famously barked like a dog while jumping up and down in Coming to America, returns to the screen in a big way this season with numerous mainstream and independent projects coming out. Last year she was featured in the Image award nominated series “Hawthorne” and “Detroit 187.”
This year she’s following that up with roles on the big screen and the small screen in projects like The Last Fall, The Obama Effect, The Under Shepherd—and critically acclaimed television shows Shameless and Go On.
Calloway sat down with Blackactors.net a few weeks ago for an exclusive chat about her amazing career, her many upcoming projects, and being black in Hollywood over 40.
Blackactors.net: You’re back on television! What can you tell me about your role on NBC’s Go On?
Vanessa Bell Calloway: I’m playing Tyler James Williams’ mom. The show is still very new and everyone is in therapy. The episode i’m in is the episode where the audience finds out what some of Tyler’s issues are. Matthew Perry’s character and Tyler are in my home at 6 o’clock in the morning and they awaken me while playing video games. Through our conversation, you find out what’s going on with Tyler’s character. I dont want to give away the story, but they’re using the mother to help explain part of his storyline.
You were only supposed to do one show and you’ve already been asked back?
I did one episode but I dont know what the original plan was. Anytime you play a family member, especially a father or mother, there’s room to come back because you are secondary to the primary character. And of course, if they like you and you do a good job, you can come back. If you don’t do a good job, they can usually do without you and write around you. Luckily for me, I did a good job and the next day we got a call asking me to come back in October and shoot another episode. Was that something that was always planned? It was probably in the back of their minds that they could use this character to explain Tyler’s characters’ plight. Was it etched in stone? No. If I had gone in there and done a bad job, they’d probably didn’t have to have me back. But it’s nice that they did.
I know that Tyler’s character issues are also your issues. Do you think your character will join him in the support group?
When you’re playing parts like this, a recurring character is usually asked to come back, which is nice and would be fine with me. And because the show is new, they still have to see how they will do in ratings and if they get picked up for next season—if they get picked up for their back nine. So, I’m not putting the wagon before the horse. You have to see what happens to their livelihood before you can put yourself in the picture. Sometimes patience is a part of the game. Sometimes you just have to be patient. I joined the cast of Shameless when it first started three years ago, and I did two episodes in the first season. I was introduced as Shanola Hampton’s mother in episode three of the first season, which was a good sign to me because they established right away that this character had a mother. But I only shot two episodes on the first season. Last season, I only did one episode. In the upcoming third season, I’m doing six out of tweleve episodes! You just have to be patient. When a show is new they have to establish their main characters. They have a lot of stories to tell and they have to bring everything together. Hopefully, I will be invited back for more.
It’s amazing that you’re in half of the upcoming season of Shameless.
Now that has really been exciting. That is a lot of fun. We’re still shooting and we finish the end of October. We’ve already been in Chicago to shoot some exteriors, then we’re headed back to Chicago in November to shoot more exteriors. Shameless has been simply amazing because it’s a fun show. It’s very cutting-edge. Some of the stuff we’re doing is going to be very controversial. I’m looking forward to that airing because people are really going to be turning their heads. It’s called Shameless for a reason.
You also play Lance Gross’ mom in the upcoming indie The Last Fall. What makes you such a good motherly figure?
Well, I’m old enough to be their mothers for real (laughs). I raised two girls of my own for real (laughs). So, I’m not acting. I know what it takes to raise children. And I can really be their mother. I could really be Tyler’s mom. I could really be Lance’s mom and I could really be Shanola’s mom.
You’re also in another project with Isaiah Washington called The Under Shepherd. Tell me about that.
Now I can’t be his mother, but I can star alongside him (laughs). The Under Shepherd is written, directed and produced by a very popular DJ out of the Washington D.C. area named Russ Parr. It’s about the black church. It’s stars myself, Isaiah Washington, Lamman Rucker, Bill Cobbs, Lou Gossett Jr, Keith David, Malinda Williams, Robinne Lee, and Elise Neal. It’s such an amazing cast. Isaiah Washington’s character gets a little carried away and forgets why he preaches the word. He thinks it’s all about him. I play Deaconess Carter, the voice of reason in the church. I’m the one trying to keep the church straight and narrow when everyone else is kind of losing sight and focus of what is really supposed to be transpiring. It’s a good piece and Isaiah Washington does a very good job in the film. It’s a controversial piece. We’ve done a lot of screening and some people are a little touchy about it and some people get it. It’s a good piece to be involved in. Anytime you have people having debates and controversy is good.
In one intense scene from The Under Shepherd, you confront Isaiah Washington’s character before he addresses the congregation. He tells you that he is God. What was that all about?
He gets carried away. He really forgets who he is and what his purpose is. My character is trying to remind him to bring it back. I confront him a few times. Keith David’s character gets swept into everything because we’re making money. Theres a line about “Integrity.” And he responds ‘When’s the last time you’ve cashed an integrity check?” My character has a few confrontations with Isaiah’s character.
What other projects do you have coming up?
We have The Obama Effect that had a limited release back in July. It’s supposed to come out in a wider release in October. The Obama Effect is a film that was co-written, produced and directed by Charles S. Dutton, who also stars in the film. Harry Smith (Will Smith’s brother) is one of the producers on it. We did this movie four years ago when Obama became president. We did several reshoots on the movie and it turned out better since that happened. They added Katt Williams to the movie, and it came out to be a better and funnier movie. It has a good cast that includes myself, Meagan Good, Glynn Turman, and a lot of other actors. I play Charles Dutton’s wife.
I just realized you were one of the voices in Bébé’s Kids.
Ohhh! No one evers talks to me about that (laughs). Yes, I am the lead female. I play Jamika.
What was that expeirence like?
That was fun! I’m in and out of voiceovers. Sometimes I do a little something and then I don’t. The way they do voiceovers today is hard because they want you to put yourself on tape, get on the computer and edit them, and then you have to download them as a mp3 and send them off. It’s sounds convenient because you can do everything yourself, but it’s not because it’s time consuming. You have to find a place in your home that is soundproof. So, I have this thing in my closet where I go in and try to get the best take I can get. Well, you look up and it’s an hour and a half later, and you’re still f**king around with this darn thing. I would do more voiceover work, but these days I’m just so super busy. I could squeeze that in, If I could just run to the studio real quick and do a copy. The funny thing about Bébé’s Kids is that Robin Harris (the late comedian and creator) used to perform at the Comedy Act Theater, which is in the facility my husband and his father have owned for over thirty years. I have been married to my husband for 24 years. Well, Robin Harris used to perform there every Thursday in the venue my husband owned. I used to go there on Thursday nights and that’s where I met my husband. Right before Robin died, he’s getting famous and Bébé’s Kids is a part of his routine. All the white folks are coming down there to see him. He’s in Spike Lee’s movies and everyone is on the Robin Harris bandwagon. Robin comes up to me one day and tells me he’s going to do the movie Bébé’s Kids and it’s going to be a feature—not an animated feature–but a regular feature film. He tells me he wants me to play Jamika. I said “Yeah, alright.” You know people say that in Hollywood all the time—what they want you to do. I’ve learned to say okay and smile, because often times it doesn’t happen for various reasons. They can’t make it happen when it gets down to the day when it is really time, or somebody who’s bigger than you or more powerful than you have their girl that they want in. So, you don’t have the power to bring in the person you want it. I didn’t really believe it was going to happen. Fast forward and Robin dies. So, of course, now you’re thinking none of this is going to happen. Now they’re saying they’re going to do Bébé’s Kids as an animated movie. The Hyland brothers take it on and now they’re holding auditions for the voice of Jamika. Like everybody else, I get a call. I go to the audition and I don’t tell the new producers anything about the conversation I had with Robin Harris, or that he promised me I would be Jamika. I say nothing because they are going to look at me like I’m crazy, and who’s to say they are even going to believe me? I audition for the part and I get it! I couldn’t believe it. I thought Wow! Robin, you really meant it. It was the spookiest thing. It was like Robin was in heaven saying “I told you that you will be Jamika.”
Would you ever consider doing a sequel for the new generation?
If they wanted to! I don’t think they would be interested though.
You’ve starred in some pretty iconic films and television shows like What’s Love Got To Do With It?, All My Children and, of course, Coming To America. Out of all the projects you’ve done, what has been your absolute favorite?
That’s a hard question. It’s hard to say. I don’t have a favorite and I’ll tell you why: I think I’ve been so fortunate. I love everything that I’ve done because it’s been so different and they have all been so fun for different reasons. They have been fun on the set for different reasons. I’ve worked with great people and they all have a place in my heart. The amazing thing to me is that a lot of them end up being cult films without even realizing it. People come up to me and quote lines from so many of the movies and when you take on these films, you don’t know whats going to become of them. You don’t take them because you think they are going to be iconic pieces or cult movies or pieces that go down in history with generations. I’m lucky because a lot of my projects have reached new generations. I have fond memories of everything you mentioned. I have different flashes of different things that have happened like it was yesterday. I have different memories of every project. I can sincerely say that I like them all. I’m blessed.
Debbie Allen wants to bring back A Different World. You’ve appeared on that show. What’s your take?
Yes, I have. Debbie is my girl! Debbie has been my friend for years. She definitely should bring it back. If anybody can do it, it’s her! She would update it. I think it would be hip, funky, current and entertaining. With dance and music in television now—which is fabulous how musicals are back—would make everyone happy. Growing up, I used to love the movie musicals. It made me happy as a kid. I used to love that. The Fred Astaire movies and Gene Kelly movies. Debbie would make it great. Absolutely!
Speaking of musicals, I heard you were in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls.
I sure was! Absolutely true! Look on the original album and you will see Vanessa Bell. I was an original step sister. I sang on the album and I was on the original Playbill as the Stepsister.
What was it like being a black actor on Broadway in the 1980s?
It was amazing because thats when black shows were seen. Everybody was working on Broadway. You were so busy working, you couldn’t even see other shows. I don’t think I ever got the chance to see my dear friend, Gregory Hines, in Sophisticated Ladies. Never got the chance to see him because we had the same schedule. He was a dear friend of mine. Gregory, Phyllis Hyman, and all those guys were down the street and I never got a chance to see them. It was so many. Everybody was working. It was fabulous…it was a fabulous time. We were young and fun. Everybody was singing and dancing. We would just hop from show to show. I left the stage and went on to soap operas, but people were just hopping from show to show. It was pretty good money for us at that time.
You’re one of those actors who are so good at what you do, its almost guaranteed you will give a great performance in anything you’re in. When did you realize that you had such a serious talent?
Ain’t nothing guaranteed, baby! Sh*t. I be tryin’ though. Sometimes I have to make sure I’m trying to bring my A-game. I have to check myself too. But anyway, thank you. I don’t think that anybody always feels so confident that you just know you that damn good all the time. I think everyone, at some point, questions themselves and hope they are as good as they want to be. Because I think if you get too cocky, you miss out on the chance to be really good. Because you stop working and rely on the fact that you think you’re so damn good. I’ve always thought that I was talented. I always knew that I had something to offer. The most frustrating thing—especially being a black seasoned actress in Hollywood—is when you know you have a lot to give and people won’t let you give it. And what I mean by that is being over 40, I feel like I’m the best I’ve ever been in so many ways. Just trying to get the due you deserve or be in the position that you want to be in because you really feel like you just have so much to offer the industry, the world—and your peers. So, when you feel like you’re blocked because of your age, your race or your gender—it’s frustrating! Not that I feel like people owe me anything or I deserve more than this person. I’ve always felt that I had a lot to offer and I do feel talented. I have doubted myself in performances, but I’ve never doubted my talent.
You’re very consistent with your performances.
I always look at a part and tell myself that I’ve gotta be good. Ive gotta make this work. I gotta pull this off. So then I dig deep to see what it is I gotta do to be good in this part. I study my stuff. I go to work prepared. I study while I’m on set. I just really try to be the best that I can be when I’m working before I get there, while I’m there up until the moment I leave. Because you can never rely on anything. That’s what it takes to be consistent. You’ve got to consistently be good, which means you have to consistently work.
Any advice for black actors trying to make it?
Yeah. I got a lot of advice: Run! (laughs). I’m just kidding. Don’t do it! (more laughter.) Seriously, the one thing I always tell them is stay ready to be ready. That’s one of the main things. You have to stay ready to be ready, and I like to use examples. If you need your teeth fixed…if you don’t like your hair…if you feel you’re 10 lb. overweight…dont wait until you get the job to get the stuff. Because if you’re 10lbs overweight today and you’ve got to work next week, you’re still going to be 10 lb. overweight next week. It’s not going to disappear just because you got the job. If you like being chunky then that’s okay—just be happy about it. But don’t think that everything is going to magically disappear. If you stay fit, your hair is healthy, your teeth are good and your skin is clear, you do whatever you need to do for you. You may have to work tomorrow. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve gotten where I got a call on a Wednesday night, I went to meet the executive producer on a Thursday, and I was at work on a Friday. I didn’t have time to get ready. I didn’t even have time to research the part. I just had to jump in and do it! So, you just gotta be ready. That includes your acting skills, your knowledge about a lot of things, etc. Because a lot of times you don’t have time to go to gym and study. You may have to show up at work the very next day and jump in and do a great job—not decent job—but a damn good job! But if you’re not ready, you won’t get the part. And you may not get another chance to be ready.
The Last Fall opens in select theaters today, Oct. 26 in Los Angeles. The Obama Effect comes out on DVD on Nov. 6. “Go On” airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on NBC. “Shameless” premieres Sunday, Jan. 13 at 9/8c on Showtime.