From cult-classics like “Friday“, to 50+ episodes on award-winning animated series “Proud Family,” Paula Jai Parker has beat the odds in one of the toughest professions for women of color — acting.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 5.6% of all actors stay employed annually, and black women make up only about 5% of that small number. So, how has Paula managed to keep herself working since 1992? Here, we learn how she has remained in the forefront, and what to expect from her new leading role in the highly anticipated TV One original film, The Summoning (airing June 6th at 8pm).
Where are you from and what truly inspired you to pursue a career in acting?
I’m from Cleveland (OH), and when I was a child I kept having this recurring dream of me being an actor. But, of course I didn’t know what it all meant until I got a little older. Then, I had my mom put me in Karamu House; a renowned black theater in America that celebrates its 100 year anniversary, this year. From there, my mom got me into a children’s choir named, The Singing Angels, where I learned to sing, perform, and behave on stage. The Singing Angels performed at Cleveland Browns playoff games, traveled to London, competed against the Vienna Boys Choir, met presidents and other dignitaries; it was really good training for me! I stayed in that until I was 16 years old, and then after high school I attended Howard University.
When you were at Howard, did you do any internships?
I won an internship from Woodie King, Jr. at the New Federal Theatre, a historical black theater company in New York. Woodie came to Howard during one of our showcases and gave out two internships. I asked Carl Anthony Payne to do a scene with me for the audition, and we won the two internships.
I also won another internship from The Negro Ensemble Company which is headed by Douglas Turner Ward. The Negro Ensemble Company is phenomenal! There would be no Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or Charles Dutton without The Negro Ensemble Company.
A lot of successful black entertainment professionals attended Howard University. How did attending HU help you prepare for a lifelong career in this business?
Howard (University) was necessary for me because of my upbringing. I grew up in a predominately white environment in Shaker Heights, Ohio. I was often the only black person in my classes until they started busing kids in, my junior year in high school. It wasn’t until I stepped onto the Howard campus that I discovered I was “light-skinned” because, in Cleveland I was considered, “high yellow”. [laughs] It opened my mind, and the people (at Howard U.) were all beautiful! Most of them were from wealthy, cultured families. Growing up in Cleveland, I was told so many fallacies about the urban black woman, from my peers and those who taught me; but, not at home though.
My mom was part of the Martin Luther King Jr. sit-ins in the 60’s, and she thought she was doing something great by putting me in this sheltered environment. Don’t get me wrong, it was great, but at the same time it was debilitating. So, when I decided to attend Howard, my mother supported that. My upbringing in Cleveland is the reason I chose to depict the urban black woman. I wanted to combat the lies and stereotypes about us.
I have so many things I want to ask you, but lets start with your the leading role on the new TVOne movie, The Summoning, which airs June 6th at 8pm EST. I have to say, it looks very good and scary. What was your experience like, shooting this film?
I trust the director, Charles Murray. That man is a genius! He shared Co-Executive Producer credits on Sons of Anarchy and V. He is well equipped to handle a film like The Summoning. He’s also a phenomenal actor’s director, but specifically when working with women. He is gentle with us (women), and communicates well. Using different methods, he was able to pull things out of me that worked in every scene. He even took the time out to let me soak up some of his director’s secrets by showing me his notes and mock ups. I also got to sit with him at Video Village. It was the best experience I’ve had thus far in my career. It’s the first time I’ve ever been a lead where I’ve been in nearly every scene but three, maybe? Being the lead was such an educational process. I would love to do it again!
You’ve been around over 20 years, so to get your first lead this far out is insane. I interviewed Doreen Spicer from “The Proud Family“, and she talked about how African-American writers and actors saw a drop in film/TV work at the turn of the century. How were you able to continue to working during that time?
Doreen is my girl! I love her so much. She was really the only female writer in “The Proud Family” writers room. In terms of me continuing to work, I just kept reinventing myself. To this day, whenever I find a lapse in work, I take that time to reinvent myself. But, I can’t take the credit because, it all began with the dream that God placed in me. I’m so thankful.
I went through a period of feeling guilt over being the only (black woman) working; and some people don’t mind putting that guilt trip on you when they’re not working. You have to keep fighting. Halle Berry is still fighting for work, so none of us are immune to unemployment. The movie business is still a “good old boys” club and you can’t change it. You just have to accept it for what it is, stay focused, and don’t let it beat you.
It’s challenging for me because I was trained at Howard University to be a director. They taught us to come to the table with something, and not sit around hoping that your director is going to give it to you. The director can tell you where to stand and how to emote, but they can’t tell you how to be. I had to take Directing 101, 102, and 103, and so did Taraji P. Henson, Anthony Anderson, and Wendy Raquel Robinson. That’s why we all work constantly.
Speaking of directing, you’re creating you own productions now, and I know one of the biggest challenges to producing a project is securing funding. How have you handled that side of it all?
Like we discussed earlier, I have been finding ways to reinvent myself and stay relevant. If there was a low point in my career, I’d create a play, or act in one. For instance, after I did Hustle & Flow, I produced and funded my first stage play. It won me an NAACP Theater Award but, I didn’t make a single penny from it because the people I went into business with took all the money. Then, I learned that they didn’t secure the rights to the play. So, I got a call from one of my college professors who was upset with me because, the play was written by a Howard grad and professor whose daughter I went to college with. It was interpreted that I was hustling Richard’s play without permission, but in reality I was the one who got hustled. I learned a valuable lesson about putting up my own money for a project.
Terrell Tilford & Paula Jai Parker; (top right) Storm Reid & Paula Jai Parker; (bottom right) Storm Reid (Courtesy: TV One)
Wow! So, how did you get into the reality world?
I wanted to get into reality, and when I went to Elise Neal I found out that people had been coming to her about (reality) too. So, when Hollywood Divas came to us it was a no-brainer. When I met Carlos King, the show’s Executive Producer, I was like, “Oh honey, I’m a believer! Whatever you think will work, I’m with it.” [laughs] So, I think it started with me, and then I mentioned Elise to Carlos. After adding her, they added Golden, then Countess. The only newbie to the show is, Lisa Wu.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming actors about staying relevant in show business?
I tell young actors all the time, “Be visible! Get out and about. Be seen.” For instance, I was at a Spike Lee event and ran back into Ernest Dickerson, one of my biggest mentors and supporters. Before that, I hadn’t seen Ernest since I last worked with Spike. After reconnecting at that event, Ernest has been casting me ever since; because I reminded him that I’m still around. If I stayed home that night, I wouldn’t have been able to do so many projects that he’s brought me onto. So when you’re young and want to be in this industry, socialization is necessary.
What’s next for you?
I booked a pilot called Recovery Road that got picked up by ABC Family, and it stars Sharon Leal, Kyla Pratt, and newcomer, Jessica Sula. It’s a beautiful thing to see four talented African-American women starring in one project because, you don’t get to see that very often. The show centers around Jessica’s character, who is a 16 year old recovering addict. I have to applaud ABC Family for highlighting an issue that tends to get ignored. Our teenagers are dying from various drug and alcohol addictions, and we have to stop glossing over it like it doesn’t exist. So, I am very proud of ABC Family for shedding light on this issue.
I’m also in a new Amazon Prime series, Hand of God, which was created by Ben Watkins. You may have seen Ben on Hollywood Divas? He was originally supposed to write, The White Sistas, but he had to pull away because of another job. Fortunately, my husband (Forrest Martin) stepped in to write, The White Sistas. The Hand of God show stars Ron Perlman.
Then there’s Family Time on BounceTV, that will be returning for our 3rd season. It stars Omar Gooding and Angell Conwell. Hollywood Divas will be premiering in July on TV One. I’m just thankful for every opportunity, and I appreciate all the work that I have.