After guest appearances on television shows such as Black-ish, Being Mary Jane, Queen Sugar and The Family Business, Florida native Khaneshia “KJ” Smith burst onto the big screen with a role in Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Funeral movie, followed by a leading role on Perry’s BET television series Sistas. Smith recently chatted with The Knockturnal about her journey from Florida to become one of Tyler Perry’s leading ladies on TV.
The Knockturnal: Can you please talk about first meeting Tyler Perry, what was that experience like?
KJ Smith: So when I first met with Tyler Perry it was on the set of the movie Madea’s Family Funeral, it was literally day one of shooting the movie. It was like seeing Santa Claus it was unreal it was a myth, it was like wait this guy really exist, this is really my boss, and he really hired me to work with him. It was just a lot of disbelief when I first met with him and it doesn’t help that he is tall, he’s like 6’5 or something ridiculous. So it’s like this almost god-like being that hired you for the role of your life, the role that’s gonna change your life. It was shocking, scary, exciting and unreal.
The Knockturnal: So you go from starring in Madea’s Family Funeral to Sistas. Can you talk about that transition and how did you get the role of Andi on Sistas?
KJ Smith: Well I did a lot of roles in between Madea’s Family Funeral [and Sistas]. People forget that movie (Madea’s Family Funeral) was [filmed] three years ago. So that was kind of what got my start. And then I did a ton of other roles in between that time. Those are the roles that actually helped me prepare for the role of Andi, because I was able to kind of find myself, to find my voice and really find what I wanted to do. The role of Andi was a dream of a lifetime. I’ve always wanted to portray someone who black women specifically could relate to because growing up I didn’t necessarily feel like I had someone I could relate to on television. I think Andi is that for me and Andi is what I would have wanted to see when I was growing up. So it’s a role of a lifetime. Basically, I auditioned for another role in one of Tyler’s other projects, and he cast me. Then I showed up to the auditions to help with the rest of the cast, and he was like KJ I have something else for you, and I was like what was going to be better than this, what is better than what you already cast me in. And sure enough, it was my dream role. It’s my dream role.
The Knockturnal: How did you build a bond, a connection with the rest of the cast?
KJ Smith: We had a lot of time together. We were together for what almost felt like 24 hours a day for at least a month. I think that’s how we were able to form a genuine bond. The cool part about us that I love, and what makes us work and just like what makes anyone work in any relationship is that we love each other for who we are. We are so very different. We are four very, very, very different women. I can’t emphasize that enough and it’s so funny because we laugh at each other’s differences. We enjoy each other’s differences. We’ll be like that’s your thing, that ain’t my thing. And it’s like yeah she right that is my thing. So we don’t have expectations from each other besides loving on each other and transparency and honesty. We were able to form a bond relatively quick because we went through something together. I think anytime you go through something with a group of people, you’re going to form a bond like no other, and you have a bond like no one else in this world. It’s like if you’re in a fraternity or a sorority or an organization or if you went to the army together and you were in boot camp together or you grew up in the same household. It’s like those types of bonds because you go through the same type of thing. So we have a lifetime bond that this is gonna be something undeniable for the rest of our lives.
The Knockturnal: And so as you’re playing the character of Andi, what surprised you about the character?
KJ Smith: I think my biggest surprise is the depth of with she’ll go to for love I think in a society, especially 2020, where everyone is jaded about love. Love is such a taboo. No one wants to take a chance. No one wants to take a risk. And I think she shows people like, oh, love is not always pretty. And sometimes love doesn’t make any sense. And so that really surprised me about her character, because I’m a hopeless romantic like my character. But I find sometimes I’m being practical, like just trying to make sense of it all. I feel like Andi falls headfirst in love with a person, and now she’s trying to figure out if she needs to get out or if this is real. So it’s always surprising when you see someone just fall into love and continue to fall into love instead of playing it safe like most people do.
The Knockturnal: And so how would you like to see Andi grow?
KJ Smith: That’s a really great question. I would like to see Andi let her hair down a little bit more. She does it occasionally, and then she gets in her head about stuff, which is very similar to who I am. Art imitates life. So I would love to see Andi’s character let her hair down a little bit more and not take things so seriously. I would love to see her have a little bit more balance in her relationships and in life and make better choices when choosing a mate.
The Knockturnal: Now being that Sistas is filmed at Tyler Perry Studios which has soundstages named after legends, how does that inspire you?
KJ Smith: What it does is it makes me dream bigger. It makes me want to have my name on a soundstage. It makes me want to have my own soundstage my own studio. It makes me think of the people who came before me that didn’t have it easy that they weren’t the only black face on TV. They were the only black person in that studio. They were the only black person in that neighborhood. So it makes me want to go harder and dream bigger because these people came and paved the way and they didn’t do it for naught they didn’t do it for nothing. So I have to do my part for my culture. That’s important to me. If I do nothing else, I’m gonna do my part for my people.
The Knockturnal: And so with the show being such a success system for me and such success and goal number one and getting things amazing, millions of viewers talk about your role in the success of the show. What have you done specifically in promoting the success of that show?
KJ Smith: I think the show is successful because we’re real at the end of a day. Me and my sisters display our real-life bond which is a real thing. It’s not at all fake. When we’re on Instagram when Ebony who plays the role of Karen really does stay at my house and our experiences together in real life, people are like this is a real relationship. We show our similarities to everyone in this world, not just everyone in the United States of America. We get messages from women all over the world who are like, oh, my gosh, me and my best friend are just like this, me and my best friend are just like that. And when we show that we are black women [in] relationships and our relationship with each other are very similar to women all across this world. I think that has made our show wildly successful. Me specifically, I think that people are really able to relate to me as a person in general because I tell people all the time I started from the bottom. I grew up in a small town in a tiny neighborhood in the hood of my small town. Now I live in Hollywood and I’m living my dream and I work with an icon in this industry. I tell my story so that people can understand I’m a real person and I’m no different from them. I think when people get that message, they really, can relate they really feel me. They really see themselves in me and see if I really am diligent if I’m really consistent, to see you can overcome every single obstacle, put in your way. Listen I can go into all the details about what could or should have happened to me growing up, how I could have been another statistic growing up but I’m not going to because I didn’t. I chose another path and I’m imploring the young women looking up to me to choose another path, and the women my age range and the older women. I’m inspiring older women this seventy-year-old woman said you gonna make me get back in the gym. I said baby do it, let’s go!
The Knockturnal: And so how do you stay grounded in the entertainment industry and what are some of your self-care practices? I know the entertainment industry can be kind of complex and become stressful and demanding. So how do you stay grounded in the industry?
KJ Smith: You know, I tell people all the time, I didn’t really start seeing success in my career until I found a tribe in the industry and your tribe, the people that you’re with the most they have to be grounding. They have to be supportive yet they have to be your “no” people. They have to be the ones that are like nope, that’s not good for you. That doesn’t make any sense. What’s best for you? They have to be your people that are your voice of reason is what I found. And it was difficult to try to make my family, those people because I love my family, but they have no clue what’s going on out here. They don’t know. They think it’s all glitz and glam and like Oh, my gosh, you’re on TV. So it definitely helps having a tribe in the industry that’s honest and has integrity and that has dignity. And that you all have each other’s best interests at heart. A lot of us of in my tribe we don’t have family out here. So we are each other’s family. We look out for each other. So I would implore someone if they wanted to make sure they stay grounded, is to find a tribe in their particular field that will hold them accountable and also push them to higher heights you know, encourage them when they’re down and vice versa. And then you do the same for them as well.
The Knockturnal: And so is there a moment that, you knew, that you want to be an actress?
KJ Smith: All my life, The question is when is the moment that I stopped fighting my true destiny? And when I stopped fighting my true destiny was in graduate school at Florida A&M University, they put me in front of a camera. And the feeling that I got in front of that camera when I was reporting live for our A&M homecoming show is like a feeling I will never forget. But it was a feeling I recall having when I was 5, and 6 and 7 and 8, 9 and 10 years old. When you’re a child, you know, people start making it seem like your dreams are unrealistic. So you hide and you fight it and you dim your light. So when I stopped dimming my light, when I stopped fighting my true destiny and my true calling was when I was in graduate school and I moved out to LA and the rest is history.
The Knockturnal: So besides your role on Sistas, what have been some of the other roles that stood out to you that you’ve played?
KJ Smith: I think Kori Rucks on Dynasty, was really a great role for me. It changed my life because I played a city commissioner of Atlanta on that show. [There was] this guy when my character was first introduced he said, “Allow me to introduce you to a woman who actually worked hard for her money.” Because I was the commissioner and I didn’t come from a family of money I again started from the bottom and then I ended up becoming the city commissioner. So it was a really empowering role for me. And it was a role where I went head to head against a person who was entitled and a person who didn’t really work for their wealth. I had kind of a chip on my shoulder like oh no you don’t run nothing around here. I’m the boss over here. So it’s sort of really nice to just play a boss. And then the next thing that was kind of pivotal in my career was when I was the lead of Tales and I was on The Ex Factor episode, which is based on Lauryn Hill’s song Ex-Factor, and I played a woman who was an architect who really had a serious dilemma with two lovers, which we often find that we know or at least on television is portrayed, that men have that dilemma. Well the relationships were reversed and they did that on purpose and it was on a television show that’s mostly Hip-Hop driven. I had a strong R&B vulnerable loving episode that was really dynamic when compared to the rest of the series, and I was really proud of that. I feel like it changed the game for the series and changed my life. [It was] one of the things that kind of changed the trajectory of my career and it was my first, really really big leading role besides Madea’s Family Funeral.
The Knockturnal: What else can we expect from you in the future? What else do you have coming up?
KJ Smith: A lot of stuff, but to be perfectly honest I can’t say too much. I can share something that has already been announced, a movie on Netflix called Fatal Affair. It stars Omar Epps and Nia Long; which Long is also a producer. I was handpicked and I’m really excited about it. Everything else is under wraps and hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t speak on it. Just know I have great things coming in the near future.