A UVA star is made: An interview with Khalilah Joi
Arts & Entertainment got the chance to sit down with Khalilah Joi, a University alumna (Col ‘01) and recent winner of ABC’s “Make Me a Star” contest. A native of Hampton, Va. Khalilah now has a one-year contract with ABC.
Arts & Entertainment: Did you always foresee yourself becoming an actor? What sparked your interest in acting?
Khalilah Joi: When I was at U.Va., I had no intention of going into acting. It had always been this whimsical notion that I kept in the back of my mind, but it seemed so far out of reach that I just didn’t give it much credence. I was an English major at U.Va. and planned to go into broadcast journalism. But while I was there I decided to join the Paul Robeson Players. It was a drama group started by a friend of mine and I joined for fun. It was really my first time acting since elementary school plays. We did scene study together and eventually went into rehearsals for the play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” but the production unfortunately never came together. I think that experience is what piqued my interest. I got such great feedback. I figured, “Hey, this is pretty cool.”
After that I took a couple drama courses, one with Gweneth West and another with Ishmail Conway. I got to explore acting in a way I never had before. And while it still wasn’t something I envisioned pursuing as a career; I had definitely been bitten.
After graduation, I took more acting courses at a community college and eventually at Studio Theatre Conservatory in D.C. That’s when it bloomed into something bigger and I realized acting was what I wanted to do professionally.
A&E: You’ve already acted in several movies (“Apollyon,” “Jonestown” and “He Can Get It,” to name a few) and a few plays as well. Could you tell us about your experience on set?
KJ: Outside of theater, my first gig was background work on the film, Head of State. I remember my call time was something like 10 p.m. I didn’t leave set until 5 a.m., and work the next day was a serious struggle. My other earlier projects were all super low-budget, which is very different from working on a professional set in L.A. Back then, it was more of an “everybody pitches in” mentality. The hours were long, pay was little or non-existent and you were just happy to be working.
A professional set is quite different. I usually get the call time a couple days before we start shooting. An actor’s point of contact on set is usually the first or second assistant director. Wardrobe fittings are typically done ahead of time so everything you need is there in your trailer when you arrive. First stop is hair and makeup. Once that’s done, if they’re not ready for you on set, you wait. There’s a lot of waiting as an actor. If the lighting’s not right or the set design needs tweaking, these things can take hours. So as actors we hang out in our trailer or with each other, maybe run lines, and just wait until the director is ready for you.
A&E: What happens after you’re done waiting?
KJ: Once you’re on a “hot set,” it’s all about the lighting and camera angles first. You kind of stand there while things happen around you. This is also a good time to check in with the director and make sure your intention for the scene and the character is on track with his or hers. Television, though, happens a lot faster and you sometimes don’t have as much opportunity for those kind of artistic discussions. Once the technical stuff is taken care of, it’s your turn to work. It may be for three or four takes or it may be 20 takes or more. There are so many factors that go into getting a take that the director is happy with. My goal as an actress is to stay focused, remain true to my intention for the character and the scene and deliver a good take every time.
Days on set are usually 10 to 12 hours, sometimes more. Even if you’re only shooting two or three pages of script, because of all the angles and setups and takes, it’s going to be a full day. There can be hours of downtime some days as well. It changes with every shoot. That’s one of the lovely things about being an actor: you never have the same workday twice.
A&E: How did you hear about ABC’s “Make Me a Star” competition?
KJ: I heard about the competition through Bechir Sylvain, a friend of mine who entered and won last year. He told me they were holding the competition again and lovingly demanded that I enter. I have to say, he was far more confident in my chances than I was. I figured it was a long shot and refused to get my hopes up. I actually procrastinated so long that I made the submission deadline with about 24 hours to spare.
A&E: What was the initial audition process like?
KJ: Once you registered for the competition online, ABC e-mailed us several audition scenes. I had to select a scene from those and put the scene on tape along with an introduction, which included answering one of four questions. My question was, “If you could be anyone in the world, who would it be and why?”
I submitted my first audition video around Thanksgiving 2013. A little less than a month later, I was informed that I was a semifinalist and that I had 72 hours to submit a second audition video choosing from just two scenes.
This was a serious time crunch for me because it was just before Christmas and I was flying home two days after I received the notification. I got it done and submitted my second audition video just in time. I second-guessed my performance for weeks. I wondered if I had made strong enough choices; I wondered if I should have chosen the other scene. Everything. Then came more good news, just after New Year’s. I received an email informing me I was a finalist.
A&E: What about the final process?
KJ: First I had to fill out about 20 pages of paperwork. Once you get to the third or fourth callback and are testing for a studio, you typically have to fill out the contract before hand, so the executives won’t have to deal with it after they’ve decided that they want you. But even after filling out the paperwork, I knew it wasn’t over. I was told the executives would be selecting a winner from the pool of finalists in the coming weeks.
After about three weeks of not hearing anything, I had given up the idea altogether. I knew that the winners were to be announced by the end of January. So by Jan. 29th, I had resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t me. Then came a phone call at 8 p.m. on Jan. 30th. I was informed that the casting executives had narrowed down the finalists and wanted to do one last interview with me the following morning via Skype. I was given several questions to prepare and needless to say, was a nervous wreck.
A&E: How did they tell you that you had won and how did you feel?
KJ: There were three people on the Skype call including the executive vice president of casting for all of ABC, Keli Lee. The conversation was casual enough. They asked me a few questions. Then Keli said, “Well, we just wanted talk to you and let you know that we really enjoyed your work and that YOU WON!”
A&E: What was your reaction to the incredible news?
KJ: To say that I was a deer in headlights is pretty accurate. There was a lot of babbling on my part, thank-you’s, and then tears. I was a complete mess…shock, joy, gratitude, relief…in a word overwhelmed. I cried like a baby when I got off the Skype call. It was so nice to have my work validated in that way. It was one of the happiest moments of my life so far.
A&E: Winning the competition means a year-long contract with ABC. Do you have any idea where you’ll be placed or what you’ll be acting in?
KJ: At this point, it’s just a matter of finding a show that’s the right fit for me. I went out on some great pilot auditions I probably would never had gone on otherwise and I’ve built some really good relationships with major casting directors. So, for now I just have to wait and see where they think I’ll fit in their programming. But it’s an incredible feeling to know I have an entire network on my side, pushing for me and helping make my dreams come true.
A&E: Following that, if you could act with anybody in any show or movie, who would it be?
KJ: This is a pretty long list. My number one is Meryl Streep, though. Although, I’m not sure I could stop staring at her long enough to actually be in a scene with her. She is everything I’d like to be as an actress, in terms of her talent and longevity. I have never seen a performance of hers that was not absolutely captivating.