1. So, I reached out to you because I noticed that you were an actress.What is your major career focus?
My major career focus is film. I am a movie lover; from the age of ten I would create movie plots and act them out. I still do that today! I’m hoping to be recognized in the film industry before I am 25 years old. In 2014 I did about three short films, so this year I want to complete six short films. However, because I am still in school, I am focused on commercials since the shoot days are usually two days out the week so I won’t have to miss that many days of school. Last semester I did a commercial for H&R Block and only had to miss one day of school. I’m graduating from college this year, so soon as my diploma is handed to me I can pursue my goals in the film industry full-time.
2. Was your family always supportive of your career choice?
-My family has always been supportive of my career choice, however, they don’t want it to be my only career choice. In other words, my mother still hopes that I will become a doctor but I’m sure deep down she knows I’m going to be an actress. My parents are the ones who put me into acting school. I remember Saturday mornings, my dad would drive me to the city and take a nap in the car while I was in class. My parents and two older sisters came to all my plays and have even taken me to auditions. Last week I had an audition and a statistics test in the same day, so my mother drove me from Brooklyn to Manhattan at for a 2 minute audition! That is love, that is support, and I am grateful for it.
3. Have you encountered any problems with stereotyping during casting calls or in other aspects of acting?
-Not at all, most of the auditions I’ve been too were strictly looking for black females. Any other auditions I’ve been to that were looking for females of all races I usually got the lead for.
4. Do you think that there is a need for more diversity in the field of acting?
-Yes! There is a necessity for more diversity in the acting field. It’s a shame that many actors and actresses of color play the same type of roles, such as the slave, the cook, the best friend, and the first person to die in the movie. The list goes on, there was a time you could turn on the television and so many sitcoms starring black people were playing, such as The Fresh Prince, Martin, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, and now… the diversity is so scarce. Not only did these actors play your loveable black family, they were either middle class or upper class citizens. Not to mention they had amazing jobs, look at Bill Cosby, he played a doctor, and Uncle Phil played a judge. We need diversity because we need representation. We need individuals on the screen we can relate too. When you see a shampoo commercial and you have kinky hair such as myself how can you relate to the actress? When that actress with straight hair is complaining about her hair, we do not share the same hair struggle, so I cannot connect with the commercial. Don’t get me wrong, the diversity is progressing slowly but surely. We have more people of color playing lead roles such as Kerry Washington in Scandal, Gabrielle Union in Being Mary Jane, Quvenzhané Wallis in Annie, and now Rihanna in the new Dreamworks movie Home. I’m excited about the change, and hope it only develops from here.
5. What has been your proudest moment as an actress?
-That’s a tough question because I have a top three, but my first one would be getting my first manager. My manager is the mother of one of the actors from the nickelodeon show Victorious. Both of her kids have been on TV, and all of her clients are on shows that people watch today, national commercials, and even films. I auditioned for her twice. The first time was earlier in 2014, I wanted an agent, but I noticed some managers do the same thing an agent does and more. So I went to the first casting call, super nervous and was reciting a monologue in front of her employees next to two other kids reciting their monologue in the same room. You can only imagine how terrifying that was because there were three voices bouncing off the walls in the room and I was trying to listen to my own. Then I was asked to sing so I did, but I was already overwhelmed with the audition process half of me gave up. A week later I called to see if I would be one of their clients but they said “Not at this time.”, I was so sad!
So a few months later they posted their casting call again, and it was either go to six flags that day or the casting call. I told myself if I go to the casting call I have to get it! So I went, wore a colorful romper, hair in a fro-hawk , and this time we had to read a commercial. I auditioned in front of her, her son who was on Victorious, and a few of her other employee’s. This time it was only me reading and a few kids behind me waiting their turn. After I read my commercial, they asked me if I could sing. I said, “Yes, but I want to do something different for you today.”, I’ve been a stepper for 6 years, I was on my high school and college step team, so I whipped out a step routine and shook the room! They were in shock, and loved it! Three days later they emailed me and said they wanted to represent me. I was so excited! The fact that I had contracts to sign even made me happier, because it was everything I wanted. I gave it my all that day, I stayed confident and I didn’t let rejection from the first time stop me from trying again.
Being in this industry without representation from an agent or manager is extremely hard. The people you see on TV have representation, so when reality sunk in that I was one step closer to my dreams I was full of joy. Since being signed with the company they have sent me on huge auditions with big companies for commercials, I can’t say much, but just know I will be on your TV!
6. What about your life has you excited right now? (Could be an upcoming project, and inspiration, a trip, etc.)
-GRADUATING COLLEGE!!!!!!!!!!! Excited isn’t even the word. I’m graduating a whole year early, so I’ll have my bachelor’s degree at the age of 20 in exercise physiology, and seeing my parents so happy the day I walk across that stage will bring me everlasting bliss. Many people think that I’m lucky because I’m graduating so early, but they don’t understand the hard work I’ve had to put myself through in the past two years. I barely had summers because I was in school; my Christmas break was spent in school. Just imagine hot summer days when your friends are out and you have to study for an anatomy test every week. It has been a very stressful ride, but I made it through and got on the Deans List. In addition to graduating, I will be able to give my time to acting because I wont have 6 classes to deal with anymore!
7. Some would call you a role model because you have had success in a career that is not seen as typical for a brown woman. Do you feel that it is important for more woman of color to be represented in the arts?
- Women of color need to be represented in every field. We as women of color can do many things such as build a crib, teach a class, run a business, play a lead in a movie, and be a lawyer. Representation encourages others. When it comes to the arts, I relate to this so much just for the simple fact that representation has encouraged me. Someone said to me “Acting wont put food on the table.”, I responded “It puts food on Gabrielle Union’s table.”, then they said “That’s her, not that many people make it in the business.”, and I ended on this note, “I can be that person who does make it.” The reason I was able to defend myself so quickly is because I have representation in the media, Gabrielle Union represent me, so I know if she could do it…so can I.
8. What advice would you give an inspiring 'brown' actress?
-If acting is what you want, go for it! There will be people who think acting is a side job or that you wont make it, but don’t let the negativity consume you. Let go of any negative people in your life and surround yourself around people who support you as well as other actors. Actors will understand your struggle, will route for you, and even get you acting gigs. Network and save up money. You have to invest in your career physically, mentally, and emotionally. Lastly, auditions do not make or break your career. Go in and have fun, there will be a lot of “No’s”, but when you get that “Yes, you got the part.” Appreciate it, take in the moment, and be proud of yourself.
Want to support Shani Ashley? Make sure to check out her website, as well as her social media sites: