Many of you may know actress Kellita Smith from her five years as Wanda McCullough on the hit Fox series The Bernie Mac Show. What some of you may not know is that there is more to Kellita then just that series.
She began her career in theater and was twice nominated for an NAACP Theatre Award and won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the production Feelings in 1996.
On the small screen, she’s made appearances on series such as Martin, Living Single, The Jamie Foxx Show and played the First Lady in the short lived comedy The First Family.
On the big screen, she’s starred in Roll Bounce, Three Can Play That Game and will be seen in the upcoming film The Man in 3B which hits theaters on November 6th.
Currently, she stars as Roberta Warren in the hit Syfy zombie series Z Nation.
We sit down with the busy actress to talk about Z Nation, why there is such a fascination with zombies and what is was like to work with the late great Bernie Mac.
Pop Culture Principle – For those who haven’t seen Z Nation, can you tell us the basic premise of the series?
Kellita Smith – The first season starts out in the third year after the apocalypse has started, which is a zombie virus that has broken out, and it causes mayhem and no one was prepared for it. Wherever you were when it all broke out is kind of how your life has to begin again.
Roberta Warren was a lieutenant in the Missouri National Guard, and for her it started on base. From there she has to kind of learn what to do in such an uncouth and unprepared kind of life-changing event. It’s so wild to think your life could shift in such a dramatic way. Roberta teams up with a group of people in the first season, and ends up creating a group of people who start working together.
Along comes this mission called Delta X-ray led by Lt. Hammond, who’s played by Harold Perrineau, and Keith Allan who plays Murphy. Murphy happens to be injected with the vaccine for the zombie virus cure and the goal is to get him to the CDC in California, starting out in New York.
Along the way we lose several people, including Lt. Hammond in the beginning, and ended up losing Charles Garnett, which then became the rise and resurrection of the leadership of Roberta Warren. This leads us to Season Two where Roberta is the leader of the group.
Pop Culture Principle – Before Z Nation, you did five seasons of The Bernie Mac Show and one season of The First Family. Was it a conscious decision to take on a role that was completely different from your previous work?
Kellita Smith – I kind of want to say yes, but unemployment will make you do a lot of things! But yes because, for me, you want to be able to know that you can do both comedy and drama. A lot of my theatrical awards and recognition happen to be in the theater for drama. Comedy is something that has afforded me life, basically. It’s something that I do have naturally, and stand-up is something that I am working on since the passing of Bernie Mac.
This role came to me in a very interesting way, and I had limited information. All I had were sides for the character to audition with. I didn’t have a script or a backstory, but it just spoke to me in such a way that I was very excited to do this character.
Pop Culture Principle – Roberta Warren is a very physical and demanding role. How did you prepare for the physicality of the role?
Kellita Smith – Sit-ups and I stopped eating French fries! I dabbled in martial arts and fencing in my spare time. In an actor’s career you have ups and downs, and what I have learned to do in the down moments is to find another art form to play in. I just want to expose myself to other forms of art, and self-defense was one of them. Taw Kwon Do and Woo Shoo were a natural for me, and fencing was something that I was always curious about.
It’s such a refreshing surprise for people to see me in this role, and I do my own stunts. From what I hear there isn’t an African American stuntwoman in the northwest so I am able to do my own stunts, which is great.
Pop Culture Principle – With all the amazing sets, zombies and locations in Z Nation, do they also help you get into character?
Kellita Smith – It makes me believe we have a problem and have to go! There are actors that can put it all in their head and can do acting with a green screen, but I am not one of them. You have to give me everything and then I can believe what we are doing and it’s real for me. The taste, the smell, the moment-to-moment reactions, all become common. Those elements are now the richness of believability. What the special effects and make-up people do to create the authentic and very eccentric look of these zombies is nuts, especially this season. Not to talk about the other show that has zombies, but we are kicking that in the rear right there. The creativity is nuts and amazing.
Pop Culture Principle – There is a scene in Episode One where Roberta Warren was just about to give up and hears a girl crying for help who is being attacked by zombies. To say Roberta kicked ass in that scene is an understatement. How did you prepare for that particularly emotional and physically demanding scene?
Kellita Smith – When I read that I thought it was amazing. For me as an actor, the levels that scare me are the levels that I love to play. To prepare for that scene takes a lot. You have to honestly feel what it means to almost want to give up in life, and I’ve felt that before and to make a decision about where do I want to be and who would I be disappointing.
Murphy is the mission and, for Roberta, her purpose is to make sure that this vaccine is the reality and available. So, hearing that little girl gives Roberta purpose again. It was so fun to do that scene and the zombies were extras and not even stunt people, so their willing to play is phenomenal.
Pop Culture Principle – With a show as demanding, intense, and rough as Z Nation, do you take any of that home with you when not on set?
Kellita Smith – What I do is, as soon as I walk in the door, I drink a glass of wine and then I take a shower. It’s almost as if I am washing off the work while I am in the shower. The truth of the matter is that it’s pretend and we are playing. In order to immerse yourself, the elements around me help me believe and, for a half a day, I am in it. The rest of the half of that day, I give my permission to be the truth of who I am, which is Kellita. Roberta is someone I am growing into and she’s bigger than me because Kellita would have killed herself a long time ago!
Pop Culture Principle – Many are comparing Z Nation to the AMC series The Walking Dead. What are your thoughts on the comparisons, and what do you think separates Z Nation from The Walking Dead?
Kellita Smith – You know, I think the humor we have in our show is a stand-out separation between the two shows, and I also feel that we move faster. I think our characters are a lot more vivid and I think our show actually gives hope of surviving such an atrocity as the apocalypse. For me, watching The Walking Dead, I really don’t want to do it and I wouldn’t be able to make it.
Pop Culture Principle – Why do you think there is such a fascination with zombies and shows like Z Nation?
Kellita Smith – I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea there was such a zombie culture out there. I had no clue because I have been in the world of comedy. I think it stems from horror, and people like to deal with Halloween and are fascinated with being scared to death and then knowing that everything is okay. Even though my character is a badass, Kellita knows nothing about that world. We did our first Comic Con in July and I have to tell you that I was just amazed at all the people and all of them being dressed up. It was a great experience, and it really opened my eyes to all of the people that pay attention to horror, comics ,and superheroes.
Pop Culture Principle – You also have a film coming out soon called The Man in 3B. What can you tell us about this project and your character, Detective Anderson?
Kellita Smith – We shot that a while ago, and the original story is by Karl Webber who is the author and the founder of Urban Books. He got together with Tri Destined Studios and Tracey Moore and they put together a great cast of people that I’ve known most of my career.
My character is a detective, which is something that, up until now, people only saw me as a wife of someone or someone’s side chick, and these people gave us all opportunities to play roles that we’ve probably never gotten but deserved to get. I am part of the investigation of finding out who murdered the man in 3B, and I probably shouldn’t.
Lamman Rucker’s character is the man in 3B, and it’s a wonderfully-written mystery. It’s a whodunit and why, and I had a great time working on the project.
You can watch the trailer for The Man in 3B here.
Pop Culture Principle – You played Wanda McCullough for five seasons on The Bernie Mac Show. What was your experience like working on that series and working with the late Bernie Mac?
Kellita Smith – Oh God, I miss him. That’s how great it was. It was amazing, and Bernie was a class act. There was an era of men that are few and far between now. He was a classy man, always well-dressed, always on time, and courteous to everyone. He was always humble and gracious to anyone who stepped on our set. He was one of those people who embodied what it meant to be a king. His creativity was nuts and, even though it was his show, he just knew timing so well and he just had a plethora of things he could rattle off at any time. You always had to be on your toes working on the show.
The kids were great and one of the amazing things is that we had a small hand in watching and helping those kids grow. He was helping me start out with standup, and part of me feels like I owe it to him to follow this little dream—and I’ll keep you all posted.
Pop Culture Principle – You also do a lot of work for cancer awareness for African American women and ending violence towards women. Can you tell us about that?
Kellita Smith – I love those women. It’s called The Women of Athens and it’s the group that I originated my philanthropic endeavors with. Cancer can be a lonely journey, and all these women want is to know that they matter. Their spirits are so brave and inspiring, but there has been a disservice by the medical community towards them. That’s what broke my heart the most, and that’s what made me want to be an advocate for them. I’ve raised money for them, I’ve done charity events, and I set up a version of the Vagina Monologues of their stories called God’s Perfect Nectar, and I put it on stage. I have famous actors do the narration for them. They’ve inspired me to make sure that anyone that I come across knows that they matter.
We would like to thank Kellita Smith for taking time out of her schedule to talk with us. You can catch brand new episodes of Z Nation every Friday night at 10/9c only on Syfy. The Man in 3B hits theaters on November 6th. If you would like to keep up with all of Kellita’s latest news and projects, you can follow her via her official Twitter account @KellitaSmith1.