“I got outta bed this morning ’cause I’ve got art to make!”
If life were a book, that’d be Shon Wilson’s title. Driven by passion and fueled by purpose, the rising actress is an artist’s artist. She’s the type of entertainer that puts passion before pay and turns dreams in do’s. A Brooklyn native and classically trained theatre actress performing since she can remember, Wilson is currently starring in the original play “When Lives Matter.”
Set against a Chicago backdrop and a tense racial climate, the play explores the effects of politics, race and police brutality through the eyes of two brothers on opposite sides of the law.
We caught up with the rising actress to discuss her latest project, life as a black woman in Hollywood and all things passion.
What made you want to pursue a career in acting?
It made the most sense. I’ve always been a functioning artist. My first toys were Fisher-Price musical instruments. My first formal artistic training was in ballet. I played in orchestra and band in school, sang with vocal ensembles and got my Bachelor’s degree in musical theatre.
When it came to selecting a career, I knew it’d be in performance. I think everyone knew that. And of all the things I love to do, acting was the one that, believe it or not, I felt provided the greatest chance for me to earn an income, if you’re open to doing more than just film and TV, that is. Paid theatre, industrials and voice over work were my bread and butter for the longest time.
What’s the most challenging thing about being a black actress in Hollywood?
It can be crazy challenging, no doubt but I think there are also advantages to being a black actress in Hollywood right now. This is actually a very exciting time for us. You look at what’s happening in television and how it’s influencing what’s being made in the movies. Black women are everywhere all of a sudden. When I first moved to Los Angeles from North Carolina in 2011, there were rarely any substantial roles for black women on television. Most shows, particularly the prime time offerings, had only one black character as a series regular and that one character was almost always male.
The very next year, Scandal hit ABC and everything changed. There is an awareness change in this industry that’s paving the way for black female artists like me to thrive in Hollywood. Suddenly everyone’s writing with us in mind.
Dreams are optional. A job is something everyone has to have, [but] a dream is something only a lucky few realize.
Talk a little about your most recent project “When Lives Matter.” What attracted you to the character of Phylicia Smith?
My character, Phylicia Smith, is a civil rights activist and lawyer who’s a regular panel guest on a Bill O’Reilly-style cable news show. And she’s a lot like me. When [the director] told me I was exactly what he was looking for, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Phylicia and I are both politically-minded, both overly articulate, both have very strong opinions on everything, which we don’t hesitate to share, and are both one part lady you love and one part tigress you fear (laughing). When I saw in the character description, “Think Taraji P. Henson attitude with Michelle Obama professionalism,” I was like, “That is me. I am her.”
A quote on your website reads, “I got outta bed this morning ’cause I’ve got art to make!” Do you feel as if you’re living your dream right now?
No, because for me it was never a dream. It was always a vocation, a calling, the thing I was put here to do, and so it became my career. Now if you asked me do I feel as if I’m working in my chosen field I would say, yes.
Most recently, I acted in two films where I played characters that are vastly different from Phylicia. One was a drama about sex trafficking and the other a satire on Hollywood and the cost of celebrity. I also write, direct and produce, which is a handy set of skills to have in a market as big as LA. Here, being able to generate your own material is a necessity and a luxury. Currently I’m producing an animated version of Red Riding Hood, voiced by an extremely talented group of actors that includes Groundlings Sunday Company member Georgia Dolenz. I love creating and then collaborating with other artists to bring a story to life.
The key to finding fulfillment is knowing who you are and what it is you want to do.
Hollywood can be such a superficial town. How do you select roles that will propel your career yet also fulfill you artistically?
The key to finding fulfillment is knowing who you are and what it is you want to do. There is no shortage of opinions in this town and if you don’t know which direction you want to go in, all the different voices out there will get you on the wrong path. But you have to be patient and willing to wait it out during those times when there is no work (which happens throughout a career, not just for newbies). You shouldn’t take just any role just to say you’re doing something.
You also have to have a reason for acting that goes beyond getting or keeping the approval of others. If you have your own reasons for doing whatever it is you do, it doesn’t matter how superficial anyone else is — not even the biggest power players in this industry or any other industry for that matter.
What would be your advice to anyone currently chasing a dream?
The most important advice I could give is to stop thinking of it as a dream. Dreams are ethereal in nature so it can often feel like something out there, outside of yourself, that you can only hope to someday reach. The other thing about that word “dream” is it has a connotation of optionality. Dreams are optional. A job is something everyone has to have, [but] a dream is something only a lucky few realize.
Think of it as your career. Know that it’s your calling and you have a right to work in your chosen capacity in your chosen field. You have a set of skills that you have not only a right use, but also an obligation to use. I always think, “God gave me this. I have to use it.” Whatever your skills or ambitions are, they come from inside of you. They’re in your DNA and in your consciousness. They’re not some thing out there somewhere that you have to try to get to or attain.
Now, you do have to work at your skills and work for what you want. Discipline is the difference between being a hoper and a doer. Being disciplined is you showing respect for what you’re trying to accomplish and it results in your gaining respect from others for how you do it.
For more information, or to purchase tickets to “When Lives Matter,” visit https://whenlivesmattertheplay.com/.