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Interview: Sergio Talks to Vanessa Bell Calloway About Career, Being a Survivor in the Business, Reality TV and More

Interview: Sergio Talks to Vanessa Bell Calloway About Career, Being a Survivor in the Business, Reality TV and More

It’s almost impossible not to have seen
veteran actress Vanessa Bell Calloway in a film or TV show over the past 30 years.
One of the most versatile and hardest working actresses in Hollywood, Ms.
Calloway is a familiar presence that many have literally grown up with – nearly
120 film and TV credits to her name, and even more coming.

One of her current projects is the TV
One movie “To Hell and Back” directed by Christine Swanson, which premieres this
Easter Sunday on the network. The film, in which Ms. Calloway co-stars with
Ernie Hudson, is a modern day retelling of the Book of Job, which follows a successful
businessman and father whose life falls apart
after a series of tragic events, yet retains his faith despite incredible
hardships.

Last week I had a chance to talk to Ms.
Calloway about her career, what it takes
to survive in this tough business all these years, her opinions about reality
shows, and if she considers herself a trailblazer. And as you will see, she’s as honest and down
to earth as you can imagine she would be.

SERGIO: Let me start off by saying
that you are that very rare example in Hollywood – actual working actress. Not
many can make that claim. You’ve been in this business for a very long and have nearly 120 film and TV credits to your name. You’re a real survivor in
the business. What’s your secret?

CALLOWAY: Well I do consider myself a
survivor. Because it does take a lot of hard work. I don’t know if there’s a rhyme
or a reason or a secret or a formula. But I do know that you have to stay well-grounded
and work very hard at what you do on a regular basis. I always tell these young
actors that getting a job is easy, but getting the next one is hard (laughs). Building a resume takes a lot of work and you just have to go for what
you know, and understand that you’re not going to get everything, and that doesn’t
mean that you’re not working. It means that, that wasn’t your particular project, and then you go on to the next one. And when you’re presented with
opportunities. you try to make the best of them as you can. You don’t worry
about, “Oh this is going to be an award
winning thing for me.” All you can do is make sure that you’re as good as you can be at the moment, that time,
that space, and it always has a kind of way of working itself out. So that’s my secret.
I just keep going. I stay focused and I just keep going.

SERGIO: So you think that younger
actors you have met and worked with don’t have that same sort of attitude or reality
about the profession?

CALLOWAY: Some
do. I have met some very bright, young talent. They get it. They study, they’re
hard workers and they’re dedicated. But then I’ve met some who you would call
reality stars, who sense all they have to do is to be cute and act a hot mess, and that will make them a star. Some get it and some don’t. Look at some of my peers who sort of fell by the
wayside. Maybe they didn’t get it the way I got it.

SERGIO: Well that leads me to the
obvious question – why did you go into acting in the first place?

CALLOWAY: Well
I’m a dancer as well. I started out as a modern dancer. I danced for years. I
danced with companies. I danced on Broadway, so I’ve been creative all my life.
You know I don’t think we choose things. I think things choose us. You have to listen
to yourself and see where you can contribute, and we have to answer that for ourselves.
No one can answer that for us. So I wanted to act and dance and sing since I
can remember. Even my mother says I came out of the womb dancing (laughs), so I
think acting chose me, I didn’t choose it.

SERGIO: And what attracted you to “To
Hell and Back”?

CALLOWAY:: Well
Christine Swanson is someone who I have worked with before and wanted to work
with again. And I have a relationship with TV One with a project that I
produced myself, and I’m one who thinks that relationships, especially in this business,
are very important. So when I read the script it was very dark at times
and made me say “Oh My God!”. But what I liked about it is that it deals with a
question that all of us have dealt with in our lives, definitely something that
I’ve dealt with in my personal life, about the importance of faith in our lives.
I always tell my children to be patience in faith. You have to have the faith to know
that God has got you and the patience to let him do his thing. And for me, I
know that my faith has been tested on several occasions in my life and this
movie reminds me of my patience and my faith. How much faith do I have? How
much patience do I have? How much can we take? And my character gives up, though
her husband keeps his faith while she loses her. So it was a
lot of things that got me interested. It’s relevant to what we’re going through
today and I commend TV One for doing more faith based programming. We’ve had
enough of the reality show stuff – the hollering and screaming and calling
people names. There’s enough of that on TV already, so I think it’s great to see programming of a more spiritual nature.

SERGIO: So I take it that you’re not
a fan of the reality show stuff?

CALLOWAY: Well
I say this – I don’t think I have the right to question anyone on how they make
their money. None of my business. I make my money the way I make my money, and
they make their money the way they make their money. But at the end of the day, everyone
wants to be on the big screen, so it’s not surprising to me that people take
those jobs because of the result of it. That’s what everybody wants. They all
want the same thing and they just have a different way of getting there. They
want to be known, they want to be famous, they want to be a celebrity. So I don’t
have the right to judge or to say that their route is better than my route to
getting there. But certain
genres of reality TV, no, I’m not a fan of. Reality shows that are productive
and bring joy to people’s lives, like that show where they build houses for poor
people, that gives people hope and makes them grow, and feel better about
themselves, makes them more in touch with themselves, those shows I
like. But the shows where women are sitting around and calling each other names, and throwing water in their faces, I don’t particularly care for those and I don’t
have to. They’re still going to do great without my support and they
do.

SERGIO: As a black actress, do you
feel that you have a certain responsibility to go after roles that, shall we
say, show us in a “positive” light, or you don’t concern yourself with that?

CALLOWAY: The
main responsibility I feel is towards myself. I don’t feel that because I’m a
black actress I have a certain responsibility. My responsibility is that I am a
person, a mother and a wife. My responsibility for myself is that I’m not going
to do anything that makes me feel bad, or that makes me look bad or makes my
husband cringe, my children look at me as if I was crazy, or my mother look at me like, “What the hell you were thinking?” (laughs) I always
tell people that once my husband signs off on it, the hell with everybody else. And
the few things that I have done in my life that were questionable, when I
was younger, a love scene or something like that. I talked it over with my husband and if he
was O.K. with it, I gave myself permission to do it. Even though my children
were young, but I knew one day they would grow up and I could explain it to
them, and that when they got old enough they could see what I didn’t want them
to see when they were younger. But that’s what it’s always been about for me as an
actress and a woman. I’m not Mother Teresa, so I don’t think anyone really
cares about my choices (laughs). But it turns out that my choices have been good
for me and my family and I feel good about the things I’ve done.

SERGIO: So you believe that black
actors just shouldn’t worry, and instead do what they think is right, and take whatever roles they
think are right for them, and not worry about people may think?

CALLOWAY: It’s
called acting. And that doesn’t mean, because you’re playing
a lesbian in a movie you are (laughs). If you’re O.K with playing a lesbian,
then you’re a lesbian that day. That’s acting. And if you’re a lesbian and you’re
playing a lesbian, then more power to you (laughs). What matters is if the parts
speak to you. I’ve had to play the wife to actors that I wouldn’t even go out
on a date with. It’s called acting. And that’s what you have to keep the
reality of. My job is to tell a story and make it believable, and that’s what I
do.

SERGIO: This may be a bit unfair, but do you consider yourself a trailblazer? When you look at black actresses today, who
are making such a big mark in the business, such as Viola Davis and Kerry
Washington, for example, you blazed a trail for them would you say?

CALLOWAY: Well
me and some other actress who were out there just grinding out, trying to get
some parts, trying to show people that we could act, that we could get into the
characters. Yeah I guess you could say that. Just like actresses such as
Diahann Carroll and Leslie Uggams trailblazed for me; who laid a path for
us, and who I had the pleasure to work with when I was a young
actress, and they would sit down and tell me stories on the set. They blazed a
trail for me, and that’s what it’s all about right? To make it better for the next generation to
come.

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