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Sharon Leal on Faith, Being Black in Hollywood and the Tyler Perry Effect

Sharon Leal_cover

Photo Credit: SharonLeal.com

Sharon Leal is one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. Her acting work on Broadway (Miss Saigon, Rent), on television (Guiding Light, Boston Public) and in film (Dreamgirls, Why Did I Get Married?) shine as testaments to her versatility. Collectively, her film projects have amassed over $300 million in box office receipts.

In the midst of a promotional campaign for Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the Seventh Day, a T.D. Jakes film directed by Neema Barnette [theatrical release, April 13; DVD release, September 4], Sharon Leal managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with AllHipHop.com. Leal reflects on the marketing of African-American films, the power of Tyler Perry’s brand, and the faith required to succeed in Hollywood:

AllHipHop.com: Your acting resume is incredibly diverse – with professional experiences in several fields: television, Broadway, film, and music. Walk me through your transitions between these worlds. In what ways do they interconnect?

Sharon Leal: Let’s start from the very beginning. As a kid, I always gravitated towards music and singing. My big dream was to sing and do all of that, and to perform. My mother lived in the Philippines. I was there with her. I was a very shy kid. When I was in – I think it was nursery school – there was a school play, and my teachers and my parents were kind of concerned that I was so shy. Here was a chance to get up on stage and dance and sing. I just kind of came alive. So, as far back as I can remember, for some reason I was comfortable in doing anything that had to do with performing. I grew up in Fresno, California, and we kind of lived on the wrong side of the tracks. My parents didn’t have a lot of money. A very blue-collar family. I had a sixth grade teacher who saw something in me. She called my mother, and asked her if she would be okay with filling out a form to go to school with all the rich kids, on the rich side of town, where I could join an arts program or a magnet program, a gifted and talented program.  She was the reason why I even got introduced to the performing arts world.  I did that six, seventh and eighth grade.

Then in high school, I went to Performing Arts High School.  I felt comfortable there. And I really wanted to figure out what all this was about. The very first accessible venue was musical theater and stage stuff. My big dream, initially, was to just get to Broadway.  I went to an open call in San Francisco right out of high school, and booked a show called Ms. Saigon in New York. That was how I got to New York, and I started my Broadway career. I didn’t really think about acting until I went to an audition for a national tour of a show. I didn’t get the job, but one of the casting directors at the table pulled me aside after the audition and hooked me up with an agent. After that, I pretty much found myself auditioning as an actress. So I started taking lessons. I found a coach. And I got the TV soap Guiding Light, which I always say – though it was at the very beginning of my career – was a great way to start because you just really get thrown into the trenches, and all of a sudden, you’re shooting a show in a day and learning the technical aspects, camera work, and all of that stuff. 

The soap was there to kind of get that crash course. Then I kept auditioning, and I think right after the soap or during the soap, I booked Rent on Broadway. And then I expanded and got my first primetime show at what used to be UPN. It was a period piece. That moved me to L.A., and at the end of my first pilot season, I booked Boston Public, a television show. I never really tried to put too much pressure on myself. It was just one of those things where things sort of seamlessly move from one to the other, and I welcomed every single opportunity. Nowadays, you really don’t have to pick. There isn’t a real discrepancy between one or the other, because you can just do what you love, and people are receptive towards that.

AllHipHop.com:  Yes. And the response has been quite wonderful!

Sharon Leal: I was on Boston Public for a few years. I was also guest starring in things. Then I auditioned for Dreamgirls. Dreamgirls was my first big movie. That was probably the biggest highlight of my career, because that just seemed like such a long shot. I hadn’t done feature film before, and all of a sudden, I was working alongside some of the industry’s biggest names. I kind of felt like a silent, stalker fan on the set. I just couldn’t believe I was there. I think that movie just opened up doors for film. That’s how I got to do the next few things that I did. I always kept my eyes open about television. You just kind of go back and forth. I feel so blessed and just lucky to be able to sustain a livelihood doing this, because it’s a tough business, for sure, and you hear people say it all the time. But I just have so much gratitude for every single job that I get. Every single job.

AllHipHop.com: Although there has been a great deal of talk about the risk of financing African-American film projects, three of your movies have done extraordinarily well at the box office: This Christmas ($50 million), Why Did I Get Married ($55 million), and Dreamgirls ($150 million). Please share a personal experience or professional lesson that you pulled from the set of each film.

Sharon Leal: Sure. I think I should just touch upon what you are saying about the numbers. Across the board, African-American people talk about how White people completely underestimate the fact that we do have the biggest number of movie-going stats. There are a lot of Black people that go to the theater, so that is a testament to that fact – the point is that we should be making content that is geared towards African-Americans, or that at least is inclusive, because the numbers are out there to go out to see the movies. And so, there are a lot of people that are now keen to that fact. But, it’s like: “Hello, that’s been a fact forever!” When there are movies that are geared towards us, we come out and we support.

AllHipHop.com: Oh, yes! I distinctly remember all of the hype when Waiting to Exhale came out! Black women packed the house! [laughter]

Sharon Leal: Yes! [laughter] There was so much hype and excitement and support for that particular movie, and that’s never changed. That’s always been true. With Dreamgirls, I felt like a fly on the wall, and just watched the way people worked. I tried to learn as much as I could from my cast mates, and they made me better. I think I take that sentiment with me on every set that I’m on. And This Christmas and Why Did I Get Married have proved that as well. That is what it is. When you’re part of a primarily African-American project, there is this sense of responsibility that you feel to put forth something of quality. And it’s just different because we, culturally, really come together with a strong kind of passion for each other, and it just feels like this sort of family effort. And you just know what a big responsibility it is to deliver whatever it is that you’re doing. I feel it more so than some of the other things that I’ve been involved with.  I think it’s a different sense of responsibility.

This Christmas was just the biggest party ever. Loretta Devine. Regina King. Idris Elba. Columbus Short. Lauren London. Keith Robinson. Chris Brown. It just didn’t end. The chemistry existed right away from the gate when we started shooting. We had so much fun on set, off set. And it shows, I think, when you watch the movie. You can really feel the chemistry, and it was just an amazing experience. And Why Did I Get Married – for me personally, I don’t think I fully realized the Tyler Perry machine. Those two movies – Why Did I Get Married and the second installment – were really what put me on the map in terms of my core fans. My Black fans, they know me from those two movies, so what Tyler gave me was just visibility. That was just a force that I did not even completely realize.

AllHipHop.com: I don’t think anybody was truly ready! [laughter]

Sharon Leal: And people wondered. They said: “Wait until this movie comes out.” And I said: “What are you talking about?” And it was absolutely true. Those two movies are why anybody knows who I am. I’m forever grateful to Tyler, and he does that for many people. He really puts people on the map, just because of those sheer numbers. People flock to the theaters to see his films. That kind of passion and enthusiasm from an audience is a monster. That’s what I attribute to those two films. Obviously, working with Janet Jackson was really exciting. And Tasha Smith, who is a dear friend of mine now. That whole cast — we were all very close. That felt like camp, especially the first movie when we had to go up in the snow and hang out. It felt like we were on some kind of camping trip. But the wonderful thing is every single job has brought something really special to my life, whether it be a friendship or some huge lesson.

AllHipHop.com: While on set for Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day, you had the opportunity to work alongside Pam Grier.

Sharon Leal: Oh, my goodness! [laughter] We were so excited when we heard she was coming aboard. I think she came the second week of shooting, so we had a full week to let it all percolate. Everybody was anticipating her arrival. And when she showed up on the set, she had such a tremendous presence in the sense that she has a lot to say. You don’t sit near Pam and not hear something profound or something relevant or something that you should be aware of. That’s kind of her role. That imagery and strong presence she is known for is real. It was really exciting to be in the presence of someone who really paved the way for giving many Black women a sense of power, sex appeal, and strength.

AllHipHop.com: When you look back over the years, is there a particular life event – or series of events – of which you are most proud?

Sharon Leal:  The biggest thing that has added to what I take from this experience – and this may surprise people – is what it has done for my faith: my faith in myself, my determination, my willingness to fight for what it is that I want. To stand up for myself, even just silently. I’m not even talking about making noise. Just within myself. You have to have this mechanism within you to say and believe: “You know what? I don’t care what anybody says. I know what I want to do. I am passionate about it. I’m going to do it.”

I’m getting teary eyed, because it really is something that just has strengthened my character. I don’t believe that you achieve anything without that core belief system in yourself, believing in yourself, and the experience of just trusting that everything that happens, happens for a reason. Actors don’t want to hear that when you don’t book a job, and you get on the phone, and some friend says, “Well, it happened for a reason. It wasn’t meant to be.” You kind of go, “Ugh!” But it really is true. It really is true. Trusting that there is a divine plan. There is an order of things. There is something that is laid out for you, no matter what it is.

Whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, an entrepreneur, a journalist – whoever you are, it’s about getting your head right, getting your space right so that you can provide the ground to do what it is that you were meant to do and to reach your full potential. And so, I’ve always had to revert back to that inner voice that says, “You’re going to do everything that you want to do. It is absolutely possible.” I think about not having all these guarantees, and not knowing what the next thing was going to be, but trusting something within myself that said, “You know what? I don’t know what’s next, but something’s next, and it will happen in due time.” And sure enough, there it is, and it happens, and that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. That’s what I’m the most proud of. I really attribute that to willing it, to willing it within myself and seeing it before it happens, and believing that it can continue to happen. That’s really what I take from this whole experience, in terms of just being in the industry and having anything to talk about at all.

For more information on Sharon Leal, visit her official website:

For more of Clayton Perry’s “views” and interviews, browse his “digital archive” – www.claytonperry.com - and follow him on Twitter (@crperry84).

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