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Tasha Smith with Taraji P. Henson and Vivica Fox in “Empire”
Photo: ©2018 Fox Broadcasting Co.

Tasha Smith is the kind of actress where you might not recognize her name, but when you see her you say, “Oh, I know her. That’s the actress from ______” and you might fill in the blank with “Empire” or “Couples Retreat” or Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married?” Smith has had an extensive and successful career as an actress, director and pro­ducer – and she credits Camden, where she grew up, for giving her the foundation she needed. 

“Camden is the place that taught me, challenged me, loved me, empowered me and gave me exactly what I needed in order to survive in Hollywood,” Smith says. Her difficult childhood included being born to a teenage mother addicted to drugs. Smith, too, abused drugs in her teens and early 20s and has spoken of her depression and feelings of insecurity. 

Yet she has clearly put those days behind her, fondly remembering as a child telling everyone who would listen that she would be a Hollywood actor one day. “It was in my blood,” she insists.  

She found comedy clubs a place of refuge – “like going to church for me,” she says. She would sit in the back and give notes to other comedians until one challenged her to get on stage herself. At first, she couldn’t imagine what she might talk about. 

“My life had just been so dark, and he said that’s what I should talk about,” she says, first hitting the stage when she was about 19 years old. “It was a place of liberation for me, freedom and creative expression. Doing stand-up comedy was a great experience and for any person who has the courage to go up on stage, this is good.” 

Her big break came in 1996 with the TV show “Boston Common.”  

“When I transitioned to doing that series, I didn’t have the passion to continue on with the comedy club,” she says. 

She befriended Tyra Banks in an acting class, who introduced her to Tyler Perry. Now a mentor and friend, Perry cast Smith in “Daddy’s Little Girl” and the Why Did I Get Married movies. “People still love those films – they never grow old,” she says. “He was a huge part of where I am today.” 

And today, she has ventured into a new field: documentary maker. Last year, Smith released a documentary that explores an industry she once worked in to pay the bills when she was a struggling comic: stripping. 

Smith didn’t tell many people about her side job, except for her friend Darlene, who would drive her to the strip club. “At the time, I was so ashamed of it, and Darlene cracked a joke: ‘I’m really glad you kept it a secret, because you were pretty bad. You were stiff and you couldn’t dance – thank God you were cute and funny,’” Smith says. 

“The way I got out of the discomfort of private dances was through using humor. So I’m telling jokes more than I’m stripping. With my jokes, my 15 minutes is up, it’s over.” 

Beyond her own stripping experience, Smith was motivated to create the documentary after directing the movie “When Love Kills: The Falicia Blakely Story” for TV One last year.  

“It was about a stripper out of Atlanta, and through that I ended up having a meeting with a lot of women from the exotic dancing world,” she says, recognizing that the culture and women have changed since she danced more than two decades ago. The documentary will illustrate those changes.  

“It’s looking at the culture of the exotic dancing world,” she says, about the documentary, “Stripper Culture.” “It’s taking a deeper look into a culture so many people are fascinated with.” 

Smith has several television directing credits under her name, and says she does see benefits to the smaller screen. “On TV you get to live with the characters longer, and in film you get in and get out,” she says.   

“The more time you have to prep, the more grounded your vision will be, whether it’s directing or acting,” she says. 

“Directing definitely takes a lot more work, because you’re not only focused on yourself but the entire picture. You’re the captain of the ship, so you have to be clear about every aspect of telling that story. It’s creatively and artistically satisfying.” 

Smith shares her knowledge and experience with fledgling actors through her actors’ workshop, offering coaching and career counseling.  

“I am a girl from Camden who had a dream,” she says. “I want to empower other people like myself to pursue their purpose in the art. I want to be a bridge for them to get to that place they desire to be, whether it’s creatively or emotionally, giving them tools and techniques that will empower them to be confident, grounded and strong. It’s part of my purpose as much as acting and directing is.” 

Impatience is the biggest mistake actors make, she says. They assume everything is supposed to happen tomorrow and don’t give themselves enough time to develop and learn who they are as artists. 

Tasha Smith with Romeo Miller in 2011’s “Jumping the Broom”
Photo: © 2010 Screen Gems, Inc.

“You have some come to class who have never acted before, take a three-day workshop and think they are ready to be Angela Bassett,” she says, laughing.  

“It’s no different than any other career. They don’t embrace the process, and then they get extremely disappointed and drop out too soon.” 

Fortunately, some of her students do heed her advice. Her biggest success story: Tiffany Haddish, whose break-out role was Dina in the movie “Girl’s Trip.” 

“She is a pure example of someone who stayed true and authentic to who they were creatively, not trying to fit into the box of what other people might try to put you in,” says Smith. “We can all learn from her authenticity and honesty.” 

When Smith returns to Camden, her first stop is grabbing a panzarotti. Though she doesn’t eat meat anymore, she recently took her crew to Donkey’s Place for cheesesteaks. Smith loves coming home and views the growth in Camden as a blessing. “It’s a beautiful city,” she says, “with some incredible people.”

January 2019
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