Tallahassee native KJ Smith finds her niche in Hollywood

Living her dream

Actress KJ Smith recently starred in her breakthrough movie “A Madea Family Funeral.”

By Kathryn Lewis

Outlook writer

The plan that KJ Smith had conjured up in her mind for life after college seemed to be the ideal scenario for success.

After all, she’d been hearing it while growing up in Tallahassee.

She earned a business degree from FSU and was pursuing a master’s in journalism at FAMU. She set out to take a job with a Fortune 500 company in Ocala. 

She was making a good salary and the pieces seemed to be falling in place. Suddenly she seemed on her way with a corporate job.

“I wanted to flourish and climb the ladder and have a white picket fence and a family and all of that stuff,” she said.  “That was because that’s what I was told was the thing to do.”

Until she had an epiphany of her true calling. She’s found it in Hollywood but not before enduring some hard knocks on her way to becoming one of America’s rising actresses. 

This past weekend, she made a rare appearance in her hometown as the celebrity guest at the Crescent Moon Gala at The Moon. The annual event is a fund-raiser for the Sickle Cell Foundation of the Big Bend.

Smith recently starred in Tyler Perry’s “A Madea Family Funeral,” a breakthrough role on the big screen.

By then, she was far from being a newcomer to acting. Some of her early roles have been television shows such as “Dynasty,” Kevin Hart’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood” on BET, “Queen Sugar” on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Nickelodeon’s “Nicky, Ricky Dicky & Dawn” and LeBron James’ “Survivor’s Remorse.”

Smith was driven to acting because she didn’t see the promise of happiness in a corporate job. The passion for acting was always there, she said. 

Her journey to breaking in as an actress began when her long-time friend, Charee Williams, invited her to Los Angeles for a week’s vacation. She didn’t give it a second thought.

 She could only see her dream of stardom coming true.

“Before I got on the flight, I called my mom and I was like, ‘I’m moving out here and I’m not coming back.’ ” she said during a recent telephone interview. “My mom said, ‘I’ll help you pack.’” 

Her resolve was quickly tested after arriving in Los Angeles, though. She took a job in retail but eventually fell on hard times financially.

She persisted in her quest, even in the face of casting directors telling her “Some people just have it and you don’t.”

Things got even more challenging when she attend a monologue slam. Her acting coach told her that he’d seen her get more excited about a haircut than the way she delivered in a scene, she said.

Smith refused to be rejected, although she didn’t have an impressive resume of being a child actor. Those who watched her growing up in Tallahassee as a cheerleader and playing softball never doubted that her passion for acting would pay off.

Even being one that the industry would consider a late bloomer.

“She has always been very dramatic and very extra, but that was just always her,” said her older sister, Lanetra Bennett, a reporter with WCTV. “I don’t think it was anything that we ever specifically thought about as far as acting, but that kind of thing always came natural to her.”

Smith’s chances of making it on the big screen began to improve immediately after she met Nathan Habben of Infinity Entertainment. They were introduced by one of Habben’s clients.

Habben, who has since become Smith manager, said he had an inkling after seeing her earlier work that “She’s going to be a star.”

He immediately encouraged Smith to concentrate on major roles. It turned out to be a life-changing suggestion that is making Hollywood look at Smith as a pure actress with unlimited potential.

“Our future now is to make her a household name,” Habben said. “She’s very well known in the entertainment industry, but middle-America doesn’t know who she is. Our goal now is to elevate even more to the next level; to where when people hear her name it’s the same as when you’re talking Oprah or Taraji (Henson).”

Smith is now in a place that her father, Earnest “Sonny” Smith, didn’t see coming before his death in January 2017. It took some time after seeing her in a handful of television roles before her dad accepted that acting is her career choice, she said.

Smith was pursuing her dream when her father died. It threw her into a state of depression, especially when she began to recount the birthdays and holidays she spent away from home, she said.

Occasionally she heard her voice saying, “Come home.”

 After taking a reprieve from acting to gather herself, Smith regrouped. This time she did so with renewed passion inspired by the loss of her father.

“It feels so good,” she said. “It’s like a dream; oh my gosh. Nobody knows this but me. I say that because I’m the only person with my experience.”

Her role in “A Madea Family Funeral,” has put Smith on a plateau. So much so it almost seems surreal that she seemingly is on her way to stardom.

“I saw her on set, I saw it happening,” said Bennett, “but it still didn’t really, really hit me until I watched the movie.”