A Talk with Jahkara J Smith

There was a time in 2017 that I was struggling to breathe. I was in a very dark place and there was a day that I was going to take my life. Moments before I swallowed the pills, I came across a video called GETTING A MAN 101 by Sailor J. Suddenly, I was laughing. I felt lighter and Sailor J, aka Jahkara J Smith managed — without even knowing me—- to save my life. Because of her, I am here. I got to watch her go from YouTube to hollywood as Maggie Leigh from “NOS4A2.” Then, I had the honor to interview her in 2019. Here are some of the questions I asked.

H: You once said in a YouTube video that you came on YouTube to speak your mind on some topics you felt needed to be discussed. What was the event that led you to make your first video?

J: It was all really a combination of my 12-year-old sister venting to me about stupid boy things and me being home because I was sick from work. Just listening to her talk about the way girls are treated at her school—-or any middle school, unfortunately—- had me seething because as an older girl, I'm supposed to be doing things in the world that make it safer for the girls younger than me. I didn't feel like I was doing anything at all, but I could at least make her laugh and get her head out of it, so it was all a joke. I'd seen so many people make videos, and I was like, ‘Honestly, how hard can it be?’ So I used the iMovie app for the first time in my life and it led to this. 

 

H: What did you learn the most from your experience on YouTube? 

J: I think YouTube taught me a lot about when to shut the f**k up, ironically. You sort of get bombarded with requests to speak out on behalf of people and their issues once you speak up about anything. It felt like we all were speaking over one another when truthfully, we should be elevating each other instead of speaking over each other. Another one of the reasons I left, to be honest, is because people were starting to treat me like I was SO smart and attacking anyone who questioned that, when realistically I had and still have so much to learn.

 

H:What did you love the most about it and what did you hate the most?

J: I liked interacting with people and seeing the comments pop up after posting, just truly understanding and seeing with my own eyes that I'm making people happy even in this tiny way carries me through a lot of hard sh*t sometimes. I hate the platform in general for what it's become. When I was 11 or 12, I watched Ryan Higa and [YouTube] was about making your own films with your friends, making sketches and things like that. It was where small creators went to practice. Now, it's a really self absorbed entity. I feel like it encourages narcissism, even in myself (maybe I'm projecting or its the fact that an 'influencer' title is usually reserved for straight white women or white gays with strip on lashes). It's gone from a place where people can learn and discover to a place where Nazis run rampant and trans content gets blocked.

 

H: Would you do it all over again? 

J: If I knew any other way to get to where I am without YouTube, I feel like I'd do it, but I'm so conflicted because I think of the people who wouldn't have gotten what they've gotten from watching me.

 

H: Moving on from that, let's talk about “NOS4A2.” How were you discovered and what was your initial reaction to being asked to audition? Did you think you would get the part?

J: I was discovered when the showrunner for “NOS4A2”, Jami, saw one of my videos. The casting agent who got put on the show also happened to see them, so when Jami brought my name up they were gracious enough to reach out and ask if I wanted to audition. They knew I had no agents, no background, nothing to speak for myself except for these videos, but they were still willing to take a look at me for something serious. I was really excited and terrified. But I also felt like the fact that they had even noticed me was enough to keep me satisfied whether I got the part or not. I wasn't sure whether or I would get it or not, but I tried to keep encouraging myself by reminding me that they'd called me out there for a reason.

 

H: And here you are! So what has been your favorite part about acting and what are you most excited to do work in in the future? Any specific genre of movies or shows? 

J: Acting is really cathartic for me. It's messy in my head sometimes. It's messy in my life. Let me go play in someone else's sins or wishes or passions so I can pretend mine don't exist while I figure out what to do with them. You're experiencing all these tensions and emotions, but you're experiencing them in such a safe environment that it ends up feeling like a release when it's all done. I like getting to see all the gadgets and moving parts. So many people and so much work goes into what we consume and people have absolutely no idea. People usually like their jobs enough to tell me all about them when I ask, and I love listening to people, so that's nice too. I'm super excited to work because acting is the first job I haven't hated going to, no matter how tired I was. I don't have any specific genres in mind, but I'd love to keep playing with horror—I don't want to box myself in. I did what I wanted on YouTube regardless of 'genres' and it got me here, so I'm gonna keep doing what I want.

 

H: I understand that. Many actors have said that it is very cathartic and gives a sense of relief. Tell us a little about “NOS4A2” and Maggie Leigh, the character you play in the show. What was the best part about it and what was the worst? 

J: “NOS4A2” is a story about a girl named Vic McQueen who holds the key to stopping an immortal vampire-type creature named Charlie Manx, who kidnaps kids and drains the souls out of them. He dumps these kids in this magical land he's created, almost like pennywise's circus, and the little demon brat things just run around causing havoc — it's great! Maggie is a librarian and a medium who finds Vic and tries to help her as best she can. She's super cool and super gay and will definitely kick your ass. The best part about being her was learning from so many great actors and actresses, really building that family with the crew, and not worrying if anyone would think I'm weird. Maggie's a nut job. I can nut job in peace, you feel me?

 

H: Everyone wants to be nuts in peace! I loved seeing you on TV. It felt as if you both were one. I could barely see a difference from the Jahkara I know and Maggie on TV. Do you see a bit of Maggie in you or not at all? What is the best scene in your opinion and what are you most excited for us to see come to life? 

J: Maggie and I both feel things quite deeply, I think. We both struggle a lot with coping mechanisms. I don't think a lot of people understand what that's like, to feel so strong, powerful and sometimes so irrevocably weak all at once. As for her best scene? Any of them that involve kissing girls or yelling at men.

 

H: I can’t wait to see more of that in the next season. I’ve got a few more questions. Now that you are stepping into Hollywood and have seen the YouTube platform up close, do you think personally that women of color or of different backgrounds are being given voices on YouTube or even as actresses? If you could change anything about YouTube, what would it be?   

J: At any point, in any place, WOC probably don't have the voices they need, especially not on YouTube. YouTube caters to a very specific demographic to the point where it speaks for itself, unfortunately. It sucks because YouTube could be a place for resources that kids of color and the LGBTQ communities might not otherwise have access to in their homes, whereas straight white people are way less likely to need it, yet they're the ones being given the spotlight. As actresses, hell no. I could not imagine being a dark skinned woman in this industry, in this f**king world. People take one look at my head and have no clue what to do with it. If I, with my proximity to whiteness, feel uncomfortable, I am absolutely positive that darker women with coarser hair do too. And here's the thing—we should be listening to them anyways, whether we experience it for ourselves or not. That's the genuine issue. If I could change YouTube, then the bullies would be gone and anyone who is racist or homophobic would be stopped. The only way to eliminate the bullshit is to have consequences for it.

 

H: You have previously discussed that you have struggled with mental illness. What advice would you give to anyone out there who is struggling and is unable to afford help?  

J: Mental illness is tricky because you have to find out what's right for you, which varies. I personally found that when I didn't have health insurance or money for therapy, those lame self-help workbooks actually helped me out a lot. There are several on mindfulness, which I think could be recommended broadly since they mainly deal with calming the mind and emotions, which is always helpful. Just reading about the practices, understanding the links between my feelings, my thoughts and my body helped me learn a lot about handling myself. Once you start putting them into play every day, your life might not change, but you will.

 

H: Great advice. Do you have any personal projects that you can maybe let us in on that we can anticipate coming soon?

J: Lips are sealed! You know how I like to come out of the blue. 

 

H: Final question. Any last pieces of advice to anyone on Youtube or in acting or generally in life trying to get somewhere and feeling stuck or lost? 

J: If you want to do something, you have to be willing to actually do it. A lot of people want to be authors but don't finish the book or make themselves sit down and write. Lots of people want to create but don't make anything.

 

H: Anything that truly got you through to where you are now?

J: Just the act of seeing my ideas through is enough of a confidence boost to keep going because holy sh*t, I did it! You know? You feel like the f**king Khaleesi. And you start to think, ‘If I can go this far once, I can do it as many more times as I need to.’ Don't quit, and don't let other people tell you how to do what you want to do. It's always a good idea to find mentors that you can observe and learn from at your own will, but if someone tries to dictate your vision or change it and you feel uncomfortable, protect yourself. Protect your ideas. Protect your art.

 

As you can tell, Jahkara is a fireball of a woman and nothing is going to stop her from leaving her mark and helping others to do the same. She is my inspiration when I can’t get myself out of a rut and I hope that she inspires you too. She recently starred in an episode of “Into the Dark,” titled, "Pure," which is available on Hulu now and is filming for the second season of “NOS4A2” which airs on AMC  I hope you all tune in to watch! I’ve watched the first season and it's phenomenal.