Black Woman Creator: Kate Comer
Kate Comer is a film, television, and commercial actress based in Los Angeles. She will be seen next on June 20th in TNT's Animal Kingdom. Other recent roles include Cameron Crowe's Roadies and the film Hello, My Name is Doris. She has also appeared in The Office, The Fosters, Criminal Minds, Shameless and The Comeback.
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
I’m an actress, so I create characters. The way I’ve been thinking about it lately is that I create things using my emotions, so I think that the most exciting part for me is challenging myself to get to certain emotional places or to try things that make me a little nervous.
BGC: How did you get into acting?
I grew up in Sarasota, Florida where there is a really good theater community. One theater in town called Florida Studio Theater has a kids program were a lot of schools would go on field trips to go visit. We went and they would really include the kids in the performances and bring them on stage and I remember that it sparked me. I thought “this is fun, it’s fun to get a reaction from people, it’s fun to act outside of your normal self.” For whatever reason I just figured it out then, and I’m thankful for that. I did theater in high school and then moved to New York and I’ve just been working at it ever since.
BGC: Why do you feel pulled to act and create?
It’s a way to connect with people and with myself. A big part of it is getting a reaction out of people, or just connecting with them, or using something personal to share with someone else that they can connect with. That’s what I love about watching film and television, I’ll see myself in something or I’ll see a feeling or an experience that maybe I didn’t know that other people had or felt. To get to create something like that and hopefully connect with other people, make them laugh, make them feel something, make the see something in a new way, I think, is really exciting. I do love the challenge of it, it feels like a weird thing but using my emotions and my feelings and my heart to come up with something that may be kind of scary to do, is really fun for me and I really enjoy that. I think I’ve also been able to work out personal things that way; personal emotions, personal problems, it can be a nice release. I just love it, it makes me happy.
BGC: As an actress, you take on other people’s words and you infuse them with your own idea of who the character is. What is it about your unique identity as a Black woman that you bring to other people’s characters, especially to characters that are written without an explicit identity? How does your unique identity help you to flesh out characters that may not be fully fleshed out or were written for someone with a different background?
I think the first part is visual because hair and face and body and all the stuff that may be outside of what society expects or what you’ll usually see on TV. That’s the easy part, I just show up and look like myself. But I think too, when it’s not on the page or it’s not a part of a character description, when I’m doing my work on the character it’s something that I will definitely take into account. The first I can think of is in the show Roadies, I had to play an executive assistant to a very important CEO of a big company and when I was working on how I was approaching that, I thought about how on top of this being a high stress high pressure job, what does it mean as a black woman to be in that status? Do I have to work harder and make everything more perfect? So I do take that into account, it gets infused whether it shows up in the script or not. I tend to think about what it would mean to be in a high level position like that as a Black woman. There’s another show where I played an executive and what does it mean, how do you get there, and how do you keep that job? So when I’m doing my character work, I do take into account the specific things and hopefully it comes through in subtext because it is something that I definitely think about. When I get something that isn’t specific to race, no matter what, I try to bring my own experience of what it would mean for that character personally to be in any of those situations.
BGC: I’m not sure if this question really applies to acting but I think that it can through the roles that you take. Who is your audience? Who are you hoping will see your work?
Well, typical actress, I want everyone to like me (laughs). One thing that is really important to me, with the political fun that’s been going on, is thinking about kids or young people in those small towns who don’t feel as safe to be who they are. I can relate to that because I grew up in a small town in Florida where I felt like the biggest weirdo all the time. One of the important things that helped drive me to the life I live now is the films and television that I would watch over and over and would be excited by. I’d be excited by people who were different from me and different from my surroundings and I could see that there was a safe place out there for me and my weirdness. I think it would mean a lot to me to hopefully reach people like that, who feel alone or unseen or like they don’t fit in. That would be really important to me to make people feel seen and known and like they matter. On top of that, the representation of Black women is really important to me. I didn’t really understand at first how much representation meant to me, it was sort of an unconscious thing. The first thing that comes to mind is Angela from Boy Meets World. I was obsessed with her being on that show. I loved that show and then this black girl shows up and she’s cool and cute and funny and is wanted by the cool guy. It was so important to me then and when I watched as an adult I realized I kind of dress like her now. She had a huge impact. I think it’s getting so much better but I would like to continue that. There are so many types of black women that don’t always get shown on television and I want to be one of those that you get to see.
BGC: Who or what inspired you to do what you do?
I definitely had some great teachers. My high school acting teacher and the teachers in the theater community were amazing and supportive and made me feel like I belonged. But the first thing that comes to mind is Star Trek because I watched it so much in high school and Uhura, I was like “look there is someone who gets to be an equal part of everything on this show.” I watched so much film, I’m thinking about Ewan McGregor movies that I was really obsessed with when I was young. I was 14 and watched Trainspotting and was like “that’s really cool”. When I was young, what really inspired me was film. I remember being really excited by movies and how obsessed I was with them. It’s evolved a lot over the years and I look at things differently now, but definitely back then it was a lot of being on film websites and looking at what was coming out and knowing that I wanted to be apart of that world in one way or another, well acting specifically. Donnie Darko, Pretty in Pink, all these things I would watch all of the time, Kids in the Hall was a big thing for me. I wasn’t very cool in high school and I had a rough time and that was my escape and my outlet. It was this place where I could feel really comfortable and see beyond where I was right then. I could know this is something to strive for, this is something I want my life to be, and that helped me get through a lot of that stuff.
BGC: Who or what continues to inspire you?
Like twice a year I’ll start to stress out and think “what am I doing with my life.” Moonlight really helped.It made me feel really excited about the direction that film is going. To me it’s not typical, it’s very tender and touching and there’s so much kindness and so that made me feel excited for things that are coming. Queen of Katwe was a big one, as well as watching people like Viola. Every time she gives a speech, I feel better. I feel like “Ok, I can do this.” I’m kind of obsessed with Steve McQueen, the director. I tell my agent if there’s anything, what do I need to do to get an audition, she knows. Paul Thomas Anderson is someone I’d be really excited to work with because I think he does really fun, really personal and interesting things. The other thing that really inspires me is seeing more women of color on television. It makes me want to be a part of it and to get up and show my own point of view. The very scary world that we’re living in inspires me because it’s like the smallest silver lining that I’ve been telling myself that during really scary times great art is made. I don’t know if that makes the really scary times worth it, but it lights a fire in me to be able to know that that’s the power I have. I think I’m not alone in feeling powerless in all of this but the power I have is to be on screen, with my hair and my face, to show that emotion and different kinds of Black women. I’ve talked with other women of color and actors of color about how we have that greater responsibility. It goes back to those kids in places who may not feel represented, who may feel scared, to be able to see that they’re not alone. I feel like that is something I can do, so that really pushes me to hopefully do really interesting things and non-stereotypical characters and really look outside of myself. Acting can get so internal and very about our own selves, so it’s a good reminder that there’s an outside world that you can help in that way.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life, or do you?
I don’t know. That’s a constant learning experience, I think I can get really caught up in acting and the business side of all of that and avoid life stuff and I have to catch myself when I do that because “life stuff” is what will inform my art. I’ll get so focused on it so I’ll try to notice that and take a break to spend time with friends or read a book. Sometimes I’ll remember “Oh I like to watch movies, what if I just sat and watched a movie instead of worrying about my own career.” Making sure that I don’t get so caught up that I miss out on other things that will inform my work later and make my life richer. Little vacations, if I can take them, are good, It lets me get out of town and get out of my usual groove. I was lucky to be able to leave my day job which is a weird new precarious thing, but while I was working full time and doing art, that was really hard. That’s a really tough balance that everyone has to do. How do you work full time, pay your rent, spend time with friends and family, and still do your art? I don’t know where the balance is, I feel like I'm always trying to keep everything afloat. Just the classic self-care and self-forgiveness, just being aware of who I am and what I’m doing, hopefully I’ll find that balance but it’s tricky. There’s this feeling, and it’s true, that you have to stay relevant and stay current so it’s hard to take a break and just live your life but you’ve also got this dream that is not easy to pursue and arguably it can be more challenging for a Black woman. When you are a Black woman working on your career, that has to be first and foremost. That’s an important thing to have the career you want and to live the life you want. So it’s hard not to think of that 24/7 and pour yourself into it and work as hard as you can all of the time, but there is that self-care. I wish I had an answer.
BGC: Why is it important as a black woman, specifically, to create?
There’s a whole history of us being pushed down, being stereotyped, labeled, feeling that we couldn’t be more than what someone’s idea of us would be. It makes me think of when I was first starting out and it felt a little less creative casting-wise. Things have expanded so much that it’s amazing, but I felt that I wasn’t fitting a stereotype of a Black woman, that I wasn’t right. I think it’s important for Black women to show their creativity and to show all of our different facets that we have that have been pushed down or crushed or things that we’ve been shamed for. My feeling is there’s a history of us that we’re supposed to be one thing, we’re supposed to be sassy, but we have so many beautiful colors and layers and so many different types of women that we should all show our hearts and our souls and what we have to offer. It’s so weird that we can keep surprising people that we’re not what they expect us to be. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the world to show that we are so much more than what the world wants to make us out to be. I think we deserve that and we owe it to our ancestors to push those boundaries and be brave and be bold and be exactly who we are in a world that doesn’t always want us.
BGC: What advice would you give someone just starting? What would you tell yourself when you started?
These were all things I’ve learned over time but if someone can get a headstart, go for it. I think the number one thing is trusting myself and trusting my point of view. So for young actresses I would say, it takes time as you grow and change and understand who you really are, but trusting that what you bring to the table is valuable. At the same time being open to criticism, sometimes there is really great constructive criticism and sometimes people give you unsolicited advice and knowing the difference between the two is very helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s very scary no matter what, I still try to do it. If there’s someone I want to meet, or someone I know who knows somebody, I try to ask if I can be connected to them. It’s really scary because it could be a no, it could be a rejection, but don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Asking for help has really been a huge thing for me. Have people you can talk to about stuff in that field to help motivate you and get you through it.
BGC: Do you think it’s important for you to have a support system? What does your support system, within your art, look like and how has it helped you?
I think it’s hugely important to have a support system and people who are like-minded, who are in the same field. That has been huge for me because I think I would go insane without it. Specifically for acting, you don’t get a lot of answers, you put yourself out there a lot and you may hear nothing back ever. So I know for me, it’s easy to get into my own head and in the end none of that matters, so having actors who audition for similar things, who are in the same boat, helps. I’ve got a beautiful, lovely diverse group of actor friends who I can text or call and they give me their perspective. I can say “I felt this in the audition” and they can say this wasn’t a big deal. For auditions specifically and anything that gives me anxiety, it helps to get a very grounding perspective from my actor friends and I try to return the favor as well because, for some reason, it’s hard to do for ourselves. They’ll tell me something so logical and then when they’re in that same boat I’m like “yeah, it’s not a big deal” or “what you did was great.” Having that support system and people you trust and know are there to support you and give advice is important. On the business side, I have an accountability group where we talk about marketing and give each other different ideas and feedback because marketing is rough and it’s probably what I have to do the most. It’s so much marketing and then these wonderful moments where I get to actually act. So having friends who do that as well, who can help push me to do things that are scary, which could be anything from a tweet to emailing someone I don’t know. It’s important having people in the same boat because there’s a shorthand when speaking. Sometimes, when it comes to acting, whether it’s marketing or auditioning, people who don’t do it, don’t know so sometimes their advice can make it worse.
BGC: Of all of the creative fields, acting and Hollywood is so competitive. It sounds like you have this good support system and you do a good job of keeping each other inspired and creative, but it also seems that it would be easy for competition or jealousy to creep in. In a field that is built on competition and tearing each other down, how do you try to keep yourself from falling into that trap?
Sometimes yes that comes up, where there will be a phase where I’m like “all my friends are booking jobs, ok cool.” I’m happy for them but I’m sad for Kate. I’m a fan of a two-day pity party. Give yourself a couple of days if you need it, feel your feelings, don’t take it out on other people. Have that moment, journal about it, talk to a friend, but then just try to let it go. That’s been one of the biggest learning curves, especially when it comes to booking jobs. People told me this my whole life but then it took me forever to learn that there is the one role, but we all bring our own unique thing to it. What’s helped me in auditions is, I’ll prepare and I’ll go in bringing what I have. If it’s the right vibe for the character, if they like it, great. If not, then that’s ok too. Knowing that you did your best work, for me (like 80% of the time), will make it a lot easier. You can have your moments of being a little nuts, but just recognize that the right thing will come along that I’m so right for. That’s really helped me to not get bogged down in jealousy. Being genuinely happy for my friends who get really great jobs and knowing that it’s on its way for me too. Two of the hardest things in this business are patience and trust because it’s so out of your control and I think that trust in yourself is the biggest thing. It also seems to work better when I support other people. I think it’s totally valid to have those moments of feeling frustrated and jealous, I think all creative people have those moments when things don’t go the way you want them to and it’s so out of your control, it’s hard to find a place to put that feeling so sometimes it might manifest in those ways. I’m a big fan of feeling your feelings, get it out, talk to close friends who you can trust and then just try to move on and trust yourself.
BGC: Future projects?
I’ll be appearing on Animal Kingdom which I believe will air June 20th. The TV landscape has been really exciting and I’m looking forward to any opportunities that will come up for me. I’m just working at it all the time.