At just 20 years old, Kyanna “KeeKee” Simone Simpson is already working with some of the biggest names in the business—her most recent role being young Deborah Lacks in HBO films’ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.[i] Who played the adult Deborah Lacks character, you ask? None other than Ms. Oprah Winfrey! So how does a college junior juggle school and a successful acting career? Kyanna let us in on how she balances it all, how she got her start in acting, how Actors Access[ii] played a part in her career and more:
Did you always want to be a performer? Where did your interest in performing start?
I always loved performing whether it be competitive cheering, playing my tuba, presenting in class or, of course, acting! When I was little, I was the extracurricular queen! I was interested and fascinated by so many clubs and activities. In addition to the school related things, I loved watching television and imagining that I was my favorite characters: a lawyer, a chef, a hair stylist, etc. That’s when I became super dedicated to becoming an actress. In the seventh grade, I sat my mom down and told her that I wanted to do this and that I would give it my all (Haha, dramatic, I know!).
How did you hear about Actors Access?
When I moved to Los Angeles with my mom in the 10th grade, every industry professional that I met told me that Actors Access was an actor’s best friend. I knew I had to create a profile!
What’s the most memorable project you’ve booked through Actors Access?
The Girls Inc. Commercial! I’ll never forget getting that C-mail “ding”[iii] on my computer and dancing with my mom! I hadn’t done a commercial before, and I wanted this one a lot. Plus, the campaign is close to my heart. I made sure I was super prepared for that audition.
You’re an Atlanta native, but moved to LA in high school to pursue acting; now, you’re back in Georgia attending school and acting. What would you say are the major differences between finding work in Atlanta vs LA? How do the markets differ? Which do you prefer?
It’s a huge blessing that I am represented in both LA and Atlanta, so I am able to audition in both places regularly. Being an Atlanta native, I have to say that I am stoked to see that there are so many projects being cast and filmed here! I’m all for the “ATL-wood” movement and love that I’m able to audition around the corner from my house! Since our market is still growing, the pool of actors here are super hard workers and that makes me want to better my acting skills every day. It’s really the city for the hustle and I love being surrounded by industry people that go for their dreams 100%! There’s also that Hollywood air that you can’t escape when you’re auditioning in LA! Walking down the street and seeing movie studio after movie studio is super exciting and it’s a constant reminder that you’re in the land of dreams. Also, the New York market is very fun to me! I mean walking down the busy streets of the city, you see the flashing lights of Times Square, the fast pace of everyone in the city, the business people on their way to their jobs, you feel like you need to be on top of your work. I really think New York brings the best out of people. All three of these markets are different in their own ways, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to bring your A-Game no matter where you’re auditioning.
What are you majoring in at The University of Georgia? How has your education impacted your acting?
I am in the process of applying to the school of journalism for Entertainment and Media Studies!! I’ve already taken a few classes such as Intro to E&M Studies and Dramatic Writing. The media studies class gave me a lot of insight to the history of entertainment and allowed me to become interested in multiple aspects of the entertainment industry! The dramatic writing class allowed me to understand character development on a whole new level!
How do you balance school and acting?
I pray! A lot! It has never been a walk in the park when it has come to having a test and a film project at the same time and in two different states. However, when I was in high school, I forfeited a majority of my years going to school online, so I learned how to work efficiently by myself. Those skills have paid off in college, because I am able to complete my work before it’s due, work around my filming schedules and, all in all, get it done. I’m super thankful for the professors who support my dreams.
What keeps you grounded?
My family and friends. They have watched me go from fighting for my dreams to beginning to live them and they have been completely supportive every step of the way.
How has Actors Access helped you as a young actor?
Actors Access taught me how to be proactive. Every teenager has a computer, and Actors Access is easy to maneuver through. I was able to upload my headshots, demo reels, size card, resume, search for jobs that fit me, all by myself! I mean, honestly, as a young actress that was new in the business, I was so EXCITED that I could see jobs that were available to me! It was like the golden ticket to my dreams! My mom assisted me when I needed help, but I feel like every young actor needs to know how to manage his or her career in some way. Actors Access let me do that.
What do you think makes your Actors Access profile stand out to Casting Directors?
Good headshots and demo reels! I think casting directors really like when an actor gives them all the tools they need to see who the actor is. Use your BEST shot as your default picture, and make sure your demo reel focuses mostly on you and your acting skills.
What is the best advice you have received?
I learned that belief and manifestation are two very strong forces that can drive your career. When I was speaking to Ms. Winfrey one day, she made me realize this when I told her about how I’d always said that I would play her in a film one day. It was something I’d say to my friends whenever they told me that I looked like her, and I really believed that. I still can’t believe that it’s happened!!!!!
What advice would you give to young actors?
Don’t focus on what other people believe you can and cannot do. You can’t stop at the first “no” because rejection really makes you stronger. If you truly believe in your soul that your dream is to come true, work hard on it. At the end of the day, you are going to be the proudest of your success, so do your thing and impress yourself!!!
If you weren’t an actor, what other professions would you be pursuing?
I’d love to be a director and producer.
What performers or performances have stood out to you?
Denzel Washington’s performance in Fences[iv] really moved me. When I was in high school, I was in an August Wilson[v] monologue competition, so I was anticipating this film for a long time. It was definitely worth the wait! And of course I have to say this, every Beyoncé performance blows my mind #Beyhive!
Is there anyone in particular you would like to work with?
Spike Lee, Gabrielle Union, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, Kerry Washington, Angela Bassett, George Clooney, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson…. the list goes on and on!
Is there anyone in particular that has helped you in your career?
Yes, definitely! Tony Vaughn[vi] was my very first adviser in my career! He began teaching me all about the film industry when I met him at the age of 13. He also introduced me to my manager. I played the daughter of Ms. LaTanya Richardson Jackson[vii] in HBO’s Show Me a Hero[viii] in 2015. She’s been a mentor to me ever since and has given me both acting and life tips along the way. She also helped me snag the audition for HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I also live for the advice that Ms. Oprah Winfrey gives me. Ever since I met her last year, I’ve grown closer to her, she’s a kindred spirit! It’s so amazing to meet someone who I not only look like, but also someone who has always inspired me. I’m so thankful to have her as a mentor in my life, as well!
What’s next for you? Project releases? Filming?
I just finished filming White Boy Rick starring Matthew McConaughey in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s still mind blowing that I got to work with actors such as Matthew McConaughey, Piper Laurie, Bruce Dern, and Bel Powley! I can’t wait for everyone to see this film.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Personally and professionally?
I see myself with a degree on my mantle and a lot more film and television projects under my belt! Also, I would love to be a guest at the Emmy’s, Oscars, and Golden Globes and ultimately win one of the three as well (that part will likely be more than five years!). I have so many dreams that I want to make happen… maybe I can check a few of them off in five years.
Breakdown Services – Actors Access would like to thank Kyanna for taking the time to answer our questions and share her story! If you have a success story you’d like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview conducted by Morgan Louviere
[i] The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Available on HBO NOW and HBO GO
[ii] Actors Access: Breakdown Services premier service for actors. An Actors Access profile is free and allows all actors to maintain their information, manage their representation, and control what Casting Directors see.
[iii] C-mail ding: The notification talent receives when they’ve been sent an audition notice or message from a Casting Director through Actors Access.
[iv] Fences: The sixth part in August Wilson’s ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle.” In 1987, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
The film, of the same name, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 89th Academy Awards. Washington scored a Best Actor nomination for his performance, while Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for her work in the film.
[v] August Wilson: Award-winning American playwright known for “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”
[vi] Tony Vaughn: Actor known for his work in 21 Grams (2003), Stomp the Yard (2007), Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns (2009) and Stranger Things (2016).
[vii] LaTanya Richardson Jackson: American actress known for her work in Malcolm X (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), U.S. Marshals (1998), and HBO’s Show Me a Hero (2015)
[viii] Show Me a Hero: Available on HBO NOW and HBO GO