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Trust the Process: Namir Smallwood on Acting for Stage and Screen

June 14, 2018

Portrait of Namir Smallwood.

Portrait of Namir Smallwood.
Courtesy of Namir Smallwood

Namir Smallwood has found success as an actor in theatre and on television. An alumnus of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program, Smallwood has performed for theatre companies like the Guthrie Theater, Ten Thousand Things, and most recently, Steppenwolf Theatre. On television, he’s been featured on both Chicago Fire and Betrayal.

Smallwood encourages young artists to have tough skin, do the work, and trust the process.

You grew up in Newark, New Jersey. How did you come to attend the University of Minnesota?

Actually, I received a flyer/postcard in the mail about this new BFA acting program that was connected to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The only thing I knew about Minneapolis was Prince, The Time, Mint Condition, and Kevin Garnett. I had never heard of the Guthrie. I almost threw it in the garbage. However, my mother encouraged me to apply. It wasn’t something that I was looking for, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have ever happened for me.

How long have you been acting? When did you know you wanted to pursue it as a career?

I have been “acting” since I was nine, perhaps. But I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was fourteen. I was in this academic enrichment program called SEEDS back in Jersey. In the summer of ‘98 I was in the last phase of the program. There were three different electives we could choose to be a part of, and I chose the drama club. We devised a performance for the end of the summer and I cried during it. That made other kids feel something as well. And on that day, on the campus of Peddie School in Hightstown, NJ, I found my calling.

I spoke with Marcela Lorca, your former instructor at the Guthrie, who said she most remembers your confidence and readiness to face challenges. How does it feel to have a support system cheering you on from Minnesota? How has your training at the University helped you approach your career?

It feels great to have support from Minnesota. It’s where I grew into adulthood. The Twin Cities challenged and nurtured my gift; I learned the business there. I will tell anybody: the UMN/ Guthrie BFA Actor Training Program is some of the best training money can buy. I had no idea how great this program was going to be: I came in as a part of the third class ever! There weren’t even four classes on campus when I came here. To put things in perspective, I didn’t meet the junior class until the second semester because they were all studying in London in the fall. The thing that I keep with me from my training is to do the work and trust the work. Just tell the story.

What was it like transitioning from stage to television?

TV is weird! I say that in jest. However, it is something that challenges me because TV is not (necessarily) process oriented. My comfortability with it is in process. But, it is the next step for me; each audition is a new lesson for me to try to master.

How do you alter your acting style for each medium?

In theatre, you have to reach the back of the house. On camera, there is an intimacy that allows you to just be. It takes practice to be able to do that.

What are some of the biggest barriers you’ve faced in your career?

I moved to Chicago with a show at Steppenwolf. I did the work and everyone was interested in the new kid. I got an agent, auditioned like crazy, and couldn’t get a job in Chicago for five years. During that time, I went back to Minnesota to do a few plays and sharpen my skill set. Two years ago, I did a play in Chicago that was well received and again, people were interested. So far, it’s been an awesome ride. I don’t take any of it for granted. I learned to have really tough skin early; you need it in this line of work! I live by this: If you do the work, the work will eventually take care of you. Your only charge is this: Trust the process!