Vanessa Bell Calloway stands tall as one of America’s most empowering actresses. Her work on stage,screen, and television clearly demonstrates why she has maintained her staying power. Her work has earned her 6 NAACP Image Award nominations. and her fans still remember her as Eddie Murphy’s arranged bride in Coming to America.
The variety of roles Vanessa has played showcases her diversity. Because of her ability to bring a unique presence of character to a particular piece, she appears in a different light in each role she plays. Her diversity moves beyond acting; Vanessa is also an accomplished dancer who trained with Alvin Alley, George Faison, and Otis Sallid.
Vanessa Bell Calloway definitely has the grace to live an empowering life, which is a rare example in Hollywood. A real survivor, she is one of the most versatile and hardest working actresses in Hollywood. With nearly 120 film and television credits behind her and more coming in the future, it is almost impossible to have not seen her in a movie or a TV show in the past 30 years.
Both personally and professionally, her life inspires us to be that one that never gives up, to pursue our purpose with grace. In To Hell and Back directed by Christine Swanson and co-starring Ernie Hudson, She stars in a modern-day retelling of the Biblical Book of Job, which follows a successful businessman and father whose life falls apart after a series of tragic events, yet retains his faith despite incredible hardships. She also is starring as Lady Ella in the upcoming “Saints and Sinners.” Vanessa Bell Calloway lets us know life is full of opportunities, and life is what you make it. Speaking with her opens your eyes and helps you realize that you’re in control of your destiny. A firm believer in faith and God, Vanessa makes it clear some things are completely up to you, and you have to take control and make a decision. Life isn’t going to wait for anyone, and while it seems daunting at first, it’s really not that scary. Have faith in yourself.
“Sometimes you never know when your opportunity’s coming. You could get an opportunity that will change your life forever. Stay ready so when you get an opportunity, it’s not a wasted moment. Learn your craft, be ready so you never have to get ready.” – Vanessa Bell Calloway
Mrs.Bell Calloway took a moment recently to talk with Empower Magazine about life, new projects, and some empowering food for thought.
Empower: So let me first start off by saying, my mom was a huge fan of Dream Girls. She introduced us to the first Dream Girls Broadway play, so I’ve gotten to grow up with you and your career. I’ve seen you be that prime example of what most people dream about being in Hollywood. It’s been nothing but consistency. What has been your method, if you would consider it a method, of having a career path that stays so consistent in the industry over the years?
Vanessa: Well, I don’;t know if there’s just some method or a will, you know? You just have to be able to just do what you have to do. With that said, I just focus on working – working hard, being consistent, doing a good job, and then you start all over. A lot of things I had to learn by trial and error. I didn’tt really have a lot of people to hold my hand and take me a lot of places. I just had to kind of learn things as I went. I studied and learned other things, and you know…studied some more, went to school, and was consistent with my dance classes and all that type of stuff. So basically, I don’t know if there’s a method. The method is hard work. If you want to put a name to it, it’s just hard work, dedication, and focus.
Empower: Well that’s definitely what I’ve seen out of you. Another thing that I’ve seen with your career is that you are very versatile in the different roles that you’ve played. Out of all the roles and projects that you’ve done, and I know that there are so many to choose from, do you have one that really just stood out for you, that you just really, really can say, “I loved doing that project?”
Vanessa: You know, people ask that question all the time and it’s really not a fair question because every project is different for different reasons, and you learn different things, and you get different things. [and] It gives you different things, and you get to put different pieces of you in it. So I don’t really have a favorite. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to do a lot of different projects that just resonated to me for whatever reason at different times in my life, for different reasons. And I was able just to really delve into it and do the best I could…find the joy of it, and then go from there. I don’t have a favorite. I don’t have a favorite person I worked with either. There’s a lot of people I liked working with, and they like to work with me.
Empower: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Vanessa: But people always want you to narrow down to one person you really want to work with, and that’s hard to say when you’re thinking like this. I mean, there’s a lot of people I want to work with, so if somebody threw a bunch of names I’d probably be like, yeah, I like to work with him, or yeah, I like to work with her.
Vanessa: There are a lot of people I enjoyed working with. They say, “Who did you work with?” “Well, there’s only a few I didn’t care much for and I wouldn’t give you those names, anyway.” Anybody that you see me in something with, we probably had a good time. Any project that you see me, and you thought that I shined for some reason or other or it resonated to you, it was probably resonating to me, and I was probably having fun and that’s why I came off that way. So I don’t really have favorites. I just like each thing for its individual blessing that it has brought me and its individuality because I’ve learned different things, and everything has a season, a reason, and a time. All those projects were brought to me at certain parts of my life because that’s where I was supposed to be at that moment.
Empower: Now, you started out as a modern dancer. How did you go into acting? What made you go into acting?
Vanessa: Well, I always acted. I danced and acted kind of simultaneously when I was in high school. I used to do theater, I’ve always done theater, and dance is an extension of theater. Dancing is theater, and it’s just acting without words. So, for a dance that makes you feel the pain, the love, the cry, the romance etc, you have to act out the movements. It is acting, and I’ve done that since I was 11, 12 years old. It was always a natural progression, and I’ve always been in plays, even when I was in high school and college.
Empower: Now, this too may seem like an unfair question. Would you consider yourself an empowering blueprint for aspiring actresses and even dancers?
Vanessa: I consider myself, hopefully, inspiring to anybody who wants to make a life out of the arts because I managed to do it. Even when it was hard, I did it, but I don’t like to tout myself like I’m the best example of anything. I was able to, and still am… to do what I love every day. It’s such a blessing, there’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to do. So the blueprint, I guess you could say… is that I’ve just been successful in the arts and I’ve been able to find a life, a career and make actual good money. I still had a husband and kids, still had to raise my family, and still could do my craft because it lended itself to being a mother and a wife and not having to be some place nine to five every single day, all the time. So, it was a perfect career for me, being here in in California, trying to raise two kids, and be married, and actually work. So it’s not like it’s a pipe dream, something I was trying to do, I actually made a career out of it.
Empower: That actually goes into my next question of how to balance family life, being an actress, being as involved as you are with film and TV. That definitely answers that question as well. Now, in addition to being a highly accomplished actress, you are also a breast cancer survivor. Talk about that first moment when you first got that news. How did that make you feel? Did you think that, “Oh, my career…” What was your first thought?
Vanessa: No, I wasn’t surprised because it was something that God whispered in my ear and told me something was wrong, although I had no pain and I had no idea what was going on then. I took myself to the doctor. When I found out, when I saw my breast exam and I saw the tape, the footage, the x-ray and he showed me what they called calcifications, which concerned my doctor. I knew right then and there that calcification would indeed be cancer. I knew that’s what I was feeling, though I had no physical symptoms. So when it came back to me that it was, you know, my God… I mean, no I didn’t think [about] my career, I just felt like, “Oh my God.” It’s what I thought it was, and actually it wasn’t until later on when I found out I was going to have to have a mastectomy. I had already started one form of treatment, but then when it came back that I had to have a mastectomy, that was obviously that moment that really got me feeling some type of way. Afterwards, I was really glad I did have a mastectomy. God knows better than me, and that’s exactly what I needed, but before I really came to that realization that was the hardest point, that day. When I first found out it just confirmed what I thought and basically, I just went into it like I always do; I went into productive mode, asking myself “Okay, now how am I going to do this? We’ve got to do this. Let me figure this out, let me get under because I got to keep moving, I’ve got stuff to do.” And that worked.
Empower: What would you say to those women who are like you, who are very health-conscious, always having their mammograms and things but find out they have breast cancer or some sort of cancer that they’re dealing with? What would you say to those going through that now?
Vanessa: You’ve got to deal with it head-on. You know whatever it is, you got to deal with it. Everybody’s different. You’ve got to find out what’s going to work for you, talk to your doctor, and talk to other people. But you’ve got to deal with it head-on, it’s no other answer for that. First advice I’d give anybody is get yearly checkups because the one thing, and this may sound very cruel,
but one thing I have very little patience for is people who don’t go to the doctor. Period. Then, when they feel stuff, they ignore it,and they keep ignoring it until they have to go. Then, they want everybody to cry over them because they’re dying. You did it to yourself. A) You won’t go to the doctor. B) You had symptoms, and you ignored it. Now, you want everybody to fall out at your funeral. You killed yourself, and I know that sounds cruel, but I just have really no patience for that or stories like that.
I remember getting out [and] speaking to the women and this woman, her mother had died of breast cancer, and she would not go get checked up because she was afraid of what she was going to find out. Are you kidding me? So you’d rather die earlier than you have to rather than going and just being proactive with your health? Her girlfriend had brought her to the seminar to talk to someone, begging her to go get checked up and she would not go, she refused. And Black people, we refuse to go to the doctor because he’s going to tell you something that’s unwelcoming. We’re not back into ancient times, there’s very sophisticated ways of finding out everything and there are cures for a lot of things. So, if you just refuse to go to a doctor because he makes you scared…And I’m like “Are you scared to go to the doctor, or are you scared of dying? Which one?”
Vanessa: So, I just have very little patience and understanding for people with that mindset. If you know you’ve got something, the first thing is just to go every year so you’ll be on top of it because the reason I found out I was day zero is because I get my mammograms yearly. Now, if I didn’t get my mammogram, I wouldn’t have found out, I could have been stage two, three or four…I got it early. I had it day zero, which you still have to do something about. I go on a regular basis, and some cancers grow fast. So, if you aren’t on top of your body day zero, one month and eight months later, you could be stage four but you never go to the doctor. Or if you’re feeling something in your breast and you’re scared to go… you don’t go until your nipples are bleeding, and now you want everybody to cry. It’s like, come on.
Yeah, I guess that’s my answer.
Vanessa: Deal with it head-on. Deal with your health first, and then, if you see something, you see a change in your body, you feel something, something tells your spirit… God whispered in my ear. I had not a symptom but something just said, “Vanessa, something isn’t right.” And it kept nagging me, and I listened, and something was not right.
Empower: Wow … Amazing, amazing story. Now, talk to us about your role as Lady Ella in Saints and Sinners.
Vanessa: Well, Lady Ella is quite ruthless, I love her to death.
Empower: (laughter) I do, too.
Vanessa: She does something I would never do, and that’s why it’s so much fun because I can allow myself to go there and be mean and uncaring and conniving, with a murder mentality so to speak and not be remorseful because I’m acting.
Vanessa: But Lady Ella…she’s by all means necessary. Whatever she got to do, she’s going to do it. (Laughter)
Empower: I actually had the opportunity a while back this past summer to be on set at one of the filming of Saints and Sinners and I really enjoyed myself. I got to see a lot of different people in character: Kelly Price, Dimitri McKinney and, Keith, he actually played in the new, modern Dream Girls with Beyoncé. It was so fun and interesting to just see everybody in character and get out of character. When you guys are filming, what’s the longest amount of takes that you had to take to do a scene?
Vanessa: I’d say that depends. We really don’t get a lot. When you shoot television it’s very fast, and you’re not supposed to have a lot of takes. If you have a lot of takes, then you’re not doing your job. Far as the reason they hire me… well, part of the reason, I’m number one on the call sheet. I’m supposed to come and knock it out quickly. You should come to work, know your lines, know you intention, know what you want to do, and hit it because you’ve really got time for two, maybe three takes, and then they have to move on to the other set-ups. It’s not about you just sit there all day and do that same thing. If they’re doing that there’s a problem, and they’re not happy about it because time is money, money is time, and you’re taking way too much time if you’ve got to do several takes.
Empower: Now, something else that you’re involved in is a web series, which have become extremely popular over the years. You have In the Company of Friends. What made you start this web series, and what exciting things can we expect to come from it in the future?
Vanessa: Yes, I just got a new series that I started as well on that same channel. Cookin’ and Hookin’ Up, How to Turn Up for Fifty Dollars or Less. It’s for the Millennials, we just got that started about a month ago, now, and you can see that on the same network – www.inthecompanyoffriends.tv. So, both of those are like, my projects I like to do because I’m a creative artist. I direct, produce, and create content. That’s what I do. That all remains to keep my creative juices flowing, and my hand just keeps reaching out there.
Empower: All the versatility and all the newness that comes with you, do you see yourself, at some point, saying if any, “Vanessa, you’ve had your run?”
Vanessa: God has to tell me that. God! I think I don’t have to do it. God’s going to make that very clear when it’s time for me to sit down. So, I’m going to take that from there, but I plan on working until I can’t work anymore because I enjoy it, and I really don’t want to stop working. So, if I get to the point where either illness or age or whatever… No, not right now, no thought at all. I don’t even foresee that.
Empower: Now, something that I’ve never seen you do is reality TV.
Vanessa: And you’ll never see me do it. My daughter had a show called Baldwin Hills where she was in high school, if you’ve seen it. My husband and I made several appearances on there with her, but that was different. Also, because the parents were involved we had a lot of teachable moments and it was really mainly about the kids growing up in this area, so that was different but no, you’ll never see me in a reality TV show. I don’t have much respect for them or the people that do them.
Empower: Just to kind of take a turn, we have a new president. How do you feel about the political changes that have taken place and that will take place in January and the nation going forward? Do you have an opinion or view about that?
Vanessa: Oh, I didn’t vote for him.
Vanessa: I don’t have much faith in him right now, so he’s got to prove himself. Basically, I don’t really have much to say about it all. I think he’s crazy, and I didn’t vote for him. I’m going to be interested to see what he does.
Empower: Aspiring actresses that are coming up and looking for that fit, concerned with the industry as it pertains to what type of projects they take on. What advice can you offer to them?
Vanessa: You know, either you work or you don’t work, and the thing about acting is it means a lot of different things. We all don’t just sit back and pick and choose. I mean, some people have that leisure, but a lot of times the project makes you feel you’re used. Even things you think you don’t want to do, you do it and you’re glad you did it because it ends up being a very good project for you. It’s just like I tell my children, I’ll tell any young person, if it scares you, run towards it, never away from it. I have a one-woman show called Letters from Zora that I’ve been doing for the last four years and it’s a ninety minute monologue, basically. And it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. And if I would have let a ninety minute, one-woman piece scare me then I wouldn’t have won the awards I’ve won and just try to get it in New York, and it’s got quite a life, and it will have quite a life. So, I tell, you know, anybody young and new to the work if it scares you, run towards it, but understand that there's a lot of things that will be asked of you in acting. So, if you want to pick and choose what you will and will not do, yes you have that right, absolutely. But understand that, sometimes, you’ve got to be open and see what will choose you. Now, other than something that’s derogatory, demeaning, or sexist, I get that. But you know, it’s about work. Get in there, and do the work. The work comes in all forms, fashions and roles. Just do the work, and stay ready to be ready because if you’re already ready, then you don’t have to get ready. So when the part comes your way, you can just jump in and do it.
Empower: If there was ever one empowering quote that you have carried over, what would that quote or saying be?
Vanessa: Stay ready to be ready.
Empower: [repeats] Stay ready to be ready.
Vanessa: That’s one I live by. Stay ready to be ready. I mean, that says it all because it encompasses your mental health, your physical health, your appearance, your attitude, your spirituality, whatever it is. So, when that door opens in life, and it doesn’t always mean acting, but when that moment comes, you’re there. You don’t have to stumble around trying to find it. You’re already there. If you stay ready, you’ll always be ready, so as things come to you, you don’t have to do the preparation. You know what I mean?
Empower: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Vanessa: So, if you don’t like something, and that can be if you don’t like something or something about yourself, fix it. If you think you need therapy, start going. If you want to lose weight, get on a diet. If you need your teeth fixed, fix it. You don’t like your hair, do something about it. Because if you get an opportunity on Friday, by Monday it’s done. Things like that won’t change. You’re telling me however you look on Friday, nine times out of ten, you’re going to look that same way on Monday. So if you’re not pleased with the way you look on Friday, or who you are on Friday, or your job, or your life on Friday, nothing’s going to be different on Monday. So, stay ready so you’ll always be ready. That’s one of the things that empowers me.
Empower: Awesome. I want to say thank you Mrs. Vanessa.
Vanessa: May I ask you, you said you grew up with me, like, were you a kid when I was acting?
Empower: (laughter) Yes. I was. I was a kid.
Empower: I was born in 1978.
Vanessa: Okay, you sure were a kid because I graduated in 1979.
Empower: Yes ma’am.
Vanessa: Okay, you sure were a kid.
Empower: Yes. Coming to America is one of my favorite movies, and I had to turn my daughter onto it because she’s like, “Who are you talking about?” I was like,”I can’t believe you’ve never watched Coming to America. I’ve watched this movie thousands of times!” It’s one of my classic movies. Just seeing your career, and seeing how you gracefully carry yourself has been empowering to me as a woman. And then, to actually get to know you, to meet you, and converse with you; to see how you do things just really were teaching moments for me. Even unintended teaching moments, they were still teaching moments for me. I appreciate it.
Vanessa: It might be unintended on my part but I teach. I have teaching moments all the time, and I always find the teaching moments in things, and if I can share and teach, I do. Because I think it’s important, I mean, I think we learn every day. I still learn.
Empower: Oh yeah.
Vanessa: People who teach you, they’re not always older people, sometimes I learn a lot from younger people. I learn a lot from my peers, I learn a lot from older people but I think teaching moments are constant. The thing is a lot of people don’t recognize when it’s a teaching moment or when they’re being taught, and that’s the difference. You need to be able to recognize when the teaching moment is upon you and it’s something you could take advantage of and share the information with somebody else, or teach them how you taught this. But, more importantly, when you’re being taught, when the teaching moment is for you to learn.
Empower: Well I definitely appreciate you forgiving us the opportunity to feature you in Empower. I’m just excited, and I can’t wait to work with you again.
Vanessa: Sure, and thank you for thinking of me.
Special thanks to Derick Blanks for photography photos.
More on Vanessa Bell-Calloway @ http://inthecompanyoffriends.tv