By Anne Kristoff
Shumerria Harris was standing on stage at Alabama State University when she delivered a line that would change her life.
“I was in the play ‘Six Characters In Search of an Author,’ playing the old character lady,” she remembered. “One of the other characters tried to take my hat and I said, ‘Back up! Gimme 50 feet!’ and the crowd went crazy. It was awesome.”
After that, the Montgomery native was hooked.
Harris had dabbled in acting while in high school but was intent on switching to writing and directing once she got to ASU. But her serendipitous return to the stage sealed the deal. “The character building, the emotional connection, the passion developed from there,” she said. “And getting on stage and showcasing that, and then giving that energy to the audience and the energy that they give back … Yeah.”
After graduating from ASU, Harris moved to New York to study film acting at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts (NYCDA). News of the move to the big city did not sit well with her parents, particularly her father, a retired Master Sergeant. “He stopped speaking to me two weeks before I left, but ended up coming around,” she laughed.
At NYCDA, Harris learned to train as an actress and, more importantly, she learned the business of acting — how to get your start, how to get an agent, where to get headshots. Being in New York also allowed her to network and share information with a community of fellow actors, something that you don’t always get in other places, like Los Angeles. “It’s easier to network here than in L.A.,” she said. “You’re always around people — on the subway, walking. It’s easier to connect and get info.”
Since moving to New York, Harris has landed parts on “Shades of Blue” with Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta, HBO’s “Show Me A Hero,” the re-enactment show “The Perfect Murder,” the James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” and advertising campaigns for BET and Suave, among others. She loves the final product that you get from doing film and TV. “Seeing that final product, when it all comes together, the lights, the sound, it’s like, wow,” she said. But she definitely misses the stage and has come very close to landing parts on Broadway as well. “Stage acting makes you a better performer,” she said. “You get to know whether the audience likes or dislikes something in the moment. There’s no calling ‘cut!’ You have to think on your feet.”
But whether it’s film, TV or the stage, Harris has not yet landed the role that’s going to allow her to quit her night job. Like most actors, she holds down the type of regular job that gives her the flexibility to audition during the day. She works an overnight retail shift and goes on constant auditions — sometimes two to three a week, sometimes two to three a day. Out of 10 auditions, she says, you may book one or two jobs. But she knows not to take it personally.
“It can be for a lot of reasons. Talent is secondary,” she said. “If you don’t book the role, it doesn’t mean you’re not talented.”
She also finds getting close to landing the job to be motivational, believing that she’s one step closer and will get it the next time.
When she’s not plying her craft, Harris produces and hosts her own TV show, “#ActorsLife,” on a local public access station. She’s interviewed everyone from actors Marc John Jefferies (Losing Isaiah, Power, Notorious), Tobias Truvillion (Empire, One Life to Live) and Andrea-Rachel Parker (The Deuce, Power) to former New York SAG-AFTRA President Mike Hodge. She also blogs about “The Truth of Show Business,” where she shares information, advice and inspiration, including a recent story about getting out of her comfort zone by challenging herself to try performing stand-up comedy at New York’s legendary club Caroline’s.
She also finds motivation and inspiration in watching the career of fellow Alabamian Octavia Spencer. “She’s had a great career and she’s from Montgomery, my hometown,” Harris said. “Just knowing there’s someone not just from Alabama but my specific hometown to get to that level, it shows it’s possible. It makes it more reachable, attainable.”
Speaking of home, when she first left, her friends and family would often ask her when she’d be getting a “real” job. Things have started to change, though. Now it’s, “We’re so proud of you. Keep going. You’re going to get there.” Her mother is one of her biggest supporters. And Harris is certain that even her dad, who passed away a few years ago, would be proud.