Success Talk: Khalimah Gaston
Actress, Host, and Entrepreneur
Alexis Rai interviews Khalimah Gaston on her career as an actress and how the experience led her to co-create a thriving film and entertainment networking platform for independent artists.
Khalimah Gaston is an actress, host, and entrepreneur hailing from Queens, New York. She attended The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. Her studies, along with natural stage presence have granted her roles in countless Off-Broadway plays, sketch comedies, independent films, and tv roles. She enjoys staying active, traveling, and writing while juggling a full-time tv/film career, and working on her own films and other ventures. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she co-hosts Screening Room, a platform for the film and entertainment industry that she co-created to highlight other indie artists and create a community for partnerships and thriving careers.
Hi Khalimah. Thank you for interviewing with me. I have been following your experience as an actress since we first met in 2013 and it's been really cool to see you grow in your career. You have had awesome opportunities that you've worked hard for and opportunities that you have created for yourself. I am excited to learn more.
What is a typical day of work for you as an actress?
I have an actress life and a business life. I am from New York and being in Atlanta has shown me that I am more of a businesswoman than anything else. Of course, I am an actress, that's my passion and craft, but I have good business sense and after starting Screening Room, it's been so evident that I am now doing another event with the Atlanta Mayor's Office of Film and Entertainment backing it. A typical day for me doesn't exist. For acting, it could be preparing for the role, going to see plays, reading scripts, reading books, or talking to friends. Some days are filled with emails and phone calls all day.
How did the Screening Room concept being?
Screening Room is a weekly networking event for indie creatives in Atlanta. It is a platform to show your work and have your peers there with you. It's based in Atlanta but it is not just for Atlanta natives. We have had people from all over- New York, LA, Chicago, Miami- come to show content. It's been amazing, honestly. I can't believe how much it has taken off. I feel like, at the events, your content is your business card. Whatever you are showing that day is super important because people do not know you. This is their first time seeing your work and that gives them a chance to get to know you, your type of work, and what you are good at. I have seen many deals get done because of the content shown at Screening Room and the network that is in attendance. It allows you to meet people and to see great work going on in your community. I used to work at the restaurant where we host the event every week, Negril Village. After I left my position there, the owner and my partner now, Christopher Allison, contacted me and suggested that I do an event at the restaurant. I really didn't want to do it so I started helping them to create an event. Christopher wanted to host a movie night and I thought of doing something with all of the content being produced in Atlanta so we decided to team up and that's how the Screening Room began. We've been hosting it for over a year now.
I remember when you introduced Screening Room to social media. It's been really rewarding, as a friend and a peer, to see it grow and sustain itself. It's been over a year which is very impressive and not easy to do.
You have been able to explore your capacity as an actress and a businesswoman. Do you favor one side to the other?
I used to favor acting because it's something that I have been working on for ten years now, since I was in high school. I went to college for it. It's something that I am more aware of. The business side is a different type of feeling. You're the one taking charge of things happening and you have more control over how it happens, when it happens, and the money. I like the aspect of having more control.
Absolutely. I am also an artist at heart. For my career path, I decided to start in the fashion industry. I worked as a fashion stylist for a few years. I still work in fashion but I now work on the business side because I found the businesswoman within myself. I like the control that I have. I like to be able to use my creativity but also be able to determine the direction that the project goes in. I have become comfortable with calling myself an Alpha Woman and I would call you an Alpha Woman as well so business is a safe space for us.
I am a Leo!
The lioness! (both laugh)
I am looking forward to seeing what will come out of you as a businesswoman and an actress. There is so much power in being an actress who understands the space, has a vision for the space, and can navigate the space to your will versus hiring a team to control your space.
In this business, it's more important to have been the creative because that's who you are dealing with on a regular basis. They understand that you understand them when you say, "I am also an actress or singer or dancer", "I get the struggle that you go through every day", or "I get the wonderfulness that you go through every day". Some people say "struggling artist" or "starving artist" and I have a friend, Brittany Inge, who created a blog called "The Non-Starving Artist" because there are so many people who are getting it who are not starving.
Society has set up stereotypes to distract some of the greatest minds that exist. If you can shift yourself and see images of yourself, you will be able to go beyond those stereotypes. The purpose of my brand is to show images of women across all industries that are succeeding in their own success defined by their experience, not by society. If we look for society to show us these things, we won't see them or it will be a really long time until we do. Kudos to your friend Brittany Inge. It is really important to see images of yourself that aren't struggling or being hidden. As a woman, so many things are hidden that are very valuable and to be able to share those things with a greater population is a great asset the entire planet.
What's been your favorite project to film?
A project that I filmed last summer called Man of the House. An actor friend of mine, John Palomino, he wrote it, directed it, also co-starred in it with me and this young man named Kevin Rodriguez who was playing a younger version of him. The most interesting part to me is that it's about suicidal depression and it's all from a child's perspective. For sure that was one of my favorite films because seeing a child's perspective on suicidal depression is so eye-opening. To be able to say that I have been a part of a project like that with a strong message and it's helping people is amazing.
Are you currently involved in any humanitarian efforts?
I am. In Atlanta, there are so many homeless people. I am in the process of moving and I just reached out to my friend to find out how I can give the stuff that I don't need to people that need it and not to Goodwill or Salvation Army who will sell it. Hurricane Harvey survivors and even the shelters--where else can I bring my goods that I can give away?
That's so important.
What's been your favorite moment in your career so far?
Creating the Screening Room. It's been the most rewarding. To see my peers, to see the people that I work with and people that I want to work with come through and leave my platform to better themselves, to push other people. It's just been an amazing experience, the people that come through and the people that have created together or have the opportunity to meet and break that barrier of "Oh, I'm indie and you're a Hollywood actor". No, when we are all in here, we are all the MVP. I've had big stars like Omar Dorsey come through and help the Screening Room to show Queen Sugar [airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network]. We've had people like Henny tha Bizness who is a Grammy-nominated producer and he's judged and given feedback. So many dope people. The Mayor's Office is now backing my new event and that came about because of Screening Room. I didn't realize that this was needed so badly but in many ways, I did it for everyone else but I did it for myself because being new to Atlanta and thinking about the process of networking I was like "Jesus Christ, I am going to need to create an event so that people can just come to me" and I did. Luckily, I did it for me and my friends and all of the people who are in my network that can get the same benefits of being able to have one place where you can meet directors, writers, producers, and actors and hang out and it doesn't feel like "Oh, this person is here so I can't really do this", or "This person is the one nominated, blah blah blah", it doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter here. It's open-forum, open space, if I know the, I am introducing my friends. It doesn't matter. To have people come up to me and say "Thank you for creating this platform", "Thank you so much for showing my content", or "Thank you for having me", I'm like "Please, thank you for creating!".
I feel that sentiment about you. One, you're a woman. Two, you are a woman of color. You know, seeing someone from your own tribe is always fun. When you win, I win. Three, you're actually making a difference. When I tell you that I am rooting for you, I understand the difference that you are working to make, the authenticity that is infused in everything that you are doing right now, and the ambition, the momentum, the hunger, the desire to make a difference-not just for yourself but for everyone that may have experienced some of the difficulties and obstacles that you've experienced. I am such a fan of the Screening Room, I want to come to Atlanta and experience the magic firsthand. I see so many amazing things happening for you through the Screening Room, please keep going!
Aw, thank you.
You are very, very welcome.
What was your dream career as a young girl?
To be an artist. I've always wanted to change the lives of people around me through art and at this time, I really wanted to be a fine painting artist or something of that nature. It wasn't until I got to middle school and high school that I realized that I could do acting or all of those things. There was also somebody around telling me "Oh, you can't make it on just art" so I was like "Damn, alright, if I can't grow up to be an artist by sketching, painting, and drawing, what else can I do?" and acting allows me to do it all. Whether it's act like I'm a singer or dance, I get to do every art form through acting. I have always wanted to be an artist.
What's the greatest piece of advice that you've ever received from another woman?
I just hosted a panel at the Bronze Lens Film Festival on behalf of The Mayor's Office and I interviewed three women-an executive producer, a writer/director, and an attorney. It was called Women Behind the Lens in Film and TV. I asked all three of them "What would be your advice to your former self or any future artists now?" One said, "Do not take 'no' for an answer". I already felt that way but to hear her say that and know the journey she's had I felt like "Yes, I am on the right path". The second one that I really loved- "Be intentional". Now, as an actor, that is our whole job. What is your intention in this scene? When she said that, I thought "That speaks volumes to me, but not just as an actor, now as a business person...be intentional. What is my purpose in being here? What is my intent? What do I want to do?". That's the biggest piece of advice I've ever heard, "Be intentional in your work" and that was from the attorney.
Who is your female role model or hero?
Every woman that I talk to on a consistent basis, every woman that is out there creating and doing business and making art that I get to witness, those are all of my superwomen and women whom I feel are mentors and they don't even know it. A mentor doesn't have to be "Hey, you're my mentor". Watch their career, watch their work, see what you like and follow that model. All of my friends, actors, businesswoman, all of them, those are the people that inspire the fuck out of me.
I love that. That's very true. When we met, my company's focus was a bit different and it wasn't completely women-focused. As I became more familiar with the business terrain, I realized that women are so legit and we need to focus on women. They have been the best business partners I've had, they've been the best mentor's that I've had, the best friends, granted, I have male business partners, I have male mentors, I have male friends but I really find the quality in women. When you find headstrong women that are doing what they need to do, being who they need to be, they are always able to inspire even if it's in a 30-second conversation.
Where do you see your career going next?
To the next level. That's all I focus on, the next level and that's all I can do. Each level a day, I don't ever want to get ahead of myself. I do have an ultimate goal of being able to create freely and from a place of not having to worry about money or anything. Overall, I just want to take it one step at a time and not rush anything. I think, in the beginning, that was hard. Another one of your questions made me think - the hardest think that I have had to endure as a part of my process is patience. Not having enough patience. Now, I am just taking my journey one day at a time and being grateful. Patience and gratitude.
Would you say that patience and gratitude have been the most valuable lessons that you have learned in your career so far?
Without a doubt.
It gets you everywhere and anywhere you need to be. You are always going to be right where you belong and you have to remember that. Even when it feels like I don't belong here, you are right where you need to be to learn that lesson and move on. The patience of it all and knowing that that is where the growth comes from and the journey of doing, not getting to the end result.
What advice would you give young woman looking to grow a career in the entertainment industry?
Diligence and gratitude. Be diligent in your work, be impeccable in your word, and be grateful for everything that you have along the way.
Do you consider yourself to be a leader?
Duh, I'm a Leo. I don't have a choice but to be a leader. Especially being an alpha female and the type of person that I am. I don't know if you believe in numerology and astrology but looking at my life path number, 10 which really means 1, and those are natural born leaders. Everything that I read about it, I was like "That is so "me" on every level. Wow. If I have ever seen anything that is me, this is it; my life path number".
What's your life's theme song?
That's funny. In the background, right now, Kanye West's "Good Life" just came on. I would say that's my theme song. That's so funny. Anything Kanye is probably my life's theme song.
Early Kanye and Drake definitely got my passion burning. (laughs)
True, very true.
If you could have a conversation with any women, dead or alive, who would it be and what would be your first question?
Angela Bassett. Love Angela Bassett. Hmmm... What's her favorite book.
What's the thing that you love about her? Aside from her career...
She always carries herself with such poise and confidence. Her sophistication. She always plays vulnerable characters and still has such strength in her vulnerability and I think that translates for her as a person. She's always so honest in her work. She's a strong black woman in every sense of it.
Three words to your younger self?
Patience, diligence, gratitude.
Three words for your older self?
Happiness, time, money.
You've been so amazing. It was very pleasant to interview you. A part of what I do is also allowing women to freely speak about themselves and those moments and parts of themselves that they are really proud of. I can hear your pride shining through. Thank you so much.
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