“Soft-spoken yet steadfast” are words I would use to describe the Emmy-nominated actress Kelly Jenrette. It might sound contrasting, but that’s what I sensed within her and the characters she brings to life on screen. Whether her current role as Amara “Dr. P” Patterson on All-American Homecoming or her character Annie from The Handmaid’s Tale, Kelly’s acting quietly commands attention, causing her to stand out, which is what attracted me to her.
The Atlanta-born actress began her career in 2006 as a voiceover actress on Adult Swim’s Frisky Dingo. She would later go on to be in other shows and films, but her guest appearance role in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale granted her an Emmy nomination. It just so happens that her husband, Melvin Jackson, Jr., received a nomination in the same year, causing them to become the first-ever African-American couple to receive nominations simultaneously.
It was a pleasure to sit down and talk with Kelly about her work on All-American Homecoming, preparing for her role as Annie, being an introvert, her faith, and pushing through life. Tap in and get to know Kelly in the interview below.
Fancy: What inspired you to pursue a career in acting?
Kelly: Initially, it was just something I loved doing. Acting was something that always intrigued me. The idea of playing and pretending to be someone else was interesting and something I wanted to explore.
Fancy: Cool. How did you secure Dr. P’s role on All-American Homecoming?
Kelly: Well, I was sent an audition from my team. I was made aware that there were talks of a spin-off from All-American. The audition came in, and I read that it was this professor at this university; I was like, okay, cool. I did a self-tape for it right in my kitchen, where my self-tape setup is, and submitted the audition. That led to a read with the director directing the pilot, Michael Schultz, who is absolutely amazing. From there, I found out that I had booked it.
Fancy: I have not watched all of All-American, but I love All-American Homecoming. However, I need help understanding one thing. I know about the Bringston baseball scandal, but did it take part in All-American, the original series? Did they show that?
Kelly: So, in season three of All-American, episode 17, which was called Homecoming, Geffrie’s character Simone went to Bringston University, and from there, there were talks of cheating and a scandal happening with the baseball team. During that episode, it comes out that there was indeed a scandal happening with the baseball team. Damon Sims, who was supposed to go to the major leagues, decided to come to Bringston instead as long as coach Marcus could be his coach and the baseball team could continue to live on.
Fancy: I see, because it seems like something’s missing even when you’re looking at the beginning of season one. So now I got it. Thank you for explaining that.
Kelly: Yes, you could go back and watch season three, episode 17, and that will shed some light on everything.
Fancy: Okay. So in what ways would you say you’re like Dr. P?
Kelly: Dr. P’s family is so important to her. We had the family dinners where everyone would kind of gather around and just love on each other, and family is so significant to me. During the holidays, I’m excited to go home to see my mom, both my dads, my sister, my niece and nephew, and my brother. I get to see family and spend time with them and get loved on by them and love on them in return.
Then also, Dr. P is someone who pursues truth and sometimes doesn’t count the cost of what that means. I think that I am that way as well. It’s like, “Okay, well, what’s the truth? I don’t want to hear your truth, or my truth, or his truth. What is the truth? And then let’s talk about that.” Sometimes, neither of us counts the cost of what that means and what that looks like.
Fancy: I love it. Also, I love that you said that about family. There was the episode with Tina, Simone’s mom, and you discovered that she paid for you to go to school, but she left school to make that happen. I think this sort of thing happens in Black families often, but we don’t necessarily discuss it. There’ll be that hostility there, and you do not know why. I love the fact that the show touched on it. Before we move on to some other things, I must ask my last question about Dr. P. What’s the deal with her and Zeke? Is it something that stems from episode 17?
Kelly: I think there were little nuggets along the way. Because initially, I-Kelly, the actor, did not know what was in store for Amara, the character, as the season progressed. Early in season one, Simone had a panic attack, and Zeke, the president of Bringston University and also a doctor, checked on her. He brought her to my house and checked on her. As he was getting ready to leave, he said something like, “I know what’s going on with the scandal. I’m here if you need me.” Apparently, that moment sparked something in the writers. They were like, “Oh, let’s explore this.” That’s where we are in this exploration stage of figuring out what this thing is.
Kelly as Annie
Fancy: Okayyy! Sounds like you, or rather Dr. P, has three men right now that you’re juggling. I have to circle back to The Handmaid’s Tale because I love your role as Annie. I wanted to know how you got into character for that because your portrayal was so genuine and raw. You wanted to be rooting for June, but then we were suddenly rooting for Annie. It was intense, but that role landed you an Emmy nomination.
Kelly: Yeah, they say that art imitates life. There were experiences in my past that assisted me in diving into that level of hurt, pain, and betrayal that Annie felt. Even aside from that, just my job as an actor. Yes, I pull from things that kind of resonate with me in my life, but then I also understand my job as an actor is to create this world. I think it was of both my past hurt and pain and then also just identifying with the woman, even if I had not experienced that, what that would feel like, not judging her, because I think up to that point, everybody was rooting for June.
We introduced Annie, and it’s like, “Well, wait a minute. There is another side to this story.” I really permitted myself to not judge Annie, to not judge June, Luke, or anybody, but just to say, “This is me in this situation. This is how this affects me, a woman who wants her marriage to work”- like, what does that look like when another woman takes your place? Yeah, that was that.
Pushing Through Life
Fancy: Well, you did an awesome job with that. Now, what challenges have you faced in your career?
Kelly: I tell everybody all the time with the amount of perceived success that I have had in my career, it does not compare to the number of nos I have received. I have received way more nos than I have yeses. Initially, that was a challenge because my idea of success was based on what I could see on the screen or read about in articles. I think the biggest challenge was redefining my idea of success. I had to understand that success could be I woke up today, and I did something to further my career. That’s successful. I no longer define success based on what my IMDb says I’ve done, what I can post on social media, or how many Deadline articles I have. That was a huge challenge early on because it is about “What are you working on?” “What can I see you in?” Sometimes when you don’t have anything to say, you can begin to feel like, “Oh, I’m not successful.” So now I’m like, “You can see me in life right now, pushing through.”
Fancy: I think that’s a great answer because I sometimes feel that pressure. I can understand where you’re coming from. I think a lot of us experience that. So I love how you worded that. I think that’s something I’m going to incorporate into my life. In another interview, I read that you talked about reaching for your husband’s hand when out amongst people. I was wondering, do you consider yourself to be an introvert?
Kelly: You know what, I honestly do. When I’m out, I would call myself an introverted extrovert, if that’s such a thing. There is a level of anxiety that I am trying to work through when I’m out in public, and it’s so funny. I was out at an event with my publicist Emily, and Derek Huff and Scott Banks were there. I wanted to get a picture with them, but I was like, “No, I can’t ask. It’s fine.” I kept just going back and forth because of all of that stuff. It’s weird because people who know me would be like, “Girl, I know you’re not (introverted), but my husband would be able to tell you when we’re out that I would rather come home and stay home than go out to an event.
My husband is the complete opposite. He has never met a red carpet that he didn’t like. He’s never met a stranger a day in his life. I’m always the one that’s like, “Don’t leave me.” “Where are you going?” “Okay, come right back.” “You’re going to get us something to drink? I need you to come right back. Don’t leave me here.” So, yeah, I would define myself in certain situations as very much an introvert.
Fancy: Laughs. So what advice would you give to other Black actors and actresses or aspiring actors and actresses?
Kelly: The advice I would give to other aspiring actors and actresses is to be clear on why you are doing what you are doing and define success for yourself. Like I said before, don’t get caught in the trap of success only meaning one thing. “I booked something, so I’m successful.” Well, this means you’re unsuccessful if you don’t book anything. I don’t think that’s true. Be very clear on your definition of success, and give yourself the grace to understand.
Success does not have to be defined by someone else. Success for me is X, Y, and Z. It is to be okay with that and know why you want to get into this brutal business because it is ferocious. If you know your why, then those times when you feel like, “Yeah, I don’t want to do this anymore,” that why can kind of bring you back in or permit you to say, “Yeah, I’m going to leave.”
One of my acting teacher’s motto is “have fun or quit.” If you’re not having fun, it’s okay to quit. Quitting doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. It just means this isn’t something I want to do or continue to do right now, and that’s okay.
Fancy: I love the flexibility in that statement. In your opinion, how has the entertainment industry evolved regarding the representation of Black actresses, or do you feel like it has evolved any?
Kelly: I think that it is evolving. I think there are more opportunities than there were several years ago. I think there’s always room for growth with anything. While we do get to see more of us in front of the camera, I think we can utilize that same energy behind the camera. Make sure that we are represented in these writing rooms when we are writing stories about Black characters so that we can have that very unique voice. When we go into the hair and makeup trailer, hire people who understand that I’m not going to pull my hair back in a ponytail. My hair is kinky. You can’t just spray water on my hair and think that it will be okay to do a slick back. It doesn’t work like that. Making sure we have people who know how to take care of our hair and do our hair, Black producers and directors, all of those things, I think we can ensure that we are represented across the board. So it’s not just, “Look at them in front of the camera.” Look at us behind it (the camera), too.
Fancy: That makes a lot of sense. So how would you describe your swagher? What would you say makes Kelly?
Kelly: How would I define my swagher? Anytime somebody asks, “Well, who is Kelly Jenrette?” I say, “I’m a Christian Black girl from Atlanta.” It took me a minute to be okay with defining myself that way because my faith is such a huge part of who I am. If you take that away from me, then I am nothing. I have nothing.
I don’t want to define myself outside of my faith. Because in my faith, I am kinder; I am more understanding. I am more patient. I am more forgiving; I am more giving. I am more loving and at peace. All of the better parts of myself are that swagger that comes from my faith in Jesus Christ. Without that, you don’t want to know. That girl, she’s not good. She’s not somebody that you would like to know.
Fancy: I understand what you’re saying there because I just had a recent conversation about similar. So what can we expect from you in 2023?
Kelly: 2023? Well, if it’s God’s will, we will see season three of All-American Homecoming. We have the second half of season two coming up, and, honey, some stuff is coming up in the last eight episodes of season two. I am also working on completing a play that I was commissioned to write by a theater collective that I am a founding member of, Black Rebirth Collective. It is a play about Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King. Imagine a meeting between those two incredible, iconic women. That will premiere this year (2023), and then we’ll see what else the Lord says.
Connect with Kelly at @kellyjenrette on Instagram.
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