Without proper recognition, oftentimes, our life's simple affairs and occurrences have a way of coming full-circle. Nevertheless, actress Jennifer Sears knowingly appreciated her acting career's go-round moment, as she eventually had the pleasure of working with one of her greatest acting influences, the late Ms. Cicely Tyson. Through honing her natural-born talents while saluting those who sparked her passions, Jennifer can now be seen in OWN’s acclaimed series, Greenleaf, as well as Madea’s Family Reunion. In this exclusive interview, Jennifer discusses where she draws inspiration from when preparing for each role, how her childhood impacted her infatuation with the arts, and advice she has for aspiring actors.
Megan Morgante: Did anything/anyone, in particular, inspire you to enter the entertainment industry?
Jennifer Sears: There were several influences, but one of which who prominently stands out is the late great, iconic, and legendary Ms. Cicely Tyson. In elementary school English class, I recall watching her in Sounder and being moved to tears by her outstanding performance. As a ten-year-old, I couldn't describe what I was feeling, but I knew I wanted to make others feel... something, anything. It was then that I knew the powerful influence of art. Fast-forward decades later, I was blessed with the opportunity to humbly appear in a film with her, in all of her glory. That film was the 2006 box-office hit Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion, my very first role. What an honor it was and still is; a memory I will forever cherish in my heart. She was a star in our eyes and now she’s a star in the skies.
MM: Growing up, what did your childhood and teenage years consist of?
JS: My childhood was filled with a lot of performances in front of an audience of toys. I guess the signs of my future profession were already there [laughs]. I’m the youngest of four and I was often told I was too little to join in on the fun, so much of my childhood was spent entertaining myself. No sob story here, because I developed quite the imagination, which still aids me in my career today. Once I got a little older (and much cooler, according to my older siblings), I scored points with “the sibs” by performing for them and impersonating certain relatives... and their boisterous laughter and suggested targets were all the confirmation that I needed; this is what I was meant to do. While most of my teenage years consisted of scholastics and athletics, creative arts were never far from my heart and mind, and I knew somehow, someway, we’d be reunited.
MM: Can you give an overview of your background in the entertainment industry and how it led you to where you are now?
JS: Surprisingly, I did not have much of a background in the industry. I was kind of thrust into it on a whim. Unlike many of my actor peers, I was not a drama major. I studied political science/pre-law with aspirations to practice entertainment law. Although I knew in my heart that law was not my passion, I wanted to pursue a career, as a first-generation college graduate, that would make my family proud. It was immediately following graduation, the proverbial crossroads of young adulthood, when I was invited by a “friend of a friend” to an open casting call for a feature film. Before embarking on a long (and in my mind, unfulfilling) journey of law, I figured I had nothing to lose and attended the casting call as one last attempt at reuniting with my long-lost love, the creative arts. I went to the audition with the goal, not to start a career, but to solely have fun. With that in mind, I believe it took a lot of the pressure off because I had no expectations. Before leaving the lot, I found out that I booked the role. I didn’t even know the name of the film [laughs]. I was just so excited to act... to be able to do what felt right to my soul. My acting debut just so happened to be a box-office hit by one of today’s most influential filmmakers, the incomparable Tyler Perry. And here I am, fifteen years later... still on this beautiful journey.
MM: Now, what about your role in OWN’s acclaimed series, Greenleaf. What was your experience like joining the show for its fifth and final season?
JS: One word... incredible! I mean, really. The amazing production team, writers, crew, and of course, it goes without saying, the outstanding cast. Sharing scenes with the incredible Keith David, Lamman Rucker, and the incomparable Lynn Whitfield (who also starred in Madea’s Family Reunion) was truly incredible. The entire franchise was extremely generous and welcoming of Tara James into the successful series. After all the blood, sweat, and tears they’ve invested in the show throughout the years, I simply wanted to make the cast and production team proud of my work and humbly add my contribution in its final season.
MM: What was it like to play Tara James? Was there anything you shared in common with your on-screen character?
JS: The life of Tara James was strangely similar to my own. She and I both lost our father in our youth (and left with many unanswered questions), we’re both devout believers in Christ, we both do mission work in the community (and personally abroad including my travels to Haiti to rebuild communities of Jacmel and Carrefour), and we’re not easily thrilled by the frills of life (sweatpants are life). If it weren’t for the twists and turns provided in the great writing, I would think that we were one and the same. With that being said, it was fairly easy to get into her skin and live her life because I was able to pull from my own experiences and lend my truth to these imaginary circumstances.
MM: If you could give a piece of advice to someone looking to enter the entertainment industry, what would it be?
JS: Make sure your motivation is driven by your hunger for the art and not a pang of hunger for fame. The love of the art will grant you the patience and tenacity needed in this industry, while the lust for fame will give you the unrealistic expectation of overnight success. And when the opportunities seem to slow down or even come to a screeching halt, remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Relax and enjoy the journey. It’s about the journey, not the destination. The journey will give you everything you’ll need to get to the destination.
MM: Where do you tend to draw your inspiration from when preparing for each role?
JS: I find inspiration in life: My life, the lives and stories of those closest to me, or, sometimes in just observing strangers. Life is a beautiful gift that just keeps on giving if we stop or at least slow down momentarily to heed what it’s trying to teach us. Even the difficult moments (dare I say, especially the painful moments) have lessons that we can apply to life. I just so happen to also apply them to my art, because art imitates life.
MM: Have you ever experienced any notable challenges throughout your career?
JS: I think the biggest challenge has been the silence between projects. When the bookings slow down and your phone isn’t ringing as often, it’s easy to allow self-doubt to creep in and question the longevity of your career. It is in these moments that I remind myself that this is a career in which one doesn’t age out and time is on the side of the artist. I mean, look at how marvelously and gracefully the late great Ms. Cicely Tyson blessed us with her amazing talents for seven decades until she transitioned into the next life. I constantly remind myself that I am a lifelong student of the craft and I let my passion drive me to study the art and be inspired by all of the amazing projects being produced. I remind myself that I am an artist, therefore, I have the ability to create my own content... and so I do. I become a sponge absorbing creativity from different sources which reignite the flame that may have grown dim from discouragement or simply the trials of life. Then, I ultimately see the experience as a part of the journey and continue on.
MM: Do you have any exciting upcoming projects for the new year?
JS: Definitely! I’m super excited about two projects I just wrapped, a feature film with a spectacular star-studded cast and a hilarious BET comedy series that are both scheduled to release this year. I can’t share too much about the projects at this time, but trust me when I say, words can’t describe my level of excitement. There are a few other projects currently in development that I can’t disclose just yet, but I’d love to come back and “spill the tea” when I can. So far, I’m blessed to say 2021 is looking pretty good.
MM: Aside from acting, what would you say your other passions are?
JS: I’m very passionate about social and political activism, philanthropy, and charities such as Restore Haiti, a non-profit organization with whom I travel to Haiti on mission trips, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) with whom I’ve partnered for several years in memory of my brother Marcus who lost his battle to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Even though acting is a gift that fulfills my dreams, the act of service is a gift that fulfills my life.
MM: What would you say your personal style consists of?
JS: My personal style changes like the weather in Atlanta [laughs]. Some days, I’m super girly wearing something super-fitted, flaunting the curves... and other days, I’m wearing oversized sweats and a pair of my favorite sneakers. Most days, I guess you could say I’m a “sexy tomboy,” which I attribute partly to my athletic background. No matter what I’m wearing, I have to be comfortable. It’s hard to make anything look good when you’re uncomfortable.
MM: Who is your ultimate style icon?
JS: I have a couple, actually. I love how Zendaya consistently and effortlessly serves us versatility. She’s a style chameleon and I look forward to her appearances. Her stylist, Law Roach, is absolutely genius. And of course, one simply cannot mention ‘style icon’ and not mention Rihanna in the same breath. The two are synonymous without further explanation. She is impeccably stylish and undoubtedly iconic. She is a trendsetter, she is an artist, she is art.
Photography by Nikki Rumph
Makeup by Yanick Lunford
Styling by Zyaisha Jane
Lighting Assistant by Marquise Eppinger
Custom Gown by Sergio Robinson