The emerging stage and screen actress on how Atlanta, Georgia shaped her, her favorite women in Hollywood, and why more films should tackle stories set in the Deep South
Interview by Jaclyn Bethany
Photographs by Krista Anna Lewis
On a recent walk through New York City’s theater district, my friend and emerging actress, Akilah Walker, recognizes about five people she knows, all of whom are elated to see her and absorb her magnetic energy. As Walker hops from Los Angeles to New York to San Francisco to Atlanta (where she grew up), working on various projects, she joins a group of fellow young theater-makers and film actors who are making a concerted effort to ensure that the voices of women and people of color are being heard loud and clear in America, across stage and screen.
I first met Walker at Fordham University, and it’s been a joy to watch her blossom into an awe-inspiring woman. (In addition to her BA in Acting, she is a 2017 graduate of American Conservatory Theater, or A.C.T., in San Francisco where she received her Masters of Fine Arts in Acting, as well as a certificate in Citizen Artistry.) Whether you catch her in Boots Riley's directorial debut, Sorry To Bother You, or in the workshop of a new play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, FLEX, about a women’s basketball team, or in my forthcoming short film, The Delta Girl (2019), Walker is well on her way to greatness. —Jaclyn Bethany
On her favorite childhood memories and how growing up in the South shaped her: “Growing up in the South shaped everything about me! From the way I speak and the way I dress to the way I crave the car culture of L.A., because I grew up driving everywhere in the South. I believe that being a Southern woman gives me an innate sense of mystery and magic—the South has such a rich history and culture, and I believe I carry that with me wherever I travel. Being Southern is soulful and delicious, and I fully embrace that.”
“One of my fondest memories is going to my grandmother's house in Macon, Georgia. She lived in this blue ranch-style house on acres and acres of land; she grew her own food and had goats and a trampoline and four-wheelers for the kids. I remember having the time of my life out there with my cousins. We would run around and create worlds for ourselves in the outdoors. I would beg my parents to take me to my grandmother's house every weekend, and I would cry when it was time to leave. On the same property where my grandmother lived was the old house where she raised my mother and her siblings—my cousins and I literally got to see with our own eyes the way our parents grew up. It was a surreal experience.”
Being Southern is soulful and delicious, and I fully embrace that.
On what she finds unique about her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia: “Atlanta is the HOLLYWOOD of the South! So much incredible music, art, and culture comes out of Atlanta. It's so beautiful to see the city expand to become this hub for actors, rappers, musicians, and other creatives. They even host an AfroPunk festival in Atlanta; it's really fabulous.”
“I also love how progressive Atlanta is becoming—the new mayor of Atlanta is a black woman named Keisha Lance Bottoms—it’s epic. Plus, the presence and inclusiveness of the LGBTQIA community in Atlanta is absolutely astounding. I'm proud to be from a place with so much to offer.”
On what attracted her to the story and the character of Grace in The Delta Girl: “I was attracted to being a part of The Delta Girl because of the unique lens through which this particular story is told. It’s not often that we see segregation and racism through the eyes of a child who has grown up to believe one thing, but is now coming into her own beliefs about it. I was intrigued to see the internal conflict of coming to realize this way of life that you’ve grown up thinking is normal is actually ugly, divisive, and hurtful. I was attracted to Grace because she possesses a quiet dignity that’s always fun to play with as an actor; I think it's important for me as a woman of color to bring my own dignity to a character.”
On the importance of setting more films in the American South: “I think more films need to be made about the Deep South—so many stories live there. We have only scratched the surface of what we can say about the South based on what's onscreen today. It's a whole world. More films can be made about the South until the end of time, and there still won't be enough! So let's get to work people.”
On her favorite women in Hollywood: “As far as my favorite women in Hollywood at the moment, it’s a tie between Tessa Thompson and Danai Gurira. I have followed Tessa's career from the beginning, and I just love the projects she chooses to be part of. I also got the chance to work with her on Boots Riley's new film, Sorry To Bother You. She was the picture of professionalism on set—kind and personable. Yes, she was the star of the film, but she treated everyone like we mattered. We had great laughs and conversations and hugs and squeezes. I also ran into her at Sundance while she was promoting the movie, and the way she speaks about social justice issues … she's just so eloquent and poised and brilliant! I could talk about her all day.”
“As for Danai, she was the best part of Black Panther. She is literally career GOALS. A playwright and an actress who’s now adapting a screenplay that her bestie, Lupita Nyong'o, is producing—I bow down to that queen.”
Place to dine in the South: “My favorite southern food spot is now closed. Formerly known as the Chicken Coop, the restaurant was in my father's hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama. I believe it’s now under new management as The Coop. I also love any place that serves Cajun/New Orleans-style cuisine; a few of my favorites are Angeline’s in Berkeley and Brenda’s in San Francisco. I also love Gus’s fried chicken spot in West L.A.”
Southern-set play: Hurt Village by Katori Hall
What’s next for her: “This summer, I’ll be workshopping some amazing new plays at Berkeley Repertory Theater up in the Bay Area. Beyond that, I’ll be in L.A. auditioning and writing and creating with my fellow artist goddesses.” ★
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.