By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
When Dara Renee first moved to Baltimore as a young girl, it was a rough transition. She tells the AFRO, “It was hard at first because I like had this valley girl accent and I’m coming to the depths of Baltimore. They were like, ‘Girl, why do you talk like that?’. It was so funny, but it was a very good experience.”
Born in California, Dara’s mother moved back to Baltimore to open her own performing arts school for kids called Encouraging Youth To Dream Studio. The bug bit Dara, who always wanted to be an actress and a singer. Her dreams have started coming true. Renee will play the character Savannah in the latest version of the Disney classic, “Freaky Friday.” Savannah is the well heeled, mean girl nemesis to the main character, Ellie Blake. This version of Freaky Friday is a musical and Renee, steals every scene with her clear, powerful voice and a talent for delivering pure emotion with each note.
Filming of “Freaky Friday” took Renee on her first trip to Vancouver, Canada for two months. She colorfully describes the popular tourist and filming destination on Canada’s west coast. “It was like the atmosphere just smelled like gumdrops and it was just so beautiful. I loved it so much. Our sets were all around the city and it was just so fun. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m traveling. I will be here as long as you want!’”
As excited as she was about the character Savannah, it posed some challenges for Renee to play the mean girl. Renee describes herself as “very social and very friendly.” She was certainly sweet enough to help her mother teach the younger kids at her performing arts school. During filming, she at first found herself apologizing after practically every take. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I had to push people during some takes and everything. I kept saying, ‘Sorry guys, sorry.’” Finally, her co stars had to tell her she needn’t apologize after every single take.
Renee moved back to California at the beginning of high school. She at first tried theater but after a few auditions on the East Coast, decided to wait. “I started going out in New York but I kept forgetting I’m like 5’ 3’’ and I was auditioning for “The Lion King” and they wanted kids who were like 4’ 8’’. I was like, ‘That’s not gonna work.’”
The adjustment to life back in California, Renee says, “was tough.” However, she leaned on her family and technology to pull her through. First, before she even left, they threw her a good old fashioned Baltimore send off. “They threw me a party. Like a goodbye block party and everybody from the block just came on down and we all had a cookout.” When she got to California, Facetime bridged the gap. Renee laughs, “They were Facetiming me every day like, ‘Girl, you gotta be strong. You gotta go out there and get that Oscar! You better go get that Grammy!”
In addition to her mother, Renee grew up around a lot of performing artists in her family. “We would just be sitting by the piano harmonizing or singing gospel. They were called the Royalettes. I would just join in. Me being little and trying to keep up, with the grown folks.”
Perhaps it was all the time spent with the “grown folks” that influenced Renee’s choice in acting and singing idols. Renee adores legendary singer and actress Eartha Kitt. “She could sing, could dance, she could speak multiple different languages. She was amazing at acting doing different voices, and all of that.”
Asked if there was anything in particular she wanted to say to AFRO readers, Renee replied, “I just want everyone to know, just be yourself. Like don’t try to be somebody else. Just come in there be who you want to be and love yourself. Do what you want to do, do what makes you happy.” Oh and there was another thing, she also wants people to know, “I am not mean,” she laughs. “If anybody wants to come up and talk to me, vent to me, tell me about your day. I love talking to people. So just come up and just be like, ‘Hey Dara!’ Anybody that comes up to me, it’s like they’re family already!”
“Freaky Friday” premiere August 10 on Disney Channel.