By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
Like many actors, Karimah Westbrook is a woman of many talents. Not only does she act, she is also a writer, dancer and an accomplished painter. In fact, Westbrook who stars alongside Taye Diggs (Private Practice) in the new CW Network series All American has sold a number of her works. She fell into painting by happenstance. “I was taking a class at church and we had to do a project on self-expression. I bought a bunch of canvasses and it just became this thing, it was such a release. I was pumping them out back to back. I just felt like spirit was operating through me,” she said. She got convinced to show her work to the public and sold a dozen of them. Painting changed after that though. “I was like, ‘This is another stream of revenue!’ and as soon as I tried to paint for money, it stopped flowing. It just wasn’t the same.”
Westbrook who began her career in the early aughts with the cult favorite Save The Last Dance with Kerry Washington, plays Grace James in All American. Grace is the mother of two sons, one of them, Spencer, a gifted football player. Scouted by Diggs’ character, Spencer is invited to play at the upscale Beverly Hills High. The catch is that he would also have to move in with the coach and his family which includes the coach’s son, Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), who is also on the football team and has a jealous streak.
Spencer is reluctant to take the leap but when the understated but plucky and ever-hopeful Grace hears about this opportunity, she is adamant that Spencer take advantage of it. “Grace plays a critical part in pushing Spencer,” Westbrook explains, “She is the backbone and makes him see beyond his current circumstances and pushes him to go to the school in Beverly Hills and position himself to fulfill his dreams.”
In preparing for the role, Westbrook, who is not a mother tapped into her own maternal instincts. “I don’t think you have to have kids to be a mother,” she says. “I’m an aunt and I have two nieces and I care for them and want the best for them so the transition for the role wasn’t difficult because that’s who I am as a person. Also understanding the predicament of living in a certain neighborhood and wanting what’s best for your child especially young Black boys. I had a lot to motivate me in my role.”
Though always inspired by Whoopi Goldberg and an inveterate performer for her family while growing up in Chicago, Westbrook didn’t believe she could act professionally until after high school. “When I started to think about career and what I wanted to do for a living, I decided on acting and I enrolled in a summer program at The Academy of Dramatic Arts in California. After that I knew I needed to move to California to pursue acting.”
Save The Last Dance was shot in Westbrook’s hometown of Chicago so she was able to audition and ended up snagging a role. The film was a boon for Westbrook. She was finally able to move to California. Fiercely disciplined and focused, Westbrook eschewed partying and hanging out; opting instead to focus on her craft and on landing an agent and acting jobs. “I worked at Macy’s briefly when I first arrived,” she explains, “But then I was able to support myself for six years straight just from acting. I made it all about the work. I just worked on my goals every day.”
Her mother’s decision to send her to military school for high school perhaps was a contributing factor. “When you’re by yourself a lot as I was, it’s like, ‘Where do you learn from?’ I did get to the point where I needed more discipline than I had and the military school process was great.”
Westbrook is a water baby.”I love going to the ocean. I know it doesn’t sound very thrilling but I’m always very excited to go by the ocean. I don’t live near the water so it’s always a trip and I find it fun. I like swimming. I have a pool at my place and I enjoy doing that as well. I also love reconnecting with my friends. So those are my two favorite things.”
All American airs on the CW Network Wednesdays at 9 p.m.