Casting The Special Runes
Jahkara Smith who plays Maggie Leigh in amc’s NOS4A2 just spoke to the channel’s website about making the jump from YouTube celebrity to TV star and more…
Q: How did you come to be part of the project? In one of your YouTube videos you mention you were asked to audition — how did that come about?
A: The showrunner [Jami O’Brien] had seen my first video, Contouring 101… and when it came time for NOS4A2, the casting director asked, “Is there anyone specific you want us to look at?” and my name came up in one of them, and Jami was like, “Don’t freak out, but there’s this really weird girl on YouTube and I just want to have her send in a tape just to see if she would be any good at it.” … But the casting director had seen my videos too, so when Jami brought my name up, she was like, “Oh I’ve seen her videos, I know where to find her.” So, I sent in the tape, and I didn’t know what I was doing so I just did it the way I would edit my videos. And then they flew me out to Santa Monica for callbacks and I got a job! [Laughs]
Q: You’re mostly known for your viral YouTube videos. How did you transition from YouTube stardom to TV? What’s it like jumping between the two?
A: I think the biggest difference for me is you’re not doing it by yourself. To me, there’s a level of companionship and mentorship that I didn’t have before. … Both make me feel good, but only one of them I really had to do alone. On TV, there’s so many parts involved that you just learn so much more. With YouTube, I felt like I was still doing something I liked, something nice and something good, but I didn’t feel like I was learning at a pace that was super stimulating for me… On set, there’s so many more jobs involved, just on the crew alone, and everyone is so open to talk about their jobs. If you have a million questions, everyone is always down to answer them for you, so I really think the sense of community and not just one-wolf-packing it. I was super nervous, but I thought, “Man, if I do a sh—y job, there’s a hundred people here that can help me. It’ll be okay.” [Laughs] YouTube comes with a lot more creative control because you’re alone, but with TV you learn so much more if you’re willing to release that creative control and work with other people.
Q: NOS4A2 is very heavily women-led, both in front of and behind the camera. Did that have any significance to you at all?
A: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that was one of the things that sold me on it. … So much of this project and this book and these characters is about friendship and love on such a pure level that I think that was really interesting to me. When we talked about Maggie’s sexuality, Jami didn’t know I was bi at the time, and she was like, “I just want to make sure you’re comfortable.” Because they really wanted to stay true to the sexual nature of that character. I think a lot of people, specifically men, where they miss the mark in terms of expressing sexuality by women, it’s always framed for men — even lesbianism and non-binary relationships. … Everything about Maggie’s sexuality, Jami and I really just wanted it to be for Maggie. … There’s a sexuality and a sensuality about her that’s understood, but it’s not necessarily displayed the same way as a lot of male-driven projects. … It was such a comfortable environment, talking about the sex scenes and talking about the sensuality, and even the more horrifying sh– that Maggie and Vic go through together. All of those were way easier conversations, if only for the sole fact that if I say, “I think that this woman is going to feel this way at this time,” I don’t have to overly explain it to another woman.
Q: How did you work with the creative team to bring Maggie to life?
A: Maggie was super exciting to do and I was super excited that Jami was open to talking about her, because her part in the book is rather small. It’s still important, but she only shows up a few times, since the book is structured differently. Jami gave me a lot of room to play because Maggie’s evolved so much. Because we don’t know a lot about her, there’s an anything-can-happen vibe, as long as it made sense. And we talked about the hair and Jami was like, “We really want Maggie to have purple hair, do you have any ideas about that?” I’m half black, so I already kind of know the situation in Hollywood but I was not about to be looking raggedy on TV, so I was like, “Look: we can go as purple or as rainbow or as crazy as you want, but we should do a lace-front wig.”
In TV, wigs are done a lot differently than they’re done in the hood, which is so funny, because there’s some stuff that comes out of the hood that looks so much better than [television]. So we looked at all these different options, and the wig was really, really good, so I was like, “This will lay different if you tuck the part, and do this,” and those little cultural things. And I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but if I know that things can be done differently, and they look better, then I feel like maybe I should share that. Not just for my sake, but for everybody.
Q: Since Jami thought of you specifically for the role, do you think you and Maggie share other similarities? Where do you differ the most?
A: That kind of blind optimism and that dark humor is definitely one of our biggest commonalities. … But Maggie is a lot more friendly. When people have told me that they already know I’m weird, like they’ve seen my videos, there’s this instant comfort, because I feel like I don’t have to bullsh–. I know they don’t’ expect any kind of normalcy from me. But I think Maggie is a lot more open and friendly. She’s kind of a smartass, but she has no reservations about going to Vic and talking to Vic and taking responsibility for this kid and making friends. Maggie’s an open person, but I think for me, regardless of my YouTube stuff, for me to feel like I’m being genuine, it takes me a lot longer. Maggie is more naturally bubbly and humorous, and I’m a little more darkly humorous.
Q: How do you think she feels when she meets and finally connects with other strong creatives like Vic and Jolene?
A: There’s a degree of loneliness that Maggie has that’s more apparent as the season goes on, and it sort of speaks to how isolating that kind of power can be. Everyone always assumes they want those kinds of gifts, but Maggie has been dealing with it by herself since she was a kid. It’s the reason she left home – people think she’s crazy, people think she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, they have very little faith in her, and they’re very blunt about talking about that lack of faith. When she meets Vic… I feel like Maggie is like, “Dope, someone who already think this sh– is normal,” and is ready to dive into it. I feel like it almost gives her a relief from that loneliness, but not just in the sense of Vic being there, it’s also in the sense of, “I have to look out for somebody now, I have to believe in my own gifts whether everybody else thinks I’m crazy or not, because now there’s somebody else involved.”
When she meets Jolene, she’s faced with the consequences of using those gifts. Maggie has always known that it’s been a little dangerous, and she warns people every time, but when she sees Jolene in the hospital, I think that she’s not put back, but I feel like she kind of splits the difference of, “Vic’s here now… I can lead the charge, I know what I’m doing,” to “Holy sh–, we both could really die, or even worse, be bedridden for the rest of rest of our lives. These gifts we have that we’re supposed to be using to help other people, they’re not going to save us. They’re doing us damage.” So Maggie is learning as she’s going as well, but I think meeting Vic and Jolene grounded her in the sense of, there are rules to this.
Q: Unlike most characters with superpowers, Maggie doesn’t seem to have any qualms about sharing her gift with the uninitiated. Why do you think that is?
A: Part of it is she already knows that people are going to think she’s crazy. For example, [Sheriff] Joe knows about the Scrabble bag. Maggie’s used it to find sh– that she’s not supposed to know where it is before. Even he thinks she’s crazy, and it’s been used it to solve cases. So, I think she starts using it in front of everybody because partly she likes the reaction from other people, who are like, “What the f—, I’m not seeing what I’m seeing.” She likes wants to be the one to be like, “Surprise! This sh– is real.” … I think she just understands that people aren’t going to believe it so there’s such little risk in people knowing, and if people do know, she’s not afraid of that, and maybe even a little hopeful for that, since that means there’s more strong creatives and she won’t be by herself. In a sense, she’s hoping someone will show her, “Hey I have a magic trick, do you want to see?” If she’s the one to push that boundary and push that envelope, I think she’s hoping that someday it will be reciprocated.
Q: In Episode 5, Maggie comes face to face with the Wraith. How do you think she feels to have her suspicions about it totally confirmed?
A: When Maggie sees it for the first time, there’s this mixture of elation and terror. It’s one of those things where she’s really proud of herself, because everyone has told her she’s crazy. Vic, Joe – there’s not a single person she comes into contact with who is like, “I believe you,” right from the get-go. She’s been on her own in this from Day 1, and then she sees this f—ing car, and it’s the Wraith, that she’s been talking about since Episode 1, and there’s this moment of awe where she’s like, “Out of everybody, the crazy bitch was right.” She’s had a lot of self-doubt up until this point, where she’s trying to get people to understand and hear her out, and they shut her down, and I think it’s been eating at her confidence. Especially now that she’s been saddled with sort of a kid, in a sense; she’s got Vic now. She’s like, “If I’m wrong, then I’m really f—ing up, because I’m not the only person involved anymore.” So she sees it and it’s this mixture of “F—, I was right,” that she can carry with her now – and is very swiftly pulled away.
Q: What was it like shooting that chase scene with the Wraith?
A: The chase scene was really fun. We did it, it felt like a million times, which was really tiring. There was this one time where I came around the corner and I just ate ass. But it looked so good because I ate ass right off the camera. As soon as I passed the camera I just fell. Just busted all kinds of sh–. But it was good because I looked more terrified. [Laughs] And there was this guy in a little green suit with eye holes cut out and he was driving the car, and it was really hard not to laugh every time I looked back because it was just a weird thing to see, but I think it came out really good.
Q: If you were a strong creative, what do you think your power would be?
A: I would want something to do with teleportation. [Laughs] If I could jump from place to place without getting on a plane. Maybe I have a secret door in my house when I want to go somewhere, and I can go through the door, and then when I come out, I’m in a house somewhere in Japan. And my knife… Maybe a key? I feel like I would have a key. So my knife is the key, my head is the inscape, I put that sh– in a special door and I pop out on the other side like magic. And I don’t have to ride a dirtbike, because I can’t do that sh–.