Samora Smallwood hopes to tell emotionally resonant stories with women and BIPOC at the forefront, and with her new role as Maddi Brewer in OWN’s The Kings of Napa, she’s well on her way.
Set on a picturesque vineyard in Napa Valley, California, The Kings of Napa follows the King family as they fight for the reins to the kingdom after the sudden exit of the familial patriarch. Maddi is the unapologetic, funny and chic best friend of August King, the head of the family.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Samora about her role on the show, what aspect of Maddi resonated with her, developing the crime-thriller series GONE and what’s on the horizon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Samora Smallwood’s origin story?
Samora Smallwood: I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in Canada, and my mom met my father — he’s West African from Cabo Verde — one night in a gay bar. He and his friends were stowaways and washed up on the shores of St. John’s. When they arrived, they were emaciated. They were seeking political asylum.
My uncle, Joey Smallwood, was the Premier of Newfoundland.
When my mother fell in love with my father, my uncle Joey went to my grandfather and said, “Is this something that you support? If it is, I will help Joaquin stay in Canada.”
My mom got pregnant with me, and Joey asked Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister, for a favor, and Pierre did that favor. He wrote a stay for my father, which my father still has framed in his living room.
My father and his friends tried to escape extreme poverty and fascism and built a raft that washed on the shores. We had many newspaper clippings of my father and his friends, banged up, bruised and skeletal when they arrived. Being a rebel and always thinking about social justice, my mom fell in love with my father.
I wouldn’t be here if all those pieces hadn’t come into play.
MM: That would make a great movie, not going to lie.
SS: Put it out in the universe. We’re going to do it one day.
MM: Manifest it! Let’s talk about The Kings of Napa. Can you tell me what it’s about and how you got involved with the project?
SS: The Kings of Napa is an excellent show. It’s like a Black Succession. It’s about this wealthy aspirational Black family that owns a vineyard in Napa Valley, California. After tragedy strikes, all King children vie to control the vineyard.
There are juicy family secrets, betrayal, high drama, fantastic hair, fashion and makeup inspiration. The best designers, and it’s beautiful to look at. Oprah Winfrey is the executive producer. The casting director, Robin D. Cook, is a seven-time Emmy Award nominee (The Handmaid’s Tale, Grey Gardens, Mrs. America) committed to empowering BIPOC people, women and BIPOC performers. She’s insanely talented and works hard to bring diverse talent to the forefront.
A friend said to me, “This show is coming to town. I think you’d be great for it.” I reached out to my reps and my agent. She got me an audition. The character that I play, Maddi, is described as a cool, insanely funny, very chic gynecologist who’s the best friend of the head of the King family, August King (Ebonée Noel).
I loved that she’s a doctor and has all this independence. She doesn’t have a husband and children yet, but she has terrific female friends. That part to me sang because you would always see women pitted against each other in TV and film.
I’m a biracial woman, but I’m very light-skinned. Before she booked Suits, Meghan Markle talked a lot about feeling like she was not white enough for white roles and not Black enough for Black roles.
The world and the industry want to check a box. People want to know what you are as soon as they look at you. This role was a massive part of letting everyone know who I am.
Sometimes you can be your own worst enemy, so I decided to go for it, have fun in the audition and send my first take.
Then, my agent called, and she was like, “You booked The Kings of Napa.” I was like, “Oh my God, that audition that I didn’t completely overthink.” As soon as the negative self-doubt voice came in and said, “Maybe you’re not Black enough for this. I don’t know if you’re right for this,” I decided to show up for myself.
Sometimes we play it small, especially if you’re a BIPOC person, LGBTQ+, or a woman; you’re traditionally left out of the dominant culture. You enter those spaces, and you try and play it small. We ask for permission to “be.”
Now we’re in a moment in our culture where we’re shifting that, and we’re bursting into these places and saying, “Here I am. I have value. I’m as worthy of being here as anyone else.”
The Kings of Napa was that moment for me. I was like, “I’m going to be as big and bright and bold in this audition as I can.” Everything else unfolded after. We got to meet the lovely cast and had a lot of fun over the summer in Toronto.
MM: How does your character fit into the season’s overall narrative?
SS: The season’s overall narrative is about control — who’s going to rise to the challenge of taking over the vineyard. My character is the best friend of the lead of the King family, August King, and the cousin of the King family, Bridgette Pierce (Yaani King Mondschein).
I’m the Greek chorus in many ways. I’m like that typical best friend; I’m there as a sounding board for August and Bridgette. I love Maddi because she’s unapologetic, and she uses her full voice.
My character comes in and lets August and Bridgette know how she feels. I’m the voice of the audience in that way — when you have a lead character doing crazy stuff or doing things she feels she has the conviction to do, I’m that character saying, “Whoa, hold on. Is that right?” It’s exciting. Hopefully, when we get a Season 2, Maddi will be an even more significant part. I’m in four of eight episodes; it was a lot of fun.
Maddi has her journey. The other thing that stood out to me about Maddi is she’s gone to med school. She’s got a great practice; she drives a fabulous car. She has designer things she bought for herself, which could be intimidating … for another person to come in and say, “Damn, you have it all. How do I fit in?” She’s struggling with that. That resonated with me, too, because that’s real for women in our world.
MM: Do you have a favorite moment from your time on the show without giving too much away?
SS: Maddi always tells August what she thinks. Sometimes that pisses August off because sometimes you want your friends to agree with you. Maddi is not that girl. She’s not going to agree with whatever you’re trying to do.
My favorite moments represent that contrast between the two characters in a scene.
I can’t say what, you’ll have to watch, because it’s a part of the central conflict. But my favorite part about Maddi, in general, and how she fits into the show is she’s bold, funny and sassy. She doesn’t worry about what other people think, including her best friend, and she’s unapologetic about what she’s going after. She’s flirty and sexy and playful with the men in that world.
We don’t always see female characters that way, who boldly go after what they want or flip gender norms on their head. That was my favorite part about playing Maddi. But in terms of my favorite moment, you’ll have to keep watching. My favorite moment is near the end of the season.
MM: Describe this season using three words.
SS: Juicy, Black, bold.
MM: Is there someone you wish you had more scenes with on the show?
SS: I wish I had more scenes with Vanessa King (Karen LeBlanc). She plays the matriarch of the King family. I wish there were a moment with Maddi and Vanessa King. In terms of, “I see you. I know what you’re going through.” We’ll see what happens. We’re all close, and it’s interesting. It’s the first time I’ve seen a show built this way. We’re all watching and seeing what gets cut, what makes the edit, how they’re shaping the characters.
MM: What can audiences expect from this season?
SS: Audiences can expect high drama, family secrets, betrayal and juiciness. Someone on Twitter was saying, “I didn’t want to look away because the drama was drama-ing.” It’s true, because minute to minute, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, she knew the whole time.” Then you want to yell at the other character, “Don’t trust her. She knows.”
There’s so much great representation in the show. I love it when lead characters are juicy and women over 40. Vanessa King is the matriarch of this family, and she’s gorgeous, in control, bold, loud.
There are characters everyone can grab onto and see themselves in. If you have siblings, especially opinionated ones, if you ever had disagreements with your family, you’re going to get it when you watch it. You’re going to be like, “I feel that. I understand.”
MM: You and Gloria Kim are also developing a new thriller series called GONE. Can you dive into the premise and what the process of TV development has been like for you?
SS: Gloria Kim is a Canadian screen-nominated director. She’s an award-winning director, and we met a few years ago. I had already had the idea and was working on it. I remember telling her one day, and the story unfolded. It’s a crime thriller, one of my favorite genres. I’m interested in seeing male-dominated stories through a female lens.
I watch those genres and love it, but the only female characters are the girlfriend of the male character or the mother. Her role only defines her through the man; she’s not multidimensional. That’s my mission in life — to always tell emotionally resonant stories with women and BIPOC people at the forefront.
GONE follows a disgraced female cop hunting for a mythical sex trafficking kingpin. Remembering repressed childhood memories on this hunt brings her closer to finding him but also unravels the truth about long-held family secrets and discovering the mystery of her missing sister.
Her sister went missing decades ago, and that’s the catalyst for her. The themes and the overarching story we’re telling are an intersection of race, gender, trauma, and generational effects.
It’s ultimately a story of healing. When you read about missing women of color, the intersection of race, class, gender and generational trauma we’re exploring in GONE is interesting to me because I’ve done so much community work. For years now, I’ve been working with The Wellbriety Circle, a community group that works with survivors of sexual violence and survivors of sex trafficking.
It’s a reality that if you’re a woman, poor or of color, the justice system doesn’t always rally together to find you. At the end of the road of whatever trauma you’ve gone through, there can be healing if we believe women. That’s the idea we’re exploring in the story.
Why don’t we trust women? Why don’t we believe them when they say things happen? We’ve seen it in the news. Dozens of women will say something happened, and there would still be a group of people saying, “Well, I don’t know. What are her real ulterior motives?” I would like to see this list of women who got famous or rich from talking about their trauma.
All of these missing and murdered women, where have they gone? How do you run away with no money? And why would you run away from your only support system? There’s no talk about the class or poverty putting her in that situation or the abuse and gaslighting. When those girls disappear, the idea that it’s their choice is naive and simplistic. It’s nice to see the courts ruling in their favor.
It feels like a timely story. I’m excited.
MM: I can’t wait to see this. I’m so intrigued!
SS: Thank you, it’s my passion.
MM: You’re an actress, writer and a creator. Is there any desire to break into the directing scene?
SS: I would love to one day. Amplifying women and BIPOC voices, especially in the creative industry, is one of my biggest passions. One of the legacy initiatives I created with my co-chair at ACTRA Toronto’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee was “A Different Lens,” a demo reel initiative. The barrier to entry in the industry is such that traditionally marginalized performers don’t always have solid demo reel footage.
It took a few years to get it off the ground, but it was a series of short film shoots where ACTRA Toronto members would apply to join.
Because COVID happened, it was not as big as we wanted it to be. We thought we would do it with 100 members, but we did it with 24. They all got demo reel footage, and I directed three of them.
All these performers who applied got to say what role they would love to play. They got demo reel footage that shows what they’re capable of, a hopeful aspect of the culture shift we’re in.
Shonda Rhimes has this excellent book, Year of Yes. Her whole thing is when you sometimes say “yes” to scary things, beautiful stuff happens. I was scared out of my mind. I got to see how much work directors do because every shot is planned. But I had a great time doing it. Guiding actors to their best performance, seeing them in their shine and getting closer to how you tell a story was so much fun. One day, down the road.
MM: What else is on the horizon for you, career-wise?
SS: Several exciting things are coming up. I guess the most exciting one is GONE. We’re going into shooting a teaser, then finding the right place to make it. We’ve been doing casting, so that’s exciting. There’s a great new Apple TV Plus show, a sci-fi anthology series, a mix of Black Mirror and Stranger Things. It’s coming out soon.
All of the episodes are set in the future. I’m the lead in one of those episodes. It’s an emotionally resonant episode. There’s tons of heart in it, even though it’s juxtaposed with AI and tech in the future. I’m excited about that.
MM: Have you binge-watched anything interesting lately?
Midnight Mass on Netflix is excellent. What have you been watching? Tell me something good to watch.
MM: One of my guilty pleasures is Cobra Kai. It’s corny and campy but entertaining. I’ve been on a big comedy kick lately. I know it ended a while back, but I love Community, so I’ve rewatched quite a bit of that. I’ve been rewatching a bunch of comfort shows.
SS: I caught myself watching an episode of Gilmore Girls the other night. I was like, “You know what, right now, I need to watch something that’s not going to scare me,” because I’m doing so much research for GONE.
One of the shows I recently binge-watched was Sex/Life on Netflix. It’s a fantastic show.
The episodes are directed by women and written by women. The series is created by women. There are women of color in lead roles. It’s unbelievable. That’s a show I’ve been watching and getting inspiration from recently.
Unbelievable was similar. It’s a true story about, speaking of believing women, a series of rapes that needed to be connected by two female police detectives because no one believed these women.
So those two shows were hugely informative, Unbelievable and Sex/Life on Netflix.
MM: Name your top five favorite films.
MM: No judgments. This space is a judgment-free zone! Thank you so much for chatting with me, Samora. Congratulations on everything, and I can’t wait to watch The Kings of Napa!
SS: Thank you, Melody!