Karimah Westbrook has been making waves ever since her debut in Save the Last Dance. She hasn’t simply been acting, however — she’s also investing in writing and producing. From learning Mandarin for a role to mentoring at-risk youth, Karimah is active on many fronts.
Her new film, Suburbicon, directed by George Clooney, is coming to the big screen this Friday, the 27th. Destination Luxury had the opportunity to interview this Chicago star prior to the premiere.
Destination Luxury: You’re a long-time fan of Whoopi Goldberg. How has her career inspired you? What are some of your favorite Whoopi films?
Karimah Westbrook: Yes, I am a big Whoopi Goldberg fan. Whoopi Goldberg made me feel that someone who looks like me, with my dark skin and curly afro hair, could have a successful acting career. Some of my favorite Whoopi Goldberg films are Fatal Beauty, The Color Purple, Ghost, and Burglar.
DLX: Not only have you acted in a number of feature films, you’ve also produced films that were extremely well received. What do you think is the most challenging: being behind the camera or in front of it? Which do you like the most?
Karimah Westbrook: I wouldn’t label either aspect as being more challenging than the other, they’re just different. Behind the camera, as a producer, there are a lot more moving parts necessary to make the project happen. You can’t do it all alone. As an actor, the biggest necessary component is you: your soul, your truth, your ability to live truthfully within imaginary circumstances. I like stepping into both roles very much. They stimulate my mind in separate ways.
DLX: You’ve learned Mandarin for your role in American Fusion which is quite impressive. How long did it take and how did you do that? Do you have any tips or tricks for others trying to learn a new language?
Karimah Westbrook: In order to learn Mandarin, I studied with a language coach for about a month before filming commenced and it just so happened that our director Frank Lin’s mother taught Mandarin professionally, so it worked out perfectly. It wasn’t the easiest language to conquer. Any change to the inflection of a word can completely change its meaning, even though it may be spelled the exact same way. It was really challenging but necessary for the work, so you do what you must do.
The tip I would offer others trying to learn a new language is to practice, practice, and practice some more. Also, it’s helpful to listen to the language daily. Try and watch television shows in the language you are trying to learn as it helps to hear it and if you happen to have a friend with whom you can practice the language in conversation, that’s even better.
DLX: Which director would you love to work with and why? Who would you love to direct?
Karimah Westbrook: There are so many directors I would like to work with, but I’d say my top choice would be Memento and Inception director Christopher Nolan. I mention Christopher Nolan as his films are always so aesthetically beautiful. When watching a Nolan film, the experience I feel is always grand. His writing is also very clever and stimulates me mentally. I like that.
DLX: Who have you worked with that truly inspires you?
Karimah Westbrook: I’ve worked with a lot of people who truly have inspired me; Alfre Woodard, Mario Van Peebles, Yvette Lee Brown, Kerry Washington, Mara Brock Akil, Numa Perrier, Gary Carr, Johnny Depp, Julianne Moore, George Clooney…
DLX: If you hadn’t gone the acting route, what other careers would you have pursued?
Karimah Westbrook: I don’t know what other careers I would have pursued if I hadn’t gone the acting route, but I’m happy that I am able to pursue other endeavors like writing and producing while I’m acting.
DLX: How is Suburbicon different from other projects you’ve worked on? How does it feel to work on a film that takes place in the past but is still so relevant today?
Karimah Westbrook: Every movie, in essence, is different as there are different stories being told –most of the time anyway. I never worked on a film with a similar storyline to Suburbicon; it’s quite unique. It was a great experience working on this film and I truly wish that a few of the central themes were not still prevalent today, but they unfortunately are. I hope that those who watch Suburbicon absorb those particular themes as food for thought, and continue to push for change in today’s society, hopefully making our world a more tolerant and accepting place to live.
DLX: What are some of your goals for the next 5 years?
Karimah Westbrook: I’ll be writing and producing a lot more for the next five years. Content is king.
DLX: What films are you excited to see in the upcoming months? What have you been watching on television lately?
Karimah Westbrook: I’m so excited to see Ryan Coogler’s upcoming Marvel Film Black Panther. When I do have the time to watch television, I’m absolutely hooked on Queen Sugar, Greenleaf and Star.
DLX: Tell us a little bit more about your role in A Place Called Home. How does the mentoring work?
Karimah Westbrook: When I first started working with A Place Called Home, which is a center for at-risk youth, I was a mentor. As the years progressed, APCH developed the Leadership Council and we were in charge of producing one of their annual fundraisers named “Stars and Strikes” where guests would bowl or play Texas Hold’em poker. It was a big hit and we raised lots of money for the center every year.
I’m not for sure if there is a norm regarding the mentoring process, but I thought it was unique how APCH paired their mentors with mentees. We were matched via our personalities, taking several tests until they determined the right pair and match. There was an orientation and some training as some of us had never mentored before, and it turned out to be a truly meaningful experience. I was so young when I started, and eager to give back and help a kid in any way that I could. I met with my mentee’s family, we attended group events together through the center, we had our own outings and we shared our lives. I gave it my all and it was exhausting but incredibly fulfilling and an experience that I will never forget. My mentee is all grown up now, and I hope that my time with her planted a seed that will grow within her for the rest of her life.
See Karimah Westbrook in Suburbicon, in theatres Friday, October 27th.