Actress and singer Zahra Bentham stops by on Close-up Culture to tell us more about two of her recent projects – Spinning Out and Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker.
Q: ‘Spinning Out’ recently premiered on Netflix. As someone with an impressive athletic background, what resonated with you about this story?
A: When I first got the audition I was so excited because I thought I’d be getting back on the ice, but sadly that was not the case. Hahaha! But understanding what the actual story was about made it that much more significant to be a part of.
Spinning Out follows the subjects of depression and mental illness but told honestly and compassionately. Specifically, we highlight bipolar disorder and the struggles of dealing with that and the everyday lives we choose. Mental health has been such an important topic that it is becoming more normal to discuss these issues within our households and amongst our friends. I mean, the fact that Netflix gave us a platform to talk about this is huge. That in itself shows the progression and how far we can take the information we are learning to heal and get the proper tools we need for ourselves.
All in all though, it has the major drama and cattiness that makes any binge-worthy show entertaining. Hopefully, we get a second season and somehow I can be on the ice. I’d be the happiest person.
Q: You play Alana. Can you tell us about this character and what you enjoyed about playing her?
A: Alana is an upperclassman in college who works at the Sun Valley Lodge. Raised by a single mom, she was taught to takes no L’s and no bullsh*t from people. Especially from love interest Marcus, who leads the Ski team and has a love triangle going on with Kat Baker and Justin Davis (played by Kaya Scodelario and Evan Roderick). With Alana’s calculated mind she’s able to win over Marcus for showing him who he truly is. I enjoyed playing Alana as we both have some similarities and it was really dope to play a more grounded character within the show, especially with all the chaos going on.
Q: This might be naïve of me, but I always imagine a Netflix set to somehow be different to a normal TV set. What was your experience working on this project and with this team?
A: Hahaha, no worries! Glad I can bring some clarity. Sorry to ruin the idea in your mind but it’s the same sorta standard set for Netflix. While shooting Spinning Out though, it did feel like shooting a standard TV series in regards to speed on the day. Realistically, with TV, it’s known for it to be more fast-paced compared to shooting a film. But when shooting on Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker, it was a lot slower pace which felt much like shooting a film. The whole cast and crew on Spinning Out were lovely and super hard working. It was a pleasure to be a part of the cast.
Q: As you mention, you also have a starring role on the highly anticipated series, ‘Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker’. Did you know much about Sarah Breedlove heading into this project?
A: Before getting the actual audition I didn’t know anything about Sarah Breedlove at all (shame on our school systems for not teaching us about her). But once I had done some research on who she was and how monumental she was in history, it allowed me to push even further in terms of wanting the role and and wanting to be a part of telling her story.
For those who don’t know, Madam C.J. Walker was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, political and social activist. Being the wealthiest African-American businesswoman and wealthiest self-made woman in America around 1912.
Q: Where does your character fit into this story and what does she bring to the series?
A: I play a woman by the name of Nettie Ransom. Nettie is a highly educated, very sweet, intelligent, proper wife of ‘Ransom’ – played by Kevin Carrol. She is a member of the Indiana Coloured Woman’s Club where she helps Sarah Breedlove (played by Octavia Spencer) start her business. Nettie really helps show the rest of the women in the club how valuable Sarah Breedlove is. A lot of Nettie’s community didn’t believe in her and it was very difficult for her to even get herself on her two feet with her business.
Q: This role gave you an opportunity to work closely with Octavia Spencer, who is one of my favorite actresses. What did you learn from Octavia on ‘Self Made’ that you will carry into future projects?
A: That woman is the definition of hard work. My first days of working on set were with her. My first scene actually was with her. That was our introduction! I didn’t get to formally meet her at our table read, but I just remember sitting across from her in the scene having a moment of many thoughts trickling into one: “Holy sh*t, I’m in this scene with Octavia Spencer”; “Who am I?”; “Zahra, you did this!”; “Girl, you better not mess your lines up”; “Okay focus, focus”. Hahaha! Oh man, what a trip I was having but those thoughts happened for all of like five seconds and I pulled myself together. The moments she wanted me to run through the scene with her while we were on our marks and the crew was setting up for the shot was when I got to really learn.
The most valuable thing was not to act (as crazy as that sounds). Not that I didn’t know that already but I guess it was more impactful when seeing someone who I grew up watching on screen, sitting right in front of me, do it. We could have shot all those rehearsals and I’m pretty sure that scene would put her in a category for The Golden Globes for Best Performance By An Actress In A Television Drama… (wait… maybe it will!).
Octavia also takes her work very seriously. She, of course, knows when to have fun but she’s is definitely where she is because of her hard work and focus. She’s everything I thought she’d be. Super real, down to earth, focused – as I mentioned – and almost like a warm motherly figure. If I could carry one thing into future projects from working with a Octavia and the rest of my bomb ass castmates, it would be to always be you, stay true, stay real no matter how your circumstances change or how famous you get.
Q: What can audiences expect from the series as a whole? What chords will it strike in 2020?
A: The story takes you on the ride of Madam C.J. Walker’s life, her struggles, and the many blessings she encountered. The series is written by Nicole Jefferson Asher and A’Lelia Bundles, who is Madam C.J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter (wild!). I think everyone can expect a history lesson. When I tell people about this series and explain who it’s about, maybe about 8 out of 10 people don’t know who I’m even talking about, which is not okay!
So, I hope this story will give all the necessary missing information for people and encourage other black women and men who are entrepreneurs, who have their own businesses, or are just starting out. I hope it will motivate anyone who is striving for greatness. Everything you want is on the other side of dedication and discipline. Madam C.J. Walker will show you that.
Q: The show is obviously based on a remarkable true-life story. If you could play any real-life figure in a series or film, who would it be? And why? I imagine your singing talents might come in handy here!
A: There are so many amazing women I would love to play. I honestly just want to continue sharing stories and voices that haven’t been heard or seen. A few I would be honored to play would be Dr. Mae Jemison, Angela Davis, and – of course – Nina Simone or Billie Holiday.
I wouldn’t even mind playing an athlete as well. I’m interested in doing meaningful work. Telling stories that can move people or create a platform for awareness and change. I know that may not always be possible at this point in time for my career but I’ll strive for that.
Q: We touched upon your athletic background earlier. Can you pinpoint a moment when you chose acting over a potential career in basketball?
A: I started as an athlete playing AA/AAA basketball, traveling to the States every weekend, if not every other weekend. I was involved in the Michigan Basketball camp as well as many other American camps. It was important for Canadian players to travel down to the states and get the ‘American’ training to become better players and potentially be scouted by an American school. I was juggling about 4-5 days a week in the gym.
I went to Wexford CSA (Collegiate School for the Arts) where I studied Drama Focus, Music Theatre and was in Dance Intensive. I remember I was in the thick of rehearsals for the main musical we would do in our second semester. Now, my teachers were strict. If we had rehearsals on a Saturday and didn’t show up, you could potentially get cut out of numbers (of course I didn’t want that), not to mention we were made to sign a contract stating we will show up for every rehearsal… As I said, my teachers were strict and…. also some of the best teachers I’ve been blessed with.
I was also in the thick of it all for my games and the whole traveling thing so, one weekend I had a rehearsal on the same day I had a game. I had explained to my teachers that I probably wouldn’t be able to be at that rehearsal that weekend. They were not happy about it and told me I’d be in question for the numbers I was in. My mom and I drove out to Detroit for the game on the Friday evening, played my game Saturday morning and rushed back to Scarborough to be at rehearsal for a few hours, and then drove back out to Detroit to play my final game on the Sunday morning. It became a lot.
I was also constantly trying to figure out my basketball schedule at Wexford as well. I loved basketball but by Grade 10 I had to decide what to put my full focus on, so I chose the arts. By the end of Grade 10, I got myself an agent in Toronto and the rest was history.
Q: What has been the most rewarding and the most challenging part of your acting journey so far?
A: The biggest challenge I’m facing is constantly creating balance in my life. Keeping that balance between work and play can be challenging, so I try and keep a schedule and an array of things outside of work that makes me happy or requires me to get up and outside of my body. I find as an actress or actor, especially an aspiring one, we can easily get into the mindset of the “hustle” and forget to just be and breathe. To enjoy the moments we’re experiencing and be grateful we’re even alive and well. The most rewarding thing I’ve experienced thus far is seeing my hard work pay off and it also manifesting into other beautiful things. Best feeling!
Q: You are kicking off 2020 with two incredibly exciting series. What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?
A: I know! It’s been a great start to 2020 so far! Yes, yes, I’m back in the studio recording my album with hopes to release something mid-year. This would be my first written project, so it’s all a little exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. If you all want to follow me on Instagram and join me on my journey, please do — @zahrabentham
Title image by Jah Grey