“Sometimes you gotta remind people who the damn hell you are – that you’re the shit.”
Those were just a few of the inspirational words of advice Trey Anthony passed along to students during her recent guest appearance on Toronto Film School’s In Conversation speaker series.
The four-time NAACP Award-winning writer of ‘da Kink in My Hair and How Black Mothers Say I Love You spent 90 minutes engaged in a lively discussion about her career with Toronto Film School’s Executive Producer in Residence Andrew Barnsley and Writing for Film & TV alumnus Caleigh Bacchus on Feb. 18.
Previous guests of the In Conversation speaker series have included Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Beverly Hills 90210 star Jason Priestley, Emmy-winning actors Annie Murphy and Tatiana Maslany, Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated writer and actor Nia Vardalos, and 30-year veteran stand-up comedian Caroline Rhea.
Here’s what Anthony – whose latest book, Black Girl in Love (With Herself), was published in early January – had to say during her Feb. 18 chat with Toronto Film School via Zoom:
On moving to Canada from England at 12 and growing up in Rexdale
“My mother left us in England with our grandmother when I was 8 years old when she moved to Canada to get settled and create a home for us. Her intentions were for it to be shorter than it was, but we were actually separated from our mother for four years. That was the framework around my story, How Black Mothers Say I Love You, which dealt with mothers leaving their children. So, it definitely impacted my life in what I would say a very serious way.
“When we moved to be with her, we moved to Toronto Housing in Rexdale, which was a very big Caribbean, Jamaican population. I went to Elmbank Middle School, and when I got there, all of a sudden it was the most Black kids I had ever seen in my life. In England, I was in a more diverse, mixed area that was very working class, but here in Toronto, it was a very Black school. And when I got there, all of a sudden everyone said, ‘Oh, she thinks she’s white,’ because of my accent. I had an English accent, so all of the kids thought I thought I was better than them…I became this novelty because no one had seen a Black girl with an English accent, but that also brought a lot of hate my way, because people thought I was stuck up. And that really began my entry into being a people pleaser and being a comedian, because I tried to make fun of myself before other people made fun of me…
“I think that experience is what has really shaped me to be able to be this kind of shapeshifter who’s able to really fit into places. That’s also how I started out becoming this actor. I acted my way through middle school.”
On how her grandmother fostered her early love for performing
“The only thing I didn’t fall into in my life was acting. I always knew I wanted to be an actor from the get-go. My family’s Jamaican, and there’s this very popular actor called Oliver (Samuels) and he does these sketch comedies. He was like the Jamaican Benny Hill, and my grandparents were just obsessed with Oliver. They thought he was the best thing since sliced bread, and I would watch them and see how much joy they got from him, and then I would start to repeat some of his jokes, and my grandmother would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so funny! She’s going to be Oliver’s twin!’ So that’s how I got started. I saw how my family loved when I played jokes, and repeated jokes.
“My grandmother, bless her heart, she really had a dream to tour as a Black Caribbean woman. She had come to England from Jamaica and did very menial jobs for her entire life. She got a job at London Transport, where she swept trains at night, but she always wanted to be an entertainer. And I think because she never got the freedom to do that because she was supporting her family, she kind of poured all of that into me. So, my grandmother would always be, like, ‘Oh, put this in the story’ or ‘Write this,’ and she always thought I was the smartest thing ever. If she had a story, she would always be, like, ‘Trey, write this!’ So, I would write for her and we would act it out and do little sketches, and she just loved it. So that was really, I think, how I got into acting.”
On racism in the Canadian film and television industry
“It’s something people don’t want to talk about, especially in Canada. The racism that exists in the industry – it is very much there and we’re just having these conversations now in the last six months about the systemic barriers that are affecting the BIPOC community in Canada. It always surprises me, the fact that we’ve been having these conversations for years, and it feels like white mainstream is finally, like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a problem!’
“I would not be able to work or survive or thrive in this industry if I did not make my own projects. It’s as simple as that. You gotta build your own damn table. That is the truth. You really have to.”
On returning to the harsh realities of being a Black actor in Canada after a successful internship opportunity in the U.S.
“When I came back from New York, I was really feeling myself. I’d been working on The Chris Rock Show for six months, and I just came back from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where everybody was saying ‘You’re so good, you’re so good.’ So, I just assumed that I would get all these amazing roles because I was of the school of belief that if you work hard and you’re talented, that the world should respond accordingly, right?
“I had no idea that the world only saw me as a Black, dark-skinned, chubby woman, so that was the box they were going to put me in: crackhead #1; baby momma #2; girlfriend on welfare #4. I remember going into auditions and they would say stuff like, ‘Could you just do that Black girl thing? Do that neck snap!’ and I remember coming back from one of those auditions feeling so unseen. They were such demeaning roles, but I had bills to pay. So, I went, but I always came back so upset.”
On dealing with rejection
“If you’re in this industry, you’re going to hear ‘no.’ People always say you hear ten ‘nos’ for every ‘yes.’ But I think when you’re Black, you hear 10,000 ‘nos’ for every ‘yes.’
“Knowing this, I decided to make myself a rule. I said, ‘You have 24 hours to be sad. You have 24 hours to bitch about it. You have 24 hours to cry about it. You have 24 hours to talk about racism and sexism and all the other isms. You have 24 hours to call a friend and bemoan the existence and bane of your life. You have 24 hours. Then after that, you go to Plan B.’ And that is something that has stuck with me for my entire life.
“You cannot afford to feel sorry for yourself. You cannot. We need to keep it going. And that is always how I’ve moved through my life, because this is what I’ve been dealt: this body, this skin, this sexuality, this working-class family. Those have been cards. And either I play them, or I sit there and feel sorry for myself. So, I’m gonna play. I’m gonna play my cards because I’m God’s pick-me.”
On how her grandmother inspired her to write her own material
“One day after another bad audition, I said to my grandmother, ‘They just give me such shitty roles. I hate this shit.’ And my grandmother, with all her wisdom, said to me, ‘Well, if they’re giving you shit and they’re writing shit, then write your own shit.’ And I was, like, ‘What?’ But that’s how da Kink in My Hair came about. It really was my grandmother urging me to write something that I know, and that’s how I fell into becoming a writer. I never, in my wildest dreams, had imagined I wanted to be a writer. It was just out of necessity.
“I think that’s the same with every single thing in my career – the level of frustration that I feel in the industry and knowing that nothing has ever been handed to me. People always say ‘Things must’ve gotten easier for you,’ but it’s pretty much the same now. I may get a meeting because of my name and my reputation, but I definitely have to work harder.”
On the benefits of creating projects for yourself
“When you have a level of autonomy and control over your work, it prevents you from getting bitter and jaded, because I’m not waiting on anyone to hire me. I’ll hire my damn self, I’ll produce it my damn self, I’ll show up my damn self. I may not be able to do it on the biggest budget that I want, but I’m going to do it in the way that I can for now. You gotta start. And you talk about my optimism, I think I’m able to be this optimistic because I ain’t waitin’ on nobody. It would be good to work with you, it would be good to partner with you, but I ain’t waiting.”
On creating your own opportunities with “bold asks”
“I do a mentoring program for creative entrepreneurs, and one of the things I talk about – and it’s something I do once a day – is what I call the ‘bold ask’. It’s something I’ve done since I was a ‘nobody’ and I continue to do it now. I’ve never been scared to ask people for what I want…
“I remember when da Kink in My Hair got picked up at Theatre Passe Mureille…every single night after the play, I would look at the guest list…and one day I looked and saw that Kelly Robinson from Mirvish Productions had come to see the play. And I did what I thought was necessary: I called Mirvish and I asked to speak to Kelly Robinson. He came on the phone and I said, ‘Hey, I’m Trey Anthony. I hear you came out to my play last night,’ and he said, ‘Yep, yep. I came.’ When I asked him what he thought of the play, I’ll never forget, he said, ‘It was a very handsome production…I brought my girlfriend and she loved it, but, I’ll be really honest with you, I didn’t get it.’ I said, ‘Okay, but is it possible for me to come down there and have a meeting with you? I’ve love to discuss da Kink with you.’ And there was my bold ask.
“So, I went into Mirvish and I’d done my research because you cannot argue with facts. When they started telling me they did not think da Kink would hit their demographic…I said, ‘Yeah, your audience is older, they’re also white, and they’re going to be dead in 20 years. So, don’t you want to get in a younger audience? Don’t you want to get in a more diverse audience? Try da Kink. That’s what we do, we have a young, diverse audience.’ And that is how we got the Mirvish deal…
“You have to do your research. You have to know your stuff. I went into that Mirvish meeting and I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I knew the stats. I remember quoting to them that 80 per cent of theatre tickets are purchased by women who are buying for their partners, and my play attracts 95 per cent women. Why would they say no to this? You have to go in there armed with information.”
On the importance of researching the people you want to work with
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had emails from young people saying, ‘I’d love to work with you, Mr. Anthony.’ And I’m, like, you can’t even figure out my damn gender and you’re asking me for an opportunity? I don’t get it. Or I’ve interviewed people who have no idea what I’ve done, what I’ve produced. What, you can’t do a Google damn search? Just do your research…
“You have to know stuff. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not knowing who you’re meeting or why you want to meet them or doing some research on what people have done. There’s no excuse. And I find sometimes – and I’m sorry if people are going to get mad – but I’m going to tell you the damn truth: this millennial generation, everybody wants this quick fix. Nobody’s willing to do the damn work…and I think it’s because Instagram and Facebook have fooled us into believing that people got to where they got to overnight. So, you were expecting this overnight career to happen to you, too. But if you’re doing the research on most people, you will find that it took them years and years and years and years to get to where they are.”
On having mixed feelings about making Canadian TV history with da Kink in My Hair
“It’s funny, when we got the TV deal for da Kink in My Hair, we were the first all-Black cast on Canadian television…in 2007. That just blows my mind. So, it was very bitter-sweet that we were the first, and that Ngozi Paul and I were the first Black Canadian women to produce and star in a TV show.
“My brother recently did this NSI (National Screen Institute) training program…and he told me they rolled out da Kink in My Hair as their diversity show – and this is how many years later? This is the only show, aside from Kim’s Convenience (that they can showcase as being diverse). Think about that: Canada is…a country of minorities, and yet we do not reflect what is in Canadian society. And that’s not even talking about the First Nation community, the Indigenous community…
“It really shocks me that we are only now having these conversations because of the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd. People have only now become really vocal about the racism that has existed in the industry, while I have made a career talking about it for years. I was able to speak, because I knew there were a lot of people in the industry who wanted to speak but were scared, and because I had built my own career and had my own shows and I was producing them and making money independently. That gave me a level of power and freedom to be able to say, ‘This industry is a mess. This industry is racist. This industry has systemic barriers in place to stop people of colour.’”
On her new role as a development producer for Bell Media
“I just recently got a job as a CTV development producer, and I was reading this news article that said, ‘Trey Anthony is the highest-ranked Black woman in Bell Media,’ and I had no idea…I should not come in and start a job in December 2020 and be the highest-ranking Black woman in Bell Media, because that’s deplorable. But that’s what we’re dealing with in the industry.
“If we do not have people of colour in positions of power to greenlight shows, we then know for a fact that our stories are not going to be told. And that is just the truth. So, I’m glad change is happening, but also, really, just shocked that we’re only now starting to have these conversations.
“I’ve been talking about this for years and years – to the point where I left Canada, because I just could not bear to be in a country that refuses to see me or acknowledge my work anymore. Somebody once said to me, ‘You started before Tyler Perry. If you had done what you have done in the U.S., you would have been a household name and probably a billionaire.’ But that is not the case. So, that is something we really need to look at in Canada…how America is way ahead of where we are. And England it way ahead of where we are. And I think that’s embarrassing. That’s just the truth.”
On not considering herself an actor anymore
“I cannot be in a box. It’s so funny, I was doing a Global TV interview this week, and they had me listed as ‘Actress and Playwright Trey Anthony’ – but I don’t consider myself an actor anymore. ‘Actor’ no longer speaks to me. For me, the things that speak to me passionately now are doing projects that I feel can change people’s lives. I don’t know if I will ever act in another project again, but I get really excited about giving opportunities to other people of colour to do my work.”
On advice to young creatives just starting out in the industry
“I would say my biggest advice is to intern, volunteer and let people know what you want, what your dream is, what your ultimate goal is.
“Also, get going on stuff. It doesn’t cost you to put up a YouTube channel. It doesn’t cost you to do a short video on Instagram. Start to build your platform. My biggest advice I give to a lot of the kids I mentor is, let people catch you working. A lot of people think they can’t start unless they’ve got an impressive resume or a huge agent, but what I’m saying is, get yourself a little YouTube channel, put out some stuff on Instagram. I just watched this young actor who put out a short film on Instagram and it was so impressive that I wrote her. Now she’s in my mind for anything I have that may come up for her in the future.”
On the advice she’d give herself as a young writer
“Write what you know. And that people have editors. When I was in Grade 12, I took this writing course and my writing teacher said, ‘Oh my gosh, you write how you speak. Your grammar is so bad.’ And funny enough, I use that to my advantage. People come up to me at my plays and go, ‘Oh my God, your dialogue is so realistic. It sounds like it came right out of somebody’s mouth.’ And that’s a good thing.
“I used to be really self-conscious about my grammar, because I sometimes don’t know where to put a comma, don’t know where to put a period, and I have long, run-on sentences. But guess what? There are people who know how to do that shit. They can edit it…You can hire people to edit your stuff. Don’t let stuff like that stop you. I feel that was one of the things I was really scared of – that I wasn’t doing Shakespearean English, and I wasn’t that confident with my English. I’d be really self-conscious of that, but now I realize it’s okay. People have editors.”
On the importance of watching films and television for screenwriters
“I’m always shocked at how you’re not watching TV, you’re not watching films. You need to be watching what’s happening, what’s going on. My excuse right now is that I have a baby, but my son just started full-time daycare in January, and let me tell you, boy, I drop that kid off and I come home and half my day is blocked off just watching TV.
“I like to watch what’s happening, but sometimes I’m behind the curve. Everyone and their mother has watched I May Destroy You, but I just finally watched it this week. Watch what people are doing and what they’re creating, but don’t mimic them.”
On the importance of being disciplined in your writing schedule
“The thing we tend to do a lot is, we become professional students, where we’re forever taking classes and we’re forever doing research instead of writing the damn thing. There comes a time when you’ve got to pull the trigger and just write. I’ve seen many a student say, ‘I’m taking this class, I’m reading this book, and doing this,’ but I always ask them, ‘Yeah, but what have you written?’ They’re just researching to death and you fool yourself into thinking you’re doing shit when you ain’t doing nothing. It’s a way to procrastinate and also to avoid failure. You fool yourself into thinking you’re researching and you’re a student, but you can do that stuff and still be writing stuff.
“That has been something that’s been important to me. Being disciplined is important when you’re an artist, because people don’t always respect your writing time…You have to set up parameters around your time. If there’s one thing I’m really good at, it’s being laser-focused and saying ‘This is the project I’m working on’ and ‘These are the times I’m writing’ and ‘These are the times I’m researching’ and ‘These are the times I’m making calls’ and ‘These are the times I’m paying bills’ and ‘These are the times I’m going to cook’ and ‘These are the times I’m watching TV’. It’s a beautiful balancing act.”
On her parting words of wisdom
“Do not let anyone discourage you from your dream. Do not let anyone – even your damn self. Always work on what you feel passionate about. Always work on your calling. Always know that you were meant to be here to do something amazing. I truly believe that. Sometimes you gotta remind people who the damn hell you are – that you’re the shit.”
About Trey Anthony
Trey Anthony is an award-winning writer, motivational speaker and relationship/life coach. She is the first black woman in Canada to have a television series on a prime-time network. Her work includes the plays ‘da Kink in My Hair and How Black Mothers Say I Love You. Anthony’s life purpose is to empower women to live their best damn lives! Her new book, Black Girl in Love (With Herself), published by Hay House, was released in January 2021. She divides her time between Toronto and Atlanta. She is an adoption advocate and the proud momma bear to her son, Kai. In her spare time, she enjoys laughing at herself and all her antics, and eating cupcakes. Follow her on Instagram @blackgirlinlove and visit treyanthony.com to learn more about her.