Former child star, television writer and Daytime Emmy-winning actress Vanessa Baden opened up about Hollywood’s refusal to create more opportunities for Black actors in the 1990s.
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She got advice from Kenan & Kel directors, including veteran actors Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Kim Fields.
“[O]ne of the things that they would always tell us is, ‘If you guys wanna have longevity in this arena, you’re going to have to do other things because there’s going to be times when age-wise you’re at a weird place and there are ebbs and flows in the creative part. I really attached myself to Kim Fields. I loved her. I felt like I saw myself a lot in her and she was a director. So I thought essentially that that was going to be the path I took. I was going to be a director.”
She said that part of the reason she initially switched from acting to writing and directing came about because of Hollywood’s limited roles for Black actresses.
“There were like seven things that had Black people in them and they were recycling the same three girls,” she said. “It was Meagan Good, Jurnee Smollett or Lauren London. If they couldn’t get one of those three, someone new might pop in but [it was those three] who they were going for.”
She became aware of Hollywood’s lack of opportunities after getting back into the industry after finishing college at Florida A&M University. But her realization led her down the path to her 2019 Emmy-winning leading role on the web series Giants, on which she also directed on and served as a producer. She also wrote in the Ozark writing room and served as a showrunner’s assistant.
“I got the opportunity to work on Ozark as a showrunner’s assistant,” she said. “And that’s what showed me that as much as I knew instinctually about dialogue, about scenery, about story, because I had grown up in it, there was really a lot of craft that I still had to learn. Ozark in many ways was like my film school.”
Still, she feels lucky that she was a childhood star and formed bonds that exist to this day, including a friendship with Kenan Thompson. “I think some people come out here and Hollywood does seem huge, and I totally understand it,” she said. “But it’s like the Kevin Bacon thing. We’re like six degrees of separation from anybody. That is the advantage that it gave us.”
Currently, she has published her first book, Far Away From Close to Home, and is part of the writing team for shows like FX on Hulu’s Y: The Last Man, HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls and Paramount+’s Guilty Party. She is also working with Wayfarer Studios to develop a project based on the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization that protects immigrant women and girls escaping gender-based violence.