TKActing Blog

#TKSConversations with Brian Michael Smith

March 8, 2022

Brian Michael Smith

TKS Conversations: Brian Michael Smith on his groundbreaking acting career, his commitment to advocacy, and his training at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio

Brian Michael Smith, an alumnus of the Terry Knickerbocker Studio, is an actor known for groundbreaking performances on television and for his advocacy for Trans representation in media. His first prominent role was as Officer Antoine “Toine” Wilkins, a transgender police officer, in Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar on the Oprah Winfrey Network. He subsequently became the first out Black Trans man in a regular role on a network television series when he was cast as firefighter Paul Strickland in FOX’s 9-1-1: Lone Star. He remains a regular cast member of the show. In this interview, we spoke with Brian about his groundbreaking acting career, his commitment to advocacy, and his training at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio.

TKS: Your acting career and your advocacy seem closely intertwined. Would you tell us how that came to be?

Brian: Acting has always been my passion. My advocacy is the result of the obstacles that I encountered pursuing an acting career as a Black and Trans person. When I moved to New York City after college to pursue acting, I soon found myself working not as an actor but in the arts more broadly. I worked at the Tribeca Film Institute’s Tribeca Teaches Program and at the Manhattan LGBT Center. At the Center, I helped provide a safe space for youth and helped those young people find themselves through the arts. But while I was encouraging them to create opportunities to exercise their natural talents and abilities, I realized that I hadn’t fully committed to my path as an actor out of fears rooted in those obstacles. I decided to fully pursue my artistry and use the work and platform it gave me to advocate for better Black and Trans representation.

TKS: Is that when you met Terry Knickerbocker?

Brian: Yes. I was exploring actor training, and at that point Terry had not yet opened the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. He was still working with William Esper. Terry has had a profound effect on me both through his teaching and through his career advice. At one point, I explained that I wanted to make a commitment to a two-year training program but that I had to support myself in the city and had other obligations and didn’t think it would be possible. Terry said to me: “Arrange your life in a way that supports what you really want to do.” I first thought that was unrealistic; then I realized that was exactly what I needed to do – and that I had the power to do it. I’ve been grateful ever since. I began two years of training with Terry then, and, when he opened the Terry Knickerbocker Studio, I enrolled in a Master Class.

TKS: How did you end up in your ground-breaking role on Queen Sugar?

Brian: I had been to a screening of the film Selma and to a post-screening talk-back with Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo. I had kept track of their work ever since, but I never expected to be cast in a series that she created. I had what I thought was a more realistic dream: to be on Orange is the New Black. I thought that would be the best opportunity for a Trans actor, and I thought that my best chance there was to be a guard. So, I auditioned for roles that could help me get there – especially roles in law enforcement – and I was successful in getting small parts as police officers on big shows like CBS’s Blue Bloods and HBO’s Girls. By chance, a friend told me of a show that was looking for a Black Trans man to play a police officer. It sounded perfect; it became even more perfect when I learned that the show was Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar.

TKS: How did your actor training contribute to your groundbreaking acting career?

Brian: My training with Terry and subsequently the Terry Knickerbocker Studio profoundly affected my acting. Until I started training, I felt I had no control of my performance; I had so many moments when I could feel myself pretending and not being. I had no sense of how to create real behavior or what was in the way of my creating that behavior. Through training, I learned how to listen to myself, how to use my body as an instrument to solve problems presented by scripts. I would not have a career today without that training. 

TKS: You made history as the first out Black Trans man in a regular role on a network television series when you were cast as firefighter Paul Strickland in FOX’s 9-1-1: Lone Star. Here again your ongoing role with the show and your advocacy have merged. Would you talk more about that?

Brian: I try to express my advocacy through my art – by playing roles that enhance inclusion and portray those characters in ways that are admirable. I also work with the television industry to promote inclusiveness. I know what it’s like to feel discouraged in an industry where you don’t see anyone like you, and I want to make everyone feel included. 

Through acting and advocacy, I hope that I can be a valuable role model for young people, like those with whom I worked at the Manhattan LGBT Center. I also want to increase the presence of Trans people in television and ensure that their roles have dignity and offer inspiration. Too many roles for Trans actors have been poorly written tropes. Trans actors in the future should have limitless opportunities. Their dreams should not be limited to playing a prison guard.

Progress is being made, but it needs to be much faster. I’d like to see more leading roles that happen to be Trans, more Trans people in science fiction and action movies – more Trans heroes.

To advance my advocacy further, I’ve recently joined the Board of Directors of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Board of Directors of Outfest. I look forward to expanding my advocacy through those commitments.

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Terry talks to Brian Michael Smith about his journey on training as an actor


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