Actress Chelsea Harris is so far disconnected from the personality flaws and traits of her character Sykes in the sci-fi thriller series “Snowpiercer,” which began airing season 2 this week on TNT.
Chelsea grew up in Columbus, Georgia and to her description, was an extremely shy child with a borderline social anxiety disorder. Her mother was a doctor and her father a marine. So when they were thinking of ways to help her “discover her voice and self-worth” they figured getting her on stage could be the trick. This was interesting, now that Chelsea looks back at it, because “creativity” was not something that held a big presence in the house. Nonetheless, she would come to discover a sense of freedom in the arts.
“There was something really beautiful that I found in performing because it didn’t feel like I had to share myself with the world, I was sharing something that was coming through me,” Chelsea reflects. “I still remember the very first time that I performed on stage. It was the middle of my first week of theater camp and we’d been practicing these monologues all week. At the end of the day, we would sit on the stage in front of everyone and perform. And that feeling…it feels like lightning has struck your body. It’s like, imagine like all of your cells are popping and you feel so extremely alive. I was like, “Whoa, what is this? I want to feel this all the time.” And that’s when I dove deeper.”
And dive she did. On the eve of her 16th birthday, she and her older cousin presented Chelsea’s parents with an inconceivable idea. Her cousin was twenty-four-years-old, had been performing off-broadway, attended The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, and was preparing to move to Los Angeles to continue her acting career full-time and was willing to take Chelsea with her to pursue her passion. At the end of a lot of conversation and stipulations, Chelsea’s parents agreed to let their child take a leap of faith. The blessing in that decision, for Chelsea, was that her youth allowed her to be more ambitious without the fear of failure. Though she was shy, she wasn’t self-conscious enough to think she couldn’t make it.
“What I discovered at a young age was the beauty of saying “yes”,” Chelsea explains. “When you say “yes” to something, you have no idea what’s on the other side of it. Because everything is possible on the other side of “yes,” right? But when you say “no,” all you have is your current reality. So it was such a blessing to begin to practice that at such a young age. I think there is even more in being a black woman or a black man and saying, “yes” to yourself because the environment that we live in, right now, produces so many no’s, so many blocks, so many obstacles, so many closed doors. And so, in saying “yes”, to myself, that is the first piece of liberation.”
The initial liberation of relocating to Los Angeles was what Chelsea would describe as being like a fairy tale. There were people of all cultures, languages, and religions. She was excited about the difference between Fort Benning in Georgia and the vastness of Tinsel Town. She landed her first professional acting role on Disney Channel’s popular show, “Hannah Montana.” While taping her first episode, she was also signing a series regular contract for “Just Jordan,” the Nickelodeon sitcom starring young comedian Lil’ JJ, which would later air on BET. In such a quick turnaround, she had already accomplished a major goal of working with Disney and Nickelodeon.
Nonetheless, the young actress had new plans and new dreams. Chelsea would go on to book job after job while establishing herself in the industry. However, Hollywood can be tough for a young Black female actress. There can be a lot of obstacles from within the industry as well as outside of it. The critiques from our own community can be harsher than those in the industry’s decision-making positions. Understanding the importance of positivity, she made a commitment that would impact the foundation of her career.
“I can tell you that I have surrounded myself with a group of other black female actresses and we’re very close,” Chelsea explains. “And we talk about these things. A lot of us didn’t have that Black female support growing up. So, we’ve created this intentional space where we encourage each other.”
It would be a new role that would require that positive circle to be placed on task. When auditioning for the role of Sykes for “Snowpiercer,” Chelsea knew the character would be built from the ground up. It was what the industry calls a “wildcard” role. That means it was open to whoever best fits the part. While written for a male, she took the casting with a single intention… being the best Sykes they could find. To her amazement, she landed the part.
Nonetheless, Sykes is a dark character and Chelsea’s most burdensome role.
The challenge came with the depth of where this character would take her. The story of Sykes would be one riddled with anger, unresolved trauma, and a difficult life. Her mere existence and the tension she carries would create an intense psychological battle. So how does someone so joyous and kind become ruthless, vindictive, and cold?
“This is gonna sound kind of dark,” Chelsea says with a pause. “I looked at Nazi soldiers. Wilford (played by Sean Bean), who is the creator of the train, is a very charismatic leader. He needs order. He doesn’t necessarily believe in justice. Much like some figures of the past and those that we see in the present. And so I, being his right-hand woman, had to figure out how to get into the psyche of someone who can go along with this and stand for it? How do I walk that walk and obey marching orders that are devastating and inhumane? And so, as we’re talking about that extremism, that’s where I had to allow my psyche to go in order to be inside of Sykes. And I had to give myself full permission to do the things that I, Chelsea, would never agree with or allow myself to explore the inside of. And I had to do that to give this character justice because as an actor, you have to be fully convicted.”
With a role that complicated advice on how to “tap out” of the depth of Sykes was extremely important. We’ve seen how dark roles can take an actor with it and hold them hostage. Chelsea had an acting coach whom she worked with on set and told Chelsea, when she is done shooting, to go back to her trailer to meditate and think of anything that would make her happy. Playing with puppies, eating ice cream, a beautiful garden, anything to help Chelsea feel human and normal as she comes down from the hangover of acting.
As Chelsea laughs, about being as normal as possible, she says her humble demeanor will always keep her balanced. Joking about the normal human consequences of morning breath, not wearing deodorant, and still having dry skin, she fully understands that she is a human first and an actor second.
Her human side really showed itself when Chelsea arrived at the Naval Base Coronado in San Diego, one of the filming locations for Paramount Pictures’ highly anticipated sequel Top Gun: Maverick, starring Tom Cruise, which opens in theaters on July 2, 2021. Realizing the major pressure of filming on a multi-million dollar set, with government clearances, huge special effects budgets, and a major production team was heavy enough. And then the star of the movie showed up. She would say that the filming of Top Gun: Maverick was the most that she has been “on 8” up until this part of life. But she couldn’t be starstruck too long, because “…when Tom Cruise comes on set, you better be ready!”
Working with an acting legend like Tom Cruise is definitely a notch on the bragging rights belt.
However, the dream opportunity that Chelsea holds near and dear is to work with Viola Davis, to have the chance to rub some of her artistic presence on herself, has not yet happened. Nonetheless, the rising star is not counting it out. She is working hard to not only create her own opportunities but creating an atmosphere where all girls and all women who may come behind her can create their own lane, live their lives, and chase their dreams more physically and mentally authentic.
Going from the shy girl on a stage near a military base in Georgia to being on a multi-million dollar film set with Tom Cruise, Chelsea is living the dream of so many. So, I decided to end this conversation with the perception of legacy. After learning more about who Chelsea is, I’m not surprised at how she wants her career to impact the lives of others. Her biggest goals are bigger than her.
“I want my legacy to be a pathway that helped to liberate women…that’s what I want,” Chelsea says passionately as we wrap up our call. “Not just women of color, but all of the women who are walking behind me, where they feel that they can stand in their truth, that they don’t have to conform to societal or patriarchal views of who they’re supposed to be and where they can allow themselves to live in their own divine creativity. I tried to conform and to fit in and to be what I thought this industry wanted me to be. And it wasn’t until I decided, for my own journey, to cut off all of my relaxed hair, took off my hair extensions, and began to dress in whatever felt good, that I began to pursue the art that I felt was interesting, not placing myself in a box that people felt I should fit into. It wasn’t until I did that, that I felt free within myself, within my industry, and within my career. So, forge your own lane. There is no reason to try to fit in anymore.”
Personal Photos by Rowan Daly Show Photo credit: TNT / David Bukach