It’s been more than two decades since Naturi Naughton began to establish herself as a triple threat in entertainment.
She launched her career as a singer with the music group 3LW, before revealing her acting chops with roles on “Fame,” “Notorious” and the “Power” franchise. She’s also proved she could deliver in front of a live audience on the Broadway stage. Now, Naughton has added filmmaker to her resume with directorial debut “Behind the Smile,” which launched July 9 on BET Her.
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“Being in the director’s chair is a dream come true,” Naughton told Variety over Zoom shortly after the film’s launch.
Produced as part of “BET Her Presents: The Couch,” a series supporting mental health awareness, the film follows the life of Morgan, a news anchor with vitiligo, and the discrimination she faces at work as her boss pressures her to cover up the skin disorder on air.
“I love how ‘Behind the Smile’ shows that we are always, often covering up how we really are feeling behind the smile,” she observed. “Sometimes, you have to take off the mask and stop smiling. If you’re not okay, it’s okay to say that you’re not okay.”
In preparation for the film, Naughton researched vitiligo and leaned into her connection to the topic, interviewing her mother’s best friend, who has been living with vitiligo for 30 years, about her reality.
“I know how difficult it must be to be a dark-skinned woman and start losing your pigmentation,” she explained. “In my interviews with her, I was just so blown away by how she was feeling. I was listening to her and thinking there are many myths and misconceptions about this. I was connected in that way, and I empathized even more. ”
In the conversation below, Naughton reveals how her acting roles prepared her for directing, and teases her plans to get behind the camera on the “Power” shows.
Tell me about “Behind the Smile.”
BET Her decided to do this mental health awareness initiative, and it’s my directorial debut. “Behind the Smile” is a short film about a woman named Morgan, a news anchor, living with vitiligo. Morgan’s vitiligo causes people to discriminate against her. Her boss particularly wants her to cover up her spots and diminish the disorder. The film brings awareness to not only that particular skin disorder, but also how it affects someone’s psychological well-being. Anybody could be dealing with issues we’re tackling in my short film.
What have audiences’ reactions been since the project was released?
Many of my fans, friends and even directors I’ve worked with have been hitting me up [to say] how proud they are of me and what a beautiful way to use my talent to show a woman with vitiligo.
People with vitiligo have reached out to me because they felt seen and heard. There aren’t many films where leading or supporting characters live with vitiligo. I feel really, really proud that the reactions have been pretty strong and powerful.
What made you pick vitiligo as the subject matter?
I know what it feels like to hide behind the smile. I know what it feels like to struggle to be your true self. I’ve been in a girl group, and I’ve been on stage on Broadway.
All these different points in my career, there have been moments when you pretend and say, “Oh, yeah, everything’s great,” when you could be struggling and having the worst day ever. I think that’s why I connected to this film. I’ve lived it in different ways myself.
Do you have a personal connection with vitiligo disease?
My mother’s best friend [a woman named Marie] is someone I grew up around with vitiligo. She’s not directly family, but she’s a close friend of the family. My mom went to college with her. We talked on Zoom before I shot this film. I wanted to interview her because I know how difficult it must be to be a dark-skinned woman and start losing pigmentation.
I was blown away by how she felt. She said it affects her relationships: sometimes she doesn’t even want to go out and feels depressed; people don’t even want to touch the door behind her, they think it’s contagious, like a disease. I was listening to her and thought there were so many myths and misconceptions about this. I was really connected in that way, and I empathized even more. I’ve known her since I was like five years old and her skin has changed drastically in the last 30 years, so I thought it was courageous and brave that she opened up and talked to me about her journey.
How does it feel to be in the director’s chair?
Honestly, being in the director’s chair is a dream come true. I wanted to do this in season three of “Power.” I went to school at New York Film Academy (NYFA) and took filmmaking courses. I was excited to dive into this world because I’ve been in front of the camera for like 20 years. My career spanned over two decades, and I think the most powerful thing you can do is have a say in what narrative you put out.
As an actress, you’re given the lines; you’re told where to stand and what to do. In this position, you have an introspective input on what the project can be.
As a director, I was excited to be a part of the conversation, to be a part of the narrative that could inspire someone or save someone’s life. You don’t know how people feel when they watch art. The director’s chair feels nice and cozy. I think I’m going to be in it a lot more.
What is something you now understand more now that you’re behind the camera?
Time is something I better understand. You don’t get everything you want when you’re in the filmmaker’s position. I have learned that there’s never enough time, so the best thing you can do is prepare. Everything is about how you approach your first day of shooting, and it starts weeks before; preparation is key.
When I was talking to one of the cast members in a scene, I make sure that I do it the same way I would want to be talked to and explain it in a way that actors can understand. I’m not just the director trying to get my shots; I care about the performance and how an actor feels because that’s how you get the best out of them.
You recently starred on ABC’s “Queens.” What did you learn from that experience?
I learned a lot. I loved the scripts for “Queens,” and I thought it was a fun show. A musical where I got to rap and sing with icons like Brandy and Eve was special to me. Creating Jill the Thrill was so much fun — a lesbian hip-hop artist who’s a devout Catholic, so many interesting things there. The whole team was special, so it’s unfortunate that it didn’t get picked up. I know ABC really believed in it, and I think it was timing, and we didn’t get the numbers.
What I learned from the experience to make sure you stay connected to your home base no matter how much a project has financially. No matter how big the show is, you still have to put in the work as if it’s a small independent film. Sometimes when you have a big budget or big studio, you go above your fan base, and you forget that you got to touch back down to the people and connect to the ones that would be watching.
How has it been working on “Power”?
“Power” is the game changer in my life. Next year will be the 10th anniversary, which is crazy to me. I feel like I grew up on this show.
Not only is Tasha a powerful and dynamic character, she is a part of me now, bringing so much complexity and beauty to my life. Shout out to Courtney Kemp [creator of “Power” and the spin-off series “Power Book II: Ghost,” in which Naughton stars], 50 Cent, and all the writers and directors who truly changed my life. I will never get tired of “Power,” “Ghost” or any of the worlds this show has created.
Any hopes of getting in the director chair for “Power”?
Oh, that’s my dream. I’m pushing for that every season. I’ve expressed to all the producers and showrunners how much I would love the opportunity to direct, and I know I can do it. You might see an episode next year directed by Naturi Naughton.
“Behind the Smile” is available to watch on BET.com.
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