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From Grip To Script: Damien D. Smith's Journey From On Set Grip To Actor & Award Winning Director

Photography by Cameron Radice

As the film and television industry continues to evolve, a new crop of talented actors is emerging, ready to make their mark on the entertainment business. Today, we shine the spotlight on one rising star who is making waves with his captivating performances and undeniable talent. From humble beginnings in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, to award winning director, we are lucky to have caught a glimpse into the life and career of this brother. Check out our interview with Damien D. Smith.

SFND MAG: First and foremost, Damien, thank you, my brother, for taking the time out of your day to interview with us! We certainly appreciate the opportunity!

SFND MAG: St. Louis is in the house!!! We are excited about this interview because it is not often that we have opportunities to interview film directors. Could you give us a little of your backstory and how you found yourself behind the lens?

Damien: I am from St. Louis, Missouri, born and raised. I grew up going to school in St. Louis, attending a trade school right after high school for about two years before I moved to New York City.

While in New York City, I focused on theater. I was in the theater a lot. So much so that I had the start of my own theater company; We did groundbreaking plays such as Jean Genet's The Maids, Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, Laurence Fishburne's Riff Raff, and George C. Wolfe's The Color Museum, to name a few. This allowed me to really lean into developing my art and myself as an entrepreneur.

So with that, I was on tour with a play called Auction Block. But our tour wasn't like we were just out for 7 - 8 months. The schedule was inconsistent with us being out for three weeks, and then back for a week, and then we're out for like a month and a half, and then we're back for a month—things like that. So in between times, I got a roommate who was a sound guy at a production house. Being out on shoots a lot, he asked me, "if you want to, whenever you're home, you can come and PA down where I work to make some extra money." I'm like, "oh, yeah, heck yeah!" You know, I'm in New York; You need multiple hustles, plus, I couldn't be a waiter. I just didn't have it. You know? So I accepted, and it was incredibly beneficial because not only was I PAing, but I was doing a lot more than that. I ended up being a Grip and Utility. So I did all that, and while doing it, I was able to cultivate my talents and skills and pay attention to multiple directors on how they lit things and DPs and learned so much behind the scenes and being on sets for these hours. It was a blessing in disguise because when I decided to make the change behind the camera, I was a lot more comfortable than my counterparts. It was set level because I had been on so many sets in front of the camera, and when I was a grip, I was well-versed on everything behind the camera. So I had thousands of set hours. And it clearly lends and infiltrates my artistic vision. So it helped out tremendously.

SFND MAG: At what point did you realize you had more to offer and decide to take things further?

Damien: I decided to direct my first project when I was in Los Angeles. I had already known this would be the progression, but I made the leap to do it because I wanted to tell stories. I wasn't seeing stories like the ones I wanted to tell, all the types of stories I wanted to tell. And I had a story that I wanted to get out. I knew I had the skill set to execute it, so I said, "hey, let's do this."

SFND MAG: You obviously must have been a student of your craft and absorbed a lot of great information from a lot of great directors in the early years of working on set. What do you think was the single most powerful piece of advice you were either given or powerful lessons you learned during that time?

Damien: You know what? One of the things that I found beneficial was how I used to sit and watch how different directors lit their scenes to tell the story. And I saw the more insecure you are as a director, the more lights you require.

I would watch guys that came with like a show corp, make that to a seat, put it in a pigeon, put a 6-50 through, and wrap it around. I saw people that I previously worked with the week before light up with all the lights and then go with a different director the next week and not even use a third of the equipment. And it looked not just the same, but sometimes, a lot of times, better. So that's one of the things that was a takeaway for me.

SFND MAG: You've already made quite a name for yourself as you have seen success with some of your projects as director. Do you mind talking a little about Target: St. Louis, Detangling The South, and Free To Be Free?

Damien: Target St. Louis: Volume One is a very personal project to me, and it was brought to me by my grandmother through our conversations discussing how she was part of that secret chemical test. As basically, everyone from the north side of St. Louis was. That's my family and my community, so this project was a no-brainer for me.

Detangling The South and Free To Be Free were in co-partnership with my partner Nia Weeks as we strategized voting rights and advocacy work around The Crown act. We put together these two projects, which I directed and executed to the best of our abilities. I'm pretty happy about what came up because, now look at it, we've won awards.

SFND MAG: Of all of these, which was your favorite to direct, and tell us why?

Damien: I gotta say, Target St. Louis: Volume One was my favorite to direct because I got to direct my grandmother. I got to sit, talk, and have a conversation with my grandmother with a camera pointed in front of her. So now, every time I see this movie, it warms my heart because my grandmother is no longer with us. And that one was very quintessential in my life.

SFND MAG: Not only are you an award-winning director, but you also act as well. Some of your most recent projects include Emancipation, as well as my personal favorite, FX's Snowfall. What was it like working on a movie like Emancipation? I hear that many of the cast members really submerged themselves in their characters for this film. Did that sure that trigger any emotions of what it must have been like to live during that time?

Damien: Yes, it definitely helped trigger how it could have been at that time because I got to give it to Antoine Fuqua; he left everything on those pages. So when we stepped onto that war scene, we were in war. That battle scene was one of the most intense and most aggressive things I've been a part of as an actor. I mean, bombs were blowing up, limbs going everywhere, dodging, jumping, screaming people, screaming men, fights...

It was a beautiful experience as an actor to be able to be on something that has to budget that big because that's what we grew up watching and dreaming of as kids. And sometimes it's not always as seen on TV. But this one was exactly a scene on TV. So I really do appreciate Antoine Fuqua for that, Apple TV, and you know our good brother, Will Smith.

SFND MAG: Do you enjoy doing historical period pieces?

Damien: I love doing historical pieces. I want to do several. Actually, a couple of historical pieces both in front and behind the camera. So get ready for this.

SFND MAG: Snowfall is one of the hottest shows on TV. What was it like working alongside Damson Idris and the rest of the cast in season 6 which sadly for us, is the final season?

Damien: You know, let me tell you something. Damson is an ultimate professional. The young man is super talented. Not only is he super talented, but he's also a cool dude. Many of our scenes are just him and me because of the nature of my character. So, between scenes, we were just talking crap, cracking jokes about life, and doing like this. Being number one on the call sheet and also being the star, there was no pretentiousness about the brother. He was completely down to earth. Someone that you just want to hang out with. So the guy was just great and did a phenomenal job at setting the tone for everyone else to have a great time. I had known a couple of people prior to being on the show, and I'm really happy that it still was the exact same way when I got on set.

Also, the people behind the cameras, for example, our DP, Tommy Maddox, and director Carl Seaton, whom I've worked with on previous seasons. So, you know, it's always a pleasure to be on the set when things like this have happened.

SFND MAG: Can you discuss with us your approach to character development and how you bring a character you play to life on screen?

Damien: Man, that's a great question. My approach is to let me read the character and determine his motivation. Then let me [mentally] hear his voice. Sometimes I hear his voice before I even hear it. I read it, and then a voice pops into my head. It'd be my voice, but it was a voice in the character's speech patterns and things like that. And you know, then he walks "like this." The character's walk comes about because I'd be walking around, going over my lines and everything, or getting things set up for the audition and getting prepared, and while I'm internalizing my lines, a walk naturally comes, and then how he addresses comes out. So I developed the characters from the inside out and make sure the outside represents the inside, and then it falls in the pocket for me. I've been doing that since theater. Theater was a great way to develop character. And I consider myself a character actor. I love it. You know, I love to play and love to enjoy myself getting into a role.

SFND MAG: Do you prefer acting over directing or directing over acting? Tell us why?

Damien: I don't have an exact preference, but I can tell you why I don't have an exact preference. With directing, I'm able to tell a story exactly how I want to tell the story. And if you find yourself in a position where you're so passionate about something that you want to tell this story, you want to have as much control as you can over that story to make sure you get out what's in your brain.... That is why I love directing. I love being able to express myself creatively and tell these stories. I feel that there needs to be this ethos in this atmosphere and into this world to help shape and make an impression on minds. You know, a great quote by our good brother Tupac Shakur said, "I may not change the world, but I will inspire the mind and change the world." And that's what I like to think directing does for me.

On the other end, acting. I love acting. It's my first passion. It's my first love. So being able just to come in to build and develop their character and do what you want to do, your job, and provide to the production in that manner and then go into your trailer and just relax until your next scene is priceless. I mean, it's priceless. Because I know what the director has to deal with, and that's a lot of responsibility. Sometimes it feels good not to have as much responsibility.

Photography by Cameron Radice

SFND MAG: 2023 is just getting started. What else can we expect from you this year? Any other projects we can look forward to?

Damien: Yes. I have two movies coming out that will be rolling out this year.

One called Driftwood that just had its time at the Golden State Film Festival. The film is a psychological thriller by director Neal Tyler.

And then I have The Nine, a movie that I shot primarily in Ghana. So we shot this movie in Ghana for like a month and a half. It's a beautiful film about this detective whose daughter passed away five years prior. So he comes on his old partner calling on him to ask if he can come and help investigate these murders that just started back. These ritualistic killings; The same ones that took his daughter under. So he flies to Ghana to help solve these murders, but unbeknownst to him, his partner is part of this secret organization called the nine - an organization of 9 women assassins that have spiritual warriors that have been groomed from adolescence to be these supernatural beings and to fight against these other supernatural beings. So, basically, my partner is a superhero. My partner, Rosemary Zimo, was just a fantastic actress and such a pleasure to work alongside.

So watch out for The Nine and Driftwood, coming out soon.

SFND MAG: Where can our readers find you on social media?


SFND MAG: When can we watch and catch you in the final season of Snowfall?

Damien: You know, I like to pop up! I pop up throughout this season, so you're gonna see me throughout the season. But it's the last season, so you should watch every episode anyway!

SFND MAG: Thank you so much for interviewing with us. We sincerely appreciate your time and this opportunity. Before you go, could you name another artist, actor, or even director that you think is So FN Dope and tell us why?

Damien: Oh, yeah! I got several other folks that are So FN Dope. So, If y'all want referrals, just hit me up! I can give you a list of people!

SFND MAG: Once again, thanks, my brother! We wish you much continued success in all your future endeavors and look forward to seeing and hearing a lot more from you soon.

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