KENNA WRIGHT & Palms
This week, we have a delightful conversation with Kenna Wright. Kenna is an actress, dancer, and choreographer based in Los Angeles. She has appeared on TV shows such as Veronica Mars, Grown-Ish, The Affair, Fresh Off The Boat and multiple national commercials. Kenna recently directed, wrote and produced her own short film PALMS, that takes a deeper look at the world through the eyes of a young African American girl. PALMS is currently being submitted film festivals around the country and has received a series of awards and acknowledgements.
Click here to listen to our interview with Kenna on Apple Podcasts.
Episode transcription below.
LB - Larkin Bell
JZ - Jennifer Zahlit
KW - Kenna Wright
LB: Can you introduce yourself a little bit and tell us about your short film, Palms?
KW: Yes. Hello. My name is Kenna. I am originally from Ethiopia. I grew up in Sacramento and moved out to LA about eight years ago. And my short film poems is a look into the experience, well, one experience of a young African-American girl and today's climate and the importance of representation in her environment and her immediate environment and the importance for young kids of color to really see themselves on screen and be represented, not just onscreen, but in the world.
JZ: I love that. Yeah. And watching Palms, it was so beautiful. What was the-- can you speak a little bit about the imagery of the Palms and how that wove its way into the story?
KW: Yeah, I heard, well, the initial , the entire idea came from a speech that I heard from Lupita N'yongo in, I believe, it was in 2015 at, uh, the black women's Essence luncheon. And she spoke about growing up or when she was growing up, she prayed every day that her skin would--she'd wake up and her skin would be lighter.
And I was like, well, that's, yes, done that. Yes. I can relate to that andjust struggling with identity and being a darker skinned girl. And I was very fascinated by that and noticed the difference of shade in my hands and the kind of angelic idea of, um, praying to look a different way based on a different part of your body and how that is a little lighter or darker.
And the crazy thing is after I kind of talked about that idea. I talked about it with my parents and my dad was like, when you were about four, my dad's black, my mom's white. When you were about four, maybe even three, you were like, why am I one shade on this side? And another shade on this side? Or why do I look like mom on this side and you on this side? And he's like, you asked me that and I didn't really know what to say, but I just, you know, we talked about skin color. We talked about, you know, melanin. And we really just kind of got down to it and I told you at that young age, but, um, that was kind of where that sprung from.
And I didn't even know that that was something that I had asked. I don't, I don't remember asking that all that time ago.
JZ: Thank you for sharing that. It just really struck me, how, like, you had such a Frank conversation about that at age three or four and yeah, I don't really have anything as it just, that really makes me sad that not all children have such a frank discussion about that at such a young age.
KW: Well, my mom is white and my dad is black. And, you know, I would, I obviously saw that we were different. And so it was really important in my childhood, I really remember being told from as, as far back as I can remember, and this is, you know, a parental choice, but as far back as I can remember being told, like, you're adopted, this is where you're from.
This is why we don't look alike. When kids ask you on the playground, this is what you say. Like it was a very open and frank and honest, and it wasn't a taboo conversation. It really took any kind of, um, maybe stress or uncomfort, comfortability away because we just talked about it from a young age, like, yeah, this is where you're from on the map.
And this is what you tell people and move on and continue to play, you know?
LB: Was this your first short that you've written? I know it was also your first directing experience. Was it also the first one? So how was that? How was writing and directing your first short film? How did that go?
KW: It was, it was nerve-wracking. I pretty much wrote it out. Yeah. I wrote it out and that's kind of where I was going to leave it. I was like, I just want to write it. I just want to see if I can do the writing portion because I've never really written anything other than like a small scene, maybe for class and, or for fun for myself.
And so I was like, I just want to write it. I just want to see if I can do that. And then I showed it to some people and they were like, this is, you should do this. And I didn't have any idea. Like, I haven't written out, like I said, like you said, I haven't written or directed or produced anything. So I was like, well, okay, well, let me try to excavate and research kind of those roles and try to learn some of that vocabulary and what that looks like and what budgeting looks like and what, I don't know, everything involved in making a short looks like, and it was scary.
And I really had to kind to kind of get myself out of the way, because I really felt like I was supposed to know everything already, but yet I'm like, how do you know what you don't know? Like, that's kind of an unfair thing to ask. And so I asked for help and I asked a lot of people, you know, that I knew either specialized or had done, had written, had produced, had directed before and just kind of ask them, well, what would, what did you wish you knew or, um, what are some maybe roadblocks that you came up against and how did you kind of shift in and, you know, move around them? And so it was really important for me to get some advice, um, before I, before I moved forward.
LB: Yeah, jumping kind of on that, what is a roadblock that we love to talk about that on this podcast of just getting advice and learning from each other, what's something that you learned making your short film that maybe you would do differently next time or you just, that you, you didn't know and you learned from?
KW: Sure. I, for sure learned that I needed to be okay with, I don't know. And I think that that's a scary place. I was really, really trying to somehow know everything. And yet have never have done something. And obviously that in, in like saying it out loud, sounds silly, but when you're kind of at the, at the helm of this experience, you're like, okay, well I should know everything. I should, I should have everything together. And I did my best, so do that. And then once we got there and there was a moment where I was like, okay, I don't know. I don't know the answer to that question or, like we had a, I had a young actress. I had an eight year old and her experience working through all of this, there was moments where I wasn't speaking to her in a way that she was understanding and my AD was like pulled me aside. And she was like, she's literally looking at you like a deer in headlights. She has no idea what you're saying. And I was just like spitting all of these, like film terms at her. And she was like, you need to breathe because she is not absorbing your notes and therefore you're not getting, you're not getting the picture that you want, honestly. And so I was like, okay, great. Why don't you show me? I was like, why don't you direct? Why don't you direct a couple of takes and I'm going to sit back and I want to watch.
And so she did, and that was incredible. And then I was like, got it. I understand. I understand. I understand. Now we can move forward because there was a lack of breath that I wasn't using in the way that I was talking to her. And she needed that. And I was so busy, kind of wrapped up in making sure everyone was okay, making sure craft services, craft services was okay. And like making sure that, you know, my, my, uh, my iAD and my DP and, and my gaffer were good. Like, it was a lot of moving pieces and instead of just like breathing and taking a minute and. Getting really hype and excited about just being in the space and getting to make something and then enjoying every split second of the day, of the shoot, of both shoot days. then at that point was like, Oh, like, this is fun. This is great. You know, I can breathe and enjoy.
JZ: Love that. Yeah. That resonates. Um, yeah, I mean just, yeah, completing the day and then completing a film is such a feat. Um, so congrats and yeah, and then it's interesting too, cause you finish and you're like, okay. And then it's like, the next question is like, how do you share it? You know, do you submit to film festivals? And, and it looks different obviously for each film and each director. What has that, I guess. Post-completion journey been like for you and the process of sharing it?
KW: Yeah, I, well, I was really blessed to work with an editor that was really patient with me. And we went frame by frame with every single scene that we did. And she also really taught me a lot about just everything when it comes to editing and storytelling, when it's on the post-production side.
Cause you, I mean, personally, I was just like, well obviously we're going to edit, but. We're going to keep everything, like, I loved everything that we shot and she was like, no, that's not happening. And there were moments where it really actually made the story stronger by taking out a lot. And so that experience was an incredible, educational experience for me. And then after that, I honestly just wanted to finish it and put my, like, put the stamp up: "I did it!" kind of on the piece and I had given myself like a few festivals that I really wanted to. Submit to, and I was like, that's it, like, I just want to submit it to these four or five and that's it.
And then after, after the JRS festival, people really received it really nicely. And I was like, okay, well maybe I should submit it to a couple more. Um, because honestly I had just primarily showed it to friends and family and to get a response that was so positive and people felt so connected to it and had their own interpretations, which was literally my favorite part, own interpretations of the story. I was like, okay, like, great. Maybe I should try and research a little bit more and try and see what else is out there. Yeah. And cause the only goal for me was just to like make people feel and, and hopefully make people see a new perspective and um, yeah.
LB: I love it. Yeah. kind of shifting gears, you are also a wonderful, wonderful actress. You are so talented. Yes. And, um, in the last year I feel like you've, or maybe last couple of years, you've just booked so many awesome things. And you recently had a recurring role on Veronica Mars. I just want to know what that experience was like, what's it like to have, uh, get to go to a TV show multiple times and work on a show like that? What was that like?
KW: Well, I felt very, very blessed to, first of all, get the job, but to go and work on a show where people are so incredibly warm and welcoming because I was entering a show that had been on for seven plus years. So they had all been friends, family grown up together where, um, went from, you know, single to married to married, having kids.
Like they all have been in each other's space for a really long time. And so I felt a little, well I was obviously very, very nervous because this was like my first reoccurring experience. And. I was a little unsure if I was going to be received or if it's just gonna be like, Nope, get in there, do your job and then cut ties. And then it's, you know, it's done. Which is also okay, but I was incredibly, incredibly nervous. And with someone like all of them who have worked a ton, especially Kristen Bell, who has this extraordinary career. And are they going to be kind, are they going to be warm? You know, you just never know you run through all of them, all of those, what is, but they were the most generous, loving, kind, first thing anyone uttered to me was, "If you have any questions, just ask there's no, there's no wrong question. We've all been here for a very long time. You just got here, please know that the doors open," and made it so incredibly warm and welcoming and for me to feel safe, to be able to do those things, ask those questions, but also sit with them and talk with them and ask them questions about their, their experience and really build a you know, working relationship in that way, but I was very nervous. I was very nervous. Um, but once I got there, it was just, it was so great in the first, the first scene that we shot was just me, the, um, person that played my husband, Kristen, and the person that played her husband. And so it was just four of us. And so it felt really intimate, really, really, really special. And just, just kind of surreal, but real and exciting for sure. Yeah, it was, it was really beautiful.
LB: That's amazing. Thank you for sharing that.
JZ: That sounds fun.
LB: So excited for you.
KW: It was fun. It was really fun.
JZ: Well, last question. Um, you know, we're living in quite a moment between COVID and our nation's reckoning with racial injustice. How are you keeping creative these days? How has creativity kind of factoring into that?
KW: Creativity has, there's been ups and downs. I would say creative wise, just because of the multiple pandemics we're in right now. And so I think my creativity, I think has been used in my attention on what is happening: paying attention. And it's hard because I, you know, I'm sure like many others feel like, well, I should be doing, especially during this time of kind of eruption, but also silence. Like I have felt at the beginning, like, Oh, I should be writing a book and I should be making a movie and I should be doing all of this stuff when it's like, no, thankfully there are resources out there that have been like, Hey, by the way, like just be kind to yourself, be gentle. This is a very tumultuous time. And this is pre- our most recent eruption. Um, and so I think my creativity in at least my focus when it comes to, uh, creativity has been on paying attention. To what's happening and really trying to absorb what's happening because it, it has been devastating. It has been exhausting.
It has been, there has been conversations that I've had to have with people that I'd never thought I was going to have to have, but have turned out to be very useful conversations and healthy conversations. However, the ups and downs of everything, I think,is where I'm kind of choosing to put that energy and to learn and to gain resources and to see how other people are also handling these experiences.
And then, you know, at some point I'm sure it, cause it always, it'll be kind of repurposed back into my art at some point, whenever my body and heart and mind feels ready for that. It'll be a space where there is, there is, there is space to be able to kind of turn it into art. But right now I think paying attention and feeling my feelings and not rushing to try and heal, but heal on a, in a time and space that, you know, my body mind and heart wants to, and hopefully that will transcend into, you know, art in the future. Does that make sense?
JZ: Oh, totally.
LB: That was beautiful.
JZ: Yeah. I think you spoke to a part of the creative process that's not, you know, glitzy or glamorized, but like such an essential part where it's really just like, yeah. Feeling the feelings and kind of like working through them. And I like what you said about paying attention.
KW: I think, I think that right now, there's, I mean, there's good. There's beautiful art that's happening all over the place. Um, but I think right now taking a moment to, like I said, pay attention and there's going to be such beautiful creations that come out of people's suppressed pain. And I'm speaking for myself personally, as a, as a black woman, um, What that is going to look like after I can kind of give a little bit more verbiage to it, a little bit more understanding and a little bit more time to it and see kind of what that translates to. Does that make sense?
LB: Yeah, it really does.
JZ: Well, we end every interview with our lightning round Three, Owo, one. Action. Yay. So you can answer just in a word or phrase. So we'll start with three, your favorite or most influential, memorable film.
KW: Ooh. Um, the Wiz hands down was a life-changing, it was the first time I ever saw someone that will have me on screen.
LB: Two: dream person you want to work with.
KW: Ava DuVernay.
JZ: One: best advice you've received.
KW: I would say fail big, fail big, get up and then fail bigger and then get up again.
LB: Action: where can people follow you on social media?
KW: Oh, they can follow me on Instagram @kmax18.
LB: Love it.
LB: Woo. Kenna, I thank you so much.
KW: Thanks for having me, my goodness. I love your podcasts and it's, it has been, um, I've listened to some episodes and yeah. Thank you guys for, for doing it because I think a lot of times, especially for me, I'm just looking for a person to say like, Oh, I felt that way before. And when you hear it from people that you're like, well, they're working in this industry and in this, in this capacity. And they felt like that, like, Wow. Okay. So I'm all right, so thank you for doing that and opening up that space.
LB: Thanks for saying that, Kenna.