How Kirby Howell-Baptiste Got Her SAG-AFTRA Card Through a Backdoor

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

London-born actor Kirby Howell-Baptiste achieved an enviable acting feat in the last year by appearing simultaneously on three of this Emmy season’s most acclaimed series: BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” HBO’s “Barry,” and NBC’s “The Good Place.” Having since added two more projects to her roster—Hulu’s “Veronica Mars” reboot and the upcoming “Why Women Kill” on CBS All Access—Howell-Baptiste reflects on the hard work (and strange auditions) that got her here.

How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
My SAG card I got from doing a web series! It was SAG New Media. It was this weird, kind of terrible horror web series that I did an episode of. It felt like a backdoor. SAG was so elite, and you either got a job or your vouchers. New Media came along, and a bunch of people made their own web series and got SAG [cards] that way. Very punk rock, very socialist, maybe even anarchist—cracking the system open.

How do you typically prepare for an audition, especially for a show that’s already established?
For “The Good Place,” a show that had been running for a couple of seasons before I joined, I didn’t do anything differently. I watched the show. I would always encourage actors: If the show already exists, it would behoove you to watch the show, because you get to know the tone, you get to know the writing, you get to know what comes before. You can do a little script detective work and hopefully figure out where your character will come in. I had the opportunity to get as much information ahead of time about the show before I went in.

What’s the wildest thing you ever did to get a role?
I’ve never done any staking outside of casting offices, but there was a role in this movie that I really wanted, and I did an audition and it went horribly. I crashed and burned. I left and I was like, “You know what? I can do better. I’m going to seize the day.” So I walked back in the office and I was like, “I’m sorry, I think I can do better. Can I do it again?” And they were nice and polite and set up the rig again and extended their day—and then I did it the same, if not worse, and truly, absolutely wasted their time that day. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do that. Don’t waste that much of a casting director’s time.

Is that your worst audition horror story?
That was the worst audition I’ve ever done, but the actual worst audition I’ve ever been to—it’s a cautionary tale for actors. I submitted for an audition [that] wanted actors to be in a music video. I remember going to a block of flats, and below were not really offices, but small meeting rooms. Outside, there was no signage. Inside, there was a guy in a chair, and he had a boom box and he put it on and was like, “Dance for me.” I’m just standing there bobbing around, and he turned the music off and he said, “You’ve got it, I’ll give you a call.” Never heard from him. Clearly he was just some creep who was advertising on [a] website and trying to prey on young girls. It’s so hard as actors, because there are so many people who prey on the fact that we’re trying to commodify creativity. We’re trying to do this thing that brings up a lot of joy, but we’re also trying to make money. Obviously, there are people who will take advantage of that. With social media and the fact that we talk about things more, I don’t know if that guy will be able to do that now. We’re much more open about this stuff. We’re hopefully creating a culture where we’re calling out those weird things, people trying to take advantage of young female actors.

READ: How to Audition

What advice would you give your younger self?
Trust your gut. Trust your instincts. Don’t assume people in seemingly higher positions than you know better than you. Most people know what’s right for them. Staying true to that will keep you happy and working and enjoying your work on your own terms, rather than someone else’s. If something feels weird, looks weird, [and] sounds weird, it’s probably weird, and there will be other opportunities that are also weird but feel very nice and comfortable and happy.

What performance should every actor see and why?
I saw Mark Rylance in the play “Jerusalem” in London when I was in drama school briefly. Mark Rylance is an incredible actor, and the play itself felt so rebellious. I was in drama school at the time and I really hated being there. Seeing a play that felt rebellious, I feel like it was instrumental in me leaving drama school. It felt like new technology; not knowing something is possible and seeing what the possibilities are, you can never go back. I remember seeing that and being like, “That’s the possibility of acting. That’s what acting can be.” That’s what I want to chase: not what I’ve seen so far, but what acting can possibly be.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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