I had the wonderful opportunity to sit with Actress Tina Fears and talk about her journey in the entertainment industry and how things turned around for her with the role of Gospel singer Clara Ward in the NatGeo anthology series Genius: Aretha. Interview by Shanica L. Bell, Editor
LITO: Let’s just jump right in. If you want to start off by telling everybody who you are.
Tina Fears: Well, I’m Tina Fears. I am originally from Los Angeles, California. I’m sure you can probably hear in how I speak I have a southern drawl. I’ve lived here in Atlanta longer than I lived in LA, but I think being from California and the element of the West Coast and living and moving freely as a creator, I come from a creative family. I come from models, creators and my dad was a songwriter and producer. My grandmother came to Los Angeles from Ohio to pursue a career in modeling, my mom’s mom. And so, my mother came to LA after my grandmother moved. Not knowing each other, both of my parents moved from Ohio to Los Angeles with big Hollywood dreams. There was a migration to Hollywood from my lineage of people to become stars. They received fame in their own rights. But I have really been able to take their legacy into a place that my grandmother, my mother, and my father weren’t able to take theirs. I’m very proud of that. As I mentioned, I came from a creative family that was always around the music industry and started to find my gifts, my voice as a singer, as a creative, really as a child, so, that kind of gives you a nutshell of an intro to me into the arts.
LITO: So, you started off with singing, what interested you in singing?
Tina Fears: My dad vocally coached my sister and I. He really trained us. We were just always around music and were in the studios with him. I’m told I sat on Michael Jackson’s lap when I was a one-year-old girl because my dad wrote on the Jackson’s Victory album, so the idea of creativity was constantly around me. So, we weren’t so much like, “Oh, I want to be a songwriter.” But we were just constantly being fed creativity and music. We were ear trained. So, performance was always the thing. I was the one who was more so outgoing, and at an early age kind of by the book, whereas my sister was capable, but she was more into beauty. She’s a she’s a master cosmetologist, she owns a salon. So, she was cutting Barbie’s hair. We were tapping into our gifts as little children and we didn’t even realize it.
LITO: Tell us how you entered into acting?
Tina Fears: I entered into acting because, after I started my company Stage Ready right after I left Clark Atlanta University. We do choreography, casting, artist development and it still is a functioning business that has evolved. And so, in my work as a business owner behind the scenes, I started to feel that tug of “Tina, remember, you can sing you can dance, you can act, you’re a performer too.” And so really, I saw how Atlanta was changing and really in my heart, I felt like the Lord was telling me, “I gave you these gifts as a child, life has dealt various things to you. You have had to overcome you have been shut down, turned down. But you know I have a plan for you.” So, a lot of times when life happens, you begin to shrink inward, but those gifts don’t go away, they’re just not as prevalent. They’re not as tangible on the outside, but they’re still in there. And so, as I began to go and develop and get a better understanding of who God had called me to be, those things that were stirred back up on the inside were my gifts as a performer.
LITO: Let’s talk about that. I wanted you to take me through your passion; I see that there’s a passion in there for the theater element. I know when there’s that theater element, it’s slightly different.
Tina Fears: So, theater was something that I was introduced to in high school, I had the opportunity to go to what is now the Dekalb School of the Arts, which is the performing arts high school in the area that I lived in. I auditioned for the program and got in, and fear kept me out of it. I did not accept the invitation because I now realized that my family’s relocation from LA made me nervous about major change. I had so much change in my life, I knew God had not given me a spirit of fear. But as a young woman, I hadn’t grown in my faith enough to say, I’ve got to do it. So, I was fearful. I was, most may not know that I was actually fearful.
“Most may not know that I was actually fearful. But in the midst of our fear, God will orchestrate the path and what he wants for you.” - Tina Fears
If I got into the arts program, it would have put me on the Howard track. Now we know for most people, black artists anyway, if you’re going into theater, television and film, you need to be at Howard University, because that is where Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Taraji P. Henson, and Chadwick Boseman all went to school. So, Tina’s fear stopped her from following that track. But when God has given you a gift on a professional level, that will make room for you in spaces even if you’re not formally trained, is another example of his plan working for you. I’ve always had the passion for performing. Life happened to me, I started a business that was in the arts and never really got away from it. So, when we moved to Lawrenceville, which is where we live now, I stepped back, I said “Fear will not win”. I demanded to be seen by a professional theatre in my area that was known for doing Broadway quality shows and a very well respected theatre in the city. I had established myself in the mainstream entertainment industry as a choreographer and as a singer, but theater didn’t know me.
So, I didn’t have the traditional set of credentials, that would speak to me being able to get into those spaces. But we know God is still working. So, I sent my email with my headshot and my resume. I had just completed a season at a pre professional theatre where alot of professional artists, people who are now on Broadway, and now television have worked because that was the place where you went when you really wanted to get your chops together before working in the professional theatres. So, I sent my stuff in and I didn’t hear a response, but I was just adamant like, “Listen, they’re doing this show and I’m going to be in this show. I know I have what it takes, they had never seen me.” And they invited me in to audition. I was able to get a part in the ensemble, which was really my introduction to professional theatre in Atlanta. So, I did Memphis the Musical and I did In the Heights. In the Heights was a big movie this summer. I was blessed to go on to do numerous shows around Atlanta like, Dreamgirls and Simply Simone to name a few.
LITO: I love your ambition and your drive. Just to hear you say that you demanded them. You had to do what you had to do and I love the results. And you have such an awesome testimony to share about that. Talk about your project Queen Aretha at Aurora.
Tina Fears: Queen Aretha at Aurora was a collaborative project that I did with some colleagues, Aretha Franklin had just passed. And I reached out to my artist friend Brian Jordan Jr. and we came together and just really did a tribute concert that evolved into 25 plus person show, and a sold-out event at Aurora, which is also the same theater that I had to demand to be seen, which created a full circle moment! And again, God is working.
Shanica Bell: After the Queen Aretha project, is that a coincidence that you ended up in a film about Aretha as Clara Ward?
Tina Fears: Yeah. I’m such a faithful person. I really believe it was ultimately the Lord as I also auditioned for Respect too - something major, a motion picture. I have a talent agent that represents me in the South East. I got the audition for Respect first. I sang for that project, never heard anything back. And as an actor transitioning from theater into television and film, that’s a different skill set.
“Tina, remember, you can sing you can dance, you can act, you’re a performer too.” And really in my heart, I felt like the Lord was telling me, “I gave you these gifts as a child.”- Tina Fears
Tina Fears as gospel singer Clara Ward, who traveled and sang with Aretha father Rev. CL Franklin’s gospel group in Genius:Aretha
And it’s also a different pace. How much content you submit, how much you submit yourself and how many no’s you get. It’s just very different. And so, I just took it as “Oh, it’s another No.” And then literally, maybe two weeks later, I got the audition for Clara Ward the same way I did for Respect - in my email. When I read for Clara, when I read the breakdown, I just knew in my heart, it was my part, and you always feel like a role is your part. I always feel connected to things I audition for, but I really felt connected to this and I took a risk. I’m so thankful because as an actor in the Southeast, it is very challenging to cut through on a project like that. Those are normally roles that go to Los Angeles actors, people that people know, or people that casting is familiar with. I don’t know who will read this, but I just want to encourage those who are pursuing things that may seem like they’re out of your reach. Continue to reach for those things that you desire. Continue to put your best foot forward, because you don’t know where those things are going to land.
LITO: What was it like preparing for the role?
Tina Fears: Research. Luckily, there is footage on Miss Ward. She wasn’t really that old, late 30s. maybe early 40s when she passed. When I performed the song, that’s me saying as well, I had to. I wanted to really honor her work down to how I pronounced the words. I had to make sure that when we recorded, I fell off the note how she fell off the note even though I’m singing in a different key and it’s faster; but we still had to approach it the way that Clara Ward did. And so understanding that even though there was a condensed period of preparation, I wanted to take it all in and have a real understanding of that before I put on that that white hat, before I put on that dress, It was intentional in a way that is authentic and respectful . It is important to me to handle our stories with care, especially from our legends who we don’t know alot about.
LITO: Although you played a gospel artist in the film, How it is in real life working with the gospel artists?
Tina Fears: Working with gospel artists was my foundation. To be a fan of someone and to be able to work alongside them is a dream come true. I have traveled with Deitrick Haddon for many years as a background singer and choreographer and Deitrick was one of the first people to give me an opportunity when I started my business. He was one of the first people to say, “Yep you can cast for me, you can choreograph for me, you can sing.” Though I have grown from that, I will always give Deitrick his props for believing in my company. So, I work with a lot of Christian hip hop artists I have helped arrange vocals, produced live performances, and contributed to several award winning Christian Hip Hop projects. There’s a whole Christian Hip Hop genre that is impacting contemporary Christian music. It is fresh and relevant. It has that radio appeal sonically that 20 years ago you never would have thought you would see in Christian and Hip Hop genre and they love God.
LITO: So with your business Stage Ready, you help out other creatives - define that a little bit more for me.
Tina Fears: Stage Ready is a full service, creative direction, casting, artists and project management firm. When I first started the business, we were doing what the industry needed. At that time, people needed background dancers, because they were touring, people need a choreographer, because they were shooting music videos. And so, me being a singer, dancer, I was the choreographer, I was in auditions, like, “This is the step.” I was doing all those things. As I grew in business, I saw where I could help in live events, and help with social media marketing. We still have the same elements of testing, creative direction, and all of that, however my company pivoted, we pivoted about the seven-year mark, because I wanted to make sure that the company grew. Stage Ready now provides more project management and creative direction less choreography and casting, we still do some of that and I have some clients that will hire me in a consulting capacity as well.
LITO: That’s awesome. You got your hands, and a little bit of everything within the entertainment & arts industry. I really love that. How do you balance all of that with being a wife and a mother?
Tina Fears: I have a wonderful teammate, my husband. We are a team. And with being a team, my husband understands who I am, in order for me to be the best wife and mother for he and our son, I have to be the best Tina, and vice versa. I have to allow him to be his best self, so that he can serve us in a way that is one, pleasing to the Lord, and two, the best serving of the family. There are challenges, but I have a really wonderful village, my mother, my sister, my grandmother, my sister in law’s; so a family, they pivot and they adjust, which allows me to reach my goals and I am so thankful. So, do I have like the perfect formula? Absolutely not. But I do have a team and we’re growing together.
LITO: What advice would you give someone, another creative person who’s looking to get into entertainment? What do you wish somebody would have told you?
Tina Fears: Well, that’s a good question. I wish somebody would have told me to trust the process. Trust that every opportunity you get to sing, every opportunity you get to dance, every opportunity that you are inspired to collaborate to create it all helps to build this person that you are becoming and there are a lot of No’s. We have to be okay with taking that rejection and that harsh criticism and use that to fuel our drive to be better.
Learn more about Tina Fears at www.tinafears.com