By Dennis J. Freeman
Actress Maya Gilbert is determined to move and shake up the game in Hollywood. She wants to be a power broker in the land they call fantasy. Appearing in front of the cameras and morphing into a character is something she’s always wanted to do. But being a shot-caller behind the scenes is where the Kent, Ohio native believes she can make a difference in the film and entertainment industry.
“My ultimate goal is producing (films) through my production company,” Gilbert said. “I would like to be producing more than anything and acting when I want to as opposed to acting because I have to and take roles and projects that I don’t necessarily believe in.”
Gilbert, who has a recurring role in TNT’s “Southland” and is fresh off of starring in Cinemax’s steamy drama series ,“Zane’s Sex Chronicles,” is ferocious in her determination to be a difference-maker. Since leaving her hometown in 2005 to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress, Gilbert has not only met those expectations; she’s been on fire and exceeded them.
She blasted her way past several thousand folks in a television soap competition to land a recurring role in ABC’s “General Hospital.” Her climb up the ladder as a hot acting commodity has skyrocketed since. Armed with a dash of brass, moxie and down-to-earth Midwest charm, the strikingly beautiful Gilbert is fast approaching the “it” status among black female actresses.
Gilbert has three films scheduled to be completed and come out this year alone. She stars opposite Elise Neal in “The Perfect Man,” co-stars with Richard T. Jones in “Forgiveness” and puts the heat on a couple of rappers in “The Lawyer, the Thug & the Princess.”
Working in an industry where booking steady employment can be as scarce as a two-dollar bill at times, Gilbert has managed to push herself through all of that to become modestly successful. But she isn’t taking that granted.
“I’ve been fortunate to be working,” Gilbert said. “I am still not where I want to be. I do work a lot. I do think in the next year my work is going to play a really big part in me reaching the next level.”
Getting to that level is not an easy thing to do, Gilbert said.
“It’s really difficult,” said Gilbert. “A lot of people in smaller places of middle America-to them, they think it’s like a fantasy. So, for a girl like me to leave Ohio and come out here…if you’re meant to do it, you’ll do it. No matter how hard it is, you’ll find a way. Then God and the Universe will work with you to make sure that you have everything to be successful. It’s about doing the work. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to do the work. I’m here to do the work, no matter how long it takes.”
To Gilbert, doing the work includes writing and producing, not just acting. By writing and producing, Gilbert said she isn’t limiting herself to what she wants to accomplish in the business.
She created Skeels Street Productions, her own production company, to further that ambition, putting together two films she’s already written. Part of her drive to create original content is the wildly successful, but sporadic reality TV genre. If there’s one sure thing to fire up Gilbert it’s the lack of originality in television and in film today, she said.
“I’m sick of the remakes,” said Gilbert. “I want to be part of a movement out here where people are starting to create quality, original programming again, film especially. There is sort of a high you get from performing and being actor, but writing is another game because the story comes from you. It’s a different type of vibe.
“I’m getting tired of reality TV. I grew up on the Huxtables (Cosby Show). I grew up on the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Martin,” the shows that I adored as a little black girl growing up. We need something like that-being black and being able to look at it with some pride and say these people represent me and my family. I feel pop culture has taken a whole step back and how we depict ourselves.”
Perennial stereotypes have always run the course when it comes to depicting black characters. Some of those characters, right or wrong, good or bad, are identifiable.
Film mogul Tyler Perry has created a film and television empire based on an original stage character he created when he was struggling to make ends meet while entertaining an audience vastly overlooked by the big wonks in the entertainment industry.
That character, Madea, a sharped-tongue, quick-witted and Bible-quoting grandmother portrayed by Perry himself, has stoked a firestorm within the black community on the grounds that some view as unflattering and degrading.
However, despite the ruckus of displeasure by some in the black community, Perry’s Madea character has proven to be extremely lucrative and has allowed him to expand his brand to a couple of hit television shows. In short, Perry, by and large, has become the face of black Hollywood.
As successful as Perry has been, Gilbert strongly believes that there’s plenty of room for other black voices to heard-on the screen and behind it.
“I don’t have a problem with Tyler Perry and what he portrays, but I have a problem when that is all that is being portrayed,” Gilbert said. “What’s happening in Hollywood is that they’re making it as if there’s only room for (one). If there’s only going to be room for one, then that one person has the responsibility of showcasing the versatility of our culture. It’s a huge burden to bear.”
Perhaps a large reason for Hollywood’s adoption of the one-man show that is Tyler Perry is the underlining belief that black movies or films major black characters simply do not produce enough profits, Gilbert said.
“There is still that underlying idea that anything black doesn’t sell,” said Gilbert. “In 2010, we just had the first Disney movie featuring a black character. That speaks a lot. On top of that, the movie is called “The Princess and the Frog,” and the black girl is a frog for most of the movie.
“That speaks volumes that they think a frog is more marketable than the black character in the Disney movie. What needs to happen as a culture, as a people, we have to support these efforts when they do arrive. Tyler has his fan base, but when other movies come out, we have to go see those movies and pay the money to see them.”
One thing that Gilbert does not have is timidity. A former field hockey star at Miami University of Ohio, Gilbert is not intimidated by barriers. She isn’t swayed by obstacles.
She is as tenacious as a bulldog in her drive to reshape the landscape of an industry that has offered very little in recognizing the contributions of black actors, directors, producers and other workers. Her objective to change things is not talking about it, but to be about it. She feels that is her calling.
“I’m very in touch with my true essence, who I am meant to be,” said Gilbert. “I feel I have some insight to why I was put here and what my purpose is. I’ve been blessed with the ability to keep transcending and growing and evolving as an artist.
“The people who end up being great in their field-the Michael Jordan of basketball, the Angela Davis of the civil rights movement, the Maya Angelou of poetry-is that these people are never satisfied. I’ve had some success, but I am nowhere near where I want to be, where I should be and where I will be.”