BY LUAINE LEE
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE/TNS
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Singer-actress Jill Scott didn’t start out to be a singer or an actress. She was a poet. She actually earned some acclaim as a poet and even traveled with her verses tucked neatly under her arm.
But a gunman changed all that.
“I was across the street from my house. My friend and I were sitting in the car and a guy came up to the window and he asked for Vincent. My friend said, ‘I’m not Vincent and I know she’s not.’ And he kept talking. I think he was high on something,” she remembers.
“This was a community where I went to the store for the elders in my community. Everybody looked out for me as I was growing up. I knew all of my neighbors. We planted flowers and swept up in our little community, so something was happening. This was not a norm for me,” says Scott, seated in a meeting room, packed with scattered tables and clusters of chatting people.
“Now gunshots — that was a norm — I heard those, but nothing had ever come my way. And this guy pulls out a gun, and my friend drove off, and we shook for a day. It was very frightening to have that happen. We do believe he shot that gun,” she nods.
Decided to sing
The next day she attended another poetry reading. But instead of reciting a poem she sang a song.
“And that had a whole other release, a whole other applause. It was silent at first, and then it erupted. And I thought that felt amazing. Maybe I should try to do that more. I don’t force anything, I just let my life happen.”
Kept it real
Though her mother had stuffed her childhood with art and culture in her native Philadelphia, Jill didn’t try singing until high school. She became the flavor of the month.
“People who didn’t really like me pretended to like me and I didn’t like that. So I didn’t sing anymore,” she says.
“If I did, well I sang with a group, so we sang background vocals and harmonies, so I wasn’t standing out. I don’t like false friends, people who claim they like me if they don’t. If you don’t like me it’s all right, but do your job and call it a day. I’m really good with that.”
Foray into acting
It turned out she was good with acting too.
Costarring in shows like “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” “The Nanny Diaries” and “Down to Earth,” Scott’s latest is Lifetime’s gritty retelling of the Flint, Mich., toxic water scandal, “Flint,” premiering Oct. 28.
“A director said, ‘I think you’re an actor.’ I said, ‘OoooooK.’ He kept calling and saying that. He said, ‘There’s an apprenticeship, and it’s $150 a week. It’s 16 hours a day, and they’re going to give you free acting classes for your work.’
“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ I’d quit my job and quit school that day. And by the time I got home, the doorbell was ringing. It was (director) Ozzie Jones and here was the opportunity. They paid me $150 a week and gave me health insurance.’’ She taps the table top.
‘Be that guy’
Scott, 45, did labor 16 hours a day. She built sets, ironed costumes, managed the house, mopped floors, sold tickets — anything to do with the theater.
“I was so tired by the time I got to acting classes, I fell asleep. But I had one acting coach named Aaron Posner and he said the best thing I’ve ever heard which was: ‘Be that guy.’ I was like, ‘I got it! ‘Be that guy.’”
She followed that with a fellowship at the Walnut Street Theatre.
“In the middle of that, I got a call from friends who said, ‘Rent’ is in town, you should audition.’ And I did, and I got ‘Rent.’ One thing begat another,” she shrugs.
Married with kids
Married for a little over a year she and her husband rear seven children together. An 8-year-old is her birth son, the rest are his bio-children and one stepchild. Coping with such a brood is no big deal, she insists.
“They’re here with me now. They’re bright lights, and they’re smart and fun and loving. I bite them and kiss them and we laugh. I get a chance to teach them and share things with them. They’ve become another level of fuel,” she smiles.
“I do my job, love to work, love to sing for a great audience, love to act, to write. But they fuel me in a different way. They’re a lot of inspiration and gentleness where the industry is not gentle and is not loving and not kind.”
She remembers vividly, when she was 4, her mother escaping an abusive relationship and moving in with Scott’s grandmother. It was there, she thinks, she learned to sing. She would linger outside the bathroom door while her grandmother bathed.
“I would sit on the floor … and she would sing how grateful she was for her body, and it was a beautiful song and different every time. She would talk about her hands. And I could tell that she had the water moving.
“She’d talk about her neck while she’s in there singing, and it was like glory. And I think she taught me how to sing. It was deeper than a tone of a voice. It was her spirit. It has shaped how I sing songs, how I act, and how I live.”
Luaine Lee is a California-based correspondent who covers entertainment for Tribune News Service.