Natalie Dignam

What Samora Smallwood, a Toronto-based actor, remembers about growing up in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland are the fairy stories her Nan would tell as they rode the ferry to Bell Island. As Joey Smallwood’s niece, she was surrounded by her mother’s family and a strong sense of community throughout her childhood. I spoke with Smallwood over the phone about acting, her Newfoundland roots, and her upcoming trip to Cape Verde, where her father is from.

Smallwood plays a lead role in “The Shelter,” a dystopian Amazon series released last week that she described as a mystery. “All you know when you tune in is that it is a futuristic landscape and something has gone horribly wrong in society,” she said. Like the popular show, “Lost,” “The Shelter” centers on an unlikely group of people thrown together for the sake of survival.

In order to play the role of “Erin,” a woman who bases her sense of self on sacrifices she has made for others, Smallwood said she had to “figure out a way to understand why or how you could do the things she does and not hate yourself. And if you do hate yourself for your bad choices, how do you live with that?” Shooting on location and away from the comforts of home helped her get into the complexity of the role.

Acting came naturally to Smallwood and as a child, she loved to act out skits and make her family laugh. “The first impression I ever did was the Queen of England and I think I could do the accent and my grandfather just loved it,” she said. “When I look back on it now, I think for sure it was like they had this very energetic kid they were in charge of babysitting while my mom and dad worked and putting the camera on me and having me do shows was probably a way of like keeping me still.

Smallwood’s father is from Cape Verdean and she’ll be visiting the country for the third time next year. “There’s really a resilient, happy, joyful spirit even though they have so much less,” she said, describing how “the standard of living is so different. People have so much less and they make do with so much less.”

Although she had no formal training growing up, she took ballet and was influenced by her mother’s love for foreign films. As a young child, Smallwood remembers watching The Color Purple with her mother, who was a student in Gender Studies at the time. “She would just open my world to feminism and open my world to movies and ever since that day, I was just obsessed with watching movies and why people were the way that they were.”

Before landing roles on “Suits,” Syfy’s “The Expanse,” and “Shadow Hunters,” Smallwood was a fresh-faced actor eager to enter the business. She moved to Toronto to pursue her acting career and found how tough it can be for artists trying to live off their craft.

“I was so, so, so broke when I was first here. Like literally living on eggs,” she said. “The luckiest thing that happened to me when I first came to Toronto was that I was set up with a good acting school right away- EVN Studios. Earl Nanhu was the teacher and it was a really great place because not only was he a man of color, but he had tons of students of color, so it didn’t feel like, all haughty-totty, stuffy kind of classical place. You could just learn how to be an actor.”

Smallwood is currently filming the trailer for “Gone,” an eight-episode series she wrote which centers on the story of a female detective working on the case of a young girl of color who has gone missing. When she was a young girl herself, the detective’s sister was kidnapped and killed.

The series delves into the lives of marginalized women of color, sex trafficking, and the inadequacies of the justice system. In light of the high percentage of unsolved non-white and indigenous missing persons’ cases, Smallwood was interested in society’s perception of “the good girl, or good enough to be looked for.” She said, “I care about the societal construct for how this happens.”

With the recent momentum in her career, Smallwood said, “it’s nice to be this far along and living off my art.” She is focused on finding her voice as an actor, choosing roles featuring dynamic female characters, and, if all goes well, getting a deal to have her series “Gone” on Netflix (so keep your eye out!).

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