(Featured image courtesy of Ryan West)
While growing up in New Orleans, young BET+ star Frankie Smith always dreamed of being in massive scale projects like Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings. Fantastical, otherworldly series sparked his imagination and kickstarted dreams of acting on both the big and small screen. His sister Lindsey had the same passions, and the two siblings grew alongside each other to become some of today’s most exciting up-and-coming performers.
Smith’s big break did come on a fairly large-scale project, the History Channel’s remake of the groundbreaking 1970s miniseries Roots. Reinventing a program that still ranks as one of the most widely watched series of all time must have meant the pressure was on for everyone involved to get it just right, but for Frankie, the magnitude of the project didn’t really set in until when it came out. “When we were making it, to me it was just a job.” That job began to feel like so much more when he encountered one of his teacher friends’ high school students, who was thrilled to be meeting an actor from the series. “He was really moved by the show, and he was really excited to meet me… I think that’s when it really hit that the show was way bigger than what I initially thought it was.” There was a healthy amount of public skepticism leading up to the premiere, natural in our modern age of reboots that fizzle out and never live up to the original, but the miniseries received universal critical acclaim and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Limited Series, proving that magic really can be recreated decades later.
Being raised in Louisiana made Smith pretty familiar with brutal summer heat, but when he suited up in old-fashioned clothes for Netflix’s Mudbound and arrived in a rural cabin to film, even he began to boil. Luckily, Dee Rees was leading the way. Frankie praised Rees for being “one of the quickest and most efficient directors I’ve ever worked with. I don’t remember doing a scene more than five times. She always had the perfect plan for how she wanted to execute each scene.” Just play-acting that time period for a few weeks in the oppressively hot costumes and sets made Frankie grateful “to have not grown up in that time period. I’m very spoiled with the technology today,” particularly his car air conditioning (which of course conveniently stopped working every morning on his hour-long drive to set).
At the film’s Sundance premiere, one of Frankie’s most unexpected encounters was, ironically, with the snowy Utah weather. “We don’t know how to act in the snow, so that was a huge surprise.” However, he found that the best surprise of the festival was how friendly the other actors and filmmakers were. Having built a good relationship with his producers, Smith was invited to parties, awards ceremonies, and screenings of other projects that truly opened his eyes to the massive and diverse world he was entering as a performer. “Me, Dee, and my castmate Joshua Williams, we had lunch with the editors and sound team of Mudbound at this five-star hotel… I can’t wait to go back, but next time I go back, I want to have a lead role in a project so I can really experience the fullness of it.” The Mudbound cast and crew traveled to New York and Los Angeles for various premieres later in the year, “so even after filming it, it was still such a blessing because I was experiencing so much within the industry.” Smith recalled the audience around him crying at every screening, saying, “I feel grateful that I could be a part of something that moves people like that.”
After a few significant roles in projects that took place centuries ago, Frankie kept asking himself, “When am I going to finally hit the present day?” That opportunity came with Black and Blue, which follows a police officer (Naomie Harris) who goes rogue after her coworkers commit a murder. Smith had been a massive fan of Harris’ work in Pirates of the Caribbean as a kid, and while he said, “I was so surprised that I was going to be working as closely as I did with her,” it turned out to be an incredibly rewarding collaboration. While playing Tez, the resident tech nerd, “I loved pretending like I knew what I was doing behind the computer.” The character was a bit of a “lovable wannabe bad boy,” a refreshing change of pace from Smith’s other more serious and straight-faced roles, and the film’s action sequences were a thrill for the young actor, allowing him to stretch the bounds of his genre experience.
Vampire thriller Black as Night was one of many spooky horror partnerships between Amazon and Blumhouse, but Frankie’s most chilling memory from the film actually came several months after production ended. Smith went back to Los Angeles to visit castmate and good friend Fabrizio Guido, who he hadn’t seen since filming. “He’s into muscle cars and fast driving. I’m not.” Driving down hills felt “like Fast & Furious” with Guido in the driver’s seat, and all Frankie remembers is clutching his seatbelt “just praying that no car comes our way, hoping that we don’t roll off this hill.” After finally making it to ground level, everything seemed to be smooth from then on out… until Guido accidentally turned into oncoming traffic, right in the path of a black Mercedes. “I just felt like my body went limp. I’m like, ‘We’re about to be in a head-on collision, and we’re both about to die.’” In a split second, Guido narrowly missed the collision, saying, “‘Frankie, I’m so sorry. I did not see that car,’ and thankfully we both laughed it off… If we’d been in an accident, the credits of Black as Night would have rolled differently. It would have said: ‘In Loving Memory of Frankie Smith and Fabrizio Guido.’”
Now, Frankie has just finished the first season of the thrilling new BET+ drama, Sacrifice. The series follows lawyer Daniella Hernandez (Paula Patton) as she navigates the high-stakes, scandal-filled world of the Hollywood elite. Smith stars as Chauncey Winchester, Daniella’s younger cousin, who is one of the heirs apparent to an extremely successful music label. “He comes off as this loving grandson and son, but as the series goes on, you come to find he’s way smarter than what he comes off as. He has his own plans for the label and is doing things behind the scenes to take over the label for himself.” Of course, shady dealings can never stay secret forever, and Chauncey ends up butting heads with the rest of his family over control of the business. “It was a serious joy to play someone as smart, snake-like, and conniving as he was.”
One of Chauncey’s defining characteristics, besides his habits for deception and self-serving agendas, is his sense of fashion. “Depending on what I was wearing, I probably had a really great day… many of the costumes I really wanted to steal so badly,” with one green plaid suit in particular really giving Smith the same confidence as the Hollywood royalty he was portraying. “I definitely started taking fashion more seriously after I graduated high school. I was so used to wearing the uniform every single day, but as soon as I no longer had to wear a uniform, my eyes were opened to so many more outfits that were out there for me to wear… When it comes to fashion, to me that’s the way to show off your personality, whether you’re a free spirit or a business mind, or you’re just super casual.”
If the amazing outfits weren’t enough, the rest of the Sacrifice cast inspired Frankie to always strive to be operating at his best on set, every single day. Paula Patton “came in there every day, and she knew all her stuff. She always had the most dialogue, but she was always on point, and she was always so sweet.” Legendary Shaft star Richard Roundtree played Chauncey’s grandfather, and while Frankie was slightly intimidated knowing that he was going to be working with a performer who had paved the way for other actors like him to succeed in the business, he found that Roundtree was “so down to earth. He was so chill… I think the only time I fanboyed over him was when we were doing the last episode.” As a huge Nina Simone fan, Smith was blown away by the fact that his co-star had seen the singer multiple times in concert and wanted to know everything he could about what it had been like to encounter the real Simone. Another Black as Night castmate, Mason Beauchamp, appears in Sacrifice, and one of Smith’s favorite memories came with filming the finale, when the two reunited to film a concert scene. “I was so very blessed to have them as castmates because of COVID.” Cast ensembles often convene before production to build a stronger natural camaraderie that will reflect in their performances, but with quarantine restrictions, that option is not always guaranteed. “We met five minutes before we had to do a scene, and thank God we had chemistry. We sparked a friendship that has lasted off-set and on-set. The whole experience was great because playing Chauncey and being on a series like this is one of my biggest roles I’ve gotten so far… It was fun to play a character where I could grow with him and go through ups and downs.”
In an effort to give back to the New Orleans community that fostered his passion and his career, Smith has worked with young aspiring actors in middle and high schools across the city. “When it came to being an actor, I always just loved the art form… Originally, I didn’t really want to be necessarily well-known or famous. But when I saw the type of positive effect it can have on people, especially some actors down here, how they can see someone who grew up right in their city, prospering within their hometown and booking some substantial roles.” Frankie discovered that all the kids he met were incredibly respectful and eager to learn, and he’s honored by the fact that just living his dreams and imparting his wisdom can plant seeds in the youth of New Orleans, the growth of which the whole world will hopefully one day witness. “As corny as it is, they are the future. Because of COVID, a lot of things have changed, so I can’t do it like I did before, but it’s something that whenever the world gets back to a sense of normalcy, I want to do.” His best piece of advice: “Be smart enough to believe in yourself.”
In the future, Smith would like to play a villain, “someone who has no care for human regard,” or any role where he gets to wear a cape and fly through the night sky. “This may sound childish, but I don’t care… Hocus Pocus is one of my favorite movies, and it would be such a dream if I could fly like Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker did, so hopefully there’s a movie or TV show out there that will let me wear a cape and fly.” While he waits for news on a potential season two of Sacrifice, he hopes to continue strengthening his photography skills. “I think it’s so amazing to capture these moments and these events that are only going to happen once. Now I have pictures of my grandmother who recently passed, but if I didn’t have a camera to capture these moments that passed, I would not have much to remember her by.”
Ultimately, Sacrifice brought everything full circle for Frankie Smith. His sister Lindsey, his partner in performance from the very start, also stars in the series, and while their characters are from different time periods and never interact, “we were on set together for one day.” He recalled catching up with her in his trailer and laughing about the experience of being on the show, “grateful that we were both working on something substantial” and opening a new chapter of their lives, alongside each other.
Sacrifice’s entire first season is currently available to stream on BET+.