Jahkara Smith plays Maggie Leigh on NOS4A2, AMC's adaptation of Joe Hill's bestselling horror novel. Smith's character is a witch whose preferred method of divination requires magical Scrabble tiles kept in a TARDIS-like (it's bigger on the inside) velvet bag. The show is gearing up for its second season and Smith is thrilled Maggie is returning. As one of the few Black characters on the show (as well as one who dies pretty early in the original novel), she has reason to celebrate.
If Smith looks familiar, that's because she is formerly known as YouTube star Sailor J. At just 23 years young, the socially conscious comedian and vlogger went viral almost instantly; she was hilariously mocking contemporary beauty vloggers one minute and making us all wish we'd been sorted into Hufflepuff the next. AMC's NOS4A2 casting team were instant fans, and they plucked Jahkara right from the internet in 2018.
The St. Louis native has added writer, activist, Air Force vet, and public speaker to her list of credits as well. Smith is acutely aware that the incredible opportunities she's been given are not the norm for African-American women in entertainment. She's also very clear that because she appears "racially ambiguous" (onscreen she can portray multiple ethnicities), she is in a unique position to speak up for marginalized voices. She's now using her newfound fame to speak out against bullying, bias in the YouTube beauty community, anti-trans and LGBTQ-bias, and more.
SYFY WIRE sat down with Smith, a huge manga and anime fangirl, to talk about her crash course in acting, what happened to Maggie's backstory, and why she was a Sailor Scout in a past life.
Do you ever go back and watch your old YouTube videos?
It's actually so weird because sometimes people will send me clips of them or I'll see one of them circulate on Twitter or something. It's just weird to see myself. You don't feel like you're like that young when you're 19. But I feel like I was so young. I see my old townhouse [from] before everything went down and I moved to L.A. It's just crazy cause it feels like an entirely different life.
Where did your Sailor J persona come from?
My sister and I would always send vines to each other back and forth and then Vine died. When [my sister] started getting into makeup and stuff like that she started getting [mean] comments at school. I just wanted her to feel comfortable so I started sending her videos. That translated to me wanting to make everyone feel comfortable.
I feel like a lot of it is women's social media presence are all tied to how we look. I feel like dudes are allowed to curate the weirdest stuff and still have these massive followings. But for women, it's gotta be pictures of you to some degree and you have to look [a certain way], otherwise they don't get perceived as well. I was trying to juxtapose if there's important stuff going on beyond makeup — what the beauty industry in itself represents, its lack of inclusivity and that there is more important sh*t going on in the world.
Is it true that somebody from the NOS4A2 team scouted you off of YouTube?
Yes. When I got the email from Tiffany who was a casting director, I didn't really think about it. My videos had circulated on Facebook and when Jami O'Brien was writing Season 1, she decided that I was how she wanted to translate Maggie for TV. So she told the team "Hear me out, there's this girl on YouTube that I think we should have just read for it." And Tiffany Little Canfield the casting director already knew who I was.
At first, I didn't think anything of it, but then they actually emailed me a couple months later and they asked for an audition tape. I didn't know anything so I edited it like I would my YouTube videos. (Which you are NOT supposed to do.) And so Jamie and Tiff had to fly me out and have me do a read in person in front of all the producers.
What do you remember about being on the NOS4A2 set for the first time?
I remember the first day that I got there, I was amazed by how many people were involved. Like there are so many people involved with shows, movies, all the things we consume. There are hundreds and hundreds of people that go into making these projects work. It's hard to realize because so many of them never get mentioned.
Honestly, learning on the job is better than any film school.
I was so grateful because I had not grown up in a creative world at all. I was the only one out of my family to do any of those kinds of things. And I got dragged for it. So to sort of be plucked up and then plopped right into a world where you literally feel like you belong in it was just surreal.
Maggie is a Black, queer, magical girl who was kicked out of the house because of at least two of those traits. Will we get to explore more of Maggie's story in Season 2?
Unfortunately, no. There was a point in Season 1 where we were supposed to, but things went a little left with locations, I believe. So they ended up having to cut that episode and put something else there in its place. That was kind of disappointing because we got to see her childhood and her relationship with her parents and stuff like that.
So I don't know if they have plans to do that in the future. But in Season 2, no, unfortunately, we don't see a lot of that.
There are so few Black women characters in genre who aren't considered tragic. Did you collaborate with the writers to avoid that?
I'm lucky they've always been really receptive to everything about that. Jami found me because of my videos. So a lot of the things that I believe in, she 100 percent supports. It's important to her that the show is diverse. And she cares very much that within that diversity, things are done in a way that isn't disrespectful or isn't reminiscent of the same stories we always see where the Black girl has to be sacrificed to further the white girl's story.
The instinct [as characters of color] is always that we have to be able to take care of ourselves because, realistically, ain't nobody coming to save us. I've had to sit down with myself and talk myself through that. This is a character. This is not real life. This is not me. Getting rescued on camera is not going to make me look like a target.
I have to ask you about your geekdom because your handle was Sailor J and clearly you're a huge Sailor Scout fan.
Growing up in St. Louis we were so broke. We didn't have cable, we just had a little VCR and we lived down the street from a [video store] where my mom would rent these really cheap movies and one day she brought home the movie Sailor Moon R the Movie: Promise of the Rose. I watched that movie constantly. Every transformation I was twirling like I was one of the Scouts. But then I would go on play dates and always ask, "Do you want to play Sailor Moon?" And no one ever knew what I was talking about. I was so heartbroken.
Fast forward to sixth grade when I was talking with a classmate about how we were going to own the next tug-of-war contest or something and he said, "We'll be Supreme! You know, like Sailor Moon!" I was so excited! But he had never heard of the movie. "I'm talking about the show," he says, and my chest gave out. I never knew there as a show! I took my happy ass home and got on YouTube and sure enough, there are 300 episodes for me to watch!
You were in heaven!
That whole year I would go straight home from school, make two soft pretzels in the microwave, sit down and watch Sailor Moon until dinner. It was a ritual every single day. My home life was pretty terrible. I swear that show was the only reason I survived in that house. I was so obsessed and when I found out there were more movies, I watched everything.
Another time, when I was in the military, I had KP duty (kitchen duty) and on KP you have to clean the kitchen and you're not allowed to talk. I was cleaning and I started humming the Sailor Moon theme song, and this girl in there with me starts humming too and we just look at each other and we start singing it together! Literally, every hard time in my life, this show has popped up one way or another to get me through.
So I'm convinced that I was a Sailor Scout in a past life.
Did you read comics or manga?
I got into manga when I was in high school because there [was] this boy that had a crush on me that would give them to me. I didn't know he would give them to me 'cause he liked me but I read them all the time.
I really got into DC and Marvel when I was in high school because my dad had given me The Life and Death of Superman and it was this long drama that ends with when Doomsday kills him. I was just so into it and I thought it was so cool.
Did you watch any other anime?
I'm all caught up with My Hero Academia and Parasyte -the maxim- is so good. Erased was a really good one and I just went through my Sword Art Online phase. I just gobbled those up. I love Death Note. When I was in middle school, I was going to descend into hell for Light Yagami. I had composition notebooks and everything. I had a pen and everything for my King; "You will never a day be without a writing utensil because I am here."
What's next for you?
The biggest thing I've ever wanted was to be a published author. I just think that would be so cool. Right now I'm actually working on a screenplay and I'm going to get that made. I have some really strong ideas right now. Hopefully sometime this year I'll be able to make an announcement on one of those. But that's where I'm at right now. Just acting and writing TV and movies.
I would you ever want to play a superhero? Which one would you want to play?
I feel like I'd have a lot more fun as a villain. If there was real live-action Kim Possible that was good, I'm your Shego. Or Catwoman, if they let me [wear] the old-school Michelle Pfeiffer suit with the claws. Oh! And Poison Ivy would be so fun! I love that they're shifting the gears toward the women in comics.