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Sitting at the Feet of Jill Scott

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I'm a thirty-something with thirty-something angst. And I am walking through this world surrounded by wisdom, yet I still have so many questions. I decided to check in with women across the globe in multiple areas of interest and expertise to find out how they are walking and navigating. This is my journey to sit at their feet. First up, Jill Scott.

You probably know that Jill Scott is a critically acclaimed actress. But you may not know some of the dues she paid to get there. The Steel Magnolias star took on an internship early on, at Arden theater Company in Philadelphia, where she spent 14- to 16-hour days doing manual labor building sets, hanging lights, cleaning bathrooms and anything else asked of her, in exchange for free acting classes that she was often too tired to participate in. Jill calls the advice, the feedback and experience she received in those classes "invaluable." And no doubt credits them with aiding her later on in her career when she would head the ship of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. At that point she was privileged to work with the late multitalented director and producer Anthony Minghella who told her:

You're the head of the household so how you walk on set is how the day will be. [If] you come in grumpy, funky because you worked 17 hours, they [the crew] got here before you and they will leave after you. Remember that. And when you walk in come in with grace, be professional, be prepared. Smile when you can, find a reason to laugh because it is a long day for everybody not just you...

She loved that lesson.

Jill Scott came into the spotlight as a respected musician 14 years ago with her debut album Who is Jill Scott?. Since then, she has also earned the stripes of a critically acclaimed actress and a New York Times bestselling poet. But, like many in Hollywood, there were definite bumps along this road.

With the release of her first album, Jill was initially overwhelmed by all the attention she received. It was something she didn't expect. Not so much in terms of the notoriety or appreciation for her music, but because the people in her neighborhood began to change. Some of those changes bordered on idol worship which the songstress is clear, she isn't into.

She discovered the hard way that there is no book, no teacher's manual, nor dummy's guide to dealing with fame in Hollywood.

I talked to a lot of people about fame... I asked Michael Jordan, Tina Marie, Patti Labelle, Denzel Washington, Quincy Jones, anybody who came in my face. And I got some advice but I realized it was something that I had to figure out on my own. There is no book. But I can tell you, if that is the plan, that you want to be famous, just understand, there is a cost. There are going to be friends and family that you loose, that you must.

When things became particularly bad, Jill considered torpedoing her career altogether, in an effort to escape some of the pitfalls.

"It hurt my feelings so I figured, I've got to get out of this. How can I get out? I'll make a record that I don't love," she said.

Jill might not have loved it but audiences did. That album was Beautifully Human and its top performing single contained the soundtrack for the 2005 awards season "Golden." Perhaps to her dismay, Jill Scott had escaped the sophomore jinx and become a bonafide star! After that she realized she could fight success no more, though she came away with her own definition of the word.

Right now success is looking like grass all around my house... like a swing in a tree, and a warm pool... a stocked refrigerator and a house filled with people who genuinely love me and my child. And we love them in return.

The Grammy Award-winning singer and critically acclaimed actress stars in the new James Brown biopic (currently in theaters) opposite Chadwick Boseman (of 42 fame). Scott skillfully brings to life the Godfather of Soul's second wife, DeeDee, and describes her experience as follows:

I think the best part of all of it is... I got lost as DeeDee. There were moments where James and I could not stop kissing. We were very tender and very loving toward each other and I was his wife. I really was authentically his wife.

Scott never auditioned for the role stating:

[T]he role didn't exist when I auditioned. But Tate (Taylor, Director of Get on Up and The Help) and the producers saw that I could add something. And I am really grateful for that because I feel like I got a chance to really know James Brown.

She goes on to describe her experience working on the film as "incredible."

"When the film was over I had to grieve. I missed my husband so much that was not my husband," she laughs.

So I wondered how she balances a triple-threat career with being a single mom and still manages to be creative.

Monday I'm an actor, Tuesday I'm a writer, Wednesday I'm a singer. So I am all over the place. And I need to compartmentalize the things I do... 100 percent on Monday, 100 percent on Tuesday for something else, and then 100 percent on Wednesday. I don't know how many 100 percents you have, but it takes its toll. So I am looking for balance. That is my goal.

I told Jill I have often been paid in this town to produce and tell the story of overnight success. Yet my research -- interviewing working actors, artists and musicians -- has taught me that there is no such thing. That most are 10 years in the making. So when I sat with Jill, my goal was to find out the truth about the dues she has paid, the work to home/life balance of maintaining a successful career as a triple threat in Hollywood and raising a young boy as a single mother simultaneously.

I wanted to know about her doubts and fears, where her confidence comes from, how she manages to deal with loss, critics and time away from her son. I also wanted to know about the sacrifices she's had to make along the way in order to move closer to the vision she had for her life. I wondered what she has had to give up in order to get to where she was going; and she was happy to share.

Jill Scott's big break came when The Roots offered to take her on tour as an up-and-coming artist. She was placed in "hotels across the street" where she encountered a steady dose of seedy characters and had her share of less than stellar experiences. Still in good-natured fashion, she chalks it all up to paying her dues stating "I think Erica [Badu] was working so they took me on the road and that opened so many doors for me. I could never thank them enough."

The love of Jill's life is her young son Jett. His birth was a surprise to Scott who had formerly been told she could not have children. When she became pregnant, she had no idea what was going on inside of her body:

I really thought I had cancer or something. I thought, "I'm dying, I'm tired, I can't get up, I'm inside of this mattress..." So I went to the doctors expecting the worst and prepared for it. Like, "Ok, it's been a great existence. I am not tripping. I have no qualms with any part of my life, so... I'll fight for as long as I can and if I can't then, thank you so much for the life I have been given."

But then I got the phone call, that it was a baby, and I just kept looking around like, 'Who me?'"

I don't know about you, but I don't deal well with loss. So I found Jill's ability to accept such a crushing blow both impressive and intimidating. And I wondered how she was able to be so mature.

In the course of my life I have lost the hearing in my right ear... I was told, if it didn't come back in seven days it would be gone forever. I lost the use of my legs for seven days. I had some type of virus in the seventh grade and my legs just stopped working. And I was like, "OK, well I can write." I was just always looking for "what is the positive?"

When I asked, "how do you deal with loss?" I was relieved by Jill's response:

I have at it... You can catch me on the floor, in the bathroom going for it. From tears to yelling to whatever it is that I need to do. If it is a three-hour bath or laying outside naked for an hour or two. Whatever it is to get me through the hump, but I allow myself to feel how I feel. You have to allow yourself to feel bad.


One could argue that the fruit of her great belief, that something wonderful was possible, despite the negative reports from doctors, coupled with her acceptance and insistence to look on the bright side, resulted in the birth of her son Jett. But even in mothering Jill Scott is honest. When I asked if she was enjoying motherhood she replied:

I'm going to say about 89.762 percent of the time it is fabulous! Its pretty awesome getting to know someone so well and watching them grow... The way he sees the world is so amazing to me. He is a really awesome person and I like him.

And finally, when I asked Jill her truth about what it takes to be such a courageous artist she said:

When actors really go for it you have to give them the credit and the respect that is due... You've got to go nuts a little bit and then find your way back to yourself. I think that is the best way to be an artist in any form. As a writer, as a vocalist, as a dancer, as a painter, as a sculptor, you've got to get lost. And you can't really worry about what somebody else is going to say about it or how they feel about it or of they think this or that. You just, you have to get lost... The more lost you are the more impact you make on the world. That is what I think. But we'll see. I'll keep going and I will find out... (big smile)

Jill Scott is currently starring in Universal Pictures' Get On Up, the James Brown biopic also starring Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.