Inside the pint-size beauty lies a bevy of humor, talent and a quiet strength, one that only comes with grit and a hefty portion of life’s occasional trials. Essence Uhura Atkins, much to her first name, exudes exactly that, the essence of authenticity in its purest form.
Since the late ‘90s, the New York native has been a sitcom staple. From UPN’s Half & Half, to NBC’s side-splitting sitcom Marlon, to OWN’s steamy latest original series, Ambitions, Atkins continues her trek as one of Hollywood’s elites.
Atkins admittedly didn’t grow up with dreams of Hollywood fame. “I didn't grow up thinking I would be an actress. I wasn't one of those kids who saw herself as this thing. And, and I'm, I can be at times very shy. But what I find is that the exhilaration of telling a great story, like I love stories.”
During a press run in the Windy City, BET caught up with the mother of one as she candidly discussed her new show, career and the blistering insecurities she’s mastered.
Dressed in all black except for camel brown suede boots, Atkins warmly greeted the media before officially starting. After brief small talk, we began chatting about her latest venture, Ambitions, produced by Will Packer. Atkins plays Amara Hughes, assistant United States Attorney opposite Robin Givens, a vastly different character than the one fans are accustomed to Atkins portraying.
“So many people are used to seeing me as kind of a good girl [that’s] well put together [who] has all her ducks in a row you know, like DeeDee (Half & Half) like Yvette (Smart Guy) even from the onset, even like Paula Yama on The Cosby Show, the peppy squad girl. There’s been this kind of through line about the kinds of characters that have found me, and they've been people that were admirable, upstanding characters -- and they might have been a little selfish or had their moments of idiosyncratic things, but overall, they were what we would consider upstanding young women. And so Amara on the surface, she's very akin to those feelings. She's well accomplished. She's well educated. But what you see is, beneath all of that she is in real turmoil right in her personal life.”
Atkins, who has been candid about her divorce from Jaime Mendez, delved into how she connects to her characters through her own life experiences. Both good and bad.
“As a woman in my 40s, playing characters who are married, and not married divorced mothers, I just find it so much more interesting. Because we've been through something, both me and these characters. And I definitely take pieces and aspects of my life… it's the distillation of truth that people respond to. And it's not just about being a storyteller, but I think that people respond to authenticity… And I use a lot of my own personal pain, my own personal guilt or shame about whatever. It doesn't have to be linear.”
She addressed her insecurity in front of the camera and how she has since conquered her “fear of being in front of people.” Admitting she’s “not as insecure as I used to be. And I'm also a lot more secure and allowing people to see my flaws and faults. And I think there's power in that. And emancipation. And I hope that that's something that we all get to in our lives, to be able to really embrace that.”
But “being seen has been part of the journey of the longevity of my career, really,” she said. “I've just gotten more and more comfortable with people watching.”
The 47-year-old said that her “most debilitating flaw is wanting everyone to like me. It's debilitating because I can get stuck. If I feel like, ‘Oh, I didn't make a good impression,’ I have to give myself grace to know that sometimes it's just not an ideal moment. And if the possibility arises for me to apologize or make amends, I’m quick to do so.”
But internal growth, self-love and learning to accept oneself has been a highlight for the actress: “How I can be OK with you not liking me… I make mistakes as we all do, because I'm human. And I do at 47, almost 48 I do trust that most of the time I'm very intentional about moving in love.”
Although Atkins has been entertaining us on the silver screen in gems like Are We There Yet?, Deliver Us From Eva and A Haunted House since the late ‘90s, she’s thankful for delayed success because she “doesn't think I'd be the woman that I am now. I think I would have been an a**hole. I think I would have been one of those people who had to recover and make amends.”
While her gratitude abounds for the divine deferral, she’s aware it was for the ultimate good. “God gave me just enough success to sustain me and make me feel like I was on the right path and [that] I was doing what I was supposed to do. But He didn't give me this the success that I was coveting.”
Atkins, who could easily prevail with a motivational speaking career, revealed the wisdom she’d give her wide-eyed, naive 20-year-old self.
“I would have said it's not going to happen the way that you think, but trust it’s still going to be beautiful. And I think that that is a thing that we should all tell ourselves. We come up with this idea based on our parents or movies or podcasts we've heard, or this self help book or some other relative of ours who did it this way. We [should] embrace that every journey is individualistic. Comparison is the thief of joy.”
She also warned about the importance of not anchoring oneself in an emotional stupor that can chokehold your dreams.
“Sometimes the pain of disappointment for things happening outside of you that you didn't ‘deserve’ can arrest you, [especially if] you stay in the sense of ‘justice is unjust’ or ‘this shouldn't have happened to me,’ especially for us as people of color. In the sadness, betrayal guilt or shame of it, know that we're so much more capable of overcoming when those things. The blessing is in the trauma, but you have to make a choice to find it.”
Atkins is also a huge fan of Issa Rae, the YouTuber turned international acting and producer phenomenon, when asked about opportunities for minorities in the mainstream sector.
“It’s happening more and more [as] things are being created for us to be at the forefront. [There are] also just more distribution avenues, so even if we don't have, necessarily, like a mainstream outlet, we can still get our product to the masses and it can still blow up. I love Issa’s [Rae] story. She did 'Awkward Black Girl' and just did her own thing until she was undeniable.”
The advice she’d give a young Black girl? Simply, “find the things that make her smile.” Although she’s a mother of a 7-year-old boy, her wisdom knows no bounds.
“Find those things within herself, find the things within her world that bring her joy. I'm going to encourage her as much as possible to emancipate herself from applause, accolades and accomplishments, because you need to be able to have those things without it coming from an external place.”
The Brooklynite shares how her relationship with God fuels her joy and her advice for others to keep going during dark days.
“For Christ, I believe in being a conduit for the relationship to God. And if meeting me makes the difference between whether or not you think Christians are dicks, or Christians are actually people who move in love and really follow the example of Christ, I don't want to act like it's happenstance. I'm actively working on making sure that my ego gets smaller and my compassion grows. When I'm feeling stuck, I try and find who can I be of service to today? The best recipe to get you out of your stuff is to go help somebody!”
One 2001 role, which may have altered the trajectory of the model’s career in a different direction, was one that went to a fellow breakout star.
“I tested for Baby Boy against Taraji [P. Henson]. That’s the one thing I always think about, because John Singleton was really a great director to work with. [I remember] it was me and Tyrese in this warehouse building and I was fighting and I was pushing on him and yelling at him, and John was rehearsing with us and giving us notes and directions, and I left feeling great! Then Taraji walked in!”
Watch Ambitions on OWN Tuesdays, 9 / 8 p.m. CST.
(Photo by: OWN)