Text by Katia Gorshkova

After months in quarantine, you realize that your social skills are becoming a bit rusty and start wondering whether all future social interactions will be unbearably awkward until you finally learn how to communicate with others again.

Fortunately, that was not the case when I called Deion Smith, who, despite the fact that our chat was confined to our computer/phone screens, made me feel as though we’ve been friends since before the world started crumbling down.

As an actor, photographer, filmmaker, and director, Deion seems like the perfect embodiment of an artist who can do it all. “Well, I can’t sing!” he laughed, but I’d be willing to bet that if he wanted to, he could learn in no time.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Deion moved to the flourishing television industry of Atlanta, Georgia, a few years ago to pursue his acting career. Ironically enough, right after moving he booked a role in the new Netflix series Outer Banks, the filming of which took place back in his hometown. The show follows a group of teenagers “from the wrong side of the tracks” called the Pogues and is set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. When the ringleader of the Pogues, John B, decides to go looking for his missing father, the group joins him in an epic adventure which eventually turns into a treasure hunt. Deion plays Kelce, a member of the Kooks, who are essentially the television representation of rich kids and all their vices. Despite playing a bully, the actual actor’s personality strays far away from that of his character. “I think as an actor I prefer to play characters that are the complete opposite. I kind of like to surprise people with what I play. That’s one of the things I liked with Kelce; everybody was so surprised because I played such a mean person, and I’m not like that in real life. And I thought, it’s good that they believed it! That means I did my job well.” It would be fair to say that the whole cast and crew did a great job on the show, since there are rumours of a season two being underway.

Deion’s own journey as an actor actually started from the other side of the lens. As a child, he found an old VHS camera at his parents’ house and was immediately compelled to use it in order to create short sketches and film them. “I got my family and friends to be in my short films that I would make. I would be in them as well, but I didn’t know that what I was doing was acting, I thought I was just filling in the empty spaces. That’s kind of how I started.” Afterwards, Deion’s mother saw his potential and made him audition for a performing arts school in his hometown and, unsurprisingly, he ended up getting accepted. From that point on, the passion for being in front of the camera merged with the already existing one for being behind it. On top of being an actor and filmmaker, he also owns a photography company with his brothers, Terrance Antonio Photography, which specializes in everything from weddings to commercial shoots.

During our conversation, despite the fact that we were one thousand miles apart, I could tell that Deion’s passion for creating was practically palpable; his artistic drive was compelling and contagious. Even while being in self isolation during these past few months, Deion always found ways to stay creative, whether through the medium of a camera, or writing. He admitted that when he’s not being creative, his mind tends to go to a dark place. When asked what inspires him, he told me: “I just like telling stories. I like the idea of capturing images through a camera. There’s something so intriguing about it. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like it’s something I was born to do. I just get this fire inside me. When I get a camera in my hands, it’s something else… It’s hard for me to explain.” He didn’t have to say much more, because I personally understood exactly what he meant. I caught myself thinking how lucky one must be to find a purpose that sparks a fire in their soul, and even luckier if they manage to pursue it unapologetically.

Deion took me aback with his friendliness and the wisdom with which he approaches his job. Despite the usual stereotype of vanity that actors are often judged with, Deion is the perfect example that proves how important it is for an actor to not be self-centered. “It’s easy to get lost in self-criticism, and start thinking, “how am I doing, am I doing well?” But then you have to think, am I doing my part in moving the story along? That’s the important question. Because I’m only a small piece in this huge puzzle. If I do my part as an actor in helping to tell the story, then it’s going to help everything come together.”

Deion’s devotion to the bigger picture (literally and figuratively) translates into his day to day life as well, where he uses his platform to educate people and fight for important issues. In the midst of the biggest civil rights movement of our time, our generation is witnessing an uprising that will potentially shape our whole future. As young activists relentlessly fight to dismantle a system of institutionalized racism that remains pervasive to this day, people across the globe are standing in solidarity with those whom history has neglected and oppressed. The Black Lives Matter movement has resonated with millions as the world finally opened its eyes to witness injustices that should not exist in our day and time. As people take to the streets and demand justice for BIPOC, changes are already being made not only on policy levels, but also on a personal scale by those who are challenging the effects white supremacy has on day to day life. Deion admits that he has been challenging himself with tough questions, unpacking the details of how his upbringing, and being one of a handful of Black kids in a private and predominantly white school, has shaped him into the person he is today. “I grew up trying to fit in with that group of people. In my head I was just trying to have friends, trying to feel validated and wanted. The other kids had a way of making you feel so excluded. I remember begging people to let me hang out with them, and not even realizing that our skin colours were different. I mean, obviously, my eyes could see that we were different, but I didn’t know how deep it was. I didn’t realize how it affected me until I got older.” Granted, it is our past experiences that shape us into who we are, but it is what we decide to do with our knowledge that truly matters. In the current cross-continental fight for human rights and equality, each person’s actions, no matter how small, can make an impact. “If you have a platform, definitely use it to educate people on what’s going on. Educate yourself, do as much research as you can. The pandemic and quarantine forced people to stay still and really look at what’s going on around us. When life is going on regularly, it’s easy to just think about yourself, your own life. But now that we’re all stuck inside, seeing the news every day, seeing an article or a picture that can hit a nerve… People have to see what’s going on.”

However, he warns against performative activism, and urges those around him to avoid doing something because it’s a trend. “I think you should genuinely want to learn about it. Don’t just do it because others are doing it, or because you feel pressured. That’s something I had to catch myself on. For instance, I was rereading the Willie Lynch Letter (author’s note: The Willie Lynch Letter is a document dating from 1712, which details a speech about the control of slaves in Virginia), and it’s crazy because these are actually guidelines on how to make slaves out of a whole community. I started sharing it because I know a lot of people don’t know about this, and I wanted others to also learn about the roots of racism in America, of oppression within the Black community. People need to know where this comes from, not just think that they need to protest because everyone else is doing it. It’s important to actually learn what Black people are going through, psychologically. I think until people get it, it needs to be drilled into their heads.”

Rightfully so; as a society, we must force ourselves to unlearn patterns and prejudices that have harmed generations of people across the world, and collectively work in order to do better than our ancestors. It goes without saying that there is a long fight ahead.

Despite the current uncertainty of the future, I asked him what kind of plans he envisions for himself. “As an actor, I would definitely love to keep playing characters that are the opposite of me. But I also find it interesting to play characters that I can connect with as well. Sometimes that’s even more challenging because you can have walls built as a human being that you don’t want to open up. Playing characters that you closely connect to can force you to do that. As a storyteller, especially now with all the current events going on in the world, I definitely want to tell more stories that people can relate to, that can touch hearts. Those who are going through certain difficulties in life can look at what I worked on and know that they’re not alone. I think now there will definitely be more stories that need to be told.”