Sharon Pierre-Louis' acting passion began early in life. She studied theater at Dreyfoos School of the Arts (a leading magnet high school in Palm Beach County) and later at Tallahassee’s Florida State University where she obtained a BFA in acting. Then, with only a dream as her guide, she moved to Los Angeles to become a star. For many, it's a journey scarred with failure. But for Pierre-Louis, whose Haitian parents arrived to the United States without any understanding of English, the west coast didn't seem far-fetched. After all, if her father could drift from Haiti on a boat, she could conquer Hollywood. It's with this sort of gut determination, combined with faith and prayer, that led Pierre-Louis to the role of a lifetime in the Quentin Tarantino movie 'Django Unchained.' In the film, which was released on Christmas Day, Pierre-Louis plays Little Jody, a young slave who accidentally breaks chicken eggs. She is punished, dragged through the yard and bound to a tree.
“The fact that I was black, and that I was a slave, and I needed to be disciplined...” said Pierre-Louis while reflecting on the intensity of her scenes, some of which never made the cutting floor. “I wasn't good enough. I was a slave. I wasn't even a whole person.” The Haitian actress pulled upon her ancestry and her research to bring her character to life.
Pierre-Louis spoke with Miami.com and Noire Miami (a new channel dedicated to the growing black community in South Florida) to discuss what it was like to work on the set of 'Django Unchained,' which features a-list actors such as Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and many more. She also discusses what it was like growing up Haitian in South Florida and in Los Angeles.
In 'Django Unchained' you play Little Jody, a slave girl who breaks chicken eggs. As punishment, you get tied to a tree in order to receive lashings. Not to give anything away, but this scene ends up being a memorable moment, a turning point even, in the film. How did you prepare for that scene?
I did a little research on whippings to understand exactly what it was like to go through that. I learned a lot about it. It breaking through your skin. The slaves bleeding out through the whippings. And it became that much more real for me.
You had a special interchange with Kerry Washington on the day of your scene. What was is that she told you?
The scene I was doing was emotional. There was a lot going on and it was pretty heavy. During the break she came up to me and just hugged me and said, 'I know this is hard. I know this is difficult to just go through all that. And you're doing such a beautiful job.' She was so genuine and so sweet about it. Just really supportive.
N**ger is said by both black and white characters throughout the film. You are even called n**ger as you are being bound to the tree. What was that like to be called n**ger?
I don't remember being called a nigger. What I remember is me pleading, 'please. I promise I won't break eggs again,' and one of Brittle brothers [Cooper Huckabee] telling me it has to be done. And the other brother [M.C. Gainey] with the whip was basically justifying what he was doing (almost like he was doing me a favor) because of the fact that I was black, and that I was a slave, and I needed to be disciplined and taught. So that was what came across to me. Throughout shooting the scene was the fact that my skin being black, and that I had to be disciplined, and having to feel, at my core, that I wasn't good enough. I was a slave. I wan't even a whole person. For me, I can only imagine what other slaves have gone through and other people who are treated like property.
You're a young actress. You're a black actress. And you're also a Haitian actress. Are their challenges that come with wearing so many unique hats in Los Angeles?
It's definitely something that's in the room. It is present. What I have come to realize, is that it is all truly a gift and apart of my journey. I am a human first. If I were to focus on the fact that I am black and what I've had to go through – just being a black actress in terms of feeling that there aren't as many opportunities for me as a black actress – it doesn't serve me to go there as much.
You shared a scene with Jamie Foxx. What was it like to work with him?
Jamie Foxx is hilarious. He was cracking jokes on set. It was a lot of fun working with him. I laughed so much. Working with Jamie and Quentin, they really added that balance on set between the heaviness that was going on and having the other side to it as well.
Did Jamie give you any advice?
We talked about the journey a little bit. Just being actors and even being black actors. I was encouraged by him to persevere. There was something about him that helped me to give myself permission to be who I am. And to know that he also went through struggles, even racial struggles through his career, helped me to understand that I can persevere through the struggles. It's only going to make my journey that much more colorful.
You have been on TV many times. You appeared in hit shows such as 'The Lying Game,' 'Suburgatory,' 'CSI: Miami,' and 'Lincoln Heights.' You were even in the movie 'Fame.' But this is the first time you worked on a movie of this scale. It is, after all, a Quentin Tarantino movie! On a personal level, how was your first day at this job different from the first day at any other jobs?
My first day, and all of my days, were different on this job. I felt more creative freedom on the set. I think it's how Quentin works. He has a vision; however, he gives the actor the freedom to be able to bring what they want to the role. He gave me that freedom to be able to do that. There was something about this set that was special, being on a plantation where real things did happen. We were all present. We were all there together. To me that was great.
You were raised in Palm Beach County during a time when it wasn't cool to be an immigrant, and it certainly wasn't cool to be Haitian. Quite the opposite. Were you ever made fun of for being Haitian?
Usually what I got was, 'Oh, you're Haitian? You don't look like it,' which was supposed to be a compliment. We were made fun of with our parents that came to our schools – in the way that they dressed and their accents. They didn't really know English that well. We were called Guatemahaitians, which were Guatemalans and Haitians. I never got bothered by it because it just sounded like ignorance. We were all black. (It was usually the African America kids that would make fun of the Haitian kids). It didn't make much sense to me because we all looked the same. It was definitely something that I had to deal with growing up for sure.
I can't recall any successful Haitian actors in Hollywood. Do you know of any?
There's Garcelle Beauvais. She was on the 'Jamie Foxx Show' actually. Me and Jamie talked about her. She was the beautiful black woman who he would always try to get with on the show. And there's also Jimmy Jean-Louise from 'Heroes.' There are a few. I mean, I can count them on one hand.
Given there are so few Haitians in film on and on TV, I would assume that it feels as if you're not just acting but carrying a bit of responsibility, as well.
With my dad coming to America, risking his life, getting on a boat and making it over here for a better life for his family. And then my mom coming over and having me in America. Then them not knowing English. My mom worked in house cleaning and cleaning up after people in hotels. Being in this movie, it took me back to how many people died risking their lives and took jobs that broke their backs, really. In order to have me be able to stand on their shoulders, and to be able to do what I do. For me, it feels like I'm paying forward the debt of gratitude that I have for my ancestors, my parents, all Haitians and African Americans, for this opportunity.
On Christmas Day, opening night, you had the chance to see 'Django Unchained' in your hometown with 27 of your friends and family. What did that moment mean to you?
I don't know if I can even put into words what that meant to have my father and sister next to me watching this movie. I got to sit down and take a moment to look at the view of the ladder I've been climbing, and to not look at it alone, but to have my friends and family with me. It's really hard to put into words what that feels like, but I felt overwhelming gratitude. It meant a lot.