by Souleo (excerpted from the March 2009 issue of Sister 2 Sister magazine)
She charmed her way into America’s heart with her Emmy-nominated role as Rudy Huxtable on the beloved sitcom “The Cosby Show,” but to this day, few really know what actress Keshia Knight-Pulliam is capable of. With her upcoming role as Candy, a heroin-addicted prostitute in the new Tyler Perry film Madea Goes to Jail, Keshia leaves behind any reminders of Rudy as she digs deep for her most challenging role yet. It’s the kind of role that Keshia hopes will reintroduce her to the public as she prepares to build on the huge success of her past.
After being in the entertainment industry since she was 9 months old, Keshia has learned to survive the tough entertainment business by remaining grounded and sticking to her values. It’s those values that have steered her from the tragedies faced by many other child stars and are guiding her during her comeback: After putting her career on hold to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Spelman College and dealing with a fire that could have claimed her life, Keshia is focused, driven and going for hers.
Sister 2 Sister spoke with Keshia about the challenges she faces in her career, how her best-known character, Rudy, continues to affect her everyday life, her response to the rumors she abused drugs, her thoughts on the shooting death of Merlin Santana, and why she couldn’t care less about the Delta sorority members who questioned her sexy KING and Smooth magazine layouts.
Souleo: You have been in the industry since you were 9 months old, so is it still as much fun as it was when you were a child?
Keshia: Um, yeah. I think there’s a difference when you’re 9 months. Granted, I don’t remember what I was doing at 9 months, but when I was little, of course it was different. But that’s why I continue because it’s something that I still enjoy today. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. There are plenty of other things that I’m talented at and what have you, but it’s a blessing to do what you love and get paid for it.
Souleo: And what has changed the most during that time?
Keshia: It’s a different perspective that you’re coming from when you’re a child. It’s very innocent, and you work a lot shorter hours when you’re a kid. There’s nothing fundamentally really different; I’ve just grown and matured, and you take the craft more seriously. You have heavier roles; different obstacles that you have to overcome within your character [that] aren’t present when you’re 5. [laughs]
Souleo: You were away from the scene for a while, since you went to school. Coming back, did you have to relearn the ropes?
Keshia: I think, at first, I was definitely a little rusty, but it all came back through practice and working at it.
Souleo: What were you rusty at?
Keshia: I think one of the hardest things for me was auditioning, ’cause you have to understand that I haven’t been auditioning, and it’s very different than acting. It’s a different beast, and I haven’t auditioned since I was 5. So that was the hardest thing: me learning to audition.
Souleo: When you look at the news of former child stars that end up on drugs and have downward spirals, what goes through your head?
Keshia: It’s unfortunate that so many people did have that story. I think that’s why, with me and my family, it was so pertinent not to have that be my story—and just working at being very grounded and humble and enjoying and doing the regular things in life: growing up and making sure that my worth and self-esteem wasn’t based on what I was doing in my profession.
Souleo: There was a period of time when people commented that you couldn’t get work or weren’t working, so was that due to difficulty in finding work? Did casting directors only see you as Rudy?
Keshia: No, I think it was a lot of things. I mean, you know, I did take my time, and that’s one of the great things I had the luxury to do. Since I had such a successful career so young, I haven’t had to take anything that’s been thrown at me; I have been able to be choosy and decisive in finding roles that were right for me. Of course, you have to prove yourself and meet casting directors and the new people and all of that. As a Black actress there aren’t that many roles for you. I think it’s a combination of everything.
Souleo: So there was no issue of you being pegged as Rudy?
Keshia: Of course many people see me in that role ’cause people grew up with it. Even some casting directors grew up with me on TV as that character. But at the end of the day, anything worth having you’ve got to work hard at. In this business any actor will tell you that there’s a lot of rejection and a lot of hell, and the people who succeed are the people who keep going.
Souleo: Well, you’re still going, but do you think you have broken out of the Rudy image in the minds of audiences?
Keshia:My goal is to build on a catalog of work. The roles that I’ve done, Rudy and all the rest, have created who I am today. So I don’t look at it like trying to break away; I’m not trying to erase my past.
Photo by Robb D. Cohen / Retna, LTD
Pick up the March 2009 issue of Sister 2 Sister magazine to find out the least Rudy-like thing Keisha has ever done.