If you don’t already know Shamier Anderson’s name, you should commit it to memory right now. The Canadian-born actor is on a career-defining roll right now. After having stolen the spotlight at the last three Toronto International Film Festivals (first with Destroyer in 2018, then last year’s Endings, Beginnings), Anderson is back at TIFF as a festival ambassador and to premier his latest film, the Halle Berry-directed Bruised. And alongside his brother, the actor Stephan James, Anderson is the founder of B.L.A.C.K., a not-for-profit dedicated to fostering the next generation of young black Canadian creative talent. We caught up with him before TIFF to talk about movies, mentorship, and the power of paying it forward.
Tell me about growing up. When did you start acting?
I grew up in Scarborough in a community housing project called Bay Mills. My mother was an immigrant from Jamaica, and she raised three boys on her own. She did not want us to go to the feeder schools because she wanted us to see a better life. I went to a school called Wexford School of the Arts, where I did musical theatre and a drama focus. I was a dancer for four years; I did ballet, jazz, hip-hop, breaking. It was a great experience for me. And through that I fell in love with acting. I thought maybe I could create some way to make money from this thing. I got an agent, did a few commercials here and there, and the rest is history.
Do you remember the thing that made you fall in love with it? An actor? A play?
I was a big Disney fan. I grew up in the era when a lot of shows like That’s So Raven, or All That, or The Amanda Show were on. And I thought that was so cool. Like I could do that. At the time, for me, it looked like ultimate happiness. And I also fell in love with just the amount of work that it took — to learn Shakespeare and know the plays. That was a world I hadn’t been exposed to, but when I got to theatre school I just had an automatic passion for it. And I was really excited to learn more about that world.
And now you’re about to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Was that ever something you thought would happen?
It’s funny because people always ask me these questions. When I was a kid, I just loved acting. I loved performing and being in that space. But I didn’t think of it like that. It was never about being a superstar. I figured if I could get a couple bucks by landing a commercial, why not? But things kept moving and I kept meeting people and the next thing you know I’m starring in a movie with Halle Berry! It’s just crazy how life works.
How does your mom feel about it now?
My mother is an old-school Jamaican woman. She always says two things: pray, and make sure you do your school work — remember they can’t take your education away. But she loves it. She’s so proud of us. She’s excited. What I love most about my mom is, when I booked a movie with Nicole Kidman called Destroyer, she goes, “That’s exciting — but who’s Nicole Kidman?”
You’ve worked with so many big names. Did any of them just blow your mind?
Everybody blows my mind. For me, the novelty never wears off. If there’s one thing that got me really excited, though, it’s when I went to the Golden Globes last year. My brother was nominated for Homecoming, and I got to bring my mother with me. For a kid from the hood to be on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, it was just unfathomable.
What’s your relationship like with your brother, Stephan James?
We’re very close. He’s my best friend. It helps to have somebody in the business because you can have open and honest conversations. It’s a shark tank down there, so to be able to have a relative you can talk to is amazing. Our relationship is super tight, and not competitive. It’s always love first.
You’re an ambassador for TIFF this year with a movie, Bruised, premiering, and you’ve had a big presence at the festival the last few years. What does being at the hometown festival mean to you?
I used to watch TIFF on CP24 growing up every day of the festival. And to be in the festival is kind of amazing. What I love the most is that I get to take individuals who would never have the opportunity to go to the festival — my friends from the community housing projects — and bring them to the events, opening up peoples’ minds and showing them it’s possible to live your dreams. It’s tangible. And it’s just such an honour. I’ve been at the festival three times in the last three years — it’s crazy that I have a TIFF hat trick right now. And my parts keep getting bigger every year!
How did your initiative B.L.A.C.K., which you work on with your brother, come about?
It stands for Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema, and Knowledge. This is an organization that Stephan and I founded in 2016, and our goal was to create a space for individuals of colour to be celebrated. These are people we wanted to put in a place to win. It started off as a party and it evolved into an actual not-for-profit. One of our main programs now is a talent development program, which is a monologue slam. We go out to a bunch of schools in Scarborough and give young people a chance to do poetry and be onstage, and be a part of mentorship programs, and to live an incredible experience of the arts free of charge. And through the competition, they receive scholarships, headshots, mentors. One of the things we got to do this year with the finalists is we brought them to a Raptors game — they got to meet some of the players and watch the game in a box. It’s a way to give back for Canadian artists of colour.
You’ve been a big proponent of the Canadian film industry. What are your thoughts on the industry right now?
The Canadian industry has been so good to me. It’s shaped who I am as an artist. But definitely I’m able to come back and use my platform and give Black artists an opportunity. I want to see more shows that look like me onscreen in Canada. We’re working towards that — there’s a lot more to be done — but we’re getting there slowly but surely.
Who were some of your heroes growing up? Who were you inspired by?
My mother is number one. Pre-success and during success and it will be post-success. Her resilience and her ability to overcome adversity are inspiring. She’s my number one role model.
You’re a role model too for lots of kids. What advice to you give to the kids you meet?
I’m living proof that it’s possible. The sky is not the limit. And your voice matters. And the one thing I like to tell them is, if an opportunity does not exist, create it. If an idea does not exist, create it. Do not wait.
When did you do that in your own life?
Every day of my life really. We created our own event, B.L.A.C.K., because there wasn’t an event like that for us. That’s one. Another thing is I’m currently producing films and TV shows with my brother. So pushing the envelope and creating my own brand. Showing people that I can do Shakespeare or learn languages and not just play stereotypical roles.
How would you describe your personal style?
It’s as simple as this: when I’m at home, I’m in my hoodie and sweats. It’s very, very relaxed. When I’m out in public, I love to hit it hard and hit it strong. I love to be tailored, and love a pop of colour. I like to come with a bit of a flair.
What do you like about Hugo Boss specifically?
I love the boldness. And it’s the suit that fits me best. I feel like I’m a boss in my own right — in my work, in my business — so if I’m going to be a boss from top to bottom why not wear Hugo Boss?
Who are your style icons?
My influences when I step out are the old school guys: Prince, Dapper Dan, love Rihanna and love Grace Jones.
What else do you want to do?
I just want to bring more people to the top. I want to show more people that Canadians are the most talented people on earth — whether that’s through acting or writing or sports. I just want to be giving back more and more every day.
When it comes to personal style, Shamier Anderson does not hold anything back. Case in point: his scene-stealing blue suit at the Endings, Beginnings premiere at TIFF 2019. If you want to channel Shamier’s style energy, these pieces from Hugo Boss are good places to start.