Starz’ latest series, BMF, tells the story of the Black Mafia Family. The crime organization was founded by the Detroit brothers, Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory (played by his son Demetrius Flenory Jr.) and Terry Flenory (played by Da’Vinchi). Set in the late ‘80s, the series follows the brother’s humble beginnings and their journey to becoming one of the most influential crime families in the country.
Executive produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (Power, Power Book II: Ghost, For Life), this story isn’t just another dope boy drama. At the seams, the story’s narrative is loyalty, family, and the pursuit of the American Dream. Despite the values instilled by their parents, the Flenory brothers’ desire to elevate themselves out of poverty turns into an insatiable hunger for power. That hunger slowly begins to disintegrate relationships within their blood and crime family.
Shondalia White plays Karen Jones, the niece of Pastor Swift (Snoop Dogg), and a no-nonsense lawyer who is representing the Flenory family in a medical suit. Ahead of the season finale, I got a chance to talk to White about her career, and what we can expect from her character in the series. Answers have been slightly edited for clarity.
When your character first entered the story in episode four, I knew I had seen you before. Most recently, you had a recurring role on Freeform’s Good Trouble. You’ve also appeared on shows Shameless, American Horror Story, and 911: Lonestar, to name a few. But before all of that, you were doing years of voiceover work. Do you prefer being behind the scenes or on the screen?
You know, I actually prefer to be on the screen. A lot of people don’t know I used to work behind the scenes before I got into on-camera. That’s what my degree is in, but I went back to school for acting. While I was in school for behind the scenes, like animation and film, I was actually doing voiceover then. So I’ve been doing voiceover for a very long time. And when I came here, that was my first form of acting. And, I do love voiceover. I absolutely love it. But, I like being a performer, and later on maybe behind the scenes as a creative executive producer.
Speaking of performing, I did not know you were a standup comedian. How long have you been doing comedy?
I started improv probably in 2008 or ’09. And then, I started doing stand-up. I prefer stand-up over improv. I love the skill of improv, but, I didn’t enjoy performing it. I liked stand-up better. And, I started doing standup full time in 2013, so I’m coming up on ten years. I’m close.
When did you discover you were funny? When did you have that realization?
I’ve always been funny and my entire family is funny. So, my family actually didn’t know I was as funny as I am until I became a professional. When you come from a family of funny people, everybody is on top of each other. They one-up each other, you know what I mean? Only my close friends really knew how funny I was. So, when I started pursuing it as a career, it was just a lot of people telling me, “Oh my gosh, you’re so funny.” And I was like, I’m not trying to be funny, I don’t know why I’m funny. And once I figured that — while I was performing and doing improv — I just kind of realized, I think I’m gonna try standup. I think I’ll do better at stand-up because I’m a writer, and I was just like why not try it. And so I tried it, and it just took off. And I was like, okay, yeah I’m good at it.
The opportunity to join the cast of BMF comes across your desk. What made you say “yes”?
Honestly, I didn’t know it was going to be this big. I had to do my research. And I was like, “Oh this is like a big thing.” I didn’t know if my role was recurring or not right away. At first, I was coming in as a co-star and I think maybe one or two episodes, but it wasn’t like a huge recurring yet. It was just a possibility. And, I was just like well it’s a possibility for another recurring [role] and it was a project from Michigan and I’m from Michigan. It was my first time being able to use my actual accent where it wasn’t an issue. So it was pretty cool because I’ve lived in Detroit, I went to school there, I have family there, and I grew up in Flint, Michigan. So, it was just like one of those things that were very nostalgic I guess in a way where it’s just like wow I get to learn about this thing that happened in Michigan that I didn’t know about oh yeah, I wanna be a part of this.
Was it difficult to switch gears from comedy into a more serious role like Karen Jones?
No, because I’ve had extensive acting training in both comedy and drama, and I’m glad I did because it would be challenging if I didn’t. But, because I went back to school and I have that foundation it’s pretty easy for me to slip in and out. And, a lot of times, because comedy is drama, I always say. Because comedy is drama, usually comedians can really tap into that drama because that’s where we get our comedy from. So, when I’m at an open mic or writing my jokes, I start from drama. Like, actual things I’ve seen or experienced, and then I make it funny. But, it’s not funny at first, you’re angry. But, it’s not as challenging for me.
The series was shot during the pandemic. Was it hard to adjust to the new guidelines on set?
I was still working on Good Trouble on Freeform and that was the adjustment period because that was the first show back. It was a lot of protocols and everyone was just like “whoa.” But, by the time I started shooting BMF, I had transitioned. I know each production is slightly different but it was easier for me to adjust to it because I knew what to expect. I hadn’t just come from only working at home doing voiceover. But, I will say, it is a bummer because you don’t get to interact with everyone and I did miss that. You only kinda talk to people you’re in the scene with. You can’t really go and talk to everyone. You see people in table reads or walking across the set like going to their trailer or something like that, but you can’t really hang out like you would normally do.
Karen Jones first appears on the scene in episode four, but it’s not until episode five, “Secrets and Lies,” where we see more of that character’s fire start to rev up. What can we expect to see from that character in future episodes of the series?
Karen Jones, even though she has a heart of gold, she’s a Uof M (University of Michigan) law-educated woman. And, she’s a hardcore Christian. I think what you can expect is her going over and beyond to make sure she does whatever it takes to get what her clients need. She is an advocate for justice and just really cares about her clients. And I think you’ll see more and more, her doing things along those lines.
Is it easier to play this character, or any character, to be yourself on stage?
Wow, that’s a great question. I would say it’s always easy to be yourself. The closer you are to different characters — I feel like whenever you book anything, there’s a piece of you in it anyway. Even though Karen Jones is not Shondalia White, it’s still like a piece of me. I have to bring a piece of me to it. And also mesh that with “what would Karen do?” Shondalia would do this but what would Karen actually do? How would she react? I don’t know if I would actually say if it’s easier, it’s just different. A lot of people always ask me which one I like doing better because I am a multi-hyphenated person. They’ll ask which one do I prefer or which one is easier voiceover, on-camera, behind the scenes, or standup? It’s not necessarily one is easier or I like one over the other, it’s just different pieces of me. It’s just a different style.
The series, from the start, is all about family, and it really translates on screen. Did that family dynamic on-screen translate off-screen, behind the scenes?
Definitely. I definitely felt like it was a family. Even though we were in covid restrictions, I definitely still felt like a part of the family, especially as I started coming to set more. The more and more I was on set, the more and more I just felt like a part of the family. And, right away, 50 welcomed me to the team. And all of the directors were amazing and very welcoming, down to the crew, the sound people, hair, and wardrobe. I will say hair and wardrobe were my favorite because I got to transform into Karen. I really loved that. It was just so fun with all of that because you know Karen, she’s dressed to the nine’s honey. So, that was a lot of fun so it just made me feel like a part of the family. Miss Nancy our hair supervisor. She is fantastic. She cut that custom on my head. And styled it, I couldn’t believe it. I was like wow., she’s amazing. And I told her, girl I trust you from now on. She’s so good.
When you watch the playback, as someone who grew up in Michigan, what memories does it bring up for you?
It’s so nostalgic because I have lived in Detroit, that’s like my second home. I’m from Flint by way Detroit, all the landmarks I know down to the music, especially the music being from Flint, all that footwork music and house music, I grew up on that. All my family was calling me like “remember we used to listen to this?” It’s just very nostalgic. The streets, when they went to The Whitney [Museum] in the last episode, It was like OMG I’ve been to The Whitney [Museum] I used to go there all the time because I lived up the street from there. And it was really exciting. I could tell what streets they’re driving down like, “they’re on Woodward.” It’s very very exciting. Clearly, I’m getting very excited.
You’ve had the opportunity to be a part of some of the most popular shows on tv. What shows are on your wishlist? If you could be on a future show, what would it be?
I would love to be a series reg on something, and I don’t necessarily know which one. It doesn’t really matter if it’s like a drama. Or, a dramedy would be amazing. I kind of look at this, even though it’s a drama it’s kind of like a dramedy, BMF, because it’s funny, too. There’s some really funny moments in BMF and I love that. I feel like a lot of dramas are starting to do that and I love that. So anything along those lines would be like a sweet spot because I’d get to do both drama and comedy in one. That would be what I would like to do.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given and how have you applied it?
Celebrate your successes. Don’t forget even the small successes you have, the accomplishments. One of my teachers would say, when you have a callback even if you get a callback, that means you’re doing something right so go celebrate. If that means have a little dessert or go take yourself out to eat. And, that’s something I’ve definitely started to do so I can live in the moment. Because, a lot of times we’re working so hard, we don’t really fully get to enjoy everything and I would definitely say, taking on that advice, I’ve applied and I do that. This is the first time I celebrated my premiere of my show. It was small at home, but we still popped our bottles. It was a big deal and also, getting in Deadline for the first time, that was a huge goal in making sure I celebrated that because I have that on my imageboard. Like, I literally have it on my imageboard and to see it, I was just in tears like wow, I’m manifesting this stuff and I’m about to celebrate it.
What do you think will surprise people most about this show?
The heart. The heart and the family element. I think a lot of people just think it’s about the rough things that they’ve gone through, but that foundation of family and the American Dream will be the thing that surprises everyone. Because if you really pay attention, everyone is going through their own version of the American Dream. And family is a piece of each part, every storyline you’re looking at. And, I think it’s already surprising to people and they’re going to keep seeing that.
Watch BMF on Starz, Sundays at 8 p.m. ET.
Check out this teaser from STARZ.
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