[ON THE SCREEN] MARIA HOWELL: MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
It’s been a little over a year since we had the amazing opportunity of devoting an entire issue to the cast of Sons 2 The Grave. This a film that will ask, and ultimately answer the age-old question, Am I My Brother’s Keeper? Written and produced by Lynne Stoltz of Have Faith Productions, and packing an allstar cast that includes Emmy Award winning actor Greg Alan Williams, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Brad James, Demetria McKinney, Tip "T.I." Harris' oldest son Messiah Harris, Atlantic Records Recording Artist Trevor Jackson, and NAACP winner Justin Martin, this film is set to break tremendous ground upon it’s theatrical release. Since being shot in the Atlanta area, the powers that be have been working diligently at getting this film out around the world and locking in distribution, and working to build the appropriate buzz.
In this feature, we had a second chance to sit down and talk with actress Maria Howell, who arguably has some of the most pivotal moments in this film, playing the role of concerned and protective mother Ruth Jennings to the film’s lead character, played by Trevor Jackson. Her authenticity, and her willingness to fight for what was right in her heart, despite what the world saw, is the very thing that has her winning the audiences over. Her character was one that many mothers in the world will easily relate to. Ruth, in an effort to make up for an absentee father, and still be able to offer her son a sense of security, made it her life's mission to protect him from the harms of the world. She knew all to well which way his life could go, and she was destined to take him in a different direction. Unfortunately, his environment takes control, and her struggle becomes to hard to manage, and you see it play out in the film. In this feature, we went a lot deeper into the mind of Ruth Jennings, and talked a lot about the mind of this amazing character. We learn why this role was so important other in the first place, and how it affected her long after the movie was filmed.
You definitely don’t want to miss this conversation.
U.G. Digital Mag: It’s always wonderful to talk to you, but it’s especially great to catch up with you today since it’s been over a year that we connected for Sons 2 The Grave. The movie is getting such awesome reviews.
Maria Howell: That is good, because I still have not seen it yet. I’m looking forward to that, so it’s a good thing to hear.
U.G. Digital Mag: That amazes me that you haven’t seen it yet.
Maria Howell: Well, it’s because when they show it, I’m usually in another state. I’ve seen snippets though.
U.G. Digital Mag: It’s amazing that it was recently featured with SXSW.
Maria Howell: I’m glad for that. Making the movie in and of itself was a big emotional thing. You only see what you shoot, and you don’t get to see the other parts. I’m always excited to see how it all comes together. I’m technical in that respect of liking to see how it was edited, and to see what was the interpretation of the editor and the writer. That excites me, so I’ve talked to Sasha, and told her I’ve got to see it.
U.G. Digital Mag: Sasha's doing so amazing with promotion, and it’s getting such good reviews. I’ve told her how eager I am to see it. I think it's going to do big things.
Maria Howell: I’m looking forward to that as well.
U.G. Digital Mag: So talk about the importance in the role of Ruth Jennings for you. She was so powerful in the way she worked with her son to keep him out of trouble, and away from harm. Why was it important for you to bring this role to life?
Maria Howell: I’m personally not a mother, biologically, but I have a lot of children who are in my life, and I know how protective I can be, so I can only imagine how I would be as a biological mother. What attracted me, first and foremost, is it was a more in-depth role as a mother. It was very intense in the fact that here was a woman who is career oriented, and she sacrificed. I can relate on a personal level, and it makes sense to want to get so much stuff done, and get it done right and efficiently, but at the same time having this strong faith inside. That, in and of itself, is a lot. It's a lot to operate your life based on faith, and continue to do your everyday thing. Having a son, and being so determined to guide him in the right direction and protect him from whatever elements in the world I can is daunting. There’s no guarantee that you can protect anyone, and it’s proven in the movie. Ultimately in the end, she was not able to protect her son.
U.G. Digital Mag: A lot of times, parents have the best intentions, but in the end, the kids do what they want to do.
Maria Howell: Yes, it’s like that you bring someone in this world. She was living by the faith that she believed in, and to have someone you’re guiding, but have that same level of letting that person be who they are meant to be…it may not always match with what you want them to be. That has to be a power struggle for a lot of parents. I feel it with my nieces and nephews. I don’t jump in it like their parents do, but I still have emotions about it. I have one nephew who I love to death, but he was hard-headed. Fortunately, enough seeds were planted, and he lived to see his manhood, and we’ve lived to see his manhood, and what a wonderful man and father he is. I can relate to Ruth on that level. This same nephew, I wanted to adopt and raise him as my own. I was willing to sacrifice my career for him because I loved him that much, and saw that he was in a situation where as a child, he had a lot of people around to support, but I wanted him to have stability.
U.G. Digital Mag: It’s amazing when people have that type of love in their heart that they can take in someone else’s child who may be going through it. My mother was able to do that with a cousin of mine.
Maria Howell: It's because you let yourself go. You live for your child, and you live for that other person. I feel like I had it. That’s why in this role, Trevor and I connected from day one. Literally, I still feel like he’s my son. It’s been over a year ago, but he’s just a sweetheart.
U.G. Digital Mag: I’ve heard such positivity about him in this role, and as a person in general.
Maria Howell: He’s a good kid, and that has a lot to do with his mother and the way she raises him. The relationship, it was easy to get into that role, and I was very happy about it because I don’t have many roles like that. Usually, I get to be the cop, the doctor, the lawyer, or the school teacher, so this was good for me to tap into motherhood and that nurturing side.
U.G. Digital Mag: What effect did this role have on you after it all was seemingly over?
Maria Howell: Wow, that’s a good question. Not to tell or give spoilers, but the very first day I shot was emotional for me. It affected me immediately in such a way to think of life and death. That was my first foray with the movie.
U.G. Digital Mag: Well of course, part of it is my eagerness to see it. I’m definitely ready to see it.
Maria Howell: I’m excited. I think the way it was shot, it’s going to be so sweet. I saw a clip and it looked beautiful.
U.G. Digital Mag: Now what else has been going on? What’s really a blessing in my eyes is that you continuously work. So many actors are often looking for more work.
Maria Howell: Oh you didn’t catch me crying yesterday then (laughing). There’s an occupational hazard in this industry that when you go two days without work, and although you need to be chilling and relaxing, you start panicking for the next thing. I suffered from that for years with singing. If I went two weeks without a gig, I was worried. You have to sit still and relax. The reason I stay busy is like I tell everyone. Diversify your portfolio. What I mean by that is I do voiceovers, I do narrations for audio books, I do commercials, TV and film, and then I sing. I have something to do everyday of the week if I allow myself to. There’s the visibility of that, and then when I’m not working, I’m out supporting somebody’s play. I love theater, but I tend to not do it because there’s a vacuum of time you have to devote. Then my gig comes up and I have to go sing. That’s the only reason, because it will always be a conflict with singing, unless I just take that time off. I haven’t done that in a long, long time. It seems like I work all the time, but there are times that I’m pulling the rest of this little afro out (laughing).
U.G. Digital Mag: You probably need that time though.
Maria Howell: I really do. Fortunately, I’m coaching and consulting on the side, and I can only fit it into certain gaps. That’s what I’ve wanted to do for a lot of years, is do some seminars. This gives me the downtime to plan it, to be able to organize myself, put it on paper, and pull the resources together to make it happen.
U.G. Digital Mag: How has your music been going?
Maria Howell: It’s going great. I’m a jazzer. Between the west coast and east coast, I’m performing. I have a standing gig in L.A. that I do once a month. I’ll be adding some more performances to L.A., and then I also have the south-eastern region, where I have museums I go to every year.
U.G. Digital Mag: You spoke of that last time being in North Carolina.
Maria Howell: Right, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. I’ll be in Jacksonville in May, July I’ll be back in Charlotte, North Carolina, and we have planned dates.
U.G. Digital Mag: I think it’s great.
Maria Howell: I love it. It can be a dinner show, cabaret show at a club, or a show at a museum. I love that kind of performing. It keeps me alive.
U.G. Digital Mag: It’s amazing, and you show so many other actors and actresses that the work it out there. You just have to go get it.
Maria Howell: You have to figure out where you fit. I have a lot of years in it, so I’ve established relationships, and there’s always new stuff popping up, but I tell people all the time, you can do it. Figure out your starting point, and don’t try to compare yourself to someone else. Do what you can do, and grow from that point. Too often, people look at someone else saying they can’t do it like that. Maybe it’s not meant to do it like that. If I had done that I would have been disappointed a long time ago (laughing). I’m trying to be happy and do what I’m good at.
U.G. Digital Mag: It’s also about maintaining relationships.
Maria Howell: Yes, that is so key. Networking is not just passing a card to someone. Maybe that’s where it starts, but you need to build the relationship and build trust. Sometimes, it takes time.
U.G. Digital Mag: What are you most proud of with your journey?
Maria Howell: That I’m still doing it. I know you’re asking about a specific project.
U.G. Digital Mag: Not really. I mean even in terms of overall growth.
Maria Howell: That’s a given…well, you know what, let me back that up. Everybody does not grow. I take that for granted. I have grown leaps and bounds. The growth for me from where I see it is that I have grown to be more comfortable in my own skin. I’m able to say yes, and more importantly say no to things I don’t want to force myself into. The outside indication is when I get to a show, and people say I used to come and hear you 25 years ago. First I think, Oh god, how old am I (laughing)? Second thing I’m thinking is thank you so much, because this one lady said I was good, but she has seen my growth and I have come into my own. That’s someone who’s been watching me over 20 years. For her to say it, it’s got to have some truth to it. I’m most proud of being comfortable in my own skin. Even though I’m still growing, I’m more comfortable, I’m more relaxed and more solid in saying this is me. This is who I am.
U.G. Digital Mag: That has a lot to do with why you get the roles you do. You started in The Color Purple obviously, and it was a small role, but look at how you’ve grown, and the quality of the roles you play now. You’re someone like Ruth Jennings, who will relate to so many people.
Maria Howell: …and also has something to say that really matters. There’s a scene in Sons 2 The Grave where she is talking to a crowd of people, and I like that scene a lot. It’s pretty cool for me. When I was a kid, I always wanted to have something to say in life, something to impart on people that was positive. I really felt that in that particular scene. God is really amazing. It's great when you can think of things and they later come to fruition. Most times, I know things are good when I’m in it.
U.G. Digital Mag: That’s the best feeling in the world, to dream up something, and later in life, you see it happen.
Maria Howell: I think the key to that is being true to yourself. Just because everyone thinks I work all the time, it’s not like that. I get turned down sometimes, and I say no to things.
U.G. Digital Mag: That’s the good thing with you though.
Maria Howell: I ain’t got time to be turning things down, but I do turn some things down if it does not fit my fabric.
U.G. Digital Mag: That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned in myself. As much as I wanted UGD to flourish, and me wanting to talk to so many people, I still have to say no sometimes. I had an overall standard for the magazine that I was going for, and I see how often the media is portrayed, and how we often portray ourselves as black media. I think we often want the respect, but don't present ourselves in the manner to get that respect, or we don't hold ourselves in that same light we want to be seen in.
Maria Howell: There’s a cliche that said if you don't stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. That’s true, and you’re doing the same thing. You have a desire in your gut and you intuition and integrity. That’s your code. That’s your standard. I applaud people who at least have one.
U.G. Digital Mag: It’s difficult sometimes though. Sometimes, I’ve turned someone down, and then think about it later.
Maria Howell: You have to turn them down sometimes though. Something you said makes me go back to Ruth Jennings. She stood for what she believed in whether it was right, wrong, indifferent, or whatever. She stood for that, and people respected her on her job. Her son respected her. People in the community respected her because they knew she was solid and consistent. That resonated with me in my life.
U.G. Digital Mag: That makes me want to see the film even more.
Maria Howell: She was a solid person in that movie. Her son had that to look up to. He had that as his gauge, and she had something to say. People respected her. That was another big part of that role for me.
U.G. Digital Mag: In terms of final thoughts and words of encouragement, what would you like to get out there?
Maria Howell: First and foremost, I want to give kudos and shout outs to the creative people behind the scenes. There’s no way we can do what we do if we don’t have the writers providing good material. There’s so many different parts of the puzzle, and I appreciate all the different pieces. I make sure when I’m on the set, I thank that camera man. I thank the writers, and other actors. It’s all a team effort and we're telling a story. It’s all art so I like, from an actor’s standpoint, to tell those creative people thank you. I thank the people who come and support, because life is short, and we’ve lost so many people in the past six months that it’s like oh my god, please don’t tell me about someone else. This is a way in life for me personally to have something as hope; something as inspiration. I’m a little idealistic, so any way I can make it through and have something to take me out of that everyday reality, it’s thought-provoking. That’s what art is supposed to be. I thank all the people involved and the viewers, because it’s not simple and easy. Some of us are in it to be stars, but a lot of us are not. We’re just in here trying to do what we love. That’s a thought that’s on my mind these days. Art! Just let’s make it happen, let’s move it forward, and let’s get better and better. I encourage all people who have stories to tell to write. Don’t wait for anyone to write for you. Write! Move forward and keep it moving.
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