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EXCLUSIVE: Actress Demetria McKinney On Overcoming All The Odds

Posted by Iesha Marie on May 5, 2020 at 4:40 PM

In this exclusive interview, the actress and singer speaks about being homeless at 17, becoming a single mother, and overcoming it all to find her voice and power.

Photo Credit: Sterling Brown

Acting and singing powerhouse, Demetria McKinney, who is most known for her role as Janine Shelton-Payne on Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, is the epitome of overcoming the biggest obstacles to find her voice and power. Born into a military family, McKinney is a natural when it comes to going down the toughest roads, adapting to her surroundings, and coming out the other side a bigger and stronger woman.

Homelessness, abuse, and being a single mother were some of the challenges that she faced as a teenager, but she says that it all shaped the woman she is today. Now, she’s using her chops as an actress and her powerful voice as a singer to empower others and show that anyone can get through it if they hold their heads up, keep the faith, and don’t take no for an answer.She is currently starring on the new Freeform series Motherhood: Fort Salem and her debut album Officially Yours is available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music.

We chatted with this amazing woman about her struggles, her music, her new television series, and what it was like to portray both Whitney Houston and Coretta Scott King.

TPT: Firstly, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to speak with me. I really appreciate it!

Demetria: Thank you so much for taking time with me!

TPT: I want to start at the beginning. You were born into a military family and lived all over the world. Where are some of the places that you lived and which one would you say had the most impact on you growing up?

Demetria: Yes, I am definitely a military brat. My folks were in the Air Force and we lived everywhere from Austin to Rantoul, the Philippines and Florida. If I had to pick any one place that I think was the most influential, it would probably have to be Florida. Walton Beach was when I really started to know a bit more of who I was.

TPT: Being from a military family, what were some of the life lessons that were instilled upon you that you still hold onto today?

Demetria: Moving around as much as we did as a military family really taught me the value of being a chameleon. Understanding how to adapt to my environment was key to establishing new relationships with people, maintaining old relationships and realizing that there was so much more out there that I still hadn’t experienced. I definitely use that in my career. Being an actress and a singer, I’m dealing with different productions, businesses, directors, producers, other actors, etc. There are a lot of different personalities out there and understanding the animal you are in that jungle is important.

TPT: You found a love for performing at a young age. What would you say inspired you to become a performer and entertainer? Who were some of musical inspirations, and what films and television shows resonated with you?

Demetria: Growing up, I really didn’t have a desire to be an actress. For me, life was music. That strong influence came by way of Miss Whitney Houston. Her voice was a window into her soul and because of that she was able to convey a lot of the feelings that I didn’t quite understand to her audience. I can’t stress enough how much of a woman I’ve never met, but saved and raised me. There are a lot of shows that I loved watching growing up; everything from The Cosby show, A Different World, Friends, etc. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be walking in the shoes of an actress. Ironic!

TPT: I want to talk about your music career. I personally love those with huge voices. I love the Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion voices of the world. I know you fall under that category. You’re amazing! You released your debut album Officially Yours in 2017 and put out “Easy” as the first single of the album. How would you describe the songwriting process of your album? What were some inspirations that you brought to writing the songs?

Demetria: First of all, you hit on some of my favorites! Lol! The song writing was a process on my debut album. I knew what I wanted to say, but I was always conflicted with how much of myself I wanted to truly reveal. Most of my audience had only known my work as an actress. They had fallen in love with the different characters I had portrayed, so there was some reservation about what they might feel about me in the messages that I as Demetria McKinney was writing about. The biggest inspiration for me was where I was in my life. When I went to the studio, I didn’t have an agenda as to what we were going to record that day. However, in the off chance that I did plan, the song that was “too happy” or “my dude had me sad”, I had to change it of course. I wanted to be authentic to what I was going through. If I was scheduled to sing something more melancholy and I was feeling my beat, we had to switch for that too! I wanted my true emotion to be in each and every song, so when I say the process was an adventure, I mean it made my music evolve as I did.

TPT: Speaking of Whitney Houston, you portrayed her in the film Bobbi Kristina for TV One. Was Whitney Houston an inspiration to you, and if so, how would you describe the experience portraying her?

Demetria: Portraying Whitney Houston…Wow! I truly can’t even describe it because it was such a mix of emotions that really shouldn’t have been in the same realm. While I was proud to tell her story, I was also incredibly humbled. There was excitement, but I was also ravaged with fear. It was a totally different experience in the way that I was going to be viewed by the audience portraying such an icon’s story. I wanted to do a good job. I had to do a good job. I had to honor her and that meant I had to step up to the most outside of myself that I experienced up until that point in my career.

TPT: Aside from Whitney, you also portrayed Coretta Scott King in the play I Dream. Tell me about portraying her and the impact that it had on you as a woman of color?

Demetria: Portraying Coretta Scott king taught me so much. As an African American woman, I’ve been taught our history as it was designed. We focus on certain aspects, other pieces of the puzzle get left in the dark sometimes. Playing Corrie taught me the true meaning of the phrase: ”Behind every strong man is a strong woman.“ I learned a deeper level of love, not just between a man and a woman, or for myself, but the sacrifices she made for her people. It highlighted her love for us by looking at life from different perspectives. [It] helped us tell a more intelligent, well rounded story. She did that for me.

TPT: You starred in a number of films, television shows, and plays by Tyler Perry, such as Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns, and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, among others. Would you say he has been one of your biggest supporters and advocates in your career? Being that you worked alongside him numerous times, what were some of the biggest things you learned from him that have impacted the way you navigate the entertainment industry?

Demetria: Mr. Perry I would have to say is definitely one of the biggest contributors to my career. He saw a lot in me. I have been very lucky to work with him and so many times. As a new actress, I got a crash course in very unconventional ways of moving in film and television. No one was moving at that rate. It catered to an audience that some networks weren’t really paying attention to at the time, and he was self made. Needless to say, I learned and am still learning from the example of Mr. Perry’s imagination. “Nothing is unattainable”, “your words have power”, “bring others with you”, “make your own path”, and “do your best” are just a few lessons [I] learned early at TPS [Tyler Perry Studios] University that I carry with me to this day. I am forever grateful.

TPT: Upon further research, I learned that there was a moment in your life where you were homeless at 17. This was also when you became a single mother. If you feel up to speaking about it, tell me about that time and how you were able to overcome that and other setbacks that you experienced in your life.

Demetria: My late teens into my twenties was a pretty rough time for me. I experienced homelessness, molestation, an abusive relationship, while living in the projects, and I had a baby younger than I expected to. I think that understanding the journey is going to have rocks, thorns, and potholes. However those roadblocks are a big part of how I made it through. Everything, even the bad stuff happened for a reason. I couldn’t let any of those things be the reason that I didn’t go on and strive for the things I wanted in life .

Photo Credit: Sterling Brown

TPT: I know it couldn’t have been easy being a single mother at 17. Tell me about your son, and how being a single mother at that age shaped the woman you are today.

Demetria: If no one else was watching me at that time, my son was. He made me seek out the strength I needed within myself and ultimately, looking back, we raised each other. Now that I am where I am, I need others to understand that you still have a choice to make it even if you feel some of your choices were taken away from you.

TPT: What advice do you have for those, especially teens, who may be going through some of the struggles that you went through?

Demetria: Continue to love yourself and find the lesson, power, and the growth in every situation. I also had the realization that what was happening to me wasn’t necessarily for me. You know how they say “without a test there is no testimony”? If I hadn’t gone through and made it out of every situation, I wouldn’t be able to share my experience and help someone else triumph. I’m proud of who I am. And I would have been the same person without each of those situations.

TPT: I want to shift the focus to your newest project. You are currently starring in the series “Motherland: Fort Salem” which airs Freeform. It follows the story of three young women from basic training in combat magic into early deployment in a women-dominated world in which the U.S. ended persecution of witches 300 years ago after an agreement. You play Anacostia, a tough, no-nonsense sergeant whose main focus is keeping the young women alive through their basic training. Tell me about the show, how you became part of it and also about your character.

Demetria: MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM IS MY WARRIOR ROLE! I’ve always wanted to play someone brutally fierce, but compassionate. The times portrayed in Motherland are not necessarily peaceful, and small fires burn and grow while we are concentrating on fighting the big ones! Powerful women of different ages, nationalities, and backgrounds while united in war, vulnerability and camaraderie. The creator and writer created such a profound world that flexes female muscle without making anyone else seem less than. I fell in love with the role of Anacostia when I read the pilot script. I love prismatic characters and writing. She is the character you are going to wonder about constantly in the back of your mind because you feel no one could ever be this upfront and unapologetic for it. She knows the ritual of war, if not performed correctly, cannot result in not only death, but the death of freedom. She doesn’t trouble herself with it and she doesn’t let the recruits either. This show is a vehicle towards a shift in mentality. A different way of finding strength in one another. I can’t express my excitement and wonder at this mentality! You’re going to love it!

TPT: How does it feel to be part of an all-female main cast?

Demetria: All female casts can be tricky! In past experiences there has been some jealousy and competition that was simply put — unnecessary. This experience has shown me an intentional uplifting of sisterhood. We may not all feel the same way about everything but there is no reason to be malicious towards each other. This is an all female cast and the girl power is prevalent, but it doesn’t diminish the light of the LGBTQ or men’s roles in the world. It just shows a different perspective. Offscreen, the support we show one another is something I had never experienced before either. I’m honored to work alongside these ladies both on and off the battlefield.

TPT: What do you want viewers to take away from the show? In other words, what themes or lessons do you hope resonates with fans?

Demetria: There are several themes and messages within this show that we are hoping the audience discovers. A major one for me is vantage point. I think that we get so lost in our mode of thinking, in gender, indifferences, that we don’t always take the time to seek out the ways we can help each other. We can learn from one another, and that difference is beautiful. When people hear that they’re witches, their initial thought is this scary, haggard, often isolated person. We are shifting you to a different side of the table. Men can get a closer glimpse into motherhood and women gain a different respect for the traditional male vantage point. Look through someone else’s eyes and see how it can flip the script!

TPT: Is there any new music on the horizon that fans should be on the lookout for?

Demetria: Music is still a very happy place for me. I love it and I wanted to treat it with the respect that it is due. As I’ve been filming with Motherland, House of Pain, House Divided, and a couple of other projects you will soon hear about, I don’t feel I’ve been able to really give it the attention and detail I usually do, l but I’d like to. I’m still recording, make no mistake about that. But when I release this next chapter and sit down to listen to the commentary, I wanna make sure that I’m truly proud of what I will give to my amazing audience. Please continue to be patient with me because it ain’t over!

TPT: Again, thank you so much, Demetria, for answering my questions. You’re an amazing woman with a powerful story and I know it will resonate with our readers! Good luck to anything and everything you pursue!

Demetria: Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to speak with me about the goings on in my life! Please let me know what you think about Motherland: Fort Salem when you get a chance to dig in! Have an awesome day!

Be sure to follow Demetria McKinney on Instagram and Twitter. Catch Motherland: Fort Salem Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. EST on Freeform.

Interview/Article by: Evan Quinones

Categories: About Demetria McKinney, Interviews