The night August Wilson’s Fences won the Best Revival of a Play award at the 64th Annual Tony Awards will forever be etched in the mind of actress Eden Sanaa Duncan-Smith.
Well, sort of…
She remembers tripping down the aisle as she ran towards the stage alongside the cast (which included co-stars Viola Davis and Denzel Washington). But that’s all the then 9-year-old can recall without her mother’s help filling in the blanks to what has so far been one of the most “amazing events” of her acting career.
“I must have blacked out, because I seriously don’t remember anything else until I got backstage,” reveals Eden. While her memory of collecting the award may be fuzzy, she does remember the evening’s celebratory after-party. “I fell asleep at every single party for Fences, except for the last one the night of the award show,” says Eden, who now, at 14, has fully grasped the magnitude of having shared the stage with thespians like Davis and Washington in her Broadway show debut and, of course, winning that Tony.
The budding actress’s portrayal of Raynell in Fences, and then Young Nala in Disney’s The Lion King, also earned her an Audelco Rising Star Award in 2011 and the Delta Sigma Theta Emerging Artist Award. “I thought, ‘I’m actually an actor now.’ It definitely is a self-esteem booster,” laughs Eden, who adds that “pageants awards were the only kind of awards I won before Fences.”
Although getting showered with awards can be quite rewarding, Denzel Washington had some weighty words of advice for Eden on keeping her focus on the big picture, says her mom, Nicole Duncan-Smith. “He said, ‘These awards will come, but what is important is what her people think about her work and the integrity of her artistry and not what they say,” Nicole divulges.
“I love acting because you get to be another person. It’s an escape from the real word,” explains Duncan-Smith. But acting isn’t her only creative outlet; in fact, Duncan-Smith’s first love was dancing. She studied at the Dance Theater of Harlem for five years, starting when she was only 2 years old, and went on to study at the American Ballet Theater. Today, she majors in dance at the Performing Arts School in New York. Singing lessons quickly followed when her mother heard her singing around the house one day.
It didn’t take long for her parents to recognize they had a maturing triple threat on their hands. “Eden was always different and special. And so as responsible parents, my husband and I started to nurture her interest and she gravitated towards the arts,” shares her mother. Nicole Duncan-Smith spent years working in the music industry with Russell Simmons, a young Usher Raymond, and Lauryn Hill.
“Like most of people I know in that world, you want your child to run far away from that life. But after a lot or prayer and being present for her and what she needs… I guess upon reflection, I realized that our collective experiences actually help us navigate the showbiz stuff,” says Nicole.
Eden started auditioning when she was 5.
“I love musical theater because it’s all my training in one. I’m best at it because it’s very dramatic,” reveals Eden. For her first motion picture role, she’ll be singing, dancing and acting in the highly anticipated remake of Annie, starring Quvenzhené Wallis, Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz. “It was an amazing experience. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to look like on the big screen. It’s a completely new Annie,” says Eden.
“I’ve been doing theater longer, so I’m somewhat more comfortable on stage. But shooting this movie was so exciting. I definitely want to do more movies.” Her dream role would be to star in an action, adventure or fantasy film. “I can’t imagine doing anything but acting,” she says. Nevertheless, Eden won’t let her career get in the way of her higher education. She’s eager and excited to attend college. “There’s no question about it. I’m going to college and I can’t wait. I would love to go to Spelman or Harvard.”
Despite a packed schedule, which includes school and work, Eden always finds the time to get involved in causes that affect young people from race, gender equality to gay rights. She’s even launched her own non-profit—Angel in the S.K.Y.E. Network—to give back to those who do random acts of kindness. Black Girls Rock honored Duncan-Smith with an award for that work.
In addition, her mother reveals, “This February, Eden worked with Project1Voice and Director Seret Scott on the Actor’s Equity Association’s Black History tribute, 4 Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, as C. Denise McNair. This work has inspired my baby to fight for federal restitution for the one little girl Sarah Collins Rudolph who was blinded during the explosion and spent much of her life in poverty due to the mental, physical and psychological scars of that experience.”
Staying true to her beliefs is what Eden Duncan-Smith says will help her thrive in the industry and stay focused on her big goals. “I want to have a long career. I want to win an Oscar or a Tony and give my own speech.”
Cool List from the Coolest: Eden Duncan-Smith
Movies: Frozen, The Breakfast Club, The Little Princess
Actors: Amandla Steinberg, Gabrielle Union, Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson, Jake T. Austin, Chris Chalk, Jason Dirden, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx
Book: Looking for Alaska by John Green
Author: John Green
Magazines: Dance Spirit and Teen Vogue
Website: www.goodreads.com and www.wattpad.com
Singers: Idina Menzel and Drake
Bands: Paramore and the Beatles
Dancers: Rachel Chavis, Misty Copeland and Melanie Moore
Designer: Jaden Smith (MSFTSRep)
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.