At the age of 12, Celina Smith is already an award-nominated multi-hyphenate talent. The Atlanta native got her acting start as Young Nala in the national touring company of The Lion King and currently plays Rebecca on Tyler Perry's Young Dylan series. Now, she's starring as the title role in the NBC's Annie Live!, alongside a star-studded ensemble: Taraji P. Henson as Miss Hannigan, Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, Nicole Scherzinger as Grace, and Tituss Burgess as Rooster.
EBONY caught up with the young actress and chatted with her about playing the role of a lifetime.
EBONY: Did you ever think you'd play Annie?
Celina Smith: Not really. Playing Annie was not what I was expecting at all. Even when I got the news that I got an audition, I was bouncing off the walls. I've never shared this, but when my mom asked if I wanted to do the audition, I was watching Hidden Figures, so I said 'yeah.' I knew I should audition. Never in a million years did I think I'd be playing Annie.
There was a nationwide search to find the next Annie. Can you share your audition experience?
The audition for Annie Live! audition process was one of the longest audition processes I've ever been on. It was 7 or 8 rounds of auditions. It was an emotional rollercoaster for me. All I was thinking about was Annie Live! between each audition. This was a process I'd never experienced before; it was like an auction every two weeks until I got the role. I learned it really does take time and patience; none of this happens overnight.
Did you watch any of the Annie movies? Which was your favorite?
I watched all three of them to study for the role. I had never seen the 1982 version, so I had to make sure I had the character and personality down. I'd say my favorite was the 2014 version, mainly because it was the one most in my era and the one I grew up with.
You are a talented singer and have to do a lot of singing in this role. Can you share your top 3 songs?
My favorite song right now is "The Only Heartbreaker" by Mitski. I'm very into this song because it gives very much 80's pop and it's a really different sound. One of my favorite songs from Annie Live!, one that I don't sing is "Easy Street." My favorite song that I get to sing as Annie is "I Don't Need Anything But You."
This is not your first time in a musical. Can you tell us about how playing Young Nala helped you prepare for the starring role as Annie?
This might be just for musical theater actors reading this. I have to say, with theater and a lot of the shows on Broadway right now that there are lots of quick costume changes during the show. The quick changes can be really hard but don't get too stressed out over them. There are a lot of quick changes in Annie Live! so make sure you pay attention and don't stress too much about the costumes because you will look great.
What was it like working with the cast?
It's so different working with so many adults at once because I am a kid. Anything I've really done has been mostly working with other kids. With this production, it's been a whirlwind because I am with the adults all the time. Working with Taraji P. Henson, Harry Connick Jr., Nicole Scherzinger, Megan Hilty, and Tituss Burgess has been amazing. It's the bow on top of the cake—yeah, I said bow. It's a blessing, and I am so ecstatic.
What do you want people to know about your version of Annie?
I want to be able to represent the role the best way I can and add my own personality to it. Before the 2014 version, there wasn't a lot of representation. I want little Black girls like me to see me as Annie, and I want to be a role model.
What advice would you give to young people who want to pursue acting?
My advice is not to get too attached to the role. There will be "no's," and you're going to have to get used to it. You're going to want to yank your baby hairs out. It's a matter of patience and time; it's going to suck. But just know, your time is going to come.