Shamier Anderson may be making inroads in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean he’s not game for a short trip down memory lane. And, when recalling his first role, the Canadian actor looks back with a robust sense of humor. “It was on ‘DeGrassi’—Thug No. 1,” he laughs. “Not very flattering, but at the time it paid the bills.”
A decade later, Anderson, who appears in two films streaming now—“Stowaway” and “City of Lies”—and also has a big-budget Apple TV series on the horizon, isn’t worried about paying the bills, but he is concerned about paying it forward. In addition to his acting commitments, the 29-year-old is committed to effecting change in the Canadian film industry. Change that he hopes will open doors for other Black aspiring actors.
Born in Toronto and raised there alongside two younger brothers by his mom, a Jamaican emigrant, Anderson headed for Los Angeles 10 years ago. That followed completing his studies at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts, where he says he wasn’t initially thinking of stardom and considered acting to be more of a "pastime."
“At the time I just enjoyed performing and being on stage,” he says. “After graduating I realized I could turn this into a career. I actually majored in musical theater with a drama focus and did a dance major as well. So I was a technically trained dancer… I did ballet, jazz, contemporary, hip-hop for a number of years—breakdancing and all the rest.”
Breakdancing notwithstanding, Anderson does get to flex his versatility in the acting realm in the two projects currently streaming. His characters in the Netflix sci-fi release “Stowaway,” where he’s an unwitting fourth man on a mission to Mars, and the docudrama “City of Lies,” which revisits the Notorious B.I.G. murder case, are a study in contrasts.
As Michael Adams—an innocent trapped by circumstance in “Stowaway”—Anderson delivers a self-reflective character of quiet resolve, while his corrupt cop David Mack in “City of Lies” is all testosterone and menacing bravado.
Anderson says taking on different kinds of characters requires a bit of sleuthing. “It’s constant detective work and constant research. So for me as an actor I always want to make sure that I’m unrecognizable in every performance, whether it be from the voice to the way I walk to the way I look—really transforming and immersing myself in whoever I’m playing.
“Some roles don’t call for extensive makeup or voice work. Some things are just a lot simpler [like] the work I did in ‘Stowaway,’ which was very much a man going through a series of unfortunate events,” he says. “Stowaway” also stars Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim and Toni Colette in a four-character study where the players face a wrenching moral dilemma after an unconscious man is found aboard the ship and there’s only enough oxygen for three.
Anderson says the process of working on the film was more intimate than other sets where you’re dealing with green screens and having to apply your imagination, or dealing with a second unit set where extras like explosions, etc. are filmed. “So, what you see is what you get,” he says. “You’re more present in the moment.”
His next project, the sci-fi series “Invasion,” promises to be a lot less intimate and definitely scales up quite a bit on the green screen and second unit front. “I just finished filming my Apple TV series with Simon Kinberg, who is the creator along with David Weil,” he says. “That was a $200 million project... we filmed in Morocco, Japan, New York and London. So you can imagine that was a behemoth. There were so many people, so many languages, so many crew [members].”
The actor says he enjoys working in both spheres, but his work doesn’t just stop when the director yells, “cut.” Through B.L.A.C.K. Canada (Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema and Knowledge), the not-for-profit he founded with his younger brother and fellow-actor Stephan James (“If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Selma,” “21 Bridges”), the actor is working to leverage his success to help others trying to break through.
“Unlike Americans, [in Canada] we never had many role models who looked like me or people we could look at and say, ‘Hey, I want to be like that person,’” Anderson says. “In the U.S. we have the Denzel Washingtons, the Viola Davises, the Sidney Poitiers… there wasn’t really much in Canada, so because of that [disparity] I thought it was important to really honor, celebrate and mentor the next generation of talent.
“Now for the first time ever in Canada, we’re going to be launching a Black awards show telecast with a major studio, very much like we’ve seen with the NAACP Image Awards or the Oscars.”
Additionally, the pair have joined with their youngest brother, Sheldon James, in another ambitious project with the launch of The Bay Mills Investment Group, a venture capital firm that will fund BIPOC entrepreneurs in Canada. Anderson says, “This is something Sheldon pitched to my brother Stephan and me… he said, ‘We see what you’re doing with [B.L.A.C.K. Canada] and I understand the influence you have, but what about economic empowerment? What about financial literacy? What about generational wealth?’ He said it’s important for us, given our position in Canada, to be able to create an ecosystem for people who look like us in the financial sector.”
The Bay Mills Diversity Fund, which Anderson calls their Fund-1, aims to raise $100 million CAD to invest in BIPOC-led organizations. “This is not a not-for-profit venture, it’s a for-profit venture where we return capital to our shareholders and we create that ecosystem that is lacking when it comes to the systemic oppression that’s happened in the Black community in Canada,” Anderson says.
So what else is on the wish list for the busy actor and change agent? Anderson says, “I would love to be in the Marvel or DC universe. I got really close on one DC project, which I will not bring up… it’s still salt in the wound a bit,” he laughs.
“I did come close to ‘Black Adam,’ which is a new DC film with The Rock,” he says, after some gentle prodding. “It was between me and Aldis [Hodge]… shout out to Aldis, he got the job! But hopefully, I’ll get my DC or Marvel film soon.”
Why not? He’s already making moves like a superhero.