CCU alumna Nikko Austen Smith snags breakout role in “Queen Sugar” on Oprah Winfrey Network
Smith has landed a role as Asha on OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” a series directed by Academy Award-nominated producer/director Ava DuVernay (“A Wrinkle in Time”) and cultural icon Oprah Winfrey. Already an accomplished student actress with numerous theatrical performances and a summa cum laude academic record, Smith graduated from Coastal Carolina University May 2018 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting and a mission to find her way in the world.
“Queen Sugar,” now in its third season, tells the story of the Bordelon family: three siblings struggling to navigate an intricate tangle of legacies, futures, tragedies and triumphs. Adapted from Natalie Baszile’s debut novel of the same name, the series delves deep into contemporary issues facing African-American families. Season 3 is set to address matters of public schooling, athlete protests against police violence and socio-economic inequality just for starters, all handled with relentless precision and the kind of high-stakes personal drama that regularly captures millions of viewers.
“This was my dream role on my dream show,” Smith says. “I had to take it.”
“Queen Sugar” represents a potential breakout role for the Houston native, but it isn’t her first time in front of a camera. Smith has previously appeared in several independent productions filmed in North Carolina, including 2015’s “Son of Clowns” and 2017’s “Unbridled,” as well as the documentary series “Homicide Hunter” (Investigation Discovery network). In addition to film, Smith had roles in CCU productions of “Big Love,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “On the Razzle.”
Prior to landing the role, Smith had planned to move to Atlanta to further her career as both an actress and model. Instead, “Queen Sugar” took her to the Big Easy in Louisiana.
Smith’s success was all about being patient and seizing opportunity. Earning her spot on the show took about two weeks, and most of that time was spent waiting anxiously for callbacks.
First there was the audition notification from Smith’s agent, then a self-taped audition sent straight to the casting director, Tracy Kilpatrick. For several days, Smith could do nothing but cross her fingers and wait. Then came the first call: “I was needed in New Orleans in two days,” Smith said. Auditioning for the role in person meant testing her chemistry with the rest of the cast in front of production staff, including award-winning producer/director Kat Candler and award-winning producer DeMane Davis.
A day later, she got the role.
Landing the role and shooting her first episode meant having to pull out of a yearlong production for CCU’s New York Showcase, an annual performance by graduating BFA students that serves to demonstrate their talents in front of agents and the public. Smith didn’t think twice, in part because she knew her CCU community had her back.
“Everyone was supportive, including all of my classmates and especially the faculty,” Smith says.
Monica Bell, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theatre, said Smith’s value as an actor lies not only in her talent, but also in her authenticity.
“Producers are drawn to Nikko’s strength, how active she is, how contemporary she is,” said Bell. “Nikko is very detailed, very honest. She’s willing to be bold. Some actors have the ability to allow a camera into their work. Their energy invites the camera in; her energy invites someone in.”
Smith credits her time at CCU with helping her to develop her unique approach.
“CCU taught me how to begin mastering my craft and how to be completely unapologetic in everything I do,” said Smith.
Looking forward, Smith said one of her dreams is to be an action heroine with social justice sensibilities.
“I am huge on raunch feminism and the [Black Lives Matter] movement,” Smith said. “I would love to do projects that align with that narrative.”
According to Smith, “Queen Sugar” is a great start: “You’re really going to want to watch the entire season.”
Season 3 premiered on OWN May 29 and 30 at 10 p.m. EST and continues Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST through August. Past episodes are accessible via Hulu.
Learn more about CCU’s BFA programs here.
Note: This story was updated on June 5 to correct the day the show airs to Wednesdays.