Nfld. & Labrador

Samora Smallwood finds her own spotlight, outside of politics

Samora Smallwood is proud of her connection to Newfoundland and Labrador's first premier.

Famous premier's great-niece is an actor, with roles on 3 current shows

Samora Smallwood at Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador. (Samora Smallwood/Instagram)

The African stowaway, the young rebel, and the Prime Minister: it's a story of how Joey Smallwood helped a star-crossed couple stay together in Newfoundland.

But it's also the story of how actor Samora Smallwood, the great-niece of the self-styled Father of Confederation, came into the world. 

"Joey Smallwood had a really soft spot for my mom," Smallwood told the St. John's Morning Show Tuesday, recounting how the then-Newfoundland premier came to intervene in a deportation case that threatened to separate her from her fiance.

Smallwood's father arrived in Newfoundland as a refugee from Cape Verde, touching down in Newfoundland and meeting Karen Smallwood, the premier's niece.

"My mom, being the rebel she was, the first skinny African kid she met she was like 'that's the one,'" Smallwood laughed. But with her intended set to be deported back to Cape Verde, a wedding looked unlikely.

"When he found out about this, despite some of the family's reservations about her marrying this African man he said, 'I'll help if I can,'" Smallwood said.

 "He reached out to Pierre Elliot Trudeau, a friend of his, and asked if he would help get a stay for my father."

Trudeau, who was Prime Minister at the time, pulled some strings and the rest is history.

Now Smallwood is making a mark of her own as an actor, where she appears in three current television shows: The Expanse and Shadowhunters on SyFy, and The Shelter on Amazon.

'3 Newfoundland things, back to back to back'

The former premier isn't the only member of the family to have a strong influence on her career, Smallwood said.

Samora Smallwood and her grandmother Gloria. (Samora Smallwood/Instagram)

Her grandmother Gloria Smallwood was always supportive and was the person she called after an audition didn't go as she'd hoped. 

Her Nan would tell her "What odds?" and that helped her move on to the next opportunity.

She has now passed away, but Smallwood said her Nan is still a part of her day — and of her career, in sometimes surprising ways.

"Every morning I get up, I have my cups of coffee, I do a little meditation," Smallwood said. "Almost two years ago I lost my Nan, and I start every day talking to her." 

One day when she was filming The Expanse, she discovered that the makeup artist was from Holyrood and the camera operator was from St. John's.

She was getting instructions for a scene from another camera operator and looked up to realize he was wearing a shirt with a big Newfoundland flag on it.

"I realized in that moment that that morning, when I was praying and saying to my Nan 'please give me a sign if you can see what I'm doing,' she literally was," Smallwood said. "Three Newfoundland things, back to back to back."

'I heard that he never forgot a name'

Smallwood is aware, as an adult, of her great-uncle's controversial legacy in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Some of the Joey Smallwood memorabilia on display at the Smallwood Interpretation Centre in Gambo. (CBC )

But she thinks that some of Joey Smallwood's qualities as a politician are helpful in her own career as a performer.

"I think one of the best things is that he was really good with people. I heard that he never forgot a name," Smallwood said. "I think when it comes to performing that's really important because you want people to feel good."

That optimistic attitude carries over into Smallwood's own advice on how to succeed in competitive worlds like politics and acting.

"Stay positive and believe in yourself when things get hard, when things get tough," Smallwood said. "Just know that loving yourself first and focusing on your goal is so important. You can get there."

And if this time you don't? As her Nan would say, 'What odds?'

With files from the St. John's Morning Show