“All American: Homecoming” actress Netta Walker wants it all. The 26-year-old, Jacksonville-hailing CW star isn’t satisfied with just occupying the small screen, always seeking to immerse herself in all aspects of worldbuilding, from the writers room to the various minutiae of the production process.
“In the long run, I aspire to be like a Reese Witherspoon or Margot Robbie: women who know what they find interesting and challenging and they’re like, ‘There is money here for this to be done. Who’s trying to give me the money to do it? Because you should trust my vision.’ And to be able to have people trust that vision,” Walker, who portrays sophomore Keisha in the HBCU-set series, told TheWrap in an interview. “I know that they’ve worked for so long to be able to establish themselves that way, and I’m like, ‘Let me figure out what I have to do to make sure I can get into that same realm.’ Because I am fascinated by it all.”
Mid-pandemic, Walker got an audition from her agents for “Homecoming’s” backdoor pilot, which would eventually air on the third season of the flagship Daniel Ezra-led show “All American.” Having auditioned for the young-adult network a few times, the then-Chicago-based actor didn’t think much of the process, eschewing self-tape rules by setting her audition to music. After sending in the clip, she got a callback with director Michael Schultz and showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll, along with several executive producers and casting directors via Zoom; then, there was the waiting game, before being whisked off to Los Angeles for filming, followed by more anxiety as everyone waited for an official green light for the show.
“My life has just been completely transformed over the last two years, which I’m very thankful for, but it was very unexpected,” said Walker, who holds credits in the 2019 SXSW film “Come As You Are,” NBC’s “Chicago Fire” and Fox’s “The Big Leap.”
“All American: Homecoming” follows a group of friends at the prestigious Bringston University as they grapple with everything from budding relationships to athletic setbacks, and build their legacies as they discover who they are and what they stand for. Season 2 in particular delves into the importance of forging one’s singular path and spotlights conversations on Black mental health. As Walker’s Keisha, a newly minted dance major, steps up her game, she struggles with the old-school methods of her instructor Dr. Pace (Diahnna Nicole Baxter), who pushes her students to their breaking point. In a season-long arc, the recurring character experiences a panic attack, gets sidelined by her peers and overcomes an attempt by Pace to flunk her over a class technicality. For the actor, being able to explore that storyline was both personal and healing.
“After [Nkechi] and I got off the phone, I went to my family and I was like, ‘It’s crazy because I feel like you don’t ever get the chance to work through your own traumas in art — not as often,’” Walker said. “I went to a conservatory for musical theater; this specific panic attack that she has, I’ve also had. Being in a conservatory program, I think that there’s a huge conversation that needs to be had about old methods of teaching that need to be replaced because even in the Black community as well, with Dr. Patterson [Kelly Jenrette] when she pulls Dr. Pace aside and is like, ‘We’re not breaking them down to build them back up again. We just have to teach them how to do [it]. We don’t have to be this way anymore.’”
More broadly, the focus Carroll and co-showrunner Marqui Jackson have put on highlighting mental well-being in “Homecoming” is vital to Walker, who grew up in a family “where we did not discuss our mental stability at all.” Born to an immigrant mother and a father who was raised in the Jim Crow South, the actor said conversations about mental health were nonexistent until the latter parent was diagnosed with PTSD-induced psychosis.
“Having to find the alleyways to establish connection with people, whenever you don’t know how to have those conversations, was a really big point when I was in my late teens with my dad,” she explained.
Particularly, Walker said she is proud to be involved with a project that breaks down the systemic challenges surrounding the intersections of wellness and Blackness, and how therapy has been historically inaccessible to marginalized groups. “It’s a show that’s trying to get into really hard conversations that will hopefully cause the young people that are watching it to come to their parents … and say, ‘I just saw this on TV and I’d like to talk to you about it.’ So that’s really special. I feel honored. I think that the vision that Nke has for this franchise and for what it could do for Black families in America is outstanding, and it’s a very lucky project to be on.”
With a Season 3 renewal still pending, a handful of episodes remain in the show’s sophomore installment, tracing the will-they-won’t-they arc of Simone (Geffri Maya) and Damon (Peyton Alex Smith), as well as Keisha’s interiority.
“This season is definitely Keisha’s season of internal struggle and development within not only who she is as a woman, but more particularly in what she wants to do with her life and what her moralistic standpoints are,” Walker said. “Because at that age, I think everything’s really confusing and your feelings are fact, often. This season is a lot of Keisha having to understand that her feelings aren’t necessarily fact, but they have a lot of truth to them … Sophomore year of college is a really hard developmental year. And I think we forget about it. We forget about how rough it was because my sophomore year of college was terrible!”
Walker got her start in drama class at Stanton College Preparatory School in Florida, crediting her late teacher Shirley Saks Kirby for pulling her out of trouble and into the arts. While she had already been taking dance classes at the time, the course offered her a first taste at the enjoyment she could relish in while on the stage.
“She saw that I was really lost in high school and that I was hanging out with the wrong people and realized I was basically floundering trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life,” Walker explained.
One of the earliest screenings Kirby put on was “Shakespeare in Love” — “which is so funny, of all the things,” Walker recalled — in order to teach her students about the importance of connection on screen. “She was like, ‘Everyone sit down, shut up.’ Talk about chemistry, watch these two. She’s like, ‘You’re gonna be wrecked.’”
It was because of Kirby’s guidance that Walker performed in her first community theater show, an adaptation of “9 to 5,” which the former directed. “She put me in the ensemble because she was like, ‘You’re gonna do some bad stuff this summer if you don’t have something to fill your time with.’ And so she was like, ‘Here’s the next three months of your life, you’re gonna be learning a Dolly Parton musical,’ and I was like, ‘Cool. Great.’”
The teacher’s support extended beyond high school: “She helped me with all of my college auditions. Every monologue, every song, every dance class I took, every vocal class I took, she was on my ass about it and my parents about it, being like, ‘Did she go? She has to go,’ and then whenever the auditions came around, if we couldn’t afford to submit for certain schools, she would pay for the submission for us. She was just very present and she had a lot of belief in who I could be later on in my life … I owe it all to her,” Walker said.
In Chicago, Walker further built upon her theater roots, starring in an all-Black production of “Hamlet” when she met Monty Cole, the director and writer of the upcoming short film in which she’ll appear as his older sister. He offered the role to her sans audition, and filming on the personal coming-of-age story “Whole” took place ahead of shooting for “Homecoming” Season 2 last year.
“He is my artistic brother ’til the day I die. I will preach this man’s talents until I can’t anymore,” she said. “He’s an artistic muse. He’s someone who inspires me to want to be a director and a writer and watching him navigate being a producer on this work as well I was like, ‘Oh, wait, Monty, I want to learn all of this.’”
Having worked across theater productions and with various directors behind the scenes in Chicago, Walker has a keen sense of artistic collaboration — something she extends to her “Homecoming” family as well.
“I’m like, ‘OK, Nke, I’m trying to be like this, I want to learn everything I can about this.’ Because I think I’ve always realized that as an actor, my favorite directors were always once actors — people who have worked in front of the camera that also stepped behind it, can understand how to have those conversations. I’ve always admired that,” Walker explained.
The end goal? Learning and more learning, growing and further growing.
“I just want to ask all of the questions and soak up as much as I can, if I can just be a little sponge,” Walker said. “Because in the conversations of being a director in the future, I want to be able to sit down with lighting designers and be like, ‘OK, so I know your specific vision, and I know how we can find a world together where this works with our cinematographer who also has a really cool vision.’ But yeah, I want to get my hand in all the pots.”
“All American: Homecoming” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.