From ‘Color Purple’ to ‘Revolution’ NC Native Maria Howell Brings Grace [Interview]

Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, Maria Howell always knew she that she wanted to sing and act, but no one could have predicted that the unique opportunity to do both alongside Oprah Winfrey in a Steven Spielberg movie would mark her unforgettable film debut.

Gastonia, NC native Maria Howell

Gastonia, NC native Maria Howell

Howell is currently filming the new NBC series Revolution in Wilmington, NC and about to start shooting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Atlanta, GA, and we talked to her at length recently to get the scoop on both of these highly anticipated projects and on making it as a professional actress and singer in North Carolina.

Read on for Part One of our exclusive interview with Maria Howell! 

“Most of the film work I’ve done has been in this region,” she said. “It just worked out that way. When I was living in New York, I was mostly auditioning for Broadway there, and then when I moved to Japan, I was mostly singing there. When I got back in the states, it just happened to be in this region.

“Most of my early TV and film work was in Wilmington and Charlotte, and that’s it. Then since I moved back to the states and moved to Atlanta, most of the stuff has been up here.”

Maria Howell plays "Grace" in NBC's 'Revolution'.

Maria Howell plays “Grace” in NBC’s ‘Revolution’.

Howell says it’s not hard to see why filmmakers are migrating east.

“Because this region has so many different terrains,” she explains, “it just lends itself to saying, ‘Hey, you know what? We can make it look this or make it look like that’. I don’t know many areas that can do that, with the mountainous areas, the piedmont, and the ocean, so I think that’s a benefit of this region.”

Though she currently lives in Atlanta, Maria still considers NC to be “home”.

“My mom is still in North Carolina,” she said, “so I don’t have to be that far away. When I was in Japan, my father passed away, and that was an odd feeling to be that far away from family and have to come back for that reason. So I like being closer.”

Maria Howell joins the cast of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' as "Seeder".

Maria Howell recently joined the cast of ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ as “Seeder”.

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Jaws, E.T.) and based on the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1985) was filmed in Ansonville, Lilesville, and Marshville, North Carolina, and on location in Kenya and California, starring Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover. 

“I’ve been searching for years to find one word to describe the experience of The Color Purple and I haven’t found that word, except for ‘awesome’, or ‘life changing’,” Maria recalls.

“I didn’t know what The Color Purple was when I first booked it, because I was trying out for an extra role,” she said. “Once I got that part, I had to audition again for the solo spot, and when I did that, I read the book on the set, because I didn’t really know the story. So I was glad I did that, of course.”

'The Color Purple' (1985), filmed in NC.

“I was a college graduate, and it was my first role at all,” she remembers. “What I had done was the local theater, and I had just started doing that kind of thing. I’m a science major, and I sang in church and college, but as far as a career is concerned, I didn’t do it until after The Color Purple.

“My mom and dad were like ‘You get your degree and you can do whatever you want after that.’ I knew when I was six what I wanted to grow up and do, but I came from a family that was practical, and you needed to get a college degree.

“So the only thing I did after college was the local theater in North Carolina, and I just kept at it with the idea and the dream that that’s what I wanted to do, but most of it was confined to church. I knew wanted to go the School of the Arts, but I didn’t know how to get there, nobody knew how to get me there. As fate would have it, there was a plan.

Gastonia, NC native Maria Howell stars in NBC's 'Revolution', filmed in Wilmington, NC.

Gastonia, NC native Maria Howell stars in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ and NBC’s ‘Revolution’, filmed in Wilmington, NC.

“Once I started singing and years later started acting, I was taking theory classes for years trying to prep myself. I figured I needed to learn the language, you know? I would take classes like crazy, which made me think ‘God, I wish I had gone to a School of the Arts’, but then maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much.

“I had a job when I got The Color Purple, but I only had that job for four months. That’s how fast all this happened. I’m a firm believer that if you keep it on your mind and there’s passion in your heart, anything is possible.”

Her role as a choir soloist could have been easily forgotten in the hands of lesser talented people both in front and behind the cameras, but as it is, Maria’s scene became the emotional high point of the film.

NC native Maria Howell is an accomplished singer and actress.

NC native Maria Howell is an accomplished singer and actress.

“It’s amazing,” says Howell, stuggling to find the right words. “I really can’t describe it except that it changed my life. I always wanted sing. I always wanted to act. Thank God I did both of them in that same project, but I just did not know what was going to happen after that, because I had no idea how huge it was. I had no idea how that was going to just follow me the rest of my life.

“And I was a featured extra. That part that I played, I didn’t realize it was going to be the climax of the whole movie. After we filmed it, they had a premiere in Charlotte, and I had just joined a band and my singing career had just started off.

“We go to the theater and I’m on pins and needles because I thought I got cut out of the movie. I had no idea. So mind you, I cried and then had to go back and see it for enjoyment, because I was so relieved that I was still in it.

Maria Howell made her film debut in Steven Spielberg's 'The Color Purple' (1985), filmed in NC.

Maria Howell made her film debut in Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Color Purple’ (1985), filmed in NC.

“As time went on and I understood the magnitude of the thing, everywhere I turned around, people were like ‘The Color Purple, The Color Purple’. As an actor, there’s not many things that can last like The Color Purple has. Everybody for generations knows what The Color Purple is. There’s life that is always breathed into that project.

“They use it in school as part of the curriculum in some studies. Who would have imagined? The Color Purple has opened a lot of doors, and it’s been paying me back over and over and over.”

You can watch a clip of Maria Howell’s breakthrough role as an uncredited choir soloist in The Color Purple in the player below!

Howell was so good in her film debut that many similar roles have been offered, though too few that allow her to fully stretch all of her acting and singing muscles as she’d prefer.

“I do think that after this, everybody thought I was a gospel singer,” she said. “Yes I sang it in that movie, but I sing a lot more jazz and swing and pop than anything else. I do a wide variety. So that’s the only thing about it, that sometimes when someone gets something that big, people look at them and say ‘That’s what she does’.”

For that reason, Maria has been quick to jump at her more recent opportunities to branch out into new genres, including two episodes on the hit CW television series The Vampire Diaries, created by another North Carolina native, Kevin Williamson.

Maria Howell played Ayana on 'The Vampire Diaries'.

Maria Howell played Ayana on ‘The Vampire Diaries’.

“I don’t do blood very well,” she confesses, “but I like the show itself, and the people who work there are just wonderful. My experience was wonderful there. I loved it, because I worked with some British actors that I absolutely love. With every project I work on, I’ve made a new friend, because I’m a people person. I love connecting with people on just a simple level of mutual respect. And it’s always a pleasure to work with somebody you look up to and respect.

“I never really wanted to be pigeonholed. I’ve wanted to be more of a character actor in the sense that the world is wide open for all the different things that I can do, and Revolution was the start of that.”

You can read our full discussion of Revolution in Part Two of our interview with Maria Howell, coming next month exclusively to NCHollywood.com!

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Posted on August 24, 2012, in Exclusives, Interviews, Movies, NC Talent, TV and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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