We meet the bubbly Laila D. Pruitt in her dorm room instead of a dressing room. That’s where you can find her in the months she’s not filming the hit series BMF, short for Black Mafia Family. The 18-year-old’s decision of starting her freshman year of college at the illustrious Howard University while still maintaining her day job is a road less traveled by many in her position. While most catch her being the ultimate brothers’ keeper on the Starz drama, in her spare time she’s debating which café on campus has the shortest line on Soul Food Thursday.
With a schedule as demanding as hers, the young actress is taking it one day, and test, at a time. Pruitt makes space for it all, making this once in a lifetime experience her own as she maintains her grades and her faith while also being a multifaceted artist, activist and scholar. We take a free period to talk about finding your pocket at an HBCU, her perspective on the tumultuous journey of BMF character “Nicole” and what separates the screen from the stage and more importantly, real life.
We acknowledge early on that we’re speaking Bison to Bison, the mascot for Howard University, so Laila D. Pruitt gives MADAMENOIRE her “Howard Intro.”
Laila Pruitt: I am Laila D. Pruitt, a freshman acting major from Atlanta, Georgia. A part of the “Fine Fine Fine” Arts program, of course. I’m attending Howard University as a full-time student right now and I’m also working, by the grace of God, on the amazing TV show called BMF. And all while having a great time and learning a LOT.
MADAMENOIRE: Where were you in your academic and professional journey when you landed the role?
I booked this role as a junior in high school. It was smackdab in the middle of the pandemic, so in very deep quarantine, there was no going anywhere. I actually had not booked anything in a while, thus is the business. It was quite a bit of auditioning and practicing and preparing for something like this, and I think that combined with all the extra time I now had, kind of created the perfect storm to have the opportunity to book BMF. I actually had considered taking a little gap year but college was always ultimately going to be the next step for me right out of high school.
Can we run through this timeline? When were you filming and when were you at school, and how did that impact your senior year?
After booking BMF my junior year, we started filming towards the end of my second semester. So It was difficult but mainly because I had transferred to online school from my original public school. But senior year, I switched it up and decided to stop doing full-time online and return to public school for the other half of my education. And that was only possible due to the help of my teachers who worked with me to find the schedule. Now, in college, I haven’t had to film anything yet, so I got to fully immerse myself in my first semester. Now though, I learned the skills of being proactive in building my schedule and thinking ahead as I start back filming soon.
What Does this opportunity to pursue your career while continuing your education mean to you? And why right now when you could have easily put either one on pause?
I’m just grateful. Because I truly love being a student, having the opportunity to really be one and have a college experience, especially so far from home, while simultaneously working in the field that I love– I’m just really grateful for it. I look at this period of my life as a training season. So I’m gathering up all of this information from school and I’m applying it to BMF and my scene work. I really hope that I’ll be able to look back and see my progression as an actor and an artist because of this season alone. And I did acting, specifically theater acting, I thought it would be more enriching for where I am now to engage in that specialty to gain a deeper understanding of the craft. And I really look to my circle and my team, like Davinchi did Broadway right beside filming BMF, so those around me inspire me to press go.
So about BMF, in what capacity do you relate most to Nikki (Nicole)? Do you desire anything for her character journey, especially as she gets older and deals with defiance in her adolescence? What about her journey with her brothers?
There’s something about being the younger sister to older brothers. I connected to Nikki a lot in that way. And my brother acts just like how Terry and Meech do towards her, so I could understand the teasing and the fights, those silly things. That’s one of the best parts about playing Nicole, getting to have that sisterly aspect in there. I really hope to keep telling the story of how Nicole deals with the effects of her brothers’ decisions, as well as the ways in which she starts to individualize herself and become her own person.
I can only hope that her opinions and desire for independence continue to grow and that her experiences will resonate with the audience as much as it did with me. Realistically, whenever they walk out of the house, Nicole’s gut probably wrenches, considering she knows what they do, and she knows how they make their money. Getting to tap into that feeling while playing her, especially because she understands them in a deeper way, being their sibling. She’s quick to give a little insult, but she’s going to look out for them, because she knows they are going to look out for her.
You deal with heavy content on the show, and your character has gone through significant trauma. How do you maintain that layer of separation between school and work?
As an actor, your body is the instrument. So honestly I dance it out, let music play throughout. Sometimes your body doesn’t know the difference between the real emotion and the character’s. Decompressing and getting that energy out are the things important to me. I’ll also listen to a sermon every morning, read the Bible, write down different devotionals, all of those things keep me centered and grounded.
How has this role shaped your activism? You utilize your platform for a lot of social causes. While the show is about this family in the drug game, it also highlights a lot of racism systematically. Has that influenced you?
BMF served to amplify that activism for me. Before I booked the show I was interested in social and political injustice issues. Learning about how those systems affected real people in every script that comes to me and my research about the real BMF and how that’s impacted their choices, has made me even more interested in the historical aspect of it. How does a country come to treat a people like this? With all the knowledge at their fingerprints how do they continue to ignore it and repeat the past? It’s those things I’m thinking about now.
How has your experience on the show shaped your journey as you start building your own livelihood? Biggest lesson you’ve learned from this story?
One of the lessons that most resonated with me is “If you want something to shake you’ve got to shake it yourself.” And what I mean by that is, if you want to progress, you’ve got to be willing to take the risk. And you see that in all sides of the Flenory family’s story. It makes me want to work a lot harder.
What do you want audiences to take away from Nicole’s perspective as she deals with the consequences of her family’s choices?
Communication is key. I think Nicole really is a person who just pushes things down and shoves away different problems, because it’s the ’80s and it’s Detroit so we don’t have time to cry over every little thing. But then it piles and she blows up on her brothers and storms off on her parents. And it’s because she has no outlet. She doesn’t talk to anyone about the things she’s seen or her worries. I want people to see Nicole and think that if she had talked to someone about that or expressed her opinions maybe she would not have blown up in that instance. Or feel as negatively as she does sometimes, if she had trusted people to communicate what she’s going through.
What was the most emotional or thought-provoking scene on the show for you? With you in the scene or just the show in general.
I LOVE this question. Of course there’s not just one, but there is just one that aired in episode four. It’s when Lamar is at Alvin’s house, and he’s staring in the mirror. He’s just looking at all his injuries he’s gotten, and that scene is so powerful to me. This show really humanizes every single character. So for him to just look at himself and realize wow I’m not as powerful as I thought I was or once was, I found that really interesting. Even though he is the villain in this story, he had a life too, a child and family that he’s actively trying to put back together. But the streets are literally the only way he knows how to do that. But when he’s back he’s weaker. He’s lost himself, and I think that’s very important to show to audiences.
You are going to be learning, and have already, about racial systemic inequity while studying at Howard, how has that sharpened your viewpoint especially while filming a show where that theme is pervasive?
I get a lot of that through my English courses. We read a book of different historical texts called “Black in America,” and everything that you already know or even kind of know is just in very, very vivid detail. Everything that I’m learning here about the systems of this country has deepened and become more profound in my mind. And it helps when I read a script from BMF and how I can apply that layer into the storytelling.
What brought you to Howard? In a time where HBCUs are in the spotlight mainly for their hiccups, what do you have to say to encourage Black students to pursue HBCUs.
For me, it was always going to be an HBCU. I’ve had that influence in my life for as long as I could remember from my mom, aunts, grandfather. HBCUs have always been prevalent in life. I have found my tribe, in finding Black people who are my age, that love theater, are creatives and even some Christians that I can talk to about that with. There’s so many different layers to us, this is the diaspora. And you can find your pocket wherever you fit in. That’s what I love about an HBCU, and I’d encourage any Black person, every single time, to go to one and see what’s up. There’s special things happening here.
What’s most important to you, being an artist, activist or academic?
Ooh. I don’t like this question, but only because they are all so important. Ugh, okay. I think I will say an artist because you have to be an academic and you will be an activist no matter what. You can try to be neutral, but you are going to be an activist for something if you are an artist. Every single story you tell will affect someone. So I think being an artist is just as important as the other two, because you are getting those themes, stories and lessons out to everyone who doesn’t fit those categories. Those who are just seeking entertainment are still getting that information, and that’s really valuable.
You can catch Laila D. Pruitt playing Nicole Flenory on BMF now on the Starz app.