Full disclosure: Karyn Parsons used to be my next-door neighbor. We never did more than wave or exchange a friendly hello (and yes, I admit to silently swooning—”OMG, it’s Hilary!”—each time). Then, she had a daughter, an enchanting little girl with white-blond hair, and the family moved away. Years later, we reconnected through a mutual friend, each of us now moms. I was psyched—and impressed—to discover that Karyn had created a non-profit called Sweet Blackberry, which is dedicated to bringing “little-known stories of African American achievement to children everywhere.” The foundation has created DVDs narrated by Alfre Woodard and Queen Latifah, and is currently expanding its outreach.
Although Karyn came up with the idea while co-starring with Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (which ran from 1990-96), it wasn’t until her daughter was born that she made Sweet Blackberry official. (Former co-star Tatyana Ali sits on the board.) Inspired by her own mother, a former librarian and a Pisces, Karyn wanted to pass a sense of heritage along to her kids. And how very Libra—the sign of justice and beauty—to create something artistic and socially aware. Currently busy moving to a new home in Brooklyn, Karyn now spends her time writing, developing Sweet Blackberry and co-parenting two young kids (her Twitter handle lists her as Mama/Writer/Actress/Producer, adding “Hilary was fun…but now she’s done”). We met at a cozy East Village cafe (also her favorite writing spot) for tea and talk about motherhood, Hollywood, and her vision for Sweet Blackberry. —Ophira Edut
Ophira: So, astrology. Do you believe in it, skeptic, or casual interest?
Karyn Parsons: Casual interest, I guess. I don’t think of myself as someone who subscribes to it, but at the same time, I try to explain my behavior by saying, “Well, I’m a Libra.” And I find that other people who are Libras have some of the same challenges, difficulties, and ways of doing things: like taking our time and weighing everything out. I weigh everything out all the time. It drives my husband crazy. He’s a Leo, and he’s always very decisive in the moment. “Let’s do it. Let’s go this way.” It drives him nuts if I’m like, “Well, wait a minute. I need to think about it.”
Ophira: What about your kids? What are their birthdays and signs?
Ophira: So you have two Fire signs and two Air signs in the family. The Fire signs are Aries and Leo, and then you and your daughter are the Air signs. Is she very talkative?
Karyn Parsons: [Laughs] Oh my goodness. I used to chatter a lot, but now people comment that I’m quiet, because my husband is going and she’s going. I’m an only child and I spent a lot of time by myself, so I’m not used to it all the time.
Ophira: How did you first get into acting?
Karyn Parsons: I’ve wanted to act since I was 6 years old. I checked out some play books at school—small plays for you and your friend—and I got all excited about it. My mom was a librarian, and there was a section of the library with plays. They had about three small plays in each book, and I would just read them and be the characters. I did it all the time, and I just loved it.
Ophira: Fortunately, you escaped that fate of all the screwed-up former child stars.
Karyn Parsons: I wasn’t a child actor so much. I didn’t start until I was a teenager. I watched Jodie Foster and followed her career. When I was about 13, I found an acting workshop that was really for adults on Friday nights. I stumbled on it by mistake, and they let me stay. They said, “Try it out and see what you think.” They were actually teaching craft, and it was pretty intense at first. But I ended up loving it so much once I started learning. And that’s pretty much it. I got my agent from the class because I was living in LA.
Ophira: And how did you meet your husband? [Parsons is married to independent filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell.]
Karyn Parsons: Alex and I met at a Korean restaurant in the East Village. We have a mutual friend who used to own it. I got dragged to the pre-restaurant opening, which was really small and intimate, and he was at the table. We ended up talking. Then we saw each other at the real opening, and we just kind of locked onto each other. We left early and ended up hanging out together. And that was pretty much it.
Ophira: Nice. And he’s teaching at NYU?
Karyn Parsons: Yes, filmmaking. He’s an independent filmmaker.
Ophira: You’re an actor, you have your awesome Sweet Blackberry project, you’re a mom…lots going on. How do you use your time every week?
Karyn Parsons: I’m still kind of figuring all of that out. It’s an ongoing thing. As for Sweet Blackberry…I really just started being serious about the idea in 2004, and it launched in 2005.
Ophira: After you became a mom?
Karyn Parsons: Yeah. I started talking seriously about it when I was pregnant with my daughter Lana, because it was something I had thought of a long time ago that I wanted to do. My mom would bring home really interesting stories from black history. She worked in the black resource library in South Central. And she would call me and say, “I really heard this great story.”
Ophira: But you waited a while, like a true Libra taking her time, before starting the project.
Karyn Parsons: I’d look at my notes, and then I would go back to the high life. I was on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Things were really kind of crazy then. I was in my 20’s, and I was having a blast. But when I was pregnant with my daughter, I started talking a lot about Henry Box Brown. And my husband was just like, “Go! Just do it!” He’s a director. Coming from my acting background, I’m a little more passive.
Ophira: You wait till someone gives you a role.
Karyn Parsons: Exactly. Actors don’t make it happen. Alex was like, “Just get off your butt and do it. This is really important.” So, I started talking about it and getting people around me involved, seeing what they could offer or what they knew. And I started making these little films. Sweet Blackberry has since changed to a non-profit organization, because I soon realized that our big supporters were educators and parents. We were too small of a company at the time for big investors to get much of a return on. But everyone was excited and saying, “What can we do? What can we do?”
Ophira: It’s the perfect cause to donate to.
Karyn Parsons: Yes, donations made a lot more sense. We can do programs, and we can be in the schools. So that’s where we are now, and that’s what I’m still learning about all the time. I’m not a historian, but I’m trying to do these historical stories. So, it’s an interesting process. It’s new for me. I’m constantly calling people and saying, “Hey, I need your help. Remember when you said you were interested?”
Ophira: Right. And Libras don’t like to be pushy in any way, either.
Karyn Parsons: Is that true?
Ophira: Yes. You don’t want to be impolite, pushy, or have any conflict.
Karyn Parsons: That’s me. That’s me in a nutshell.
Ophira: You’re an inspiration to other moms who are trying to have a career, do something awesome for the world, and spend time with their kids. How do you handle it?
Karyn Parsons: That’s the thing I’m trying to really navigate. I have these journals, and if you look through them, there’s my journal writing and then pages and pages of scheduling. It says things like, “Hey, this is how it can work. I can work out during this time and write during this time.” I’m just trying to figure it all out.
Ophira: Are you doing any acting now?
Karyn Parsons: Since having kids, I discovered that I’ve gone from being the ingénue to being the mom [in casting directors’ eyes].
Ophira: The momgenue.
Karyn Parsons: Yes, the momgenue. So, there are far fewer parts for me: I could be a mom or a cop.
Ophira: Do you get typecast as Hilary?
Karyn Parsons: Well, I’ve gone through that a lot with people, but I went back to L.A., and I was surprised how many casting people didn’t know who I was at all. I kept going into auditions where people would say, “So tell us about you.” I didn’t take it as an insult like, “You don’t KNOW me? You don’t know who I AM?” I just kind of thought, “Have things changed a lot around here?” I took it as a sign that I needed to be doing the Sweet Blackberry work—and that I needed to pick up my kids from school.! Also, my patience isn’t the same. I’m not in my early 20’s just starting and thinking…
Ophira: Hire me. I’ll take anything.
Karyn Parsons: Right. I was thinking, I’ve worked for a long time. I’ve done a lot of things. I have two kids. I have another business to run.
Ophira: Would you want to do more serious acting?
Karyn Parsons: I like comedy, but I want better stuff. Just better. Maybe I’ve become a snob over the years, but…
Ophira: Libras are snobs, but it’s kind of in a good way.
Karyn Parsons: Really?
Ophira: Yeah. You have Libras like Gwyneth Paltrow…
Karyn Parsons: Oh is she? I didn’t know that! I started acting because I loved it. And I found myself doing stuff that I didn’t love at all. Whenever I was in a film, I was always the girl with her hand on her hip going, “(Sigh).” I was just there to go “(Sigh)” and fall in love with him by the end.
Ophira: Oh my god. That’s hilarious.
Karyn Parsons: That was my film career.
Ophira: What would you like Sweet Blackberry to do, ultimately? Do you want books, films, an educational platform?
Karyn Parsons: I want all of it. The landscape of media has changed so much from 2005 when I launched. Our business plan was geared towards DVD sales. Now it’s all about having apps and things for your iPad. So, we’ve shifted gears recently, and we’re fundraising to make our website into more of a cultural playground. You’ll go and there will be guest bloggers: celebrity bloggers, educators, and all different people. We’ll have a search engine, activities for kids, all sorts of interactive games, and we have plenty of resources. Lots of little featured films. We’ll have kids do projects, little movies or feature their drawing or writing—make it more of a live community.
Ophira: Oh cool.
Karyn Parsons: I would love for it to be a source so that when kids have something that they’re studying in school, they go to the site and they get inspired. They play games, and it helps them along. They write reports and they look up things on our site.
Ophira: Write about something different that the usual things you learn in school.
Karyn Parsons: And our subject wouldn’t be just African American history. The whole point of it is that it’s everyone’s history. We’re trying to get away from that labeling.
We’ll also have science, biology, geography—different subjects for kids that happen to have black people in them. So if a kid wants to write about this chemist or this doctor—a doctor such as Daniel Hale Williams, who did the first open-heart surgery—it has nothing to do with him just being black. If we reach kids at an early age and have these stories just be a part of what they learn, then the racial issue isn’t an issue so much later. It’s not like a handful of black people just came along once in a while and did some special things.
Ophira: Which is what you learn.
Karyn Parsons: Which is what you learn—that once in a while, a black person like Barack Obama comes along and wow, he can do it. What I’ve been doing on my Facebook page, which has been really fun, is posting different accomplishments of people every day. People are looking at this and saying, “I love this. Keep doing this.”
Ophira: So, how has your Pisces mom influenced you? She’s a librarian and she brought the stories home. Any other ways she’s been a role model for you?
Karyn Parsons: Huge. We’re very close. She’s been my biggest supporter in everything always. When I was dancing, having recitals as a little girl, she was always there. She was sewing the costumes or helping the other parents. She was always at the shows, but she was never a stage mommy in any way. So, it’s only as I look back on it that I realize how present and supportive she was, without ever pushing me. When I got really serious about acting, she paid for my workshops. She drove me to them and picked me up.
Ophira: Pisces are good at that, being that kind of quiet, behind the scenes, steady support.
Karyn Parsons: Yes, and she always was. I always felt incredibly loved and supportive and capable. Not pushed. Not that, “You’re soooo special, Karyn! You’re the BEST one.” She wasn’t like that.
Ophira: What about your dad?
Karyn Parsons: He’s a Leo. He was absent, except for this one time he went to a dance recital of mine. He’s so funny. To this day he’ll say, “Karyn is a great dancer, a great dancer.”
Ophira: Yeah. You should’ve seen her when she was four.
Karyn Parsons: (Laughs) Exactly!
Ophira: Are your parents still together?
Karyn Parsons: Well, they split up when I was around 12, but they always seem to find each other. They’ll be, like, roommates for a while.
Ophira: That Pisces/Leo bond, yeah. It’s a strange and karmic one!
Karyn Parsons: They’ll drift apart, and then they’ll come back together. Currently they’re roommates again. They’re best friends, I guess.
Ophira: So, tell me about your kids and what they’re like, their personalities, and your dynamic with them.
Karyn Parsons: Lana is a Gemini. My Lana and I are very, very tight. We always have been. We can look at each other across the room and think the same thing.
Ophira: She has such an interesting look with her blond hair and blue eyes.
Karyn Parsons: Yes, and she’s still very blond and with blue eyes. She’s an incredible girl. We’ve always been very tight. When I was getting ready to have my son Nico, I got really nervous wondering how it would affect us. And I’m happy to say that it’s been great for her, and it’s changed who she is as a person, being a big sister. It’s been really good for her confidence and has given her strength.
Ophira: What do you like to do together with her the most? Do you have a favorite ritual?
Karyn Parsons: I love reading to her, but it’s more like reading with her now. I like doing projects with her.
Ophira: Gemini kids are very interactive. They like to do crafty things.
Karyn Parsons: Yes, she’s very crafty. She’s always been a little artist. She likes to draw a lot, always has. And she’s really playing with it and taking some interesting chances. She’s also fun to dance with. I think we’re very alike in our sensibilities. We just really like each other.
Ophira: That’s great. And your son Nico is an Aries.
Karyn Parsons: Nico. My little Tasmanian devil.
Ophira: Is he like the rough and wild little Aries boy? Future football player kind of thing?
Karyn Parsons: Yes, he has so much energy. As soon as he could walk and pick up the broomstick, he was breaking windows with it. He’s all wild, untethered energy. This morning he found dental floss, and I could see his face just light up. I said to him, “Give me that,” and he just started pulling it out on purpose, as fast as he could. He’s a mischief-maker. He’s has lots of energy, and when he gets really mad, he just screams and literally howls. He’s really rough with me, but when he’s affectionate, he’ll just hold my face close and stare into my eyes.
Ophira: It’s funny because Aries is ruled by Mars, which is the warrior planet. It’s the planet of anger and also physical energy. So, when Aries kids are mad, it’s like BOOM. They just go off.
Karyn Parsons: He’s just screams through the roof. He just stops and screams. He just has to force it out.
Ophira: Oh, they have to get it out. Well, maybe he’s kind of like Alex in some ways, as a fellow Fire sign. They’re very expressive.
Karyn Parsons: Yes, he’s very explosive in that way. Where Lana is the opposite. She’s very sensitive.
Ophira: More thoughtful like you. Gemini and Libra are Air signs, which tend to be more cool-headed.
Karyn Parsons: Yes, she’s more thoughtful, and she’s concerned about how others feel. She always says, “I don’t want to make you feel bad.” She’s very sensitive in how she takes things, how she responds to things, and she can be very dramatic, too. But not explosive.
Ophira: So, what’s your favorite thing to do as a family?
Karyn Parsons: Well, it’s usually not in the city. In the summer we have a little “putt-putt boat,” as we call it. We have a little engine that we throw off the back, and we go up and down the river together. Then we’ll find a little beach and pull up. We do that all summer, the kids go find crabs. Any kind of exploring like that is exciting and fun for us, especially with kids. They’re bringing things to you and you see things fresh through them. It’s not always fun going out to eat with Nico.
Ophira: Oh god, no. Aries are picky eaters too.
Karyn Parsons: That’s interesting, yeah. He is a picky eater. He’s very picky about a lot of things. He’s very specific.
Ophira: Well, Aries rules the brain, so they have a very sensitive nervous system. Things affect them more intensely. So, if they don’t get something a certain way it really bothers them.
Karyn Parsons: Oh yeah, yeah. He’s very much like that. He cracks us up. He’ll arrange his toys and have a parade or build a scene. If you knock something or he can’t get something to work, it means so much to him. It drives me insane.
Ophira: He’ll probably end up being a film director too.
Karyn Parsons: Well, the kids did a film with their dad! So he’ll say, “I’m making a filmer.” He’ll make a scene and explain what’s happening with it and call it a “filmer.”
Ophira: Adorable. So, how about quality time with your husband? Do you have any and what do you do?
Karyn Parsons: We do. Lately, we’ve realized that we don’t do enough daytime stuff together. We’re always doing nighttime stuff together, but we’re going to try to stop, because well, it’s expensive.
Ophira: It’s true, and you have more energy during the day.
Karyn Parsons: That’s the thing, we have the most fun if we go to the museum together and then have lunch.
Ophira: Perfect Libra/Leo type of activities. You both love culture.
Karyn Parsons: We like to go to a movie and then talk about it. For us, that’s the best. I mean, we met and our interest was film and we sat and talked forever about film. I don’t know too many people that I can do that with.
Ophira: It’s cool that you can with him. Is he your best friend in that way?
Karyn Parsons: Certainly. Certainly. I will say, though, that I’m learning more and more how much I need my girlfriends. With all of the moving around we’ve done, I haven’t been able to tend to friendships as much as I would like. And I’m recognizing more and more how much I need it.
Ophira: What has made being a mom most worthwhile for you?
Karyn Parsons: I’ve become a much, much, much better person. Everything is so fast paced, and kids make you slow down.
Ophira: They do. That’s very true.
Karyn Parsons: They make you, and I want to go there more. I want to let them do that to me more. It’s hard. When the phone beeps, you want to respond. You have to find your limits. Yesterday, I found myself saying out loud, “Maybe just two things a day, Karyn. Maybe just two things a day.”
Ophira: Wouldn’t that be nice? They say that you can only do three things well a day.
Karyn Parsons: I was having all of these meetings: with an intern, phone meeting with a State Department person, and another with someone who’s doing this whole presentation for us. I had a couple of other things happening back-to-back. But I couldn’t come out of any one and think or write notes about it.
Ophira: No balance for the Libra.
Karyn Parsons: Yes. I need it. I have to be able to sit back afterwards and contemplate. Live with it before I’m ready to move on to the next thing.
Ophira: That is an important thing for a Libra mom. Take it all in and then give yourself an equal amount of time to process. Anything else you want us to know about: projects, about motherhood, any words of wisdom?
Karyn Parsons: I don’t have any words of wisdom. (Laughs) I’m not a shining example. I’m a work in progress constantly.
Ophira: We all are. Is there anything you wish someone had told you before having kids?
Karyn Parsons: The big one is to take care of yourself. It is so easy to get caught up in this new little person and their place in your world. You have to take care of yourself on every level: emotionally, spiritually, your health. Not just as a selfish thing, but also as a role model.
I want my kids to see who I am at my absolute best. I used to have “Do it for Lana” on the opening screen of my phone. It reminded me to stand up for myself, to be the best me and the person I think of myself as, as much as I possibly can at all times. Because someone is watching, and you can tell them all you want all day long, but it’s who you are and what you’re doing that they’ll emulate. I have to remember that it’s not just me now, stumbling about. I have a little audience that’s learning.
So as a mom, you have to take care of yourself: if you get sick, or you’re falling apart, or you’re at your wit’s end, any of that, that’s not good for anyone else. I always say I don’t want to be Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment where she’s at a doctor’s office, and she’s like, “Billy, get off of that! Leave your brother alone!” She’s not listening to the doctor; she’s neglected herself because she’s trying to be a “good” mom. Meanwhile her body is breaking down because she’s not paying attention to it or to herself. I think for new moms and for women it’s so easy to fall into caring for everyone else without realizing that you left yourself behind.
I’m trying to do something with my kids right now. They’re still really young, so I’m trying to let them know more and more that mommy is a person, that I need to have some time to myself. I think they’ll start to understand and respect that. Because otherwise I’m just this thing.
Ophira: Serving. Yeah.
Karyn Parsons: Arms. All these arms. I used to say to Lana, “What do you think I am?” She’d say, “An octopus.” That’s our thing, kind of a joke.
Ophira: That’s really great advice. I think it will be really helpful.
Karyn Parsons: I think it’s just a good reminder, because I think a lot of us know it, but we don’t practice it. Even if it is just taking some time in the daytime to just stop, take a deep breath, and count to ten. Remind yourself how important it is for the world, your small world and the big world, how important it is that you take care of yourself.
Ophira: How can people find more about Sweet Blackberry and you?
Karyn Parsons: I’d really just encourage people to visit the site (www.sweetblackberry.org) to see what we’re about and to please contact us if they want to help and get involved in any way. I think it’s something that has so much value for ALL children… and adults!