By Marlon Rice
Actress Sharon Leal has a problem.
“It’s really funny. You get to a certain age and there are certain roles that you want to play. You’re definitely old enough to play the part. Then, you go in there and the casting people are like she doesn’t look like she’s old enough to play this role. But I am! I am old enough! I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me.”
At 45 years old, Sharon Leal is a grown woman with over two decades of work at her craft. And, although casting agents may not believe in her ability to act her age. It is her smile and her sensibility that keep her feeling forever young. “Age is just a number, right? It’s all about how you take care of yourself. One of the great things about getting older is that you just stop questioning who you are. You know exactly what you want. But, I still feel like that same high school girl. I just try to enjoy my life.”
Legendary coach Rick Pitino once said that humility is the key to success. If this is true, then the humility which has come to define Sharon’s success, both in her career and in her personal life, began with her humble beginnings in Fresno, California. It was there that she learned how to be a professional, not as the diva of her High School sing competition, or as captain of the cheerleading team, but as a member of the Good Company Players Community Theater. Founded in 1973, Good Company Players was created to provide professional level training to local performers. Along with Sharon, the troupe also lists six time Tony award winner Audra McDonald as an alum. Sharon credits Good Company Players with teaching her the fundamentals of being a professional. “Although it was a community theater and we didn’t get a lot of money, the discipline they taught us was the thing. You couldn’t be late, you would be docked.. That’s just one example of the kind of work ethic they taught us as kids. They frowned on diva qualities. They taught us to work as a team and to be a part of the production. We all worked as a team, not just in our performing, but in setting up the stage before shows, and then breaking them down afterwards. There were so many things in this unassuming place that I learned, to the point that when I finally auditioned for my first broadway show I thought, wow this is easy! All I did as a kid was train and perform.”
Twenty two years of film and television could definitely warrant arrogance and stubborn pride, yet Sharon has never lost her sense of self and her feet have never left the ground. Her love for her craft helps keep her happy, and her understanding of the blessings of success keeps her grateful. “I like to work. I enjoy the work. I am always thankful. My career has been slow and steady, and for the most part you take things one day at a time. My perspective and the way I approach work is that all things go through cycles and it’s all about making the most of the experience and keeping your positivity. It’s all about how you look at it. Being in LA and being around other actors, you see so many people struggling. I’ve seen wonderfully talented people unemployed and really struggling. So, I never really looked at a job as this daunting thing. I’ve always seen it as miraculous and kinda wonderful. I try to just make the most out of everything. You don’t want to look back and think I really didn’t appreciate that or you took something for granted. I would not be able to do what I do if I didn’t love it. I love what I do for a living and that makes a big difference.”
Sharon is just as purpose driven in her personal life. The mother of a teenage boy, Sharon has gone through marriage, divorce and raising a child all while being consistent with the work without allowing life to pull her off track. Again, her sensibilities keep her in tune with her why. Regarding her 2009 divorce to actor and director Bev Land, Sharon says, “It’s water under the bridge. I mean, We share a child. But, if I could turn back time I wouldn’t have married at all. I’ve learned to really get to know someone fully. It’s important to get through the obstacles and to make sure you both are equipped to deal with everything with love and patience. In our defense, we married quickly but it lasted a long time, almost 10 years. I want people to understand that relationships aren’t easy. People say that it takes work all the time, and it’s one thing to say that but the truth is whatever healthy love is by definition, I have to believe it is reserved for those with big souls. When you truly love, you go above and beyond who you thought you could be. When you truly love, the most beautiful things about yourself rise to the surface. It’s no longer about you. I want to know who someone becomes when they have nothing to gain, only to give. In my mind, that’s the way to find the kind of love that lasts.”
Sharon takes that position concerning love into her career as an actress. She always looks to give far more than she looks to gain. “I think that part of the reason I even began to do what I do is because I saw somebody doing it. I remember seeing Lena Horne in Stormy Weather and thinking oh my god! I wanted to be like her. Diana Ross, Tina Turner, the seed that was planted in me early on was planted by someone else. Because of someone else’s performance, something that I saw in them moved me and inspired me. I’m still a consummate fan. If I see something, I’m affected by it the same way. Even being in the business, that never leaves me. I am always so floored by people’s performances. The more I work, the most exciting thing about the work that I do is being able to work with people that I respect and I’ve watched and that I admire.” She knows that there are young girls looking up to her, in the same way that she looked up to Lena Horne. “I am always touched by the fans. I know the power of young black girls who are watching me and thinking to themselves how they might actually see themselves in me, and are able to relate. I think that what we do is really powerful in that regard, to be able to tell stories and affect how people feel and how they see things. It’s all such a really great purpose to have. So, what I do, for me it’s super fulfilling and I hope to be able to continue doing it.”
Sharon Leal has pulled together all of the different fabrics that have wrapped her life, and she uses them altogether, like a technicolor dream coat. Her brightest moments are products of her own creations. It’s no wonder she has managed to maintain youth and vitality in an industry that is always trying to discover the next ingenue. And, although casting directors can’t yet imagine her playing a 45-year old, Sharon is okay with that. “It’s a lot more fun for me to play roles that are so far from myself. I like being challenged. The human condition is fascinating. Acting is about having that emotional intelligence and the ability to observe, and then taking it from there. That’s the beauty of this craft. It’s about being able to step into other characters.”
Black don’t crack is a saying that speaks to how youthful and vibrant Black women are, even into middle and old age. With the stresses of environment, diet, career, motherhood and a litany of others all working against the preservation of your beauty, it is a testament to discipline to find a woman who exudes the same sex appeal in her 40’s as she did in her 20’s. Sharon Leal is definitely that kind of woman. But it isn’t fancy diets, or starving herself that works for her. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “I love to eat. I love to travel. Food is one of my favorite things. It’s always a sacrifice when I have to give up the things that I love. So, I’ve given up on cutting things out. Moderation is the key. I’ve given up on being a size 2 again. At a certain age it becomes more about health, and you aren’t driven from the vanity factor. It becomes more so about driving away stress! The big thing for me is working out. When you work out, you feel better. A good workout is a good way to remove any anxiety or stress from the body. Just an hour of sweating takes off a lot of stress for me.”
Sharon Leal is happy. She is doing the work that she loves, and living the life that she wants. It’s a happiness that defies age. And, she’s perfectly fine if casting directors never figure it out.