Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Essence Atkins dreamed of becoming a ballerina, the Misty Copeland of her time. Her dreams quickly shifted when she saw a notice on her high school bulletin board to audition for a role in "The Cosby Show." From that point on her life changed.
Atkins has gone on to star in major television series, including alongside Marlon Wayans, on NBC sitcom "Marlon." Now, 45, Atkins reflects on her career, passion, and black girl magic.
Here are 9 things you need to know about Atkins and her incredible journey.
Acting is something that happened, literally I was in school, I was walking by the bulletin board, I saw a notice on the bulletin board, I read, and it said that they were looking for someone between the ages of 14 and 16 to be on “The Cosby Show” who fit this description. I read the description, I fit the description and I called the number.
The next thing I know I’m at Kaufman-Astoria studios in Queens, I’m walking down this long corridor of narrow hallways and white doors, and I’m with all these other girls, and I get ushered, there’s a star on the door, like the old fashioned cut out star, and there’s a knock, “come in”, we go in and there is Mr. Bill Cosby with a cigar and there’s 10 of us and he interviews each of us and asks us questions about who we are and what we think and education and he chose me to be on “The Cosby Show”. So my very first professional audition I booked.
“The Cosby Show,” changed everything. It was the number show in America at the time, it put me in the union, it generated interest from agents and managers who started approaching me, so it was this door that unlocked for me that I didn’t even necessarily know that I wanted into and I had success early on and that success kept happening and then kind of retrospectively I was like “you know what? I might wanna try and learn about this thing that I’m tryna do!
I love [acting] class, I love learning I love growing and 30 years later, I’m more curious, more passionate, more in love with what it is I do. I think I’m more committed to it, I love the process more, I’m interested, I’m enthusiastic about it still.
I feel very comfortable being observed, because I don’t mind my imperfections, I’ve embraced them, and that is what comedy is about, great comics are not vain, great storytellers in my opinion are not vain. There’s, there’s something about ego and vanity that have to be abandoned when you dive in to reveal the human condition. At least the parts that are interesting.
I mean, one of my favorite people right now in terms of just trajectory is Issa, you know Issa Rae because there wasn’t, she wasn’t invited to the table and she’s like, "Okay well, that’s cool, I’m not invited so I’m gonna go over here, I’m gonna make my own buffet, I’m gonna create my own meal, I’m gonna invite my own people, and they’re going to show up." And they did, and it’s gonna grow and it did, and it’s gonna get better and all that happened.
Then all of a sudden she became formidable and she became profitable and somebody else was like, “Hey now, you know, we need to take this on and take a look at it." And HBO bought the brand and got in business with her which was the smart thing to do. But what I love was her, you know, she wasn’t deterred by the fact that she wasn’t invited. She was like, “Okay well that’s fine, I’m not gonna be deterred by that, I’m gonna create my own space and I’m gonna work at that, and continue to excel.”
There are things that we can’t anticipate and predict, and if we rely simply on those things to give us the justification or to give us the green light to move we could be stuck and stagnant, and arrest our own development, so I think it’s important that we don’t do that, that we don’t search outside of ourselves for all kinds of permission to do the thing that we’re called to do.
(Marlon) and I have known each other since ’95, that was the first time we worked together on “The Wayans Brothers” and I was making out with Shawn. Hahaha.
One of the things that I love about working with him (Marlon) and I think vice-versa is that we know that wherever he leads, I’m gonna be right there and vice versa. So there’s this unspoken kind of dance and dialogue, it’s like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, you know, we’re dancing this dance, and I’m just trusting that he’s leading me and he’s got my back.
The show is loosely based on his real life situation. He is a father, he has two children with a woman that he is unconventionally close to, they’re not a couple, but they are a family, and he wanted to tell that story. Our show "Marlon" is about a newly divorced couple weeks after they’re finalizing their divorce, trying to figure out how to stay a family and what that looks like and what that means post-divorce.
I file for divorce and three weeks later, I’m being chosen to play a newly divorced woman with one of my favorite people on the planet, and I’m gonna have to talk about this and I’m going to have to use everything that I feel, and everything I’m going through, and all the confusion and everything that is real for me right now, and I’m gonna have to tinker at it and I’m gonna have to poke at it, and I’m gonna have to analyze it, and I’m gonna have to sit with it and hug it, and I’m gonna have to push at it to play Ashley, to figure out how this resonates for her and my God, how amazing is that. The timing of it. How healing is that, if I look at it the right way and thankfully I have enough joy in my life and enough people who love me, where that’s possible.
I am in this other space you know, and honestly the space that I’ll claim even before the comedy space is the space of like “grown ass women.” You know, women who’ve been through some things, women who are honest enough to talk about those things, women who are evolving, and pursuing things and entrepreneurs and creating platforms.
And that is the club that I feel like I belong in, that’s the club I know that like Regina (Hall) and Gabrielle (Union) and (Queen) Latifah and Jada (Pinkett-Smith), and Nia (Long), like we all are apart of this group that has been working and evolving and moving forward and growing, and having life kind of shift us and shape and angulate us, and we’re still here, we’re still standing we continue in my opinion to get better.
Dorean K. Collins is a native of Washington, D.C and graduate of Smith College. While at Smith she studied Portuguese/Brazilian Studies and Sociology. Dorean is currently a NBCUniversal Page with the Digital Diversity Editorials Team.