Her first bit of career advice?
“Don’t listen to people who tell you you can’t.”
In 2012, people told her she was too short to be a model. Pretty soon she was towering over them in a short black dress on American Apparel billboards across Los Angeles. And staring at them from the back of LA Weekly alongside a little bio revealing that the 5’4” model they said was too short to be a model didn’t even really want to be a model.
“Though she holds a degree in Public Relations from Auburn University, she’s currently living in LA to pursue her true passion — acting.”
The people who told her she couldn’t model then told her she’d never make it in acting.
Four years later, it’s Showtime for Kristina Emerson.
The Nashville native and 2011 Auburn graduate recently landed a supporting role in the new Showtime series “The Chi,” a coming-of-age story set in the violent South Side of Chicago that premieres on Jan. 7. It was created by Emmy-winning writer Lena Waite. The rapper Common is an executive producer. There are 10 episodes. Emerson is in half of them.
“It’s by far the biggest role I’ve booked,” Emerson says. “I play the owner of the restaurant that the main character works at.”
It’s actually her second gig as a small-screen restaurant owner. The first was in a 2016 episode of CBS’ “NCIS.” She was able to draw from real world experience for that one, too. For struggling actors, Emerson says waiting tables is kind of a given.
“I had to get a restaurant job,” she says of her early years in Los Angeles. “That’s what you have to do out here — get that side job to stabilize you and then pursue all this stuff.”
And by “pursue,” she means pursue relentlessly.
“The summer before my senior year (at Auburn), I interned at Focus Features in LA,” she says. “That’s when I decided to do something in entertainment.”
After graduation, she packed for California, thinking she could use the PR degree for a safe 9 to 5 while booking acting and modeling gigs on the side. It would have been perfect. After all, her PR degree is kind of what first steered her into acting. And she was good at it. She interviewed with a big entertainment PR agency. The boss loved her.
“She said ‘I can see you becoming the next me.’”
Emerson didn’t want to be the next her. And she’d realized by then that pursuing acting was its own 9 to 5, its own 8 to 7, its
own 6 to midnight. She turned down the offer.
“It was very scary,” she says.
So was the decision, in 2014, to temporarily trade Los Angeles for Atlanta. It wasn’t that she wasn’t making it out there. She’d modeled. She’d landed small TV roles. She’d booked commercials. But so had a million other people.
“I’d been talking to a few friends about how a lot of things are filming in Atlanta right now, and they were like ‘why don’t you move there and build up your credits?’”
At first, it felt like failure. She questioned everything. She felt lost. She even tried putting the PR degree to use again at a
music management company.
Kristina Emerson’s second bit of career advice for aspiring actors?
“If you want to do anything else other than acting, go try that and make sure that’s not what you want to do.”
She quit the PR job after two months and renewed her acting vows. The credits quickly piled up. A role in a “Code Black” episode. A role as “Stevie” in five episodes of MTV’s “Finding Carter.” The “NCIS” episode. A couple of Best Actress awards for her lead role in “Blackout”, a 12-minute horror film. Her friends were right — Atlanta was the place to be. Until it wasn’t. Atlanta was great. But LA, struggles and all, had become home.
In January, she moved back and got a manager. Things were different. “I started getting way more auditions than I’d ever had here before.” A role on Go90’s “Replay.” Two episodes of Hulu’s “Casual.” Another leading role in another horror movie, “Demons.”
It was enough to add another city to her professional circuit: Chicago, which is where they filmed “The Chi,” the big one (so far).
As for what opportunities a supporting role on a Showtime show might bring?
“I can’t even imagine.”
Whatever it is, just don’t tell her she can’t do it.
by Jeremy Henderson ’04