While award-winning actress Karlisha is still young, as she sits down to discuss some of her latest projects with us, it’s clear this Australian is no naive ingenue. In fact, Karlisha is well-known amongst industry insiders for her wise-beyond-her-years quality that has propelled her to the top of casting directors and producers’ lists when it comes to casting young screen talent.
“I had to grow up quickly as one of two siblings of a separated parent. I hadn’t even started school when my mother took us on a world trip to ensure I grew up with an understanding that the world was vast and full of opportunities and I could go anywhere and do what I wanted.”
In many ways Karlisha, currently appearing in feature films Wrapped and a new Rob Malenfant film still being kept under wraps, has forged a place in the select few of edgy, young actresses once occupied by stars like Dakota Fanning and Amanda Seyfried. Comparisons aside, Karlisha’s Australian heritage (she’s originally from the small city of Darwin near where Crocodile Dundee was spawned) and gripping talent has meant she’s quickly built a reputation that belies her less-than-two-decades on Earth.
“As a kid, I was inspired by Rose from Titanic. I grew up believing I could do anything and be anything no matter what anyone else thought of me because of Rose, who had a chance to embark on an adventure within herself that the rest of the world was against, or fall in line and have no real feeling of purpose. I feel really blessed to have the career I’ve had.”
Perhaps best-known for her acclaimed role in the gripping film project Karlisha & Morgan, for which she won Best Actress awards at the Accolade Global Film Competition and the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Karlisha had already been acting in Australia for 8 years prior to moving to the United States. A childhood comprised of auditions, acting classes and taking days off school, soon jettisoned into film shoots, rehearsals and eventually, accent lessons.
“Once you start working in Australia at a young age and travel to LA for training which I did each year since I was 11, agents in the US become interested in you. I was very lucky that the transition to the US was so smooth.”
After booking roles with Ventura Court Productions and the web series Sharing is Caring, Karlisha solidified her place as a vital component of that production company, as she also joined the cast of Hostages Don’t Take Another Step and The Safe Zone. She has also been cast in the company’s series, ‘How to Identify a Serial Killer’ which begins shooting in March. While booking any acting job is an accomplishment, building creative partnerships is often the hallmark of an indie film star. Once those actors partner with either a director or producer early in their career, the track record of other stars suggests that those creatives usually grow together. One only need look to the collaborations of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio, and more recently Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan (from Fruitvale Station to Black Panther) to understand how lucrative such professional relationships can be.
The critical nature of Karlisha’s role in Kristine May’s career is mirrored by the importance of Karlisha’s position in David Raynor’s company Bad Hat Films, as she has also worked with him on numerous occasions. These projects include Hello Tom Sullivan, Dark Angels, The Birthday Party and Karlisha and Morgan.
In this regard, Karlisha marks her position at the top of casting agents’ wish-lists.
Karlisha’s upcoming lead role in the series, How to Identify a Serial Killer, follows the path of a paranoid teenager Alice who struggles to distinguish the difference between reality and her imagination in a world full of serial killers and murderers, particularly while living with her best friend and crime reporter Jemma – played by star of 1, Kylie Riddle.
Adding to her filmography, Karlisha’s preeminence as one of the brightest stars in independent film has recently been confirmed in her appointment as Program Director of the Port Stephens International Film Festival, a position which calls for her to judge numerous films with a focus on bullying and the acting performances of her contemporaries.
“The festival topic of bullying is something I experienced and I used acting to deal with it. I now draw on that pain; it empowers me; it gives me something to connect to; and it allows me to take my acting to a completely different level. It’s timely with the Me Too and Time’s Up movements making ground and I hope the festival will give strength to other victims and make them stronger, too.”
The Port Stephens International Film Festival is partnered with the Singapore Film Festival and winning films are screened internationally at the festival of its UK partner, Out of the Can Film Festival in England.
Festival Director Guy Perrine: “We were excited to bring Karlisha on board for this role. Her international award-winning success as an actor and experience in filmmaking for both the Australian and American film industry, writing and producing, as well as her contribution to AusPol Media as a Junior Producer and regular attendance at festivals and director Q and A sessions, have made her an enormous asset to the Port Stephens International Film Festival in her role heading up the judging of our program dealing with bullying.
Professional resume builders aside, at the core of Karlisha’s success is an imitable craft that continues to reveal an understanding of humanity that only true artists demonstrate. Much like a young Natalie Portman in the Al Pacino film Heat, Karlisha’s natural instincts on camera consistently demonstrates a creative fierceness that’s balanced with a deep understanding of technique.
This is clearly demonstrated in a scene in one of her upcoming films, Sister Mercy, in which Karlisha plays a street waif abandoned by her mother and abused by her father, Phoenix. Phoenix, ran away from her grandmother and is looking for a family and someone to trust when she dates a man who tries to get her addicted to drugs so he can prostitute her. The scene where Phoenix later sees her friend Mercy again for the first time – played by actress Dominika Van Santen – is an emotionally difficult one because of the depth Karlisha has to go within the character to make her reactions real; she is disorientated, frightened, hopeful and determined. Karlisha’s skilled use of technique balanced with natural instinct is masterfully portrayed through the look in her eyes – seeing a friendly face amidst all this doubt and chaos – and draws in the audience to connect with her character in a way that has everyone willing her to succeed.
As we sit and discuss Sister Mercy, directed by the editor of Sharknado, William Boodell, Karlisha draws on a quote from Annette Bening who once said ‘acting is not about being famous, it’s about exploring the human soul’ and she says that is what she tried to do here.
This comment leads us on to a discussion about filming her most recent project Wrapped, which has already attracted media attention and interviews with Noah Wilson from iHollywood TV.
“Wrapped, directed by Calen Coates, is a coming of age film that explores the journey of an ordinary girl in an extraordinary position, who comes to terms with the value of overcoming her insecurities, despite the people who tell her otherwise.”
Karlisha continues: “I play the lead role of Abby, a young teenager who learns to stand up for herself by taking back the one item her now deceased mother had given to her, from a drug dealer. I’m a teenager dealing with many demons in my closet – as well as a victim of abuse – but I manage to find both mental and physical ways to not only fight back against the perpetrators but also to combat my own mental health issues. I also believe the film tackles the theme of grief. This present is the last thing Abby has of her mother. By fighting to get it back, we see what a teenager is willing to deal with in order to find a sense of closure. The journey I take – which is full of emotion, car chases, guns and fighting – is both funny and tragic; just like life itself.”
Karlisha’s proven track record would suggest her future is even brighter. She has lots of projects coming out in 2019 – in which she mostly plays female empowering, gritty roles – including Bet the Demon wins, now in post-production, and Stitched Up – and she will appear in a regular role in the co-host series 2 of the web TV show #Me4TV. Karlisha is also in discussion with other US and Australian producers and directors. Wrapping up our chat (no pun intended), she says she can’t wait to share more about other upcoming projects and is excited about the busy year ahead.