Talented, bold, and unapologetic: Netta Walker is one of the newer generations of Filipino-American actors bringing proper Pinoy representation to Hollywood.
Representation in Hollywood has always been a contentious topic in Hollywood. But over the past years, that has reached the forefront as more people demand to see proper representation has become a necessary conversion. And because of this, a new generation of actors have found themselves in spaces where they can properly tell their stories to a wider audience when they would normally be swept aside or put on the back burner.
This newfound representation is something Filipino-American actress Netta Walker is not taking for granted. In just a couple of years, the young actress has been proudly repping her roots on TV all while calling out injustices that happen in her local community.
AN ACTRESS IS BORN
Netta Walker was born and raised on the Westside of Jacksonville, Florida. A self-described southern girl, her mom is pure Filipino and her dad is African-American. The two met in Manila, got married, and moved to the US. “I have three distinct personalities for older brothers (10+ years) and was very much raised as the baby girl—with the scars to prove it,” shares Netta in an interview with NYLON Manila. “My brothers are the coolest people I know. I think my nieces and nephews are way cooler though, I’m constantly showing them off to everyone. Because of them, I am who I am.”
Acting wasn’t exactly Netta’s career goal when she was young. But things changed thanks to her late high school drama teacher, Shirley Kirby, someone who she fondly calls Drama Mama. “I honestly wasn’t a great student and got into some bad things pretty young, so I kept getting into pretty serious trouble. But Shirley saw me floundering for meaning and introduced me to the theater. She cast me in my first musicals and pushed my parents to put me in dance and voice classes when I was 14. She pushed me to compete in theater competitions, apply for university theater programs, helped pick my audition songs and monologues, coached me, and reassured me that I actually could do this. I owe my love for acting and my career to her.”
Netta started her acting career in the Chicago theater scene, a time of her life she feels is way different from the TV actor she is now. “Nothing compares to being onstage, the energy of a live audience experiencing the journey with your character is unmatched,” she expresses. While she still does have that love for theater and would like to hit the stage soon, TV work has also been a fulfilling experience for her. “TV has been an entirely new lesson for me that I’m so thankful for, I feel like I’m relearning my craft which is fun. On-camera work is far more specific and you get way more chances to do it, unfortunately with far less rehearsal time. But it’s a muscle that I feel I’m developing, which is cool.”
PROUD TO BE PINOY
Netta Walker’s first credited acting role was in the 2019 comedy movie Come as You Are where she played Claire. Bit roles in Chicago Fire and The Big Leap soon came. But Netta’s true breakout moment was when she was cast to play Keisha McCalla in The CW’s All American. “I got the audition in the thick of COVID shutting the world down,” she shares. “I got an email asking to self-tape and I just assumed I wasn’t going to get it, I related to her too much. Anytime I read for a character that I like or feel connected to, I lowkey tell myself I won’t get it to avoid disappointment – which honestly frees me up so much to just have fun with it.”
Netta, of course, got the role. What started as just a two-episode stint on All American soon became a regular series player in the show’s spin-off, All American: Homecoming. “She just made sense to me and felt like I got to cosplay as my younger self for a bit. Thank god I get to play her, Keisha’s been a huge point of healing in my life.” But aside from how well-written Keisha was, the thing that has helped make the character stand out is how she wears her Filipino roots on her sleeve.
Hollywood has (and still does) a tendency to cast Asian actors in ambiguously racial roles. But now, mainstream American TV has been opening up to let Filipino actors play Filipino roles. There’s Nico Santos’ memorable Mateo in Superstore while Vincent Rodriguez III’s Josh Chan in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend became the first Filipino male lead in an American comedy TV series. And in the recently concluded She-Hulk series, two substantial side characters are Filipinos.
The show has at times put Keisha’s Filipino heritage to the forefront. In one memorable scene during season one, Keisha’s friends surprised her with a Filipino birthday party in honor of her late mother. It was a scene that hit close to home for Netta, especially with how she lost her dad when she was 20 and every photo in the scene is actually Netta and her Filipino mom. “I cried quite a lot honestly, mainly to my mom,” shares Netta on her reaction to the scene. “She means the world to me and getting to honor her and our culture at this level was so unexpected. Our showrunner, NK, told me way before we started shooting that we’d be diving into Pinoy culture, but I had no idea how deep we could go.” It was a scene that the producers made sure to execute properly which only hit harder for Netta.
“The incredible Charia Rose, who wrote the episode, called me a few times and we talked about all the food and traditional clothing I grew up eating and wearing, and about building the altar in honor of her…reading it on the page and having our talks about the scene was one thing. Arriving to set and seeing the full kamayan, getting to share that piece of my childhood with the cast and crew…it was emotional, to say the least.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF REPRESENTATION
To some, the scene might have seemed like just another birthday party. But to Filipinos who grew up without the culture and rarely see people who look like them on TV, it was a major moment. “I grew up never seeing myself or anyone who looked like my mom or me on TV. Never seeing anyone eat on banana leaves with their hands or have squid adobo for dinner.”
She adds, “Accurate representation is incredibly important to me because I know what seeing it can do for people. If I got to see that scene when I was 10, I would’ve been so proud! When you don’t see your life onscreen it’s easy to think that your culture isn’t normal, especially growing up in the states around people who may not know anything about it. So getting to flesh out a real moment of our culture on this show has been an honor.”
Aside from getting to see proper representation on screen, the scene hit harder because it also touched upon helping people who grapple with grief, something Netta knows all too well. “Seeing someone grapple with grief with a healthy support system behind them isn’t often seen on TV. I feel like trauma is a tool often used in entertainment, but rarely do we see characters be supported and loved in the way that Homecoming showcases. If I had seen this episode after my dad died I would’ve moved faster to get into therapy and would’ve understood that I was being bullheaded and destructive.”
While the cynics out there may just see the scene, and Keisha’s whole character, as just to get progressive points, all this accurate representation can mean something to young kids out there. “One less kid will feel weird for just being themselves. I was so afraid of who I was growing up. I was nervous that kids would make fun of me, my culture, and my family, who I decided to like. I felt ashamed and hid so much of myself. Getting to tell stories while showcasing more intersectionality means more kids can finally feel like they don’t have to hide.”
KEEPING IT REAL
Aside from a growing acting career, one thing that Netta Walker prides herself in is calling out injustices she sees in the world and other forms of BS. It’s a trait she credits her late dad for giving her. “If you don’t use your voice to speak against injustices you’re misusing it. He took standing up for what was right very seriously. I can’t stand by and allow things that I deem moralistically flawed to happen without saying something.”
It’s a position she will never comprise on, even if it may cause her to ruffle some feathers. “I care more about my moralistic integrity than a career in Hollywood. I’ve never been good at the grin and bear it mentality anyway, and no job is more important to me than my ethics.”
And as long as Netta has her family by her side, she won’t be slowing down anytime soon. “My mom and my three big brothers are always there for me, all in very different ways. My mom always makes sure I know my dad would be proud of me, which is exactly what I need to hear when I’m searching for strength. All my family in Jacksonville, Louisiana, and the Philippines make sure I feel supported every time I have doubts. They keep me working hard and feeling strong.”
THE FIL-AM LIFE
Growing up mixed race wasn’t easy for Netta. In school, she was “met with micro-aggressions left and right” that made her scared for what the real world may throw at her. But things quickly changed when she entered the Chicago theater scene. “I was in heavily inclusive spaces, having Socratic conversations about developing plays, race, sexuality, and gender. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have more experiences that have inspired me to keep creating than those that have attempted to dissuade me.”
While most may see those appearing in Hollywood movies and TV shows as living the life, that is far from the truth. Behind all the glitz and glam are real people who weren’t just handed the keys to the kingdom. “Initially moving to LA was hard—I was depressed and had to get back into therapy,” she admits. Like many, Netta struggles with her work/life balance. “I was having a really hard time adjusting to being on set all day, missing Chicago and the theater scene, missing all my friends, and having a really hard time finding where I fit,” Luckily, thanks to the people in her life, she’s gotten a gang of things. “It’s gotten worlds better.”
As a relatively new actress in Hollywood, Netta is hoping to bring that same energy of acceptance and exploration she found as a Black Filipino in Chicago to her new work environment. And while Netta may not be as well-versed in Filipino movies and TV shows as she would like to be, she does follow a few famous names. “I do follow a few people’s careers through BJ Pascual’s Instagram; I’m a massive fan of his. Liza Soberano is an icon. Dante Basco was one of my first crushes and Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon will always be iconic.
A SPACE FOR FILIPINOS
As Netta Walker’s career continues to grow (season two of All American: Homecoming just premiered), the Fil-Am actress is hoping to use her rising status to make sure people who look like her feel seen and heard. “There are people in the industry who are just like you, working hard to make sure you get to feel seen and heard so don’t lose faith! It’s a slow-changing industry, but artists are working hard to give you the moment you’ve been waiting to see. And, if you choose to, you could be that artist to make it happen. Anything is possible and we are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit.”
As for what roles she hopes to take on in the future, Netta points to her Filipino heritage. “I want to do more historical Pinoy stories, and projects including traditional deities and clothing—honestly to shoot something about the Igorot in Baguio would be out of this world. We need more movies about our traditions pre-colonization, and pre-catholicism.”
And paging Marvel, DC, or any studio out there, she’s also coming for that comic book gig. “I also want to see a moreno superhero! I would kill to get to do that.” Adaptations are also on her to-do list. “I’d love to do a book adaptation, a play/musical, or a Shakespeare on screen. It’d be really fun to make a character from a world already created my own, I always enjoy putting my spin on things.”
As cliché as it sounds, Netta’s life is one of breaking down barriers. She went from having little Filipinos to look up to growing up to becoming that role model for young Filipinos out there. She wants these young Filipinos that a no should not stop them from following their dreams. “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If they do, prove them wrong.”
Photographer: Irvin Rivera
Hair: Arianna Blean
Makeup: Amber Amos for The Only Agency using Milk Makeup Future Fluid.
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