Have you ever heard of Madam C.J. Walker? If not, Netflix’s next project will make sure that you get familiar. The new miniseries, starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, will document the rise of the iconic self-made millionaire.
Between familiar faces like Blair Underwood and Bill Bellamy, new face Zahra Bentham will play Nettie Ransom. Fresh off the success of her Netflix debut on the platform’s figure skating drama Spinning Out, Zahra returns to screens to bring Madam C.J. Walker’s iconic and inspiring story to life. But Zahra’s own inspiring story isn’t to be ignored. She is part of Canada’s next class of barrier-breaking entertainment exports, like her friends Jordan and Karena Evans and her Self Made co-star, Mouna Traoré.
Ahead of Self Made’s premiere, Zahra spoke with HOLR about her come-up and current projects.
HOLR: How do you feel ahead of Self Made’s premiere? Are you nervous or excited?
Zahra Bentham: I’m quite nervous to be completely honest. I guess it’s just because this is my biggest project to date. I’m used to seeing myself on screen; that’s a normal thing. But to be seeing myself opposite Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish, Blair Underwood, and everyone else that’s part of the cast is where the nervous part comes in. But I’m more excited than anything.
HOLR: You are really close with your co-star and fellow Torontonian Mouna Traore. How did that relationship come about?
ZB: Mouna is like my older sister. We had done pilot season together last year and we often found ourselves at each other’s homes, whether it was prepping doing an audition or to eat or to pray, which we did a lot of. One thing we prayed about was to work together on a consistent series. At that point, we had done a couple episodes of different series together, but we wanted to work on a bigger project together. Once we got back to Toronto, I got the audition for Madam C.J. Walker and I just remember telling her, “this one is mine.”
A couple days later, she got an audition for another role on the show and couldn’t stop thinking about how crazy it would be if were to both get roles on this project. Then, we both got pinned, which means that they’re interested in us. We kept praying and shortly after I got the call that I booked it. A couple days later, Mouna booked her role. It turned out to be one of the best on-set experiences ever. It’s that much more special because we prayed on it. It feels like we really manifested this.
HOLR: What do you think it is about her story that’s going to resonate with people in 2020?
ZB: People will be inspired by the overall story of working hard for yourself and not stopping at anything. I hope that the series is a history lesson because a lot of people don’t know about Madam C. J. Walker’s story and what she stood for. I hope that viewers can take away that if you’re starting your own business or starting a new venture, it’s totally possible. You’ve just got to stay committed and motivated.
HOLR: Tell us about your character, Nettie.
ZB: I play Nettie Ransom and she is super coy, loyal wife of Ransom. Netties is a member at the Indiana Colored Women’s Club, where Madam C. J. Walker initially tries to start her business. I’m one of the ladies that advocate for her because in the beginning, a lot of people didn’t believe in her. My character was one of one of the main people who helped her get into the doors that she needed to.
HOLR: Were you intimidated joining such a seasoned cast?
ZB: Honestly, no, I definitely wasn’t. I definitely felt like I belonged there. We had a full table read prior to actually filming so I got to get acquainted with almost everyone before filming. I was the last one to meet Octavia, though. I actually didn’t get a chance to meet her at a table read. My first scene on my first day was with her and I definite had a moment where I was like, “Holy shit, you’re in front of Octavia Spencer. Don’t fuck up your lines.” But she was super sweet and super welcoming. Very much like a motherly figure.
HOLR: You’re really entrenched in Toronto’s art community – particular Toronto’s Black artist community. What does that community mean to you?
ZB: I think that it’s super heart important to give to the younger generation – especially younger Black woman coming up in this industry. I want to champion them and help them in any way that I can. Starting off in the industry was very difficult for me and I never really had anybody to look to or to get answers from. So right now, if I could give any advice or encouragement to young black girls or black boys but who are interested in a career in the film and television world, I’ll give that extra hand in any way I can.
Self-Made premieres on Netflix on March 20th.
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