It's a surreal moment Sheldon Shepherd will not soon forget. Four days after taking home the Best Actor prize at last weekend's American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for his role as a gangster with a conscience in director Storm Saulter's Better Mus' Come, Shepherd is still very much on cloud nine. His smile goes from ear-to-ear and his voice carries with it a distinct pride. "It was like newness, like nothing I've ever experienced before," Shepherd tells SO. "You are talking about black Hollywood: it was when I arrived at the event (that) I fully realised where I'm at and the type of people the whole thing embodies." With competition from established and bigger- name American thespians the likes of Isaiah Washington, Common and Lance Gross, being announced 'the best actor', the still gleeful Shepherd shares, "evoked a feeling of hard work paying off".
The award, accompanied by a US$5,000 cash incentive, may have been the crowning achievement of the actor's three-day trip to the ABFF in South Beach, Miami but it was far from his only highlight. He admits to moments of being star-struck.
"I love the actor/director Robert Townsend from The Parent Hood sitcom and I met Tracee Ellis Ross, but the person who kind of left a visual image for me was the Duke [that would be actor/director Bill Duke]'...it was a very cool experience," Shepherd recounted.
Mingling among the influential deal-makers and deal-breakers of colour at the film festival also made the Jamaican actor aware that Better Mus' Come was the 'it movie' of the ABFF. "From we got there, everybody just wanted to say 'hi' to us and everyone wanted to be where we were or they wanted us to be where they were," he says of himself, lead actress Nicole Grey and director Saulter.
And what of networking and adding Hollywood BlackBerry contacts to his phone?
"When you win something like this, it obviously opens doors, but I can only speak of something I get a contract on or sign off on; I can't speak of other things," Shepherd advises SO.
The accolades his performance has received on the film festival circuit in the Caribbean, Toronto and Miami have expectedly garnered the attention of filmmakers. "Yes, I have been getting scripts," Shepherd says when we ask what his most likely follow-up film project will be. The one he's most interested in seeing through is a joint project between Lionsgate and Paramount film studios. "I don't want to release the film's title or tell you the writer, but I can say they are interested in me right now and I was cast in it."
At SO's incessant, good-natured prodding, Shepherd said the film, which is in need of funding, is in fact a Jamaican-based horror tale that incorporates elements of the Maroons and slavery.
While that film is currently in limbo, Shepherd, also a band member of the artsy music group No-Maddz, which he founded with three other friends from their days at Kingston College, says a sure go is a reunion project with Saulter. It's a film titled The Trod, lifted from the name of No-Maddz's latest album, and is being scripted by Shepherd and his bandmates Christopher Gordon, Everaldo Creary and O'Neil Gordon. "We're finishing the script now. It's a storyline of how we met. It's going to be edgy and stylised," explains the actor/musician. "It will feel like a farce but it's not necessarily that. We are going for humour, a light feel and a level of Jamaican-ness on an international level where we advertise ourselves in terms of the culture."
Though acting has brought him recognition face and awards, No-Maddz is where Shepherd's heart truly belongs: "The thing is, No-Maddz and the poems and the songs and the writing, that is who I am. The actor — that is a vocation. I always say the thing in life is balance."
He's peeved, though, that despite the band's unique talent and a recent European tour, back home, No-Maddz gets very little airplay: "Our music industry, nothing not passing airport, mi bredren, sometime you turn on the radio, you have to lock it off back. I love the dancehall genre, but every song that comes out is something to do with wining or how mi chain thick and how my rims shine and how my jacket fly."
Disc jocks, Shepherd says, have all but rejected No-Maddz's music.
But, in spite of being shunned by mainstream radio, the group debuted the Mykal Cushnie-directed video for their song, an Independence-themed ditty called Sort Out Yuh Life Jamaica, which premiered at the National Senior Championship staged to choose qualifiers for the London Olympics. Shepherd could not be prouder of the band's work. "I feel it was well done and I want to see if my people shared the same sentiment."
The other three members of No-Maddz are more than bandmates to the opinionated and vivacious Shepherd: they are his extended family. "We are going 12 years together. We live under the same roof, we do the same things, we just live, breathe, sleep No-Maddz," he explains.
When SO asks Shepherd if he's ever contemplated a move to Los Angeles to capitalise on his current hot streak, the star answers in the affirmative. But the airline ticket will not be booked for only one. "We plan to move to LA and spend a few years and do it as No-Maddz, maybe next year." It's called brotherly love in the City of Angels.
Sheldon Shepherd's acceptance speech
"One Love... Storm Saulter, writer, director of Better Mus' Come, thank you for inviting me to your film, thank you very much. This is the ABFF American Black Film Festival, thank you, as well, for inviting me. Thank you for the experience and the opportunity.
'I'm feelin kinda high...
like I'm on a stage in the sky...
to get what you desire...you've got to reach and take your pie
you've got to try...you've got to fly
you've got to try...you've got to fly'
One more thing before I forget. Anybody here who is Jamaican will probably know this particular fruit. Breadfruit...is the new bread, baby!"
Fave Films: The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump
Fave Actors: Paul Campbell, John Travolta
Fave Musician: Bob Marley
Artists No-Maddz would most love to collaborate with: Arcade Fire, Janelle Monae and Mick Jagger