When Chicago native Karimah Westbrook auditioned for the CW series “All American,” she intimately knew the nuances of the character, Grace James.
“I liked the story; I felt like I could relate to it,” said Westbrook. “I grew up with a single mom with two kids [like Grace]. I was excited to audition for it, and definitely very hopeful to book it. To get cast is a dream come true.”
“All American” (7 p.m. Mondays on WCIU-Channel 26.1) is loosely based on the life of former NFL player Spencer Paysinger, who serves as the series producer and has played the role of an assistant coach on several episodes. The show is in its third season and has been renewed for a fourth.
Westbrook, a West Side native, plays the mother of the lead character, Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a football star at Beverly Hills and South Crenshaw high schools.
She says she appreciates how the show displays that people are much more similar than their zip codes may suggest. Ezra’s character often moves between South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw neighborhood and Beverly Hills.
“I think the show is very relatable because it’s real life,” said Westbrook. “There are several different characters on the show, and I think that each character will reflect somebody. When people watch the show it gives them an opportunity to see an aspect of themselves whether it’s a single mom, a family going through a divorce, or the parents are separating.”
Westbrook also loves how a majority Black cast is at the center of the storylines.
““The kids on the show, to me, are very mature. I think the show really brings a lot of fresh perspectives — or just different perspectives, period — of our youth,” Westbrook said.
“I have kids reaching out to me, especially during season one and season two, sending messages talking about how they want to be like Spencer and how Spencer changed their life, so they’re inspired. A lot of times with growing up, you know what you know.”
Westbrook, whose acting chops include feature films “Save the Last Dance,” “Baadasssss!,” “The Rum Diary” and “Suburbicon,” says she got the acting bug while growing up in the western suburbs.
“I did plays in school, and, then of course, for the family. We were always doing some skit or making up something,” said Westbrook, an alumna of Proviso East High School in Maywood. “So it was always very fun for me. I think it was an outlet for me as a kid with just being maybe bored. My cousin and I used to make skits all the time. We had a camcorder back then.”
Westbrook says she looked up to actress Whoopi Goldberg, the only Black woman to win the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards).
“[Goldberg] is extremely talented. She was a Black woman with natural hair. She didn’t look typical,” said Westbrook. “It was amazing to me because she was one of a very small pot of Black actresses that were really highlighted. And, again, she looked like me in the sense of being a Black woman with a dark complexion, natural hair, and super talented.
“She made me cry in ‘The Color Purple.’ She made me laugh in ‘Burglar,’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Ghost’. She’s super dope.”
Even though Westbrook has carved out an acting career for herself in California, she still calls Chicago home.
“I miss some aspects of it for sure,” said Westbrook, who says she misses Chicago summers and eating Garrett Popcorn. “I’ve been here for a while, so I kind of know my way around here but everything wasn’t as spread out as it is in Chicago. I know people here too, but my family’s in Chicago; there’s a big difference.”
As for Westbrook’s “All American” role, she says the show has come a long way despite being into its third season.
“It’s really something for everyone in the sense that you’re going to see some part of yourself, and I think that to see these characters problem solve and navigate their lives, it offers just different perspectives on approaching problems and overcoming them ...
”We’ve come a long way in the world of television,” Westbrook said, “There’s a lot of great content out there, and I think ‘All American’ is one of those shows.”