Marisa Tomei made it into the movies, but what happened to the rest of the cast of the successful six-year Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World? Whitley, Freddie, Dwayne Wayne, Denise Huxtable -- where are you now? "We're still in the business," says Charnele Brown, who played the earnest and anal-retentive Hillman College premed student, Kimberly Reese. "It's just that you don't see us in front of the camera."
In fact, thanks to one ambitious limousine driver, Brown's off-camera persona has resurfaced here in Houston. Three years ago, when she was in town doing a small movie called The Kangaroo, Marcel Miles, the hands-on owner of Miles of Success limo service, picked her up at the airport. They became fast friends: "I even started sitting in front," says Brown.
Miles, of course, wanted to get into show business. So before Brown headed back to L.A., he pitched her his idea for a combination acting school and management company in suburban north Houston. Most celebrities, even in a good mood, would have laughed him off. But, in this case, Miles's big idea fell upon open ears.
Brown had just flown in to do a movie in which local actors were cast only as extras, if at all. She saw lots of raw talent, but the Houston actors' technique just didn't measure up to that of those who were New York- or California-trained. "It's almost like they're behind," says Brown. She didn't think her limo driver was crazy; she thought bringing the locals up to speed was what she was supposed to do. It was a calling.
This month Brown and Miles opened the doors of the Charnele Brown Acting Academy. Situated in a suburban strip center between a Tip Top Cleaners and a judo school, it's covered with photos of famous friends and faded glories.
"Acting jobs are tough -- for white, black and different," Brown says. "This is my down time, so I'm focusing on something else for my longevity." A smart move, and something she teaches to her students in two-week workshops such as "Introduction to Show Business: 90 Percent Business and 10 Percent Show."
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Her acting classes, for everyone from seven-year-old novices to advanced students, stick with the standard Stanislavsky technique, which Brown describes simply as "taking your own experiences and applying them to the piece." But beyond the methodology and the monologues are some inside-the-business perks that nobody else in our celebrity-poor city can offer: Brown plans to supplement her own expertise with guest appearances by Different World co-stars such as Jasmine Guy. And for the select few students with star potential, there's Miles & Brown Enterprise, a management company that will draw on Brown's East and West Coast connections.
"It's about giving back," Brown says. Well, it's not exactly giving back. The price of her experience will run you more than $100 a class.
-- Lauren Kern
Five-week courses at the Charnele Brown Acting Academy cost $575. Current classes are full, but the next session begins April 12. 5365 West Richey Road, (281)893-5599.