My Mom's Time as a Hollywood Extra Inspired Me to Always Dream Big

Angela McKnight
Angela McKnight

This may sound cliché, but I owe all my success in life to my ambitious mother, the woman who didn't hesitate to raise me on her own and always pushed me to reach for the stars — even when life made it hard to.

Growing up, I never understood friends who'd say they had to become a doctor or lawyer because their parents said so, or because it was the practical thing to do for financial stability. That was never my reality. My mother always assured me that I could be anything I wanted to be — just as long as it made me happy. Even while juggling the tough responsibilities of being a single parent, she followed her own advice and pursued being a background actor in Hollywood, briefly. All because she envisioned she could and acted on it.

She may not know it, but that determination is the main reason why she's one of my biggest inspirations.

My mother, Angela McKnight, who hails from our hometown of Baltimore, graduated from Morgan State University in 1993 with a bachelor's degree in social work. She later became a case worker and medical social worker, amongst other things in the healthcare field. Not exactly the career path you'd predict for an aspiring actor, but she tells me that at 35 years old, almost five years after I was born, she decided that she "wanted to try something different."

"I wanted to try something new. I felt like I was at a crossroads in my life."

"It was something that I just happened upon," she says of pursuing acting, adding that she once took up drama classes. "I wanted to try something new. I felt like I was at a crossroads in my life. But with me trying to pursue acting and working as an extra in a lot of films, [as a mom], I didn't have the flexibility that I needed so I didn't travel. Around the time that I was doing it, films were coming to town, so I would work on those, or I'd go out and try to get an opportunity to work on them."

In May 2002, an acting opportunity came to Baltimore — a film which would later become known as Chris Rock's directorial debut, "Head of State." And, as my mom has frequently told me throughout my life, I helped her secure it. "I went to a casting call, and the one they had at [Security Square] Mall, I remember going with you," she explains. "I didn't have a babysitter, so I took you along. And when we got there, the line was out the door; it was so long. I thought, 'You know what, there's no way I can make you stand in this line because I'm trying to do this.' And just as I was going to walk away, one of the production assistants comes over — because you start to whine — and he tells us to go to the front of the line and get my picture taken."

Angela McKnight

After my mom did so — with me posing right next to her off-camera — she went up to a casting director who told her, "We'll see you on set." Fast forward to that summer, she officially worked on her first major motion picture as a background actor. She'd later go on to work as an extra in other films like "Ladder 49," "The Invasion," "Shooter," and "Live Free or Die Hard," which featured big names like Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, Daniel Craig, John Travolta, and Mark Wahlberg, to name a few. She also starred in TV shows like HBO's "The Wire" and "We Own This City," as well as Netflix's "House of Cards."

Needless to say, my mom has lived a life. One that's inspired me to live just as fearless and determined as she has. Though she took a long hiatus between 2007 and her most recent acting credits (2013 and 2022) to continue her career in healthcare and, of course, raise me, she says she doesn't have any regrets about not pursuing acting beyond her handful of background roles.

"I just loved being in the setting, in the atmosphere. I never really got discouraged because it seemed like I would always have an opportunity to get a little part," she shares. "If I wanted it bad enough, I would've gone further with it, but I just didn't. As a single parent, my primary thing was making sure my kid was taken care of right."

My mother always dared to dream — and still does — even when her circumstances as a single mom didn't make space for it. I couldn't be more proud of the example she's set for me in my own pursuits, and I'd say she's equally proud of how they've turned out. "Now I'm being interviewed by my daughter, who is a celebrity journalist," she beams proudly.

Read ahead for more about some of her true Hollywood stories as an extra.

On Working on "Head of State" (2003)
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On Working on "Head of State" (2003)

What's your fondest memory from filming "Head of State"?
That's the one that did it. That's the one where I got the acting bug. My fondest memory was the first day working as an extra — I violated all the extra rules. I wasn't supposed to bother the actors, I wasn't supposed to look into the camera, I wasn't supposed to talk, and I broke all of those. Not on purpose because, again, this was my first time working on a film, and in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, "I'm going to be discovered." So that's what that was, all that extra stuff.

"I broke some rules, but it was funny."

What actors did you bother on set?
Well, I think I got on Chris [Rock's] nerves that morning because I was supposed to be a still photographer. And again, I think I was trying to get noticed, and I was a little over the top with my performance. It's my first time. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what to do. So I think I got on his nerves because at one point I heard him say, "Is this going to go on all morning?" That's because I had a camera and I was taking pictures. I broke some rules, but it was funny. It was fun.

Did you have any other interactions with Chris Rock on set?
I kissed him on the cheek. I wasn't supposed to do that. I think that I got in trouble because after that they cut. They were shooting a scene, and he's walking back. Me and [another extra], we were both running, trying to give him a kiss on the cheek because he's president, or he just won, so we wanted to congratulate him.

I don't know what my motivation was in that moment but . . . the other extras put me up to it. Me and the girl, she was on one side, but when he walks past, he leans into me. So I give him a kiss on the cheek. And you can hear it because he's got a microphone on. Then they cut, and the assistant director [H.H. Cooper], he comes over, and he said, "Y'all, the extras, you kiss each other but don't kiss the stars." But it was too late. I already did it.

On Working on "Ladder 49" (2004)
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On Working on "Ladder 49" (2004)

What's your best celebrity story from "Ladder 49"'s set?
The scene [I filmed] with Morris Chestnut and Robert Patrick. That morning, I wasn't even thinking I was going to be chosen to work because they had already selected other extras. They were working and we were watching them, me and my friend I had met on set, Ms. Queenie. Then they called for the next team, and I was one of the extras that they selected.

I was told that I was going to run out of this burning building. In the scene, there's Morris Chestnut, and he's running up the ladder, and then Robert Patrick, he's getting the hose off the [fire] truck. So a guy told me, "You run up the steps and then come running out of the house. When they say action, run out." So when the cameras are rolling, I'm standing there waiting for the cue for me to run because the house was on fire, and when they say action, I come running out. I don't know what it looked like, but I know what it felt like. I felt like I was like Foxy Brown or Pam Grier running out that house.

When it was done, I guess I did good because Robert Patrick, he clapped and said, "Good job. You did a good job."

How was it being an extra on that film compared to your first movie?
I was a lot more calm. I toned it down a lot. I was no longer the "extra, extra." I was cool. But people who did the casting, I was starting to get noticed. And it's weird, because when I worked on that scene with Chestnut and Patrick, there were professional actors, but when we were done, they were like, "Who are you? What's your name?" They were curious about who I was, and I was shocked.

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On Working on "The Wire" Season 3 (2004)

Did you have any encounters with any "The Wire" actors on set?
Yeah, Wendell Pierce [who played Detective Bunk], he was throwing peanuts at me in the baseball stands. I think he was just playing, hitting me in the back of my head with peanuts. I have no idea why. But he was like, "Ang, you OK?"

How'd he know your name?
We got to sit with them. I guess we introduced ourselves. [Someone] told us to go find a seat, so me and the ladies that I was with, we found a seat and sat right next to the stars. But then the PA came over [and yelled "Who told y'all to come down here?"], and I didn't like that. You can't make me look foolish in front of a whole bunch of people.

"That's how I got to sit where I was at. Sat me right in front of the camera."

So I was like, "Wait a minute, hold up. Who you talking to? We made a mistake. All right." Then the director, he sees us, and he's watching the interaction between myself and the PA. Then he told him, "No, bring them down here." That's how I got to sit where I was at. Sat me right in front of the camera.

Did you audition for a speaking role in the show?
After all of that, I got a call, I guess a couple of weeks later during season three, [for the role of Squeak]. They brought me in to meet Pat Moran and the casting associate, but the role, the girl was 18 years old. At that time I was 35 years old. So when I come in and read for the role, she's like, "How old are you?" And I told her, and she was like, "God, what do they put in your water?" I was like, "Yeah, I know." She was like, "Are you really?" I'm like, "Yes, I'm in my 30s." But I didn't get the part.

On Working on "The Invasion" (2007)
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On Working on "The Invasion" (2007)

What's one scene you vividly remember filming from "The Invasion"?
We were filming a scene in the cafeteria of the hospital, and all the extras, we were there with the principal actors: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Jeffrey Wright. We're watching the news report on TV that the invasion is occurring or something to that effect, and I think something I did, that caught the director's eye. Then he puts me right next to Daniel, and next to [him] is Nicole and Jeffrey.