Alumni Ya’Ke Smith and Mikala Gibson.

Alumni Ya’Ke Smith and Mikala Gibson.

Duo rising stars in film industry

By Rudy Arispe ’97 BA

Little did Ya’Ke Smith ’03 BA and Mikala Gibson ’00 BA know that when he began writing for The Logos, the University of the Incarnate Word’s (UIW) student newspaper, and was assigned to interview the then-theatre major, who had been nominated for a local acting award, that she would one day become his leading lady – both in real life and on screen.

“That’s how we met,” recalled Smith, a rising filmmaker, whose movies have received world-wide acclaim, showing and garnering accolades at more than 80 film festivals, including the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival.

Gibson on location at UIW’s McCracken House.

Gibson on location at UIW’s McCracken House.

Since 2001, the husband-and-wife duo have collaborated on eight films: Smith in the director’s chair; Gibson in front of the lens. She was the lead actress in the 2014 short film, “Dawn,” loosely based on the filmmaker’s sister’s struggle to stay out of prison. In fact, scenes from the film were shot on the UIW campus at the McCracken House. It will continue to show throughout the year on HBO.

“When you make a film, the goal is to have as many people watch it,” Smith said during a recent Monday morning over coffee alongside his wife before heading back home to Dallas. “Making short films you don’t know how things are going to turn out because there’s not a huge market for shorts. But to have HBO take your film with 20 to 40 million subscribers, so many people will lay eyes on your film.”

Powerful films that tackle and confront controversial societal issues, such as “Dawn,” are those that Smith desires to make, just as he did with “Wolf,” a 2012 drama about sexual abuse. With the film, he said he hoped to create a work that would give a voice to those who may have suffered years of sexual and/or emotional abuse and get the conversation started about the issue. In March, he released “One Hitta Quitta” shot last summer in Fort Worth that deals with a teen’s addiction to Internet violence, specifically fights being recorded on phones, then uploaded on the Web.

“Because of our constant consumption of violent media we’ve become more and more desensitized to violence itself,” the director said. “Young minds, without proper parental supervision and a part of a failing school system, are not able to process the violence and have started to film violent imagery and upload it to social media sites with hopes of garnering Internet fame and validation.”

Don’t expect to see much of Gibson in “One Hitta Quitta.” She only has a small role. And she’s OK with that.

Smith on the set of “Dawn.”

Smith on the set of “Dawn.”

“He’s cut me out of films before,” the actress said, laughing. “But it’s because a part just didn’t work. He’s told me no before when I wanted a part in one of his films.”

Adds Smith: “I don’t cast Mikala because she’s my wife. She has to be right for a certain part if I do cast her.”

Working with her husband, Gibson said, is actually easier these days from when they first collaborated on film projects. In fact, she co-wrote “Dawn.”

“When we’re on set, he’s the director; I’m the actor and I stay in my lane. Some directors have a lot of ego and treat actors like puppets,” she said. “Ya’Ke has been an actor, so he’s open to taking suggestions. But he’ll let you know if it’s not going to work.”

Both credit UIW for helping them prepare for their careers in film and theatre.

“Dr. (Dora) Fitzgerald was very supportive of the films I made at the time and ensured I had the resources I needed and sent me to my first film festival,” said Smith, the 2011 Alumni of Distinction for Professional Achievement.

Smith on location filming in UIW’s McCracken House.

Smith on location filming in UIW’s McCracken House.

Says Gibson: “UIW prepared me for everything I do in theatre. People always ask me, ‘Where did you get your training?’ The Theatre Department definitely helped me develop my work ethic.”

As for the Texas native, she’s interested in portraying characters that resonate within her soul.

“My friends tease me that I play the ugly roles,” she said. “I don’t care if I’m the person no one is cheering for. If a role has a strong message, I’m all for it.”

When they’re not working on films, both stay busy. He is a Morgan Woodward Distinguished Professor of Film at the University of Texas at Arlington. Gibson trains artists to teach art to inner-city kids in Dallas and throughout Texas.