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Arts

Kam Williams | 3/18/2009, 6:53 a.m.

Born in Newark, N.J., on April 9, 1979, Keshia Knight Pulliam entered showbiz at an early age, making TV commercials as a toddler and landing a recurring role on PBS’ “Sesame Street” by the age of 3. But it was on “The Cosby Show” that she made her way into the hearts of American viewers as the adorable Rudy Huxtable, the baby of the much-beloved television family.

In 1984, she earned an NAACP Image Award for her work on that celebrated series; a couple of years later, she became the youngest actress ever nominated for an Emmy. When the show’s eight-year run ended, Knight Pulliam turned her attention to academics. She eventually attended the prestigious historically black female institution Spelman College in Atlanta, where she majored in sociology.

Soon after graduating, she began the work of returning to the limelight, starting out as a contestant on a couple of game shows and emerging victorious on celebrity versions of both “Fear Factor” and “The Weakest Link.” Later, in an effort ostensibly designed to shed her “little girl” image, Knight Pulliam posed for a swimsuit/lingerie layout in Black Men Magazine in 2005.

Since then, she successfully made the transition back to acting, appearing on the big screen in “The Gospel,” “Beauty Shop” and “Death Toll” before returning to TV to join the cast of TBS’ “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” Just last month, she won another NAACP Image Award for her performance on the hit sitcom.

Knight Pulliam recently took a few moments to speak with the Banner about her co-starring turn as Candace, a college student-turned-prostitute, in “Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail,” which opened last month as the number one movie in America.

Are you in touch with anybody from “The Cosby Show”?

Yes, Phylicia Rashad actually came to the premiere of “Madea Goes to Jail” in New York, and Tempestt [Bledsoe] just sent me a text message a couple days ago congratulating me and letting me know I’d done a great job.

What interested you in being a part of this movie?

I’d already worked with Tyler on “House of Payne,” so …

That’s right. Congratulations on your Image Award.

Thank you very much. … I worked very hard on the show and on “Madea Goes to Jail,” so it’s a pleasure and honor to still be recognized as an actress almost 30 years after I entered the business.

Wait — you’re not even 30 yet, are you?

I’ll be 30 in about a month.

Then how could you be recognized 30 years later, if you’re not even 30?

I said “almost 30 years later,” and I’ve been in the business since I was 9 months old.

Oh, really? I thought you got your start on “The Cosby Show.”

No, before that, I had already done “Sesame Street,” a feature film, print ads and national TV commercials. So, I’ve been at this a long, long time.

So many child actors’ lives end up such a mess. How did you avoid that?

Of course, you learn from the mistakes made by those who came before you, and even when I was on “Cosby,” I went to school and had lots of interaction with my peers. I think it’s funny how society so often focuses on the negative stories when there are so many positive ones about child actors who have made that transition and continued to be successful. From the Ron Howards and the Drew Barrymores to the Jodie Fosters, there are so many who have made that transition and transcended the whole “child actor” thing. Still, the press prefers to harp on the tragic stories.

How did you enjoy Spelman?

I loved it. I really enjoyed school, and I’m happy that I did decide to take that break away from the industry.

Was it hard being such a big celebrity on campus?

No, it’s a part of life. Everyone has their own different life experiences which make them who they are. No two people’s life experiences are the same. And mine are just unique to me.

Did you ever meet anyone in real life like your character, Candace, in “Madea Goes to Jail,” a college student who becomes a drug addict and a prostitute?

I think everyone has a family member who may have had a drug addiction problem. That’s not foreign to anyone, no matter what your economic background, race or religion. I think it touches everybody’s lives. No one’s immune to it. But do I have a personal friend who shares the trajectory of Candace’s whole personal story? No.

I sort of cut you off earlier while you were answering my very first question: What interested you in “Madea Goes to Jail”?

I really fought for this role, because I wanted to do something that was very different and a challenge for me as an actress. That’s what this role represented to me, and I’m very proud and excited about how it turned out. I think people will definitely leave the theaters seeing me for the actress that I am.

Is that part of the reason why you did the layout in Black Men Magazine — to try to break away from your “cute kid” image?

No, I think you’re misunderstanding me. It’s not about breaking away from an image; I think your body of work speaks for itself. It’s your job as an actor to take on new challenges, and building upon that body of work. That’s what defines who you are as an actor. For me, as an adult and as a female, I think that women are beautiful, and that there’s nothing wrong with celebrating their femininity, their sensuality, their sexuality, as well as their intelligence. We’re very well-rounded beings, and I represent all of that.

I was very impressed that you not only went on but won on the celebrity version of a couple of game shows: “The Weakest Link” and “Fear Factor.”

Yeah, those were a lot of fun to do. What I like is that they challenge you in different ways, one intellectually, one physically.

What did you do on “Fear Factor”?

I got run over by a monster truck, I had to swim with snakes, and I got dropped on a bungee cord out of a Plexiglas box over a canyon.

Oh my God! Did you regret doing any of those stunts?

Not at all!

Are you ever afraid?

Working in this business, sometimes you get a nervous energy, but you have to sort of work through it. You can’t really live in a spirit of fear. You just have to kind of go for it.

What music are you listening to nowadays?

I listen to everything. Let me think … What has been my song recently? “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. is very catchy. I like that, but I listen to everything from rap to Lenny Kravitz to Coldplay, depending on my mood. And my favorite song of all time is “Always and Forever” by Heatwave.

What was the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in life?

Mastering being comfortable in my own skin.

Who’s at the top of your hero list?

My mom, Denise.

When was the last time you had a big belly laugh?

(laughs) OK, this is probably a really silly answer, but I was in the mall the other day, in the middle of the tie section of Macy’s with a friend when this guy came over and asked me my name. I said, “Keshia. How are you?” Then, the friend I was with said, “Oh, you just tell strangers your name,” even though he knew why the person had asked. (laughs some more) I’m really silly and I just love to have fun. So, I then started joking, grabbing my crotch and going, “No, my name is Harold,” in a deep voice. It was the funniest thing ever, because we had our own private laugh, while this person looked at us like, “You’re both insane.”

How do you want to be remembered?

Wow! I would love to be remembered as a wonderfully dynamic and multitalented actress who left a legacy, through her work and through her life, of helping people and of being a positive force in the world. And I’d also like to be remembered for doing my best at everything that I set my mind to do, while helping to inspire others along the way.