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Baltimore School for the Arts alum Tiffany Boone makes splash on Showtime's 'The Chi'

Since she started talking, Tiffany Boone has played a variety of characters quite different from herself.

The Baltimore actress started with impersonations as a child. She played “a lady of the streets” while attending the Baltimore School for the Arts, a patient in “Grey’s Anatomy,” and a cult member who killed her mother on Fox’s “The Following.”

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But it wasn’t until she landed a role in Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe’s newest Showtime series, “The Chi,” that Boone played someone more like herself: Jerrika, an ambitious young woman, a dedicated girlfriend who wears her natural hair.

The two are kindred spirits, according to Boone, who has adamantly worn her hair natural for the past three years despite pressures from the entertainment industry.

“She felt like my friend. She felt like my family. She felt like a nuanced black woman that we don’t often see,” Boone said.

After a family tragedy, Boone, born in Baltimore and raised in Columbia, found solace in performance. She started with dance, but acting soon took hold. She immersed herself in theater at BSA, and attended California Institute of the Arts after graduation.

Drama “helped to heal a lot of those wounds and help me go to a place where I felt safe,” said Boone.

But years later, after settling in Los Angeles, where she’s now based, the 30-year-old actress said the business side of the industry had become overwhelming. A self-proclaimed arts school kid, Boone said she was losing her love for acting.

“I needed to take a break, and If I didn’t [take one], I was going to become completely bitter,” said Boone, who stepped away from acting in 2016 — creating a flower arrangement business out of her home. But she mustered up the motivation to do an audition for “one more pilot.” It resulted in a starring role in “The Chi,” which follows a group of Chicagoans on the South Side as their lives intertwine after a tragic event.

“It was the best script that I ever read. I cried,” said Boone, whose character, Jerrika, faces obstacles as she and her boyfriend, Brandon (“Straight Outta Compton” and “Mudbound” actor Jason Mitchell), attempt to open a restaurant.

Working on the show has been an experience of firsts, she said.

“I’ve never been a part of a project with such a large black actor presence. It’s my first time working with a group of black actors,” said Boone, who co-stars alongside Mitchell, Alex R. Hibbert (“Moonlight”) and Sonja Sohn (“The Wire”). “The caliber of work that everyone is bringing, it’s just so exciting. … it’s a gift, really.”

For Boone, the co-leading role in “The Chi” revived her career and interest in acting. Throughout her life, drama “helped heal a lot of wounds” and got her to a place where she felt safe, a need she’s felt since the murder of her father. He died when she was just 3 years old. Boone declined to go into specifics about his death.

“Obviously, it impacted us greatly in different ways. My mother always made sure I knew who he was and that he loved me. ... She was a total rock star and the best mother that I could ever hope for,” said Boone, emphasizing that her mother ensured that she was busy and involved in extracurricular activities, like dance. (Boone’s publicist said her mother was not available to speak for this article.)

Acting, however, became her solace. She was in her first play at age 8, and took acting classes in a middle school program at BSA before attending high school there.

“With acting, it was the ability to pretend to be someone else, and get lost in other characters,” Boone said.

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Richard Pilcher, the principal acting teacher at BSA since it opened full-time in 1981, said he remembers Boone as a focused, energetic and creative student with great comedic timing and a dedication to her roles.

“We do a project here called Junior Scene Night, and … I happen to remember her doing a small role in one of the scenes, where she played a young lady of the streets. It was so far from her, but she was just really funny and honest and very true, and I had one of the biggest laughs,” Pilcher said, adding that, “You’re either born with that, or you don’t have it.”

“I’m not all surprised that she’s carving out a great career.”

After graduating from BSA in 2005, Boone attended California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, where she pursued an experimental program in theater.

“I learned at Cal Arts you can do anything you want to do and play any character you want to play, and nothing can hold you back, and there’s nothing I feel that I can’t do because I did the weirdest stuff there,” she said.

After graduation in 2009, Boone went on to land roles in films and TV, her favorite being her role in “The Following,” which required her to move to Brooklyn, N.Y., and to, again, dive into a character so different from her own.

“The character was super fun. She was a part of a cult of serial killers and she killed her mother. … I got to die on screen for the first time,” Boone said.

But Jerrika has almost been more challenging, she said, because she felt like she was playing herself.

“There’s a responsibility to make her grounded, relatable, to make other black women like myself [say], ‘Oh my god, I do that, too. Oh my god, that’s me!’ ” she said, adding that she became more vocal about modifying aspects of Jerrika to make her more realistic.

At night, “I need to have a scarf around my hair. I hate to watch television and to see black women with their hair all out. … No, that’s not real life,” she said.

“I don't have lingerie. I have stupid slippers. Even those little details are important to telling our stories because that’s what make [us] who we are. Those are the little things that helped me create Jerrika.”

Wearing her hair in its natural state while in character — without chemicals, straightening or blow-drying — also became an important part of her “Chi” character. The actress said it can be challenging in the entertainment industry because many hairstylists aren’t experienced with natural African-American hair and because there is often a push for straight or sleek looks, so it requires extra effort on her part.

“Generally what I do is I already come hair ready. … My counterparts can show up to work with their hair wet or in a topknot and get their hair done. I have to wake up an hour before,” she said, adding that occasionally for roles, she’ll wear a wig.

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“It’s sad that we have to do that, but I’m willing to do that in order to look right.”

For “The Chi,” however, Boone said Waithe and producers encouraged her to wear her natural hair, “because little black girls need to see themselves, to see black women being sexy and intelligent and goofy — everything we are with natural hair,” she said. They even have a black hairstylist on set, also with natural hair, whose in charge of styling her ’do.

Sohn said working with Boone, who attended BSA and Cal Arts with her daughter, has been uplifting — despite their characters’ having a contentious relationship. (Sohn plays the mother of Jerrika’s boyfriend.)

“She has such a joyful energy and playfulness about it, and she’s really good at what she does. She really embodies that character,” she said, emphasizing that Boone is a part of the next wave or “tsunami” of African-American talent.

“I’m just excited to be a part of that history.”

Boone said the feedback for the show thus far has been positive.

“To hear people responding to the show and messaging me and commenting, ‘I’m from Chicago, and I can't thank you enough for showing our stories.’ — That means the world to me,” she said.

As for what comes next, Boone said she doesn’t have anything specific in mind. She’s taking it project to project.

“To me, it’s all about the quality of the work and the people involved,” she said.

On Tuesday, Showtime announced that it was renewing “The Chi” for season two.

“I just feel like there’s so much more that I can do with Jerrika and beyond that,” she said.

“...I think we have a lot more stories to tell.”

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