Acting is a profession that demands an unusual balance of authenticity and projection. On one hand, an actor who can completely transform themselves into another person is praised for their ability to portray the soul of a character, all while putting themself – their real self – aside to do so. When you stop and think about it, doesn’t that seem like an incredibly conflicted way to make a living?
Tina Lifford, a veteran of television and film, understands this duality as well as anyone. Over the years, she has portrayed strong Black females, from her turn as the star of FOX’s South Central in the 90s up through her role as Aunt Vi – the family matriarch – on the critically-acclaimed Queen Sugar for the Oprah Winfrey Network. She has carved out a career in the ultra-competitive world of Hollywood while also pursuing work as an author and inner health and well-being coach with her own company, The Inner Fitness Project.
I sat down with the actress to better understand how these two Tinas came to be and continue to each flourish.
Is it true that your childhood dream was to become an actress?
Yes, from an early age, I loved storytelling and characters. I was born in the small town of Evanston, Illinois, and my parents were very social. They threw parties, hosted barbeques, and every other social function you could imagine. So, there were kids, adults, and grandparents together at these events, like a big family reunion. I was always surrounded by characters and heard so many of their stories.
But specifically, after my second-grade year, my family bought me a summer pass for Northwestern University’s Summer Theater series. This gift was a big deal because we weren’t well-off. But my parents knew how much I loved theater. So, they scraped together the money, and throughout the summer, my mom would take me and sometimes my siblings to see plays.
After seeing a show, I would become all the characters and reenact the story almost line for line around the house. My parents lovingly indulged me, while my siblings rolled their eyes and begged me to stop acting. But I loved inhabiting the lives of imaginary people. I would bring the characters in the play to life using bits and pieces of the real-life characters in my life.
All those family events gave me rich characters to love and draw from throughout my career.
What has been your proudest accomplishment?
It’s funny; my biggest accomplishment and, to think about the flip side of that question, my biggest disappointment, is the same moment.
A few years after that summer theater series, I signed up for a talent show at school. I had sung enough around my family to know I liked singing and was good at it. But, on the day of the talent show, I got nervous when I saw my name was first up on the schedule. As we approached the show’s start, my nervousness moved towards panic, then into full-on heart-pounding-dear-in-headlights fear.
I had no power or voice when I took the stage. Instead, the fear coursing through me made me a frozen image of myself. I experienced such stage fright that I was rooted in one spot, unable to utter a note or move for what seemed like forever. My teacher had to come to center stage, pick me up, and carry me off. It was terrifying and humiliating.
That 90 seconds of crippling fear felt like an eternity. It was my greatest disappointment because it threatened to undermine my dream of becoming an actress and destabilized my sense of myself. Though I never gave up on my dream of becoming an actress, there were many times when my stage fright memory was triggered before an audition, and I would be in an internal emotional storm. People outside would perceive me cool, calm, and collected. But inside, I was overwhelmed, so intense that I could barely think. That happens when we are pushed into the zone of our unresolved fears. The experience of being frozen on stage and unable to manage my internal state introduced me to insecurity and how fragile we humans can be.
But, all these years later, I regard that stage fright as my biggest teacher and the path to my most significant personal achievement: self-awareness and confidence in my ability to navigate internal overwhelm and dysregulation. Developing these two inner powers supports living a life full of possibilities. The time I’ve invested in understanding how fear operates inside me and learning ways to work with myself compassionately has given me the gift of self-agency. It awakened me to the power that lives inside that can set us free from the past. This realization and my desire to support others forged the birth of the Inner Fitness Project.
So, not only was that bout with stage fright the birth of your acting career, but it was also the birth of your commitment to well-being.
Definitely! About ten years ago, I self-published The Little Book of Big Lies, about my experiences with fear, judgment, and navigating the quicksand of self-doubt. That book encapsulates much of the work I’ve done over the years. It distills the ways of thinking that empower or undermine personal power, teaches simple prompts that reveal limiting beliefs and unresolved issues, and details reasonable steps that lead to internal freedom and expansion.
I wrote The Little Book of Big Lies for anyone who desires greater internal confidence, calm, and self-agency. Too often, we find ourselves defined by what others think or say, the things we want but don’t get, or, quite frankly, fear in all its forms. We hear the phrase “Take a look in the mirror” all the time, right? I want to take it a step further and help people look inside themselves to find their inner self: who they innately are. In The Little Book of Big Lies, I share examples and moments from my life over the years and how I tried to design a path to what I now call inner fitness.
Now, besides your acting work, you help individuals from all walks of life develop their inner fitness.
Yes. We are more than the physical body. Our most defining moments are born from our internal experiences. How we internalize our experiences reshapes our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, actions, and reactions. Self-awareness is critical to both success and happiness. Most people don’t realize that success and happiness are not synonymous. One does not guarantee the other. They are two different skill sets that overlap. My work helps busy executives achieve mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical balance in their professional lives. “Everywhere you go, there you are” is one of my favorite sayings. Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and habits follow us everywhere. A sustainable, rewarding career requires an understanding of your inner self. Uncommon tools are needed to harness the internal freedom and flexibility that supports ongoing success.
The last three years have upended just about everything we’d come to accept about work and career. Burnout has never been higher. People have quit high-profile jobs because they no longer want to be who they were, personally and professionally. Many people want to connect or reconnect with themselves. I see people in corporate positions struggling with this every day. The Inner Fitness Project helps people connect with themselves and step into the best iteration of themselves right where they are, regardless of their level of life satisfaction, role, or title.
What do you think is unique about your work with professionals, especially in the corporate space? Why do you think it resonates with your clients?
It permits people to think about themselves in ways they’ve never considered and find calming and empowering. One of the most significant barriers to well-being is disconnection. Many people are disconnected from themselves and why they do what they do. Our most important responsibility is to invest time and attention in knowing our inner selves.
That is why I started the Inner Fitness Project. It’s a comprehensive wellness program that teaches you how to manage your well-being effectively. I guide some amazingly talented leaders as they learn to navigate their past, present, and future with intentionality, resilience, and vision.