Role: Seeta, a femme fatale with a Ph.D.
Project: ‘Conservation,’ a short student film

Olunike Lockett-Smith

Olunike Lockett-Smith

Olunike Lockett-Smith calls the audition for her first student film “kismet.” The Canadian-born, Jamaican- and Nigerian-bred actor with a penchant for accents knew that the role of Seeta in New York University grad student Ian Harnarine’s short film Conservation was destined for her as soon as she stepped into the audition room.

Harnarine says he was looking for a West Indian woman to play “the classic femme fatale with a Ph.D. in physics” in his stylistic film noir about academia and the role of minorities and women in the world of science. Harnarine has a special interest in science — physics in particular — having earned a master’s degree in nuclear physics at the University of Illinois before attending the graduate film program at NYU, where he is also an adjunct professor in the physics department.

Lockett-Smith saw a casting notice for Conservation in Back Stage East and was immediately drawn to the description of Seeta. When she met Harnarine and discovered their similar backgrounds — both are from Toronto and are the children of West Indian parents — she says, “I felt good about it before I even started. We started to talk about Toronto, and I felt like the job was mine.”

But the Canadian director wasn’t simply playing favorites. During the audition, Harnarine asked Lockett-Smith to play the character in a variety of different ways: as a seductive vixen, an innocent college student, and a special agent on a mission; with a Nigerian accent, a Caribbean accent, and no accent. “There were a lot of aspects that I wanted to bring to the character, or at least that I wanted the character to represent,” Harnarine says, “and so we worked through that a lot during the audition process. It was mostly for me to see if she understood the role and what the role was about. And she could encapsulate all those different parts.”

Lockett-Smith had previously done background work in films such as Undercover Brother, Honey, and the Olsen twins vehicle New York Minute; she also has experience in commercials for brands like McDonald’s and Visa. But she says she wants to focus on theatre to fine-tune her skills. “I miss those big checks coming in the mail every few weeks,” she says of her work in commercials. “It’s a great business. I just wouldn’t want to stay there. It doesn’t fit my creative realm.”

Lockett-Smith expected her first student film to be amateurish compared to her professional experiences but says she was impressed by how professional and collaborative it was. She has now appeared in four NYU films and continues to audition for more.

Harnarine, now a thesis student in his third and final year at NYU, shot Conservation more than a year ago and just recently completed the sound design. He is now sending the finished nine-minute work to film festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and festivals in Toronto. Conservation has also been screened at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.

This “Who Got the Part?” column was published in the March 6-12, 2008 issue of Back Stage and online at