Keisha Tillis, Hitting Her Stride as a Walker

Photos by Marie Thomas

Soft spoken, friendly, unassuming. That was my first impression of Keisha Tillis as she walked into a cycle class at a local gym. Wearing shorts with a loose fitting t-shirt and a do-rag on her head, she quietly said her hello’s as she made her way to the opposite side of the room and pulled out a bike. One Saturday morning when the class was nearly full, I had to pull my bike up alongside hers on the far wall. She was gracious in moving over and was concerned when I laid my head on my handle bars toward the end of class.

She asked if I had eaten. I had not.

“You need to get something in you before class. You need to fuel up.”

Then one week as I was working out with my trainer and fellow indoor cycle enthusiast, James Robison, he mentioned that Keisha was going to be on a TV show on AMC. “It’s called The Walking Dead. It’s about zombies.”

“Ugh – I’m not into zombies,” I said, but promised to have my husband record it. So we set it to record at our house, then forgot about it.

A week or two later, my younger brother called to tell me about this new show and how I really needed to watch it. He said he got turned onto it by his friend Bill, who lives in Pennsylvania. As he excitedly went on about how it was about zombies and was filmed in Georgia, I realized he was talking about Keisha’s show. “I know a girl that’s in that show. She’s supposed to be some kind of ‘zombie mama.’ ”

Keisha, as Jenny Jones (wife of Morgan and mother of Dwayne), gives a riveting performance in Season 1, Episode 1, of The Walking Dead.

He just about lost it. He described her part as being one of the “lead” zombies on the show.

That was just the motivation I needed to queue it up and watch it.

Keisha (Jones) Tillis was born in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to Judith Ann and John Edward Jones, proud Spelman- and Morehouse-educated parents. Judith was a dedicated social worker and John, a pastor. Her parents divorced when she was just three years old, and her mother took over the job of raising her full-time as a single parent.

Keisha’s first love wasn’t acting, but singing. She got her start singing with the praise team at her church.

“My parents were devoted to the church. Love of God was instilled in me at a very young age,” she says.

Though her mother wasn’t totally sold on the idea of Keisha pursuing a career in the performing arts (she preferred something more practical), she encouraged her to audition for admittance to Northside School of the Performing Arts (now North Atlanta High School) through a magnet program. Keisha was accepted and spent her junior and senior years there. She also auditioned for the TV program Star Search, but didn’t make the cut.

“Stage-fright always seemed to get the best of me”

“Stage-fright always seemed to get the best of me,” she says. Keisha remained close to her father over the years and went to live with him in Richmond, Virginia, soon after graduating from Northside in 1991. Not sure which career path to follow, she put her faith in God – literally – and worked in her father’s ministry full-time for four years at Manna Christian Fellowship in Richmond.

According to Keisha, “The time I spent serving others through the ministry brought me to where I am today. Success is not possible without God.”

Keisha returned to Georgia in 1995 to live with her mother in East Point. She decided to pursue nursing and registered for classes at Dekalb Community College, much to the delight of her mother.

“My mother was always insistent that no matter what I decided to do, I needed to get an education,” she explains.

It was during this period, in her early twenties, that Keisha found work as a waitress at Chris Tucker’s Comedy Café in Atlanta. She also served as an assistant to Chris’ sister, arranging schedules and travel itineraries. She even started singing again, helping out a rapper girlfriend by singing the “hooks,” or choruses, on her tracks.

Then came the audition that changed her life.

An independent film maker was holding auditions downstairs at the comedy club.

Although Keisha had no acting experience, she was curious and decided to give it a shot.

Though she didn’t get a role in the film, the director told her she “had something” and cast her as the lead in a stage play to be performed at the club. Performing onstage at the club is when she says she had her “light bulb” moment.

“Standing on that stage, I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. It felt right.”

Because her family had always stressed the importance of getting an education, Keisha’s approach to acting was one of learning. She knew she needed professional training, so she left Dekalb Community College behind and began taking acting classes in Atlanta. She started at Professional Actor’s Studio before finding a mentor in Gaylord Parsons at Celebrity Actor’s Studio. Keisha credits Parsons’ coaching, which he did for three years with her, as the key to learning her craft.

Keisha initially found work in small independent films, but she had an epiphany when she was cast as an extra in Remember the Titans with Denzel Washington. She remembers sitting in the stands during one scene thinking, “I didn’t get into this business to be an extra.”

On the set of a short film, "For the Love of You", in which Keisha is the lead and Dexter wrote and directed that will be running at festivals next year.

Her mother was still unsure of this whole acting thing, but Keisha continued to plug away, getting herself an agent in 2001. Getting an agent was a big piece of the puzzle. She actually had to audition to become a client. But it paid off – she began getting calls for auditions. Things seemed to be happening for Keisha, but then came a blow that knocked her off her feet. Her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Keisha put her acting career on the back burner to take care of her mother, something she does not regret. Her mother passed away a year later, leaving Keisha depressed and wondering how to pick up the pieces and start working again.

“I was lost,” she says of that time.

So she immersed herself in acting and began auditioning again. As fate would have it, she met and befriended Dexter Tillis, another aspiring actor, at an audition. As it turned out, their paths had crossed before; he was also an extra in Remember the Titans.

They both had similar backgrounds and had the same passion for acting.

“We started studying together at first,” says Dexter, “and our relationship progressed from there.”

They married thirteen months later, vowing to pursue their dreams of acting together, according to Keisha, “one hundred percent, as a family.”

And it seemed to work. They paid the bills by forming Little Business Home Improvement, doing carpentry and painting jobs. Meanwhile, Dexter found success appearing in hit TV shows such as Surface and Army Wives while Keisha was having babies – three in five years (now ages 6, 4, and 2). She kept her foot in the door mainly doing print ads, but would attend auditions once in a while. She says at times she found herself questioning whether she still had something to offer.

“I just kept thinking, ‘Lord, let me know if I’m still wanted in my profession,’ ” she says.

Keisha and Dexter on the set of Cannon Street Boys with director Jason Scott.

She found her answer in an audition. Just when she thought she might be out of the game for good, she was called to read for the part of the lead character’s wife in The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington. (She’d come a long way from being an extra in Remember the Titans!) She attended three reads for the part in North Carolina.

The fourth read was in Atlanta, and Denzel was there. At one point during her scene, Denzel jumped up from his seat, kissed her on the cheek and joined her. They began improvising, playing off one another. She didn’t get the part. She couldn’t have done it anyway – she was already four months pregnant with her second child. But at that moment, she knew she still had something to offer. Apparently Denzel did too, because he told her agent how impressed he was with her.

“Divine order,” is what she calls it. “It wasn’t my time yet. I needed to complete our family first.”

The Tillises left the city and moved their growing family to Fayette County in 2007 because of “the trees and family atmosphere,” says Keisha. After the birth of their third child, Keisha starting thinking about getting back in front of the camera. She hit the gym to get back in shape, and got herself a new agent, Joy Pervis. She went to several tape readings at her agency when the opportunity to audition for AMC’s The Walking Dead came along.

Keisha was not exactly excited about “reading” for a role with no dialogue.

She had no idea how a zombie should act. The day of the taping, she showed up at the agency in street clothes, only to see her competition in full zombie costume – and that’s what got her motivated. Competition.

Since there was no dialogue for the zombie part, Keisha was told to look in the camera like there was something in it she recognized. She says she gave it everything she had, staring into the camera, even bringing tears to her eyes. Then she screamed and fell to the floor.

Left to right: The Tillis Family, Dexter Sr., Zion, Keisha, Myla, Dexter Jr.

“I can’t imagine what the people in the waiting room were thinking when they heard me scream,” she laughs.

Keisha was ultimately cast as Jenny Jones, a zombie. Jenny was the wife of Morgan Jones, played by Lennie James (of HBO’s Hung). Morgan and his son hole up each night in a house, occasionally peeking outside to catch a glimpse of Jenny, now a “walker.” Zombie Jenny stumbles around aimlessly in the streets, sometimes even coming up onto the front porch to look into the peep hole, almost as if she’s looking for her little boy, which terrifies him. In one scene his father Morgan sits in an upstairs window with a rifle, staring at a picture of Jenny while he aims the barrel of the gun at her walking in the street. His finger is on the trigger, but he can’t do it.

So what’s it like to be a zombie?

Keisha says it took two hours to do her makeup and she was on the set for eleven hours. Her part was filmed in the Grant Park area of Atlanta.

This season, The Walking Dead will be filming in Fayette and Coweta counties.

One week before the first episode aired, a friend of Keisha’s called her to tell her that her picture was in People Magazine. People reviewed the show, giving it four stars.

The picture they printed was a shot of Keisha, as dead Jenny Jones, walking in front of a group of zombies.

Keisha and Dexter watched the first episode together and realized it was good – really good. Dexter confesses that the only reason he watched the show was because Keisha was in it.

“Zombie movies don’t really appeal to me. But it’s really not about zombies. It could have been any cataclysmic event – a natural disaster or something.

This season, "The Walking Dead" will be filming in Fayette and Coweta counties.

It’s a drama about the people who band together to survive.”

After the first episode aired, Keisha’s profile on the online movie database, imdb.com, went through the roof. She knew right then that it just might be the break she’d been waiting for.

As for whether Keisha will return for the second season, there are no guarantees, but she hopes so. AMC has been very secretive about the second season, not wanting to give away any of the plot lines. The good news is that she’s one of the few zombies they didn’t kill off.

Whether or not Jenny Jones survives Season Two, Keisha’s continuing on with more acting work. When we last spoke, she was on her way to the Philippines for a film role. She says she feels like her family is at a pivotal point. Maybe home schooling and/or tutors are in store for the kids as she and Dexter continue to pursue their acting and directing dreams together. (They own a small film company too, Tillis Films.)

She says the message she wants to leave Fayette Woman readers with is to never give up on your dreams.

“I’m proof that you can start over again. You’ve just got to work hard and be willing to go the distance.

Facts about AMC’s The Walking Dead

  • Based on Robert Kirkman’s popular comic book series, AMC’s The Walking Dead premiered on Halloween night, 2010.
  • The season finale drew six million viewers – more than any other AMC series – including the channel’s critically lauded show, Mad Men.
  • The Walking Dead is the most watched cable series among the 18-25 demographic.
  • Filmed on location in metro Atlanta, The Walking Dead is shooting in Fayette and Coweta counties for Season Two.
  • Written and executive produced by Academy Award winning director Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption).
  • Received a nomination for Best Drama for the Broadcast Television Journalists Association’s Critics’ Choice Awards.
  • Stephen King is in talks to write an episode for Season Two.

Season Two of "The Walking Dead" will premiere on AMC in October 2011.

 

Jill Prouty

Jill is a reader, writer, and professional librarian who enjoys spending her free time with her husband of twelve years and their two sons. She has an MSLS from Clarion University of Pennsylvania and a BA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

September 13, 2011

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