The 41-year-old showbiz vet, wife to actor Christopher Morgan, and mother to son Sebastian, 3, has been busy directing episodes of Tyler Perry's hit sitcoms "Meet the Browns" and "House of Payne," offering advice to aspiring filmmakers as a panelist at this summer's "Lens on Talent: Get Focused" film symposium, and being a guest on the upcoming season of BET's "Lens on Talent: A Johnson & Johnson Filmmaker’s Challenge," which premieres September 12. Fields sat down with Parade.com to talk about her child-star past, the underwhelming feat of turning 40, what it's like to work with Tyler Perry, and why she has (almost) no regrets from her "Facts of Life" days.
Getting the acting bug at an early age
"I was never pushed into the industry. I was a very shy child. I was not one to perform for friends and family at every get-together. When my mom started going to acting classes out here in New York, we couldn't afford a babysitter. And so she took me to the acting classes just because, well, what else was she going to do with me? And there were other kids there whose parents couldn't afford sitters either. We would keep ourselves entertained by imitating what we saw them doing, and that kind of birthed acting classes for the younger kids. In that crop was Danielle Spencer, who played Dee on 'What's Happening.' Her father was a ridiculously tremendous actor named Tim Pelt, who we lost some time ago in a horrible car crash."
A childhood beyond acting
"I always felt that I had a childhood. I went to regular school whenever I wasn't working. At one point, I wanted to be a marine biologist."
Being a part of "The Facts of Life," the pop-culture phenomenon
"It still, to this day, blows my mind. When you're in it, you don't think about that at all. I mean, my goodness, we were almost canceled once, and the critics and the media never regarded 'The Facts of Life' as any sort of great critical success or an acclaimed show. And we were too big to be a cult-followed show. We still had nine years. Nine years of your life from age 9 to 18; you can't fathom a more-crucial piece of your own time."
More to Kim than just the "Facts"
"'Facts of Life' was and continues to be a milestone on my journey. But when people act like the journey ended when 'Facts of Life' ended, that's annoying. I could never and would never want to divorce myself from it because it was such a great experience from so many different facets. I got a tremendous education — my literal education from schooling but also the education from the on-the-job training. The fantastic group of people that I've worked with as cast members and crewmembers — we continue to be good friends. I love showing up to a set, and there's a camera guy I worked with as a child, and now we're equals. It's just fantastic to me."
Understanding that the public grew up with her
"I recognize the unknowing, involuntary effect that 'Facts of Life' had and continues to have on several generations of people. When I walk into a store and the cashier can't focus at all because she says, quite frankly, 'Can I have a hug?' Sure. I mean, there's a part of me that wants to say, 'You know I'm a stranger, right? If you ask the next person that they'll report you.' So there are certain elements of not just 'Facts of Life' but my own career that I realize audiences have taken ownership of. And it can be a glorious blessing and sometimes a little odd all these years later. But I certainly wouldn't have it any other way."
Being the only African-American actor in a predominantly white cast
"I didn't feel alone or singled out because, No. 1, I was a kid. Those thoughts don't really register. It's not like being in a classroom, and no one wants to play with you; it wasn't like that at all, and as a kid, there's only so much that you can comprehend. So much is in hindsight. At the time, you don't realize any of this. You're just showing up to work. You're just going to school. And then, years later, it becomes, like, 'Is that me when they're talking about "the only" or "the first" or "the pioneer" or "groundbreaker"?' I'm like, 'Really? I was just an actor.'"
Having (almost) no misgivings about her "Facts" days
"People say, 'If you had to do it again, would you stay nine years?' Sure. 'If you had to do it again, would you change the character name?' Well, maybe. No one wants to walk around in their 40s and still be called 'Tootie.'"
Regrets about the roller skates
"No. They got me the gig!" [Laughs.]
Going to college after "Facts" ended
"I can't say it was a break; it was a change in my schedule. I didn't do what one of my heroes, Jodie Foster, did, who just said, 'I'm taking a break from the industry, and I'm going to Yale.' For me, because I was in Malibu, California, (at Pepperdine University) I was still working. I wasn't on a series and reporting to a set every day, but I would do a Dick Clark special here and there, as a host. I did a talk show on campus that I created and produced and had Blair Underwood and Betty White and Sugar Ray Leonard and Jason Bateman (as guests). I was a film and TV production and broadcast journalism double major. I was still always around it."
Taking on another female ensemble show, "Living Single"
"I was surprised that I did another predominantly female ensemble show. I was surprised that I did another series where (my character) did not have (her) own place to live. I was a roommate yet again. It's not in any way a complaint; it's just another one of those ironic observations. Aside from that, I loved doing 'Living Single.' I adored the cast."
The real reason she said yes to a cameo on "The Comeback"
"I'd already met with (Lisa Kudrow) and her producing partner — I think it was the season before for a show that she was a producer on — and we kind of clicked. So the following season, when 'The Comeback' happened, (Kudrow and Michael Patrick King) reached out to me. The idea of working with (King) and Lisa Kudrow on something was just a lot of fun. Yes, in all absolute honesty, there was a part of me that thought, 'Hey, if they ever do anything with "Sex and the City," maybe I can be the black girl in it. [Laughs.] Yeah, we saw how that worked out."
Working with Tyler Perry on "Meet the Browns" and "House of Payne"
"I've known Tyler for a very long time, from the theater days. And he's always been very, very kind in saying how much he supported my work or my mother's work as actresses over the years, as he was growing up. Once everything took off for him TV-wise, he just wasn't able to do everything that he was doing as director, as head of the studio, as a fellow actor, as a writer, etc. So they started reaching out and saying, 'Hey, who can we get?' I was one of the first directors that they brought in to shadow Tyler. He's been incredibly gracious and supportive of the work that I'm doing there."
Losing her dreadlocks
"Last year, when I was about to turn 40, I had this notion in my head of, OK, here comes a new decade of my life, a new chapter, and wanting to have a new look or energy. I'd had my locks for 11 years. I thought maybe it was time to do something different. I had just finished doing this one-woman show that I produced and written and directed, and so I was kind of feeling good about where I was as an actor. And I thought, 'You know, let's cut my hair'"
Turning the big 4-0
"There's a lot of hype around 'Life begins at 40. 40 is the new 20.' Like, as soon as that magic birthday hits, Willy Wonka turns over the factory to you and your whole life and world change but, at least for me, not so much. I didn't know what I was doing. I knew what I was doing as a mom, as a wife, as a director in my career, but as Kim, I felt completely clueless. Just now, turning 41 a couple of weeks ago, slowly things are starting to click."
Keeping it all on track
"First of all, we're a praying family. You just can't run willy-nilly in this industry. For me, before I was even a mom or a wife or anything, I was a praying person. I was always very clear that my faith sustained me and helped me keep a modicum of sanity. I couldn't even fathom being in life — let alone this life in the entertainment industry — without God. The entertainment industry has its own perils and ups and downs, like any industry. But in just life itself, I couldn't and wouldn't want to be without God. And I've tried to be in this life without God: no thanks."