She has been beloved to us all ever since she entered our living rooms on Thursday evenings some 25 years ago as Rudith Lillian Huxtable, also known as Rudy. A lot has changed for Keshia Knight Pulliam since her days as the youngest Huxtable on NBC’s groundbreaking “The Cosby Show.” Presently, she has a regular role on the TBS hit show “House of Payne,” and next month, the petite Spelman grad stars in Tyler Perry’s new film, “Madea Goes to Jail.” The 29 year-old New Jersey native shares with ESSENCE.com what we all have in common with heroin addicts, her love of gravy and why she’s content living below the Mason Dixon line.
ESSENCE.COM: So Keshia, how often do you get called Rudy and does it ever bother you since the show has been off the air for nearly 17 years?
KESHIA KNIGHT PULLIAM: (Laughs.) I get called Rudy all the time. I’ve never been bothered by it. I’m very proud to have been a part of history, not just television history but history in general. The character of Rudy is someone that people have identified with for the past 20-plus years and continue to identify with and I think that’s wonderful. At the end of the day, it’s about building on the strong foundation that I had as the character of Rudy and it’s up to me to add to my repertoire and do new characters so that people will see me as other characters in addition to Rudy.
ESSENCE.COM: So many child actors fall victim to drugs, crime, etc. but you graduated from Spelman College and became a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. What do you attribute your “normal” path to?
PULLIAM: I think it’s learning from the mistakes of those before you. It’s very documented the rough route that other child stars have had. My family made sure my focus was to stay grounded, to stay humble. In my family, it’s not an option not to be. Taking that time off to grow emotionally, mentally and physically was a very deliberate thing; to just go to school and have those regular experiences in life. Through that, your self-worth isn’t grounded in Hollywood. It isn’t grounded in your next role. It’s grounded in real stuff—going to school, being a good person, those sorts of things. So I really attribute it to my upbringing.
ESSENCE.COM: You currently live in Atlanta and not Los Angeles like most of your peers. Is that also something that is very deliberate?
PULLIAM: Very deliberate! (Laughs.) I mean, of course my agents were looking at me like, Are you crazy? You can’t do it. There are all the naysayers who are saying it can’t be done, but I don’t feel confined to that. I think that if it’s something you really want to do, you can make it happen. Because of “The Cosby Show” and my early success, I was able to establish a name for myself in this business, which did make it easier to be able to go back and forth. Atlanta has definitely grown over the last five years or so, because it wasn’t always like this. It’s wonderful, being able to work with Tyler right here in the studio. It is the best of both worlds, because I truly attribute my sanity to being away from all of that Hollywood stuff. Being able to just be home and be in an environment that is real. In L.A. the garbage man is trying to sell you a script.
ESSENCE.COM: So let’s talk a little about Tyler Perry. In his new film “Madea Goes to Jail,” you’re playing a heroin-addicted prostitute?
PULLIAM: Yes. Everyone is like, Oh my goodness, and that’s exactly why I did it because I wanted something completely out the box, [a role] that people would never expect. And although I’ve never been a heroin addict or had a drug problem in any way, shape or form, I think that feeling of despair, that feeling of hopelessness, on some level, everyone has had them. Everyone has had good days and had bad days—that’s just a part of life. So it was really about tapping into experiences and emotions that you’ve had and kind of tailoring them to that, and of course I did research on heroin addiction. For me she was a heroin addict first and then became a prostitute in order to pay for her habit. One bad decision can send you down a spiraling road. This girl was a college student who was in school and through one traumatic event and bad decision on her part, she ended up [on drugs and selling her body]. Just because it happens like that doesn’t mean that you can’t come back from it.
ESSENCE.COM: What is it like working with Tyler Perry? Have you learned from him?
PULLIAM: I try to learn something from every person. I think the learning process is a continuous process. Those who think they know it all are idiots. One of the things I’ve learned from working with Tyler is you can think out the box, you can do things in ways that haven’t been done before.
ESSENCE.COM: I’m sure that knowledge has helped you with your company, Pullpenn Productions.
PULLIAM: Pullpenn, yes that’s my production company. I started it in early 2008 and I’m very, very, very excited about it. Production and directing is something that is very near and dear to my heart. When I was at Spelman, I was a sociology major but I had a concentration in film and mass communications and I actually took more film classes than sociology. Right now we’re still developing our Web site and working on projects directly for the Web. We’re in negotiations for television as well so I’m really excited. We’re doing everything from reality to scripted to you name it. That’s one thing about me; I’m not one of those people who is stuck in one medium. I think that you can do all of it as long as it’s good programming and has good content.
ESSENCE.COM: So when can we expect the first project from Pullpenn?
PULLIAM: We’ve almost closed our first television deal. We have to do the whole process of the pilot presentation and all that kind of stuff. So we should get started on it at the top of the year. But as far as coming to television, I’m not exactly sure what the slate date is.
ESSENCE.COM: So much has changed since you were on “The Cosby Show.” Now celebs and their personal lives are under such a microscope with the Web. How are you dealing with this?
PULLIAM: Oh man! I’ve been everything from a cokehead to a lesbian-you name it. There’s always something but it comes with the territory. At the end of the day, you know, you just gotta shake it off. Girl, I was like, Had I been a cokehead, I would have been a lot skinnier in college. I went to a HBCU and we had gravy and peach cobbler in the café! (Laughs.) As long as you know who you are, you can’t really worry about it. People are going to have something to say regardless. You could try to live the most pristine life ever and people are still going to have something to say. I think that when you try to disprove all of the craziness, it will just make it messier. You have to own your happiness and just keep it moving.
ESSENCE.COM: So when can we expect Keshia to tie the knot and start a family?
PULLIAM: You sound like my mama! (Laughs.) She’ll walk through the house and say things like, This is where the grandbabies will sleep. I’m like, Mom, slow down, I have time. It will happen in the time it’s supposed to. Of course it’s something I definitely want; the whole family and what have you, but I’m not in a rush.
ESSENCE.COM: And lastly, I understand that you love to cook. So what is Keshia Knight Pulliam’s favorite dish to whip up in the kitchen?
PULLIAM: It depends on what mood I’m in or what I have a taste for. It could be anything from smothered pork chops to roast duck. My new thing is this spinach artichoke dip that has seafood in it. And my other favorite is my crab-stuffed lobster. I love having dinner parties and the satisfaction of people enjoying my food and making them happy through that.