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Hightown star hopes for more Haitian representation in Hollywood

BY ONZ CHÉRY

Haitian-American actor Atkins Estimond
Haitian-American actor Atkins Estimond playing Osito during a scene in “Hightown.” / Photo credit: Mark Schafer/ Hightown

FORT LAUDERDALE — One day at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale, nine-year-old Atkins Estimond decided to mimic his teacher to entertain his fellow fourth-graders. The act came at a price — a ‘Put your hands out’ sentiron whooping from his father at the school. But it also planted the entertainer seed in Estimond.

“I just enjoyed putting on a show,” Estimond, 34, said. “People were laughing at me for making fun of the teacher. I definitely liked to entertain. That’s probably what kept me doing it.”

These days, Estimond entertains as an actor in “Hightown,” a crime drama set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts now in its second season on Starz. Estimond plays Osito, a Haitian-Dominican drug trafficker implicated in a murder investigation. The South Florida native is also set to join the cast of “Inside Man,” a BBC and Netflix miniseries scheduled to air in 2022. 

With these major roles lined up, Estimond hopes more Haitian-American actors will have the chance to portray a variety of Haitians and Haiti’s culture on-screen.

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“Let’s open the gate and see more,” he told The Haitian Times recently. “I want to see more Haitian characters. I want to see more of our stories being told, by us.”

Finding inspiration, from Fort Lauderdale to Ford 

Estimond’s love for Haiti comes from growing up in Melrose Park, then a Haitian enclave in Fort Lauderdale. 

“You can walk around and the people around you understand exactly who you are,” he recalls now, in a Zoom interview from his home in Atlanta.

His parents — Ulrick Estimond, a security guard, and Huguette Estimond, a nurse’s aide — had immigrated from the northern communes, Limbé and Cap-Haitien, respectively. The couple worked long hours to provide for their boys. 

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The Estimonds’ family picture during the 1990s. Back row from left to right: Ulrick Estimond, Huguette Estimond; front row: Rick Estimond, Atkins Estimond. Photo courtesy of Atkins Estimond
The Estimonds’ family picture during the 1990s. Back row from left to right: Ulrick Estimond, Huguette Estimond; front row: Rick Estimond, Atkins Estimond. / Photo courtesy of Atkins Estimond

Estimond and his brother, Rick, spent much of their childhood entertaining themselves and watching shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Family Matters.” 

It was Rick who first began acting, taking part in a play produced by the Boys and Girls Club of America. The following year Estimond, then 8, tried out for the same program, but he froze during his audition, and was ultimately passed over.

That’s about the time when he began entertaining people off stage, as he did with the fourth-grade teacher.

Soon after, however, Estimond’s uncle died in a car crash, prompting the family to move to Atlanta.

There, Estimond got a chance to redeem himself as a stage actor in high school, signing up to audition for a play his freshman year.

“Coming into [the audition], I was definitely determined not to be afraid and at least do something,” Estimond recalls.

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He got a role in the play and acted throughout high school. After graduation, he joined a rock band, The Switch Blade Nancy’s. When the band broke up in 2009, Estimond returned to acting.

Estimond auditioned for roles for about a year, before booking his first role in a Ford commercial. Minutes later, he was unbooked due to budget issues. 

Dejected, Estimond wanted to quit acting altogether.

“I called a mentor and he was like ‘You can quit but no matter what you do for the rest of your life, you’re always going to be an actor,’” Estimond said. “And I was like ‘I would regret it if I quit.’”

Making it on screen

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Estimond carried on, with acting auditions and with life. In 2018, he and Kristen Estimond, a literary agent, married. They now have two young daughters.  

Between 2010 and 2018, Estimond landed dozens of small parts. During this time he displayed his versatility as an actor through a variety of roles, including playing a DJ in “Step Up: High Water” and a doctor in “The Resident.” 

The year 2019 proved pivotal for Estimond. He auditioned for “Hightown”, doubting he would get the part since he had never been cast as the “bad guy” before. 

“[But] the minute I opened my mouth, people were immediately like ‘Oh yeah, this guy,’” Estimond said.

The show’s writers intended for Osito’s character to be Dominican, but Osito asked them to make Osito half Haitian since he does not speak Spanish. Although being Haitian does not play a large role in Osito’s life, for Estimond, the representation alone is important. 

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“It gave me something real to be able to attach to,” Estimond said. 
“Hightown” viewers have praised Estimond for his portrayal of Osito, one of the show’s most compelling characters. He is also a fan favorite.

Rick Estimond said his brother owes his acting talent to Haitian culture.

“The Haitian culture is all about performing and that contributed a lot to the skill Atkins has,” the older man said. “Now Atkins has the platform to uplift the culture and do something special to the place that made us.”

These days, the brothers spend time entertaining thoughts of producing films starring Haitian-American characters. Estimond said is considering starting a program geared toward preparing Haitian youth in South Florida for the film industry.

“I want to see more Haitian writers, more Haitian directors have opportunities,” Estimond said. “My hope is that we can see a more honest portrayal of Haitian people in the media.”

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