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August 03, 2022

Kali Reis, star of 'True Detective' next season, opens up about trauma, boxing success and her new passion for acting

The world-champion fighter lives and trains in Philly. She will play a detective in the popular HBO crime-thriller series opposite Jody Foster

Arts & Culture Acting
kali reis hbo true detective Billy Bennight/AdMedia via Sipa USA

Kali Reis, a pro boxer who trains in Philadelphia, recently she began acting and will star in Season 4 of the HBO series 'True Detective' with Jody Foster. She is pictured above at the 2022 Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles, where she was nominated at Best Female Lead for the film 'Catch the Fair One."

Kali Reis doesn't begin with this. It takes a while for the super-lightweight, world-champion boxer, whose career has pivoted to include acting, but gradually, in her raspy voice and confident conviction, she reveals, almost casually ... "I was raped numerous times when I was 12 ...

" ... (O)nce on a waterbed, and another time in a shed. I remember everything about it, too; what I was wearing, what I was doing. I was so embarrassed about it that I didn't want to tell anyone. I was so confused and hurt that I kept it to myself for years."

That's when she started drinking – at 12. She'd polish off a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, she said, at times resorting to stealing it if one wasn't readily accessible. She'd go to her high school basketball practices high on weed. It was an adolescent's way of numbing life-altering, traumatic episodes.

Over 30 minutes into a conversation, Reis, 35, relives these details as she's sitting in a posh Penn's Landing restaurant on a sun-drenched Friday afternoon in July.

For the Rhode Island native, who now lives in Philly, smiling has taken awhile longer. Contentment first came in the boxing ring, pounding on the past and everything else that stood in her way. That drive, the stored negative energy that once drove her fists through her opponents' faces, has been redirected toward a new realm that she had no idea she would pursue – the world of acting.

Now, months from beginning filming Season 4 of HBO's crime-thriller anthology series "True Detective: Night Country," Reis is associating with people she used to look up to on the big screen, people she could not even have dreamed she would be working with, like Academy Award-winning actor Jodie Foster, who will be her co-star in "True Detective."

She got here with her performance in the indie film "Catch the Fair One," which earned the Audience Award at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival – and Reis a 2022 Independent Spirit Award nomination for best female lead. In the movie, Reis – a descendant of Cherokee, Nipmuc, and Seaconke Wampanoag tribes, as well as Cape Verdean – plays a boxer who is Native American.

Her performance in "Catch the Fair One " caught the attention of True Detective's producers – and Foster. In the series, Reis will be playing detective Evangeline Navarro opposite of Foster.

She grew up in a three-bedroom apartment in East Providence, Rhode Island, raised primarily by her mother, Patricia, with her two older brothers, Aaron and Andrew. Reis found acting relatively late, as she did boxing.

She started boxing in 2008, at age 22, survived a motorcycle crash at 25, won her first world title in 2014 and found solace very recently after years of acting and constructing walls.

In truth, she's been performing ever since she was 12, she said.

"In a way, yes, I was acting for a lot of years, and I used humor to get by, because it's my go-to, and my family's go-to in how to deal with things," Reis said. "There was a Great Wall of China put up. There was a lot to hide for a lot of years. That 12-year-old little girl will always be inside me. I still carry her. But I would say, it's not been that long since I found contentment. Part of that came when I got married to my husband (Philadelphia-based trainer and manager Brian Cohen), and part of that came when I began looking at myself in the mirror and liking what I saw reflecting back.

"I never really told anyone about being raped. One of my brothers found out years later in a different context, because it was portrayed like I was this floozy when I wasn't. I told my brother the truth about what happened. He wanted to kill the kid and I couldn't let him do it. About 2016 ... I started to look and see things differently. That came with sharing my story with young, troubled girls, who went through a lot of the same trauma I did.

"It's taken awhile to like myself, oh, yeah, absolutely. I was ashamed about a lot of things that happened to me for years, and I didn't understand why," she said. "I was punishing myself for reasons I didn't know. I used to think there was a black cloud following me everywhere. But if I didn't go through all the things I did, I wouldn't be where I am. I can look myself in the face and be proud of the little 12-year-old girl still inside of me."

To arrive at where Reis sits today, her steps can be retraced to growing up in hardscrabble East Providence, where her mother still lives. She is the youngest of five children to Patricia – the medicine woman of her tribe whose Native American name means "Gentle Rain" – and Frank Reis, whose family originated in the Ivory Coast.

Reis grew up in a neighborhood where she was not "Black" enough for the Black kids, nor Native American enough for the various Indigenous cultures there. Her father, Frank, was in and out of her life until he moved to Florida and disappeared for eight years, while Reis was essentially raised by her two teenage brothers, the root of her tomboyish ways, she said.

She's a huge advocate for Indigenous rights, because the Native American cultures of her heritage were destroyed.

"So, a lot of my youth was about trying to find my footing – who you are, since you don't really fit anywhere, since my culture was not passed down from generation to generation like other cultures were," she said. "It's why I think I fit so well with the part in 'Catch the Fair One,' " a story about a young Native American woman and former boxer who voluntarily joins a sex trafficking ring to find her missing younger sister. The film was directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka and based on a collaborative story by Wladyka and Reis.

"There are a lot of similarities between me and the Kaylee character I play in 'Catch,'"said Reis, who from 2009 to 2019 was a grief counselor for girls ages 11 to 17, many of whom she stays in contact with. "It was weird watching myself. I thought, 'Maybe I have something here.' At first, I didn't like seeing myself. No one taught me how to act. I just thought that I'd wing it. I was part of the whole process. We didn't have to rush to make the movie. Brian (her husband and trainer) watched the whole thing and when he told me it was really good – and there are a couple of scenes that still get me choked up, because it's so close to home for me – that got me.

"I don't think anyone thought the movie would turn out to be as big as it did. I've gained a lot of self-worth watching myself. I learned a lot of self-worth with Brian as my best friend and telling me a lot of things that I didn't know about myself."

Reis won't tell Brian who raped her, out of fear that he would do something drastic. She has a point – Cohen has no problem saying he would disembowel the "motherf****r and eat his intestines" if he did find out.

Kali is 19-7-1, with 5 knockouts and currently holds the IBO/WBA/WBO super lightweight (140 pounds) world titles. She's a bonafide bad ass and can say she plays one on TV.

Kali Reis Brian CohenJOSEPH SANTOLIQUITO/for PhillyVoice

Brian Cohen has been Kali Reis' boxing trainer since before they were married.

Cohen and Reis are a unique pair. They're firmly entrenched in a caring, fun relationship, where one can call the other's shots without saying a word. They're husband and wife, brother and sister, friends, fighter and trainer, and they're balanced. Brian listens to Kali. Kali listens to Brian. No one holds the A-side sway over the other.

Kali has slept on a lot of couches and in a few basements during her life. She would work odd jobs, often two or three jobs at a time, like managing a motorcycle shop or as a bar bouncer, while fulfilling her boxing yen.

Cohen and Reis knew each other through the small, insular ecosphere of boxing. She reached out to Brian through email. But he didn't fully come into Reis' orbit until her 14th pro fight against Maricela Cornejo, in Auckland, New Zealand, for the vacant WBC middleweight title. She went there with one trainer and bumped into Cohen, who had multiple fighters on the card, so she asked him to work her corner.

She won the WBC middleweight world title and that forced to have a rematch against Christina Hammer. In most situations in boxing, the world champion hosts the challenger. In Reis' case, she had to travel to Hammer in Germany.

Compounding that, at 5-foot-8, Reis was a smallish middleweight at 160 pounds. Brian worked her corner in Germany.

This time, Reis lost. Nine years and 16 fights into her pro career, Reis had to start again, but now she had Cohen in her corner fulltime.

Kali kind of snuck up on Cohen. He saw Reis' talent. He also saw how the cruel, twisted world of boxing had treated her.

The two started as trainer and fighter, then manager and fighter, then their relationship evolved into friends. He kept pushing and Kali kept raising her intensity level.

"Brian saw something in me that I couldn't see in myself, and I think it started from there," Reis said. "I was always getting challenged, and I had self-esteem issues. I don't need the attention, and with a father in and out of my life, I didn't have anyone to talk to.

"When I was raped, it was by a kid two, three years older than me, who was a part of the crowd we used to be around. I was so embarrassed that I didn't tell my brothers, because they were going to kill the kid. My mom didn't know.

"It happened in my house on a waterbed. To this day, I hate waterbeds. It happened more than once. The time in the shed, I got kicked in the face. I started drinking and was a high-functioning drunk. I would drink Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle in junior high school. I've been in therapy for it. I had this secret in my head for a while."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she told Brian what happened. It was a seminal moment in their relationship.

"When I found boxing when I did, at 22, and that became my outlet to channel that anger," she said. "I was mad about being raped. I was mad watching my father beat the s**t out of my mother. I was mad about a lot of things. I knew I was a fighter. I didn't know I was that good."

kali reis boxingJOSEPH SANTOLIQUITO/for PhillyVoice

As a professional boxer, Kali Reis has a record of 19-7-1, with 5 knockouts, and she holds the IBO/WBA/WBO super lightweight world titles.

There is an ironic twist to Reis' impending return to HBO: She almost blew up the same network's attempt to begin featuring women's boxing, back when HBO was a major player in the sport. Reis just happened to be involved in the first women's fight ever put on the network.

She was considered a safe, B-side challenger on May 5, 2018, in Carson, California, against future Hall of Famer Cecilia Braekhus, who at the time was undefeated and the undisputed welterweight world champion.

Reis was supposed to lose. The problem with that is no one told Kali Reis, who proceeded to plant the legendary Braekhus on her ass for the first time in her career in the seventh round.

What was supposed to be a walkover became a war. Braekhus won by unanimous 10-round decision – but she didn't look great doing it, thanks to Reis, who has a speaking role in "Black Flies" with Academy Award-winner Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan and Mike Tyson that will be released next year.

Kali signed with ICM Partners, which entertainment-giant Creative Artists Agency just bought in June, and she's also signed with Authentic Entertainment.

"No one ever told me I was good at anything, and now I'm a world champion fighter who's going to be playing a starring role in a TV series that millions of people will see," Kali said. "I wish I could make this up, but this is the s**t I've been through. I wish I could change a lot of it, but when I really look back at everything, none of this happens.

"I'm about to play a character on HBO's 'True Detective' and doing red carpet stuff. I'm still a no-name that nobody knows. But if something big happens, I won't change. I can't change. I'm supposed to be here. It's interesting, because Brian broke down my early fights, and he said, 'You would be winning and get to a point where you would stop; like you were punishing yourself by not trying as hard as you could have.'

"It's probably from what I went through. I'm always going to be who I am. I've been through my share of s**t. My acting coach, who is very sensory, knows my past. She opened my eyes to a lot of stuff. Acting is a big therapy session, because you have to pull a lot of deep s**t from your past. I can talk to that little girl who was raped. I can hug her and tell her I love her."