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When I think South Bend what comes to mind first is Notre Dame, those Fighting Irish football battles on Saturday mornings. How was its a good coming up in Indiana, and specifically your football fever-defined hometown?
For me, South Bend can be a city of hidden talent and untapped potential. Coming up, I always wanted to be a part of the entertainment business but the industry doesn’t have a home there, doesn’t live there, and don’t even visit us (Laughs!). It’s a small place with a very slow pace. I had to really find my fire. And I also had to learn to overcome what people said about me, or how they responded to growth or change. I had to overcome doubters, haters. I was a theatre major. I realized early on film and television were what I wanted to do, and my training taught me to make something out of nothing whether that meant a limited role, limited resources, or a place like South Bend where I was required to think outside the city limits. I had to learn my choice was either conform to the local norms or make something out of nothing. That and the support of a good family got me here today.
You are one of the cultures brightest new lights, a rising star. What initially drew you to acting? Have you always been a character?
All we knew was church, school and video games. That was my early childhood growing up. I used to play video games as a way to escape my immediate reality and create my own world. Me and my father would always go to the movies and I would leave inspired and excited, mainly by the juxtaposition between my actual life and that feeling that I couldn’t describe from the movie I’d just experienced. My life and that life were night and day. I had dance ability and a sense of humor; could act a little, just a little at that time. I would see stars and say ‘I can be that. I can do that’. From there I studied my craft where I could, took what I could in, made the most of each and every opportunity to learn and apply my skills to that point, and I just kept growing.
The original Boomerang film hit theaters in ’92, over 25 years ago. The project broke new ground on many levels and was very successful at the box office, grossing over $130 million. Why is Boomerang, it’s story and message, still relevant today?
It’s very important today, because look, where else would you find a black version of Friends? Or Seinfeld with an all black cast? With most shows you either see a token black or an ensemble with us all doing “black things”, which means what exactly? What are black things, who are black people and what do they always do? There is no right answer because we as a people are all so different. And those differences, and the broader relatability that comes with ourselves being properly depicted, is what will connect us, not only to other cultures but even a greater connection within our own community. You know, because times are changing and I’m not sure we get each other as much as we once did. And working with Lena is beautiful, she is for us period. She’s a gift from heaven. I think it’s a beautiful thing that we have six friends that are all relatable to versions of their personality type and character found in the ways of other genders and other races and cultures.
You play young, conflicted preacher David Wright in the new series. What is preacher man’s agenda?
He has a true spiritual journey, he’s David. As if the modern day biblical version of David, who has always been controversial for Bible students. You get to see his entire spiritual journey and his battles behind the scenes, nuances here and there, his growing pains. If you are raised as a Christian you know it was a constant struggle to remain who you are with your faith intact. David will bare his cross, drop it, break it, fix it, and bare it again in this first season.
How did you prepare for the role?
I did a bit of method acting. Usually, I’d go out and have a drink or two. And I smoke weed, so I may or may not smoke, just depends. But while preparing for David I didn’t do any of that. And I also studied preachers. I remembered my Evangelism training from my youth, how we were taught to go out in groups and Evangelise strangers. And if the other party was interested after our introduction we could invite them to visit our church. I pulled from being raised in the church. And I minored in Biblical Studies in college, so I also pulled from that. I put everything together… then I dropped it and allowed David to live. And I also trusted the writing, there are some phenomenal writers for the show. I will always be a student of acting so I can always improve. I’ve studied in Los Angeles, New York, and London. I studied Improv. And with all of the studying I’ve done, my work is an amalgamation of that learning and my own working experience and life experiences. Memorization was key, and the rest I did in method. I wanted to live as David.
The rapper you play on Atlanta, Clark County, is very different from David, yet you still nailed that role as well by capturing him as a person, not just playing him as s character.
When I worked with Donanld Glover it was the most nerve racking thing. It gave me an immense amount of focus. I’ve studied this craft for years. And I’ve been through a lot in my life personally. The latter is where I get to personify Clark County. Before Boomerang and after my last project, I ended up broke without a place to stay. I lived with this friend, that one; lived out of my car for a period and had to sell books and CDs to live. Bro, just to eat and live on a daily basis I had to turn my car into my home and sell what I owned. Through it all I always stayed true to myself with or without money. I’m a trendsetter for my family, the first to ever venture into this high risk, high reward field. The pressure of not wanting to fail drives me as much as anything else. My good has to be great and my great has to be phenomenal.
You are already working with Lena Waithe, Halle Berry, and Donald Glover in two of the more non-formulaic shows out. Impressively, you next add to that collaborative by joining the cast of Amy Poehler’s “Wine Country”, a Netflix comedy starring Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Jason Schwartzman. To what do you most attribute not only your newfound success, but also your ability to master the moment; seize the opportunity?
Trusting the craft. Believing in my gifts and my training, trusting the script and my character, working closely with these greats at my disposal, prayer, faith, loving what I do, knowing I’m blessed to be here…. My father was like ‘you’re going to be a good director one day’. He just felt that way and shared it with me. And then Kendra on the set of Boomerang said ‘you’re going to be a director one day’. She hasn’t spoken to my father, so it’s those types of synchronicities that I don’t ignore… I have a character that is a mix of rebelliousness and dutiful, that’s my approach to wanting to get the work done. I had Amy Poehler cracking up on set one day. In the middle of a scene I just started dancing and went off script…
… Knowing how to work with the greats. I know what it’s like to have people doubt me and still remained focused. I’ve had people tell me I’m not funny, and I say to that ‘ok, well see how funny I am when I work with your inspiration. And I accomplished that when I worked with Donald and later Amy. Am I funny enough now? I’m already a real life warrior and a king for going through so much to get this, to arrive here. And once you embrace that it can never be taken from you. You have to fall down and get back up multiple times along your journey, because waiting until you get there and then falling down but not knowing how that feels will hurt you more. You may never rise, because for what? You’re at the end. If you’ve already learned to fall it makes you more durable, and you can rise more quickly and be less bruised ego-wise.
Russell Simmons said in an interview, and others have echoed the sentiment, that Hollywood picked Key and Peele of all the black comedies available. Not the black community, eluding to the idea that they were safer. The mainstream approved black comedians. More palatable. Suburban not urban. Now, in 2019, with all of the merging of cultures and racial experiences, is there still a level of blackness quotient? Does that happen, you know, are some black enough or not black enough?
My take on that is this. I love our Boomerang campaign where we say there isn’t one way to be Black. If we get offended by stereotypes should we feed into them? Can’t we be different? Diverse? Key and Peele have been around for a minute, since the Mad TV days and they were even grinding before that. They’ve worked hard to achieve the success they are enjoying today. So in terms of people saying others aren’t black enough, what does that mean exactly? How black is black enough?… With Peele, he killed it with Get Out, and I get happy to see someone winning on that Oscar Award level. It’s inspiring. I just love seeing us winning, and to me both of their work is a win for us…There are people who follow the gatekeeper, those who walk around the gatekeeper, and those who get the gatekeeper fired because he don’t know what the hell he talkin’ ’bout (Laughs!). I think those brothers have a balance of all that, just as many of us do.