by Shelby J. Jones
- What do you think of the presidential candidates?
- I respond to any candidate with a serious platform on
education reform. Most of the problems that plague us today stem
from the deterioration of our schools. Combine that with the desire
to fill those prisons built for profit and you have a recipe for
disaster. It is in the best interest of the prison business to keep
a criminal class and to do that you keep an uneducated class.
Although I'm for education reform, I do not extol the virtue of
school vouchers. How can we send our kids to better schools with
vouchers when they're already full? Poor kids will just end up
right where they started. The best solution is to make all schools
equal. If you read the candidates platforms you'll know whom I'm
- How did you become an actor?
- I was interested in many different things, like law
and engineering before I realized the craft that would let me do it
all. I first started to study seriously in high school at the New
Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). I produced and hosted a
teenager TV Show and was on air at the radio station WYLD FM98.
After graduating, I was selected as a Presidential Scholar in the
Arts. I moved to New York to study at The Juilliard School. While
living with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, I studied at school
during the day and went to the jazz clubs at night. That was an
education in itself. I learned to act from Jazz musicians because
they understood how to have freedom within form. That's what acting
is for me.
- In Get On The Bus, what role did your character
play in telling the story?
- As African Americans we are always trying to get
others to see us as a diverse community. And just because my
character was offensive to most he has a place in any dialogue
about our humanity. Surprisingly, just as many loved his views as
hated them. As an artist I believe in the truth of life. As a
student of human behavior, that character was quite a lesson for me
because we are complete opposites. But for us to gain any insight
about whom we are, we have to look at the good as well as the bad.
We must be faithful to the truth.
- What was it like working with that awesome ensemble?
One of the highlights of my career was working with
Ossie Davis. He is an actor who has done everything from classical
to the contemporary, tragedy and comedy. He is a great chameleon,
which is a high honor for an actor to receive. I remember listening
to Ossie and Ruby on the radio reading poetry as a child, so I grew
up with great admiration for the man. To have an opportunity to
work with him as a colleague was a very fulfilling experience.
It was also wonderful to work with so many brothers I already
had worked with or knew from the business in N.Y. I replaced
Charles Dutton on Broadway in Piano Lesson, I went to school with
Andre Braugher; Isiah Washington, Gabe Cassius and I all lived in
Fort Greene Brooklyn together (along with Spike). Wesley Snipes and
I go all the way back to college. He actually was the DJ for my
22nd birthday party. It was a very personal experience to work on
that film. It was a wonder to reflect on how far we all have come.
The hard work is paying off.
- Denzel lost to Kevin Spacey at the 72nd Academy Awards.
What do you think about that?
- I thought Denzel had a good chance of winning because
he was overlooked for Malcolm X. Hollywood has a weird
relationship with him so I thought they would try to make up for
pass mistakes. For instance, Whoopi Goldberg didn't deserve an
Oscar for Ghost, but the Academy knew they overlooked her
for The Color Purple and was trying to make up for it. I
thought it was Denzel's turn. He was overlooked for Malcolm
X, and Philadelphia. They owe him. I personally think
those other two performances were better. But it may be a blessing
in disguise, because some of the biggest oversights resulted in
better careers for the actors. The two that come to mind are Don
Cheadle in Devil and a Blue Dress, and Debbie Morgan in Eve's
- Do you like television? And have you ever played a cop?
- I like good material no matter what. And Third
Watch has good writing. I love working on television because
you get to play a character in a multitude of different situations,
unlike theater and film where the challenge is to play the same
events many times over while trying to keep it spontaneous. I have
played a cop in films before but seldom on TV. And never on stage.
I think I'll have more of an opportunity to explore the character
through his work this time. All of the other times I played a cop
it had more to do with his personal life, not his work.
- The NAACP is bringing the heat to Hollywood concerning
minorities on TV? Do you think the battle is productive or should
we adopt a new plan of attack?
- A few years ago while our community protested the
Oscars for the same reason, I was complacent about it until Rev.
Jackson spoke at our rehearsal for Get On The Bus. The one
thing that was an epiphany for me was this statement: "Never lose
the ability to be offended". How absolutely true that statement is.
Others would try to make you feel it's worthless to dissent in
Hollywood. That is not true. We owe it to the future generations of
this country to be vigilant about fighting injustices. Just as
those who fought for us in years past, we must fight now. The
protest is productive but we should also demand more of those
minorities in positions of power. It was with unconditional support
from our communities that they arrived to positions of influence in
spite of all the unnecessary obstacles placed in front of them. We
also have to create for ourselves. Historically Hollywood has never
demonstrated that they have our interests at heart, so why continue
to wait for them to come around? These things can happen
concurrently. All at once, we can hold the networks accountable and
create our own vehicles. And I practice what I preach. I am
currently producing August Wilson's new play, Jitney, and just
completed three short films with young Black student directors for
their thesis (all of this while still pursuing a very commercial
career). Our economic power is also a great force to be dealt with.
The sponsors should be held accountable for participating in our
exclusion. Money talks. Boycott the sponsors and change will happen
sooner than later.
- Besides Third Watch, what projects are you working on?
Any interest in directing and producing?
- While on a trip to Uganda two years ago, I met my
business partner. Curiously enough, we lived near each other in
Brooklyn. After several months of discussions, we formed Jinja
Media, Inc. A production company named after the city that is the
source of the Nile. It was near where we first met and what a
metaphor for creating. Our debut project is August Wilson's new
play entitled, Jitney. It played in Los Angeles until March 19. The
production then moves to New York on April 18th. We also just
finished producing a short film called The Date in
association with Clarendon Entertainment. It was written by Kelvin
Phillips and directed by Roderick Giles. I also acted in the film.
Other projects include the short film, Deep In My Heart by
April Scott-Goss, which played at the Pan African film festival in
February. I also just finished Tartuffe by Moliere at the New York
Shakespeare Festival in Central Park this summer.
- Pretend I am an actor and I have yet to find work, what
advice could you offer?
- First, be a student of your craft. You aren't an actor
until you have figured out for yourself what acting is. Most
importantly, always remember that employment doesn't define you as
an actor. Some of the most successful actors in the world aren't
very good, while some of the best that I have ever seen have never
earned a penny at it. That doesn't mean they are any less of an
artist. That doesn't mean I romanticize the life of a poor artist
either. Always know your worth and value, even when you do
something for free just to show your work to others. Luck is when
preparedness meets up with opportunity. So always be prepared. When
you audition, don't think of it as asking for work, but realize
it's a chance to show your craft to your colleagues. If they choose
to use you fine, if not then move own. You still might get a job,
years later, because they remembered your work from an earlier
audition. Just share your work. Even in my darkest days, I focused
on my acting. That was what got me to the next job and helped me
deal with the rejection.
- There is a rising tide of hip-hop artist who are
starting to find roles in film now. What do you think of this
- There is the craft of acting and then there is the
business of acting. The people who run Hollywood are businessmen
and women first. They see the popularity of hip-hop and that
becomes the only barometer by which they judge talent, popularity.
I just recently lost a job after the director wanted to hire me.
The network executives said, "No get a rapper, any rapper".
Obviously the decision had nothing to do with the ability to act.
That is the infuriating thing. The variable that makes a studio
choose a rapper for an acting role has nothing to do with the
ability to act. The really sad part is that the rappers actually
start to believe the hype. They start to believe they are getting
the parts because of their acting chops. It's the cult of
personality. What really is insulting is the cavalier attitude that
goes along with this phenomenon. The belief that without any study
they can do anything. I have no gripe with confidence, but it's
ironic that rappers who pay so much attention to the existence (or
not) of street authenticity, can so easily step to another man's
craft with so much disrespect.