Some actors are initially inspired by a particular performance or a yen to be the center of attention. Donald Faison discovered his calling thanks to the Millennium Falcon. "I saw Star Wars [when I was a kid], and I wanted to be Han Solo bad," he explains. "I wanted to fly the Millennium Falcon; I wanted to save the girl. In real life, you can't do all of that: NASA's budget sucks. We're still questioning whether we went to the moon or not, you know what I mean? So I said, 'Another great way to do all of these things is to be in the movies. Don't be Han Solo in real life; be Han Solo on film.'"
It seems to have worked out, though Faison isn't building his career via space-bound action roles. He's known more for his easygoing comedic turns in projects such as Clueless (the movie and the TV series), NBC's medical comedy Scrubs, and King's Ransom, a new film in which he has a supporting part as a lowly parking valet who assumes the identity of a rich business mogul.
One thing the actor enjoyed most about making the film was the opportunity to improvise. "I came into it trying to stick with the page and everything like that, and [director] Jeff [Byrd] was, like, 'Just let go. I need you to be bigger. I need you to go crazy with it.'"
The end result is a series of deliriously over-the-top scenes featuring Faison and Charlie Murphy, best-known for his work on Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show. Faison is one of those performers who make comedy look effortless: He has a relaxed, laid-back quality that ensures his characters never devolve into caricatures. In person, the actor embodies that same laid-back sensibility, but he's not just cracking jokes, playing it for laughs; he speaks thoughtfully and passionately about various subjects pertaining to his career and growth as an actor. He's funny, but not in the constantly "on" way of some comedic actors. His humor sneaks up on you, as when he's asked why he thinks he does well with improv and responds by jokingly quoting Blazing Saddles ("My mind is a raging torrent…").
"I want to do anything and everything," he says. "An ideal movie would be, like—to get this to happen, I have to work so much harder—but imagine Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy…. Who else? Donald Faison. Directed by Steven Spielberg. That would be awesome. I've got a ways to go until I can be put in that category of greats, but that would be an ideal role for me…. I would want to be in a movie with those guys."
To get to that level, says Faison, he needs to "just constantly work harder and harder and harder. And [have] a lot of luck and a lot of opportunity, but…this isn't something that if you don't work hard at it, you're great at. It's something that, the harder you work, the better you become. Some people are just blessed with talent and don't have to work that hard, but imagine if they worked really, really hard on something, how great it could be."
Faison, a New York City native, has never had a problem with hard work. He attended the Children's School of Intuitive and God-Conscious Art as a young child and eventually enrolled at the famed Professional Children's School. "It wasn't the Fame school, but if you were a working actor or musician or dancer, or if you're working in the arts already, [you] go to this school," he says. "And I didn't work the whole time I was there; I didn't work once. So I was going to this school where all these people are doing their homework in correspondence and everything like that, [and] I'm there in the classroom. It sucked…. PCS didn't suck, but that sucked. I wanted to work so bad. All my peers were working and I wasn't—until I graduated."
Faison was persistent when it came to pursuing roles. He found out where auditions were and showed up, and he worked in his agent's office and put his name on every submission. "That's not really a good thing to do, but at the time, my logic was, somebody will bite, somebody will say, 'Let's [get] Donald Faison, let's give him an audition or a shot,'" he says.
In this vein, Faison advises actors to get as much audition experience as possible. "Just go out on everything you possibly can, even if it's just for experience, even if you know you're not gonna get it," he says. "Let's say you're a black male, and they're looking for a female: Go in, just for the experience. Now, some places will kick you out, but there are a rare few that will be, like, 'All right, let's see what you got.' That's one of the things that I did."
After all, he says, nobody is going to break into this difficult business for you. "Nobody's going to break down walls for you; you have to break them down yourself," he says. "Nobody's inviting anyone into this game. 'Oh, come in, it's a game that you should play.' It's a game that you have to break into. And it's not a game that you can go learn: You can't learn show business. You can learn how to act, but you can't learn show business."
Faison broke in thanks to his role as Murray, one of the wealthy, hyper-articulate teenagers in Amy Heckerling's Clueless, which also featured then-unknowns Alicia Silverstone and Brittany Murphy. It wasn't his first job, but it was the one that introduced him to movie audiences and studios. "It was something that I knew I really wanted to do," he says. "I was very, very, very hungry at the time…. These are things that never even happen anymore, but I knew the whole script by heart. I really wanted to make that movie work, for me at least."
Faison went on to appear in movies such as Remember the Titans and Josie and the Pussycats. He reprised his role for the Clueless TV series, and he had a recurring role on the WB's Felicity. In 2001 he was cast as cool dude surgical intern Chris Turk on NBC's witty, surreal sitcom Scrubs. "I auditioned, like, 25 million times for the role," he says. "I remember I auditioned for it, [got] called back, then I had a producer session, and I thought, 'Okay, this is it.' After the producer session, it was studio. And I was, like, 'Okay, now I definitely got it, there were a bunch of people in the room; that's gotta be it.' They're, like, 'We want you to come back in.' I was, like, 'Again? For who?' Then the network audition and, after that, they told me I got it."
As with King's Ransom, Faison also has the opportunity to improv on the show. "As the years go, yeah, we get to improv now," he says. "You stick to the script, because there's a story that needs to be told, and there are certain words that are funny or lines that are funny that you want to stick to. So, with that, the improvisation will be the button at the end of it. There's something that might be a funny…." The actor searches for the word, and then makes a sound like a machine gun, as if signifying an exclamation point at the end of a sentence: "Gu-gu-gu-gun."
Faison has attracted attention mostly via these comedic roles, but it doesn't bother him that that's what he's known for. "I don't think it's destroying my career in any way," he says. "If the right role comes along, I'll do it. I'm really just trying to be a working actor right now and stay consistent."
Still, the actor wouldn't mind breaking out of the mold. When asked what his current issues with the business are, he says, "You always have concerns. I think Tom Cruise has concerns. I think Jamie Foxx has concerns. I think Denzel has concerns. Everybody always has issues. What are my issues right now? I don't want to be just considered a breakout comedic supporting actor. I want to be a breakout actor in anything that's a lead. I just got my first lead in a movie [Underneath My Skin, which should be out in 2006], so I'm really excited about it." BSW