"The camera is so intimate, it can catch a twinkle in the eye," he notes. "But that twinkle won't read in the back of the theater. I had to learn how to magnify while keeping the moments intimate and real." The vocal challenges—specifically maintaining vocal strength—have been the most daunting.
Hill is no stranger to the stage, but with the exception of co-starring in an Off-Broadway revival of Amiri Baraka's two-hander "Dutchman" four years ago, his roster of stage credits boasts only musicals. His current gig, Lydia R. Diamond's "Stick Fly," is a family drama, centering on an affluent African-American clan during an emotionally tumultuous weekend on Martha's Vineyard. Secrets, resentments, betrayals, and conflicts over what it means to be black erupt, and tempers flare.
Hill, who frequently plays the good guy—in this instance, the consistent, honest, and loyal son—says he might enjoy tackling a heavy. At the same time, he would have second thoughts if all the African-American characters in the piece were devoid of redeeming qualities. "I'll play a murderer if another African-American is the preacher," he stresses.
No Deadlines for Success
An Orange, N.J., native, Hill started tap dancing classes as a youngster and in short order was booking roles in "Black and Blue" and "The Tap Dance Kid" (understudying Savion Glover on Broadway and playing the lead on the national tour) and on such TV shows as "Cosby" and "New York Undercover." His parents took the position "If you want to go to an audition, fine, and if not, that's okay too," Hill recalls. "But if I took a job, I had to do it—keep my word—even if I suddenly decided I didn't want to."
At Seton Hall University, Hill majored in business and finance, though he continued to perform, making his Broadway debut in "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk," an experience that forced him to change course. Realizing he wanted to act, he left school and relocated to the West Coast, where the disappointments began to mount. His agent dropped him, and nothing of consequence happened for 11 months. But Hill soldiered on, asserting actors should not give themselves deadlines for success. "Most are not going to end up on TV and make large sums of money, but that does not mean you should give up," he says. "I felt I'm going to be successful, or I will spend the rest of my life trying."
As it turned out, a casting director who had tested him for another role—one Hill did not book—remembered him and brought him on board to play Charlie Young on "The West Wing," which turned out to be a career, educational, and artistic turning point.
The opportunity to observe actors such as Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Stockard Channing, and Martin Sheen was revelatory, he recalls. "I was taking it all in, learning the power of words, and pacing. I watched the actors peel away the layers and learned how to be simple and still. Sometimes if you just say the words, the rest will take care of itself."
Hill also appreciated the level of mutual respect on the set. "Being around those actors—especially Martin Sheen—taught me how to be a person, a man, and an artist," he says. "Martin Sheen is so cool and relaxed and engaging. That's admirable considering the longevity of his career. I'd rather be a person like that as opposed to some of my peers, who are nowhere nearly as nice."
Unlike many actors who find themselves unemployed after a run on a hit series, Hill promptly moved on to "Psych." He admits he has been fortunate but insists he has been proactive for a long time. Early on he concluded that as much as he likes his agents and managers, he is only one of many clients, meaning they can't focus all their attention on him. That's his responsibility.
"Dulé Hill is my company, and I am its CEO," he says. "It's my job to make sure the company is moving in the right direction. I don't wait for the phone to ring. If I haven't heard from my agents in a while, I'll call. I make sure I'm relating to them what I want to be doing. I know I'll be going back to 'Psych,' but I still talk to them about what I'll do after Season 7."
Hill also advocates building relationships with filmmakers, writers, and producers—those who are established and those who are up-and-coming. Networking and making useful contacts is part of it, but Hill believes genuine interest in people from all walks of life is the best quality an actor can have. "Be engaged, and be yourself," he advises. "Don't wear sunglasses at night."
"Stick Fly" is playing at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., N.Y. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com.
Studied acting with William Esper
Nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on "The West Wing"
Appeared in the films "Holes," "Sugar Hill," "She's All That," "The Guardian," and "Sexual Life"