Since I'm a New York actor, I've done the Law & Order shows. And because I'm a young black man and have a little bit of a street swagger in my walk, I often play the bad guy. But I don't have a problem with that if the writing is good. And I believe it's the actor's job to bring something to the role, so that it's not just another stereotype.
That doesn't mean I won't turn down a role, even a big one, if it's really offensive. I had the chance to be the lead in two movies, and I said no because the characters were based on racist stereotypes. I know with comedy, there's a fine line between humor and racist humor. But I want to avoid stock racial characters. And there are some new ones.
Along with being cast as the bad guys, black actors are now often cast as the asexual male sidekick who is very funny about women but has never been with one. The other new stereotype affects the black actress who is often cast as a single woman with children, having a tough time but keeping it all together.
There can be dignity in that stereotype if it's written well. The problem is that frequently it is not. And maybe I'll get into trouble for saying this, but black producers are as guilty as white producers for putting these stereotypes out there. Part of the problem is that our real stories are not being told.
One of the better roles I did was a small part in The Manchurian Candidate. It was colorblind casting. The character did not have to be black. But what draws me to a project is the quality of the whole piece, not just the character I'm playing.
Film: Freedomland. TV: CSI: NY, Law & Order, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NYPD Blue, Six Degrees.
The world is becoming so unified because access to traveling is now so open to pretty much everybody. I see Swedish people who are black, and I have Korean friends who are French. I hope that people are beginning to open their minds a little bit to the many possibilities. That's the only way I see [the world]. People have to take a little trip down to Brazil to see all of the different cultures and how people of different colors mix together to make one fantastic race. So for people to say, "Oh, yeah, you look so Spanish"—Spanish could be 17,000 different things. It takes traveling [to understand that]. Many of these people who are actually casting movies and shows, the first thing I would say is travel a little bit. Get familiar with what you're casting, because the worst thing you can do is fall into a stereotype of things.
TV: NCIS, The Jury.
Two minority reports should be looked at: One is the ethnic, the other is the age issue. Ageism is huge, huge. Ageism is rampant. I just had a conversation with an actor. White. He worked a lot here [in Denver]. He's 52 and totally photogenic. He told me he's done a lot of television work in this town. You know: the slim, perfect television type. A little older father [type], but he's not gray. And he told me he's not happy in this town. And again, he's only 52. But it's funny. I've always been dealing with the racism thing, and now I'm dealing with race and age, so I'm doubly pissed off. Not in theatre, really. This is mostly in commercials and television.
Another experience I had: I went up for an audition six months ago, and the woman I went to see I had worked with on a photo shoot. I had worked with her; she knew me and all that. And I think this commercial was for a bank, a well-known bank. And I walked in to the holding pen where everyone was sitting, and everyone was 22. Everybody but me. I might have seen one guy that might have been in his 40s. And when I went in to do the audition, it was kind of a "go-see." The [casting representative] said to me—and I had my beard then, and I thought I looked rather elegant—'Gee, there's an awful lot of white in your hair.' And she's, like, 40 herself. She's pulling this dumb stuff, and it was dumb stuff. And I'm thinking, "Where do you get off even saying that to me, sweetheart?"
Of course I didn't get that job. Just recently I was sent out on a commercial for Chevrolet. They were looking for Western-type guys—not cowboy Western, but ranchers and guys in denim, middle-aged guys in denim. So I walked in, and there were a lot of middle-aged guys in denim. So I picked up the copy—well, it wasn't really copy. It wasn't acting. It was just a look. You walked in. They videotaped you front and profile like a mug shot. It scared the hell out of me. But you know what? On the breakdown, it specified "Caucasian." I have never in my life seen that. All I saw was "Male, Caucasian. Female, Caucasian." I couldn't believe I was seeing that. I was so stunned. I thought, "I'm going to pick one of these [breakdowns] up on my way out." I've been going up for commercials since 1976, and I've never, never seen that. I was the first black spokesman for Allstate [Insurance]—in 1983! They had the comic guys, but I was the straight-on guy. First black man ever. Not now, I guess. Racism has always been in my face.
Stage: Fences (Yale Repertory Theatre), Othello (Amas Repertory Company), Caligula (All Souls Players), Paul Robeson (Shadow Theatre Company).