‘Fellow Travelers’ Actor Jelani Alladin on the Real Key to Success

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Photo Source: Ambe J. Williams

Alladin plays Marcus Gaines on Ron Nyswaner’s Showtime limited series “Fellow Travelers.” This essay has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

It has taken me 10 years to learn and understand the power of my instrument. During that time, I had a variety of experiences onstage, onscreen, and in commercials, video games, print and radio ads, and audiobooks. There is no corner of this industry I haven’t dabbled in and haven’t grown from. 

From my final days at New York University to now starring on a Golden Globe–nominated TV show, “Fellow Travelers,” I have been on a true hero’s journey, a quest to love everything about myself: my quirks and charms; my unusually long arms, big nose, and dark brown eyes; my chocolate skin, West Indian heritage, queerness, ability to feel things more deeply than most, and unidentifiable accent. I have taken ownership of these idiosyncrasies, using and celebrating them in my work; but I’m aware that I still have further to go. I think this ownership is the key to success; it’s an unwavering belief in the idea that everything you need is already within you. 

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But I warn you that this will be tested time and time again. For every great achievement, I’ve experienced hundreds of disappointments—some that left me gutted, jaded, and pained. But I always came back to this deeply rooted self-faith. Some see it as confidence, while others equate it to luck. 

Jelani Alladin on Fellow Travelers

Jelani Alladin on “Fellow Travelers” Credit: Ben Mark Holzberg/Showtime

I’d argue that it’s none of the above. Instead, it’s commitment to accountability, dedication, and perseverance. It’s about finding a sense of purpose—a profound knowledge that you have something important to say—plus study, rigor, and holding yourself to the highest of standards. If you don’t believe in your vision, no one else will. It’s about being prepared at all times and thinking constantly about the human experience. Put together, fostering these qualities will give you the necessary tenacity and verve to pursue a lifelong career in the arts.

Landing a role on “Fellow Travelers” was the result of steadfast determination in spite of rejections, heartbreaks, and financial instability. It’s the harvest I reaped after years of planting seeds in an industry that often overlooks actors like myself—the ones who aren’t “nepo babies,” who aren’t mainstream and who try to push boundaries and broaden horizons. 

Today, an up-and-comer is expected to deliver a top-tier performance with little experience, leaving very little room for error. This pressure can be a lot, but if you’ve done the work on yourself, you’ll become durable and able to succeed above and beyond. As a result, you’ll be an asset to any artistic process. 

So, my advice is to fall madly in love with that person in the mirror. Stop playing games, and do the work. Leave nothing to chance. Get specific about your vision, and double down on the belief that you are enough.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of Backstage Magazine.