“Thank you for looking like your headshot,” said a Black woman from behind the table, holding my 8×10 black-and-white photo. The woman was the writer/director, and her full attention was on my face the second I crossed the doorframe’s threshold. Nervously, I tried to process what this unexpected compliment might indicate, though I abandoned the task as introductions were made, and directed my attention to the work.
It wasn’t the last time I would be thanked for looking like my headshot. The comment was repeated enough for me to begin taking pride in it, and to weave it into my idea of who I was as an actor. Out of nowhere, an Academy Award for Most Truthful Headshot was on my vision board. This was less vanity than an appreciation for receiving consistent feedback. Hearing corroborated opinions of my work was a unicorn sliding down a rainbow for most of my career. Like most actors, I’d only been able to collect a few such unicorns over the years, and I wanted this one to live as long as possible.
The photo had been taken during a tense but productive session with a photographer up in L.A. The white wool turtleneck sweater I wore had been purchased with my employee discount from Banana Republic. With the limited amount of free time I had during my final year of grad school, working at a clothing store seemed like the only surefire way to upgrade my wardrobe and prepare for life as a professional actor in New York City.
The photo worked well: It got me an offer from a reputable regional theatre without auditioning. The artistic director explained that despite auditions, they had not found the right actor for Escalus in their Romeo and Juliet, but based on my headshot, I was exactly what they wanted. I was not sure what he saw that made him so confident, but with encouragement from my unicorn I assured him it was an accurate representation of me, and headed off to a job for which I had not applied.
Years later, when the industry belatedly shifted from black-and-white to color headshots, I was taken by surprise and anxious about fixing what was most definitely not broken. In addition to a dislike of being photographed I inherited from my mother, I could not articulate what had made my wool turtleneck headshot so successful—which made me insecure about repeating the feat. I needed guidance.
Shortly before my forced Technicolor metamorphosis, a teaching artist assignment took me to a high school in Harlem where, along with the assistant principal, I led workshops for their gifted and talented students. They were instantly suspicious of me, challenging me at every step—in part, I learned, because they thought I was an undercover cop.
Since moving to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, I’d heard passing comments about my resemblance to police officers, but I neither enjoyed nor accepted this new classification. Despite the armor I developed growing up in public housing, I was completely clean-cut, with no tattoos, piercings, or even a birthmark or visible scar. Yet to me, like every other Black man I knew, cops were corrupt, and to hear I looked like one not a compliment.
The perplexed assistant principal knew the truth of my chosen vocation, and asked the class to vote on whether I looked like an officer or something artistic, like…say…an actor. It was “cop” by a landslide. Offended or not, a room full of Black and brown students were giving me their assessment, and it was up to me what to I would do with that information. Their instinct was that I was too clean-cut and uptight to pass as “down,” and that I should instead establish myself as a young authority figure. I listened.
My survival job at the time was a company that held sample sales, allowing me to afford an upgrade. The centerpiece of my professional look was a dark blue suit, courtesy of Hugo Boss. Feeling confident that our work inside was done, the photographer Jimmy and I stepped out of the Brooklyn loft he rented for the occasion into the crisp autumn air. I had exchanged my suit for a dark brown Hugo Boss zip-up sweater with tan and orange swatches cascading over the shoulders. Dangling outside of my low-cut V-neck T-shirt, was the 90-percent-off Christofle modern cross my co-worker Darryl sold to me on a break after I jokingly asked if he had something nice for me to buy. It stayed on my neck for a decade.
Just before abandoning our quest, Jimmy called me to face him so he could quickly test the light. This haphazard test shot turned out to be the one after my best friend, Penni, went berserk over it. Knowing my comfort with children, she pointed out that I finally looked mature enough to play a young dad, with just enough chest hair to suggest a passionate lover. She said, “That’s just you.” Maybe I gave too much weight to the advice of one person, but that’s when I made the choice. My logic was: If the person who knows me the best says this is me, then this is the truest representation of myself and what I want to promote. With that decision I made my transition from black-and-white to color.
I immediately had a problem. One of my commercial agents, who believed my lane was “nice guy,” was not happy with the “street guy” depicted in my new photo. She was frustrated that I could only afford one print for headshots. And she wasn’t alone: The green corduroy notebook where I kept a log of my industry communication attempts and responses made it clear that I wasn’t getting into the room as much. Was it my acting? My agents? Industry slump? My new photo, which had a total price tag of over $1,000?
Feeling at a loss for clear direction, I paid for a workshop at the premiere “educational and networking studio for professional actors.” After the rundown of procedures, the moderator asked if we all had our sides prepared. There had been an earlier instruction to find material for the workshop that I had somehow missed, rendering the moderator immediately flustered and concerned. But cold reading was one of my strengths, so I asked to see the material before deciding if I should freak out. One glance and I assured her all was well.
I loved the scene. A young, urban cop shows up—in full uniform—to have a conversation with his estranged brother. Not only was the familiar situation of a distant brother easy to imagine, the cop’s views on family aligned perfectly with my own. My aunts were extremely influential in my upbringing, so I intimately understood the desire for his brother and son to have a relationship. My unicorn—newly transformed by the kids in Harlem—was ready to run free for the first time in a long time.
The panel that night comprised two casting directors and an agent. I was initially disappointed to hear the moderator tell them I had just received my scene. Being singled out is never fun, and I knew it could be used against me somehow. Yet I was so excited to dive in, that as I stood—wearing light gray Banana Republic stretch dress pants, and a short-sleeved maroon three-button DKNY top—the distractions faded, and there was nothing left but the work.
A few comments on my feedback forms concerned me. One panelist remarked that my business casual dress, matched with my “urban” dialect, confused them. Another was distracted by how uncomfortable I seemed, and suggested I use breath to help control my nerves. Making matters worse, they did not sign their names, so I had no idea which comment belonged to which panelist. I instantly negotiated with my disappointment by reminding myself that nothing was more important than finally learning what was lacking in my first color headshot. After a year of searching and wondering, here was the answer to my question, written in black and white: “Your gangster look is going to pigeonhole you.”
Being born and raised in the projects of Asheville, N.C., means you develop thick skin and a strong spine—or are afraid every time you step outside. As a sensitive, obedient kid who was just as likely to be watching General Hospital and listening to James Taylor as watching Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon or listening to N.W.A., this was true for me as well. Despite my thick eyeglasses and reputation for doing my homework, I learned not only how to stand up for myself, but how to project that acquired skill so that I might not be forced to use it. My family still lives in the projects of N.C., and I put my resume on my back for all to see every time I visit. Regardless of this tiresome cloak I feel I must repeatedly wear, then discard at the appropriate time, no one in my community would ever mistake me for a gangster, criminal, thug, or any other euphemistic word for Black American man.
I’ve been surrounded by all kinds of Black people in my life, and became an actor partly because I wanted to explore the totality of that experience, from pimp to prophet. I trained so that I might be able to do it all. In an art form that seeks to explore the depths of humanity, being able to see us in the fullness of our humanity is imperative.
I was not, and am not, offended by being called “gangster.” But I was wary of the damage trying to prove I wasn’t one might cause. Despite elite training, an impressive resume, and an authentic love of performing dating back to my first play in elementary school, I felt unsafe and unseen every time I walked through a new door. So I stopped and opted for a career behind the table.
When I made the transition from full-time actor to full-time director, I did not know if the people behind the table could see me, and it took years for me to realize that it was my job to let them.
My time behind the table has taught me the true secret to successful casting depends on my capacity to see who the actor is, and pair them with the character that creates the right amount of either tension or ease. The implication is not that I come away knowing everything about an actor, or that I will always be able to see them. But casting an actor when I am unable to engage with their humanity in the audition or callback is setting myself up for failure. It is reasonable to think that auditions are about skill and preparation alone. But a more accurate equation would be: you + your work = your audition.
When it comes to defining yourself as an actor, I teach my students and coaching clients that knowing yourself is the work; knowing how others see you is the business. There is power and peace in knowing the distance between them. Bring your authentic self into the room, then use the work to show what you want them to see.
There may be those who would still say I look like a gangster, especially as my typical classroom and rehearsal attire includes a hoodie. Whatever their opinion of my clothing choice, I have earned a seat at the table, and will not be pigeonholed by anyone else’s limitations.
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