From the Gridiron to the Silver Screen
by Kristian Fenner
Morris Chestnut is living proof that when your Plan A doesn’t pan out, Plan B might not be so bad. When a career in sports didn’t end up paying his way through college, Morris looked elsewhere for his next field to play in. For him, acting became a natural next step. It’s been nearly 25 years since we were first introduced to Ricky Baker, star running back for Crenshaw High School, in the award-winning John Singleton film Boyz n the Hood. After bursting onto the scene in that impressive debut, Chestnut has garnered various roles in television and film, from Patti LaBelle’s television series Out All Night, The Best Man films with Nia Long and Taye Diggs, The Game Plan with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to the star-studded ensemble film Think Like A Man, to name a mere few. While he may have stumbled into acting, he now stands pretty firm in his career.
This fall you’ll be able to see Morris each week as a Miami pathologist, Dr. Rosewood, who teams up with a private detective, played by Jaina Ortiz, to help solve the city’s most challenging cases using state-of-the-art laboratory equipment. Not the typical role for Chestnut, this new series is guaranteed to show his range as an actor. Morris took time out of his jam-packed filming schedule to chat with Monarch about his new show, how he researched his way into an acting career, and how he’s managed to remain relevant ever since.
It’s been about 25 years since we first saw you in Boyz n the Hood. What has been your strategy in staying relevant in your career?
That’s a good question. Basically, I just kept trying to get better each year. Obviously, 25 years ago when I first started I was 2 years old [laughs]. No, but basically I was very young and very green when I first started. One thing that I realized early on is that I had to experience things and that it was going to be a lifelong study of acting and human behavior. So each year, I would try to just get better at what I do.
Although you were working to get better and improve your skills, is there anything that you would have done differently in retrospect?
When I came into the industry I didn’t know anyone. A lot of times people I came across had like an uncle in the industry or a mother or someone as a mentor that I didn’t have. So yeah, there are quite a few choices along the way that I would change. But fortunately, I’m still here now and when I mentor someone I advise them of the things that I would stay away from.
Did you always think acting would be your career?
No, I didn’t find acting until my second year in college. I wanted to play sports. Basically when I didn’t get a scholarship or anything I thought I needed to find something else that I needed to do. My first year in college a buddy of mine was in a play and told me to come take a look. So I supported him in the play and it was something that I found interesting, like I want to try that. I was always in the library like every day and I found an occupation handbook. So it was where you look up the occupation and see how much you could make and see how much was involved and a description of the job. So I was always in the library trying to figure out what I wanted to do. So after seeing my buddy’s play, I just tried it out the next semester.
So you mentioned you were always in the library. I was as well. But has technology advancement changed the way you function in life and in your career?
You know, the good thing about technology is that it is extremely helpful for an actor when you are doing research. Everything is at a click. When I was at the library I was going through encyclopedias, you know what I’m saying. So now it is so much easier especially when you are studying a character. So even when I’m reading a script now and there is something I don’t understand it takes me two minutes to punch it in Google and so I can keep going. Another funny thing; when I first started acting we didn’t, obviously, have these cell phones with navigation, so I used to use this thing called Thomas Guides which was a little map of the city so you can find out where streets were. Nowadays, people don’t know what that even is [laughs].
You’ve been in the marriage game about as long as you’ve been in the acting game. What is your key to success in that area of life?
I think that, in addition to acting and life, you need a little bit of luck. Basically, Pam and I have been together for a long time. We met when we were 21-22. We’ve been fortunate to grow together instead of growing apart. People are different at 26 than they were at 21, and then you’re even more different at 31. So we were blessed enough to grow together and communicate. The one thing that I always tell people is that it’s not easy. A lot of times people think it’s easy street once they get married. But actually that’s when the work really begins. When you’re dating this person or that person can walk away and there’s no real attachment. But once you get married now it’s not so easy to walk away. You can’t just go back to your apartment and she go back to hers when you get mad at each other. So that’s when the work starts.
Speaking of work, you are one of the hardest-working men out there right now. You have a show coming out called Rosewood on Fox. Can you tell us why audiences will love it?
I think audiences will love it because it’s a different type of show. We’re going to be shifting tones a lot. My character Rosewood is a guy who has a lot of ailments and so he’s just glad to be on the Earth. So he lives every day like it’s his last day. He wants his outlook to be infectious to everyone. So with the type of show it is there are a lot of times when we have a lot of humor and times when we have some serious drama. There are also some emotional tones to the show. So we are going to be shifting tones; but at the end of the day during each episode from 8-9 pm on Wednesday starting September 23rd, people are just going to have fun and be able to enjoy the show.
How did you prepare for this role?
Well unfortunately my research for this role was restricted because I was working on another project. Literally, I finished one project and 24 hours later I was on to this project. But it was basically looking up a lot of medical terms and understanding things about pathology. Pretty much what I like to do is think if I were a pathologist what would make me tick; and I try to inject that into all of my characters.
So being a lead in a primetime show, how has this differed from other projects you’ve done?
The demand. I’m not a micromanager, but there are things that are important to me when it comes to projects. When you are the lead of a show, you’ve got so much dialogue you need to prepare for and then there are things like casting choice or scene structure that are important to me. What I had to realize with this show is that I just have to do my job and trust that everyone is going to do their job. It’s not like I was trying to do someone else’s job, but as an actor I try to have input on certain things. At the end of the day when you are the title character of the show people will associate Rosewood with me. So now I just have to sit back and let things fall where they may. I still speak up on things that are important to me but I don’t want to be that actor who’s every single time complaining about something.
Is Hollywood more receptive to African-Americans playing lead roles on non-African-American shows?
I’ve always said Hollywood isn’t black or white, it’s always been green. When it comes to the biggest movie stars like Denzel Washington or Will Smith they weren’t considered black actors. They were actors who were making a lot of green money so they were getting a lot of projects. In terms of them giving us opportunities now with shows like Empire, it showed Hollywood that even with Netflix and Hulu, the public still watches network television; and when the public watches network television, that represents advertising dollars. So with the success of Empire, now networks are finally seeing hey we can put Black characters on TV and people will watch. And that’s what it is.
Where do you feel most comfortable, television or film?
It depends. The one thing I love about television is how fast it moves. On a TV set you’re moving fast. You get in, do a scene, then you’re out, and so forth. Film you have more luxury of time. Sometimes you’re at work and you sit in a trailer for two hours. Where that plays in my favor is when I don’t have my lines down [laughs]. So when I’m working on television I already know we are going to be working at a fast past so it cures my procrastination.
In addition to Rosewood, you have a plethora of other projects going on. Can you tell us about the film The Perfect Guy?
Sure. The Perfect Guy was a movie that I filmed with Sanaa Lathan and Michael Ealy. It’s a sexual thriller that we shot in LA. I had a great time with that film. Working with Sanaa and Michael was a great experience.
What about Legends?
Legends I just completed in London. That was a TV show that I did last year as a series regular. It’s a Fox 21 show which is a cable division of Fox. Normally as a regular on a TV show, I wouldn’t be eligible to do a pilot for another show. So when Rosewood came up it was kind of all in the family; I was able to work it out. So they closed out my character on Legends, but I’m in 3-4 episodes this season.
What about Bus 657?
Yes, it is a movie I did with Robert DeNiro. I play kind of his right-hand man. He’s about to retire and I’m about to take over the reins of his casino.
Is there a specific genre that you like the most?
It depends. When they offered me Rosewood I really jumped on it because I looked back at all the projects I’ve done and I’ve been crying in every one of them. The movie I did before Rosewood, I was in such a different place, but crying and going through a bunch of things. So when I had a chance to play a character that is fun and has a lot of wit and humor, I thought … let me go ahead and hop on this and have some fun!