By Derryck “Nes” Johnson
In an era where reality television has put its stamp on almost every major network, drama-series of the past such as Law & Order and Hill Street Blues have taken a back seat to the point where they’re almost non-existent to the viewers. HBO has always been at the forefront of presenting its audience with stimulating material like The Corner and The Wire. I recently had the opportunity to talk with the very talented and seasoned actor Michael Potts from HBO’s True Detective about his craft and the importance of telling a spectrum of Black people’s stories to broaden our impact in the entertainment industry. The new season of True Detective airs January 12 on HBO.
HBO obviously recognizes your extreme talents from your stellar performance as Brother Mouzone in The Wire, to your most recent role as Detective Maynard Gilbough in the new HBO drama series True Detective. How exciting is this role for you?
It’s amazing. The last couple of weeks I’ve been getting really anxious and excited as the network keeps dropping the trailers and like you know the backstage conversations and things on the set like that. So I’m really hyped about it, because I know it’s going to be an amazing show. Yes, I’m looking forward to it.
You’re a very busy actor who currently has a role in the Tony award winning musical The Book of Mormon. How are you able to successfully juggle the musical with the preparation of your upcoming series which debuts on HBO January 12?
(Laughs) Well it isn’t easy, because the whole thing with the musical it goes 6 days a week and it takes a lot of your time. In this case, the last couple of weeks I’ve been working 7 days a week so it’s rather hard. But the producers have been real cool from the musical so that when something happens in True Detective, they give me time off to deal with it. So the producers of The Book of Mormon gave me a leave of absence so that I could work on shooting the series True Detective. Then the producer’s obligations for True Detective allowed me to step away and they had someone cover for me. It’s not easy at all! It can get a little exhausting, but it’s still very exciting.
Was there a major acting influence on your life that made you want to pursue this craft on a professional level?We’ll there’s two actually. Because I remember when I was a kid I was watching a lot of the Sidney Poitier films because he was it! He’s the main man who I was watching. I remember the movies when I was a kid like “In the heat of the night”, so that encouraged me. Then there was also a British actor named Paul Scofield who I remember when I was in the 7th grade and saw him in “A Man for all seasons”. So pretty much those two actors are my idols I try to emulate and pattern my work after.
How important is it for us to have people like Oprah & Tyler Perry that own their own studios to help create opportunities for young aspiring actors?
Oh…it’s absolutely essential. Because what’s great about it is we’re telling stories about the whole diversity of African-American/Black people and we’re seeing that more & more. From our particular perspective, nobody knows us like us, so that’s very important. I was just reading an article in the Hollywood Reporter about how it’s not just Black audiences coming out to see these movies anymore. The material in film has been so good and there have been so much high quality movies that everyone in general is interested in viewing these works looking at our lives & our stories. It just opens up the doors for so much. Amazing talents like Michael B. Jordan from Fruitvale Station I mean, it’s a huge breakout for him or Steve McQueen directing 12 Years A Slave. It also brings to the forefront that kind of extraordinary talent that we have. Yeah, it’s got to keep going, internationally as well to sell and make an impact on the world. We need more material out there for more than what they know of our people from the past too.
How long does it take for you to get into and out of character?
Yes, I’m really serious about the roles I take on and play. It can be different. There are some characters you get into and identify with right away and you can kind of jump into it with the writer and what they’re going for. Then there’s the stuff you can read and execute what the tone of the piece is about before you jump in and see what fits with the character. There’s also situations where you meet a role that’s right for you & you’re right for it.
The Wire character was easy because I knew what the producers were going for and the tone of the The Wire itself, so I just went with that. It was also easy to step out of that character when it was done because I was shooting in Baltimore and traveling back and forth from New York, so I had that nice Acela train ride to kind of decompress and get in and out of that role. It differs from character to character. Some take longer and are harder to step away from.
You’ve appeared in various films such as The Piece Maker & Conspiracy Theory. Can we expect to see Michael Potts in some more feature films in the near future?
I hope so man (laughs). I’m working hard at it and hopefully with True Detective and the rest of my body of work, some people will start taking more notice and give me a shot at some of this good stuff out here film wise. I know there are opportunities out there, so yes I’m looking forward to it. I would say yes, you’ll be seeing more of me.
What do you want the viewers to take from your character & the series True Detective?
What they should take from my character is he’s a really smart, very conscientious complex kind of guy. He’s into his job and believes in what he does. He’s not crazed or your typical or conventional sort of detective. He’s very cerebral and deep about what he’s doing. He’s constantly thinking about things and figuring out all types of angles. Chasing down evidence and chasing down leads, finding out who’s responsible for certain crimes. So I hope I’m successful in putting that forward to the viewers.
As far as the show, I’m hoping people get the notion of the novel quality of this piece. It was unusual because it’s one director for eight episodes. So, it’s really an 8-hour movie that the audience will be looking at on television, which already makes it something unique in television. I’m hoping the scope of the story telling, image and visuals catch their attention. Just the statement of the entire piece unified as one so everyone is on the same page watching it. I truly believe it will be a really rich experience for everyone watching.
Photo credit: Marco Grob