Mark Christopher Lawrence and L. Peter Callender
Theatre Corner sits down with actor/comedian Mark Christopher Lawrence (Chuck, The Pursuit of Happyness) and artistic director L. Peter Callender. Lawrence talks about his career, getting
started in the industry, and how he killed a guy with comedy. Callender discusses his role at the African-American Shakespeare Company and Blacks in theatre.
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Michael Taylor: Hi, welcome to "Theatre Corner."
I'm your host, Michael Taylor.
As a lifelong theater enthusiastand a board member for one of
the top theaters in the country,I've seen firsthand the positive
effects that diversity and inclusion could have on the
stage and the theater seats.
This interview series was created as a way to share my
passion for theater and promotediverse voices throughout the
national theater scene.
We sit down with some of the top professionals in the
entertainment industry to discuss training,
careers, advice for young actors,
and how to make theater matter to more people.
Today I met up with actor and comedian Mark Christopher
Lawrence and the artisticdirector of the African-American
Shakespeare Company, L. Peter Callender.
Mark Christopher Lawrence is recognizable from his
five-season stint as "Big Mike"in the NBC series "Chuck," and
has made appearances in the filmsuch as "Terminator 2" and
"The Pursuit of Happiness."
We had a great conversation about his career,
transitioning from stage to screen,
and how he killed a guy with comedy.
So silence your cell phones, folks.
You're entering "Theatre Corner."
Michael: Welcome to "Theatre Corner," brother.
Mark Christopher Lawrence: Thanks for havin' me.
Michael: You're very welcome to be here.
I'm really quite excited to sit down with you,
a local San Diego talent.
Mark: Yeah, yeah, I moved here '99.
Michael: You spent a lot of time on stage in theater,
and I'm curious why theater?
What speaks to you about theater?
Why is that so important?
Mark: Well, that's the first love.
I mean, with theater, it's likethat's where you learn to act.
That's where you grow.
And my first professionalplay was at Los Angeles Theatre
Center, "Antony and Cleopatra."
Rosalind Cash was in it, John Goodman was in it,
Mitchell Ryan, Kyle Secor, you know,
all these really strong actors, C.C.H. Pounder,
and I was still in college.
And my acting in class took a leap because I was doing this
play because, all of a sudden, I had to keep up with these
actors who were beasts, you know?
So the thing about theater thatreally draws me is that not only
am I learning every day, it feeds that beast in there,
'Cause we know in TV, it's very surface.
You know, sitcom is formulaic,so you wanna do somethin' that's
deeper, and I tend to do very dramatic plays because I do
a lot of comedy and TV.
But the thing I love about theater is that you know
right now if you suck.
Michael: There's no question.
Mark: The audience will let you know,
so you can come back tomorrow and try to fix it.
With TV and film, you know, it'slike you're hoping the editor
does the best he can to make you look better.
Michael: That's interesting. Mark: Yeah.
Michael: And so you've done, like you've mentioned,
Shakespeare and lots of August Wilson.
Mark: August Wilson, yeah, and a lot of new creations.
I love August Wilson.
Man, August Wilson is such a brilliant writer.
I mean, I always tell people, if you just say the words,
you're 80% there.
You know, just say it the way he wrote it.
You'll be fine.
Michael: Right, right, right.
There's some long monologues there in some of those pieces.
Mark: Man, I played "Boy Willie."
Michael: Oh, really?
Mark: Yeah, in "Piano Lesson," and Boy Willie had
a ten-page run where it was basically a monologue that was
interrupted a few times by one line,
and so I just memorized it as amonologue and hoped people jump
in when they're supposed to jump in.
You know, it was tough.
I mean, it was like, out of a hundred and,
I think, seven or eight pages, he had the lion's share on
82 pages, and it was brutal.
I mean, I was--last thingthat I did before I went to bed,
first thing I did when I wokeup was run through those lines.
Michael: In terms of television,
what people really recognize you,
that is, as "Big Mike" from "Chuck."
And that was your longest-running TV gig.
Mark: Yeah, we did five years--five seasons.
Michael: Wow, that's strong.
What is that experience like?
Mark: Oh, you know, it was interesting in that it was
a very large cast.
I mean, we were ten strong, you know,
of series regulars, and because of that,
you're hoping that you go to work and everybody is nice,
and we were blessed, man.
Everybody was great, cast, crew--everybody.
So it was fun to go to work.
Yeah, like, I did an episode of"Designing Women," and there was
so much tension on that set, andthere were only the three women
and Meshach Taylor.
Mark: And so I said to Meshach,
"It's like you could just feel it."
It was culpable.
And I said to Meshach, I said, "How do you work like this?"
He says, "I just try to stay out of their way."
Michael: But your very first television experience was
"Hill Street Blues."
Mark: Yeah, first audition.
Michael: First audition? Mark: Right.
Mark: Here's the story: I was at USC as an actor.
One of my--I was at USC on Debates Fellowship.
And one of my debate coaches had a friend who was an agent.
She came to see me in a play at USC,
gave me her card.
Two days later, I go and visit her.
She signs me.
I don't have any money--completely broke,
so she pays to have a guy take pictures for me.
The pictures come back.
First picture she sent out was for "Hill Street Blues."
I get the audition.
I go in, do the audition, go back home,
and it's already on the machine I have the job.
Mark: So then, for the next year,
I rush home and check my machine--and nothin'.
But it was the best thing that could've ever happened to me
because now I go, I do it and just let it go because I'm not
gonna get 'em all.
Michael: Right, right, right.
Mark: And so even when I'm in a slump,
you know, it's like, "Somethin' will come.
I'll be fine."
Michael: Man, this acting is not for the faint of heart.
Mark: It is not for the faint of heart.
I mean, I know some really strong actors who stopped
because they couldn't take the roller-coaster.
You know, but that's why I do a lot of other stuff.
I do, you know, voiceover and commercials and,
you know, TV and film and stage,because you can bounce back into
that, stand-up, you know, keeps the bills paid.
Michael: Wow, and so, in terms of film,
here's a brother that was on "Terminator 2."
Mark: First big movie.
And I've said this many timesthat every time I've tried to do
something else in theindustry or out of the industry,
it's like because I get frustrated.
"Terminator 2" was like in my first five years,
so all my friends from Debate incollege were clerkin' for judges
or either, you know, major law firms,
and I was, like, you know, sort of meandering along as
this under-five actor, and I was like,
"Well, maybe I made a mistake."
And I had, like, a three-month period where I didn't work,
so I saw in the "L.A. Weekly,"
there was "Learn to Deal Cards."
I was like, "That's what I'm gonna do.
I'ma go and take this class on how to deal cards.
I'll get, you know, placed in, like,
Monaco or Vegas or somewhere, and that'll be my career,"
'cause they said, you know,"Six figures a year," you know,
"We have placement," dah-dah-dah-dah.
So I was like, "Okay, this is what I'm gonna do."
And this is why I believe that God truly puts you
where he wants you to be.
I go and audit the first class.
You can audit for free.
If you like it, plop down 499 for the class.
So I'm sittin' there in the first class,
and before the first break, the doors open.
Some suits come in--shut the class down.
Apparently, they were launderingmoney through this class.
And then a week later, I was booked for "Terminator 2."
Michael: Wow, my goodness. Mark: Yeah.
Michael: And that experience? Mark: Fantastic.
Mark: James Cameron, watching him as a film director,
I mean, it was the only time that I found myself on set
all the time, 'cause usually I say, "Okay,
you gotta go and lay down 'causeyou never know when they're
gonna call you back in.
But I was just watching him, the way he worked.
He was so meticulous.
You know, there's a scenewhere--I did all the work in the
hospital scenes in the movie, and there's a scene where
we're chasing Linda Hamilton down this hallway,
and he had six cameras set up,and as we run down the hallway,
he had a Steadicam.
This is the first time I'd ever seen a Steadicam,
and the Steadicam operator was tryin' to keep up with her
running, and then he said to us, he says,
"Hey, you guys gotta keep up with Linda."
It was like, "Well, our characters are called
Linda Hamilton's been workin' out six days a week,
sometimes twice a day.
And so--but he was so meticulousabout every little thing,
you know, and it shows on screen that,
you know, because he has a vision the way he wants
to see it, and he gets it.
Michael: So, Mark Christopher Lawrence,
the stand-up comedian, you're extremely funny.
I mean, that's not an easy thing to do.
Mark: Well, here's the thing about comedy.
Just like acting, you don'tknow what the audience has been
through, so as you're doing your bit,
you gotta have to gauge what's goin' on with them and
what's goin' on with you.
I happened to be one of the fewcomics who actually has killed
a guy with jokes.
Michael: Oh, really?
Mark: I was doin' a show, a charity event in La Jolla at
a mansion, and 13 minutes into my 45-minute set,
the host comes runnin' back up, says,
"Mark, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and he takes the mic.
So right away I'm thinkin', "Did I say somethin' that
was off-color for the charity?"
and, no, no.
He says, "Is there a doctor in the house?"
That night, there happened to be four doctors in the house.
One was the guy who set up all the ERs here in San Diego.
They go to work on this guy.
What happened is he's laughin' so hard,
he has a heart attack and dies.
Michael: Oh, my.
Mark: They go to work on him.
He wakes up gigglin'.
Michael: Oh, really?
Mark: These jokes are powerful.
Michael: And needless to say, "You killed that night."
In fact, we were still standin' on the stage,
me and the host, and I said,
"See, Josh, this is why you hire me.
He starts laughin'. I said, "Too soon?"
He goes, "Yeah, but funny."
Michael: Tell me aboutyour first stand-up experience.
Mark: Open mic, Comedy Store, L.A.,
up on Sunset Boulevard.
That's where everybody is.
I sit in the original room, waitin' for my turn.
You know, I'm, like, ninth or tenth on the list,
and two people before I go on, Robin Williams just pops in,
and so everybody gets bumped.
He does 45 minutes.
So I'm supposed to be on, you know,
at about 10:30.
I end up goin' on at, like, midnight.
And the guy that went right after him just tanked,
and I was like, "Oh, man, this is gonna be rough."
And so then the next guy got a few laughs,
and then I was like, "Okay, I should be all right."
And so I go up and do my three minutes,
and it was funny.
And Louie Anderson said to me when I come off the stage,
he says, "You got somethin' there, kid.
And that was the beginning of it.
Michael: So the difference between doing theater on stage
and stand-up, what would that be?
Mark: I think the difference is that when you're doin'
theater, you're generallyspeaking somebody else's words.
When you're doin' stand-up,you're speaking your own words,
however, it's still a character.
You know, for me, it's like I don't go on stage,
you know, just strictly as Mark Christopher Lawrence.
I think what happens is there'sa heightened version of me that
sometimes will say stuff that Idon't--wouldn't necessarily say,
you know, 'cause I think me, asjust a regular everyday person,
I would put on a filter.
On stage, maybe not.
Michael: So, Mark Christopher Lawrence,
before you go, you know, we have a lot of upcoming artists
watching this show.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming,
new, young artists?
Mark: I would say to young artists, train.
Train, train, train.
There's nothing more important than honing your craft and,
you know, a lot of young folks just wanna jump right into TV
or right into commercials and film, or whatever,
and it's like you look at the people who've been around
for years and years and years.
It's because they have theater backgrounds.
They're doin' theater, and that's where you get a lot
of strength and training, craft honing.
They keep working at the craft.
You know, I told myself, look,if you go to an audition and you
see me sittin' there, and you haven't trained,
and we're readin' for the same role,
you're not gettin' that job.
Michael: There you go.
Mark: And that's a fact, you know,
'cause people are trained, so you need to be ready.
Michael: Next, the "Theatre Corner" crew and I drove up
to San Francisco to visit the African-American Shakespeare
Company and to sit down with their artistic director,
L. Peter Callender.
We talked about Shakespeare, black actors in theater,
and an interestinginterpretation of what it means
to "break a leg."
Michael: Welcome to "Theatre Corner," brother.
L. Peter Callender: Well said, well said.
Thank you so much.
It's a pleasure to be in your company.
Michael: You are so welcome to be here,
and this interview has actuallybeen a long time coming.
L. Peter: Yes.
Michael: But this is quite anoccasion for us to get together
'cause this is a special play.
This is one of my favorites.
L. Peter: It's one of mine too.
Michael: You're playing "Richard III,"
the African-American Shakespeare Company,
which you are the artistic director of.
You're coming behind Antony Sher,
Kevin Spacey, Laurence Olivier, Al Pacino,
Denzel Washington, Alec Guinness,
George C. Scott.
I mean, this is a long list of Richard IIIs.
How are you approaching this part?
L. Peter: Well, I look at it this way:
They're all coming before L. Peter Callender.
Michael: I love it.
L. Peter: I--you know, in the theater, we say,
"Break a leg," right?
We say, "Break a leg," as a good-luck thing.
"Break a leg," you know, going on stage or before you go on
stage, "Break a leg," and thereis a lot of scholarship about
what that means, where it comesfrom: "Break a leg," as to
"take your bow," breaking your leg as you bow.
But the best thing, the best example I've heard of
"Break a leg," was the word "legend," L-E-G, right?
And "Break a legend," right, meaning,
"Be better than the people who played it before you."
Michael: Ah, I see.
L. Peter: And that motivates me as an actor.
So I--it's always a challenge, and it's always a motivation
for me and, I guess, any other actor doing Shakespeare.
There are only 36 of his plays over 400 years,
so we all do them to bring "something about me," to bring
something different to the role.
So I'm hoping from tonight, opening night,
that audiences will say,"Wow, I've never heard that line
delivered in that waybefore," or that gesture before,
or this scene performed in that way before.
So that's what we're hoping for in our production.
Michael: Everyone's gonna wanna see how Richard III's
deformity is going to be presented.
I mean, Antony Sher, he did with the sticks,
and Ian McKellen, one hand performance,
Kevin Spacey with the brace on the leg,
and, I mean, it was cocked up, and he was on his toe.
How is Peter gonna bring Richard's deformity?
L. Peter: Really good question.
It is all about that presentation, right?
It's about how he thinks of himself.
I remember seeing a productionof "Elephant Man" years ago with
David Bowie on Broadway, andthe Elephant Man is this majorly
deformed human being, big head, big arms,
big, et cetera, et cetera, and David Bowie is a beautiful
specimen of a human being, and it was placed in the
audience's mind to see all of his deformities,
and David Bowie just stood onstage with all of his beauty and
splendor, and it was the audience's imagination that
took over to realize all of his deformities.
Now, having said that, our Richard,
he is deformed.
There is a hunchback.
My left arm, my left side of my body is atrophied.
L. Peter: So my left leg doesn't bend.
My left arm is basically unmoving.
It doesn't do this. It's there.
My fingers move, but I am performing basically with
the right side of my body and my head,
which, you know, I think, after this closes,
I'll probably need a goodEpsom salt bath and a masseuse.
But I played Richard before, 15, 16 years ago,
and when I played him that time, I looked at the way
we see ourselves.
Other people may look at us and say,
"Well, look at that, look at that,
look at that," but when the waywe see ourselves is beautiful,
handsome, tall, debonair, and he saw himself as that until
the play progressed, and the burdens of being king,
the burdens of his faults, the burdens of his
villainy weighed him down.
So by the end of the play, weactually--he actually broke free
from his seeing himself as thisbeautiful person and literally
became more and more and moredeformed and crooked by the end
of the show, so by the time he says,
"A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," he was literally
crooked and bent and out ofshape because all of his beauty
was taken away from him.
So there are different ways to do this,
and I love and I appreciate every actor
that tackles this role.
It's a monster of a role to play.
And anyone that takes this up, I wanna go see.
Michael: And how do youdeal with such a demanding role?
I mean, this is not only physically but
L. Peter: It becomes a part of you, Michael.
It does, man.
Every rehearsal, I try to put myself in a place that is not
judging myself becauseit's--we are doing live theater,
and sometimes a line, a word may be dropped,
a line, but I've become soentranced in this man's psyche,
in what Shakespeare has given him,
and I have to enjoy my villainy, his villainy.
You know, I've gotta enjoy it.
I've gotta savor it.
I've gotta look at the audience and say,
"This is what I'm doing.
This is what I'm doing, and I want you guys to follow me,
and I want you to be-- to aid me in what I'm doing,
and you're gonna have a lot of fun doing it.
And I think the audience is like,
"Ooh, wow, thanks.
Little, ole us?"
Michael: What I find interesting is the natural
tendency to see someone, perhaps with a deformity,
is to show pity, feel pity for them,
but Richard, himself--andI'll paraphrase it--but he says,
"Why should anyone pity me?
I don't even pity myself."
L. Peter: "I, myself, find in myself no pity to myself."
Michael: Right, right, and there are some really strong,
terrifying parallelsbetween him and 45 that comes up
consistently through this play, actually.
L. Peter: Oh, many. There are so many.
I say some lines in this play, brother,
that I think are spoken behind closed doors amongst
the followers of our current administration,
the leader of our current administration.
I mean, I say a line, "Ere you were queen,
ay, and your husband king.
I was a packhorse in his great affairs,
a weeder-out of his proud adversaries,
A liberal rewarder of his friends.
To royalize his blood, I shed mine own."
I mean, what numbers of players, then and now,
who had been fired or who arestill there or who will be fired
could possibly be saying those lines?
You know, "Before he was king, I helped him.
Now look what he's done to me," right?
He says things like "Either be patient and treat me fair,
or I will do such and such and such and such and such,"
talking about "I'm not being treated fairly."
Where do we hear that?
L. Peter: So it is--there are somany of those parallels today,
and I think with many Shakespeare plays,
I don't think you could--the writer,
the time that Shakespeare wrote these plays,
it is so poignant.
I cannot tell or do a Shakespeare play today
that I find does not reach into our political realm,
our emotional realm, our economical realm.
There are so many parallels throughout Shakespeare
that we cannot do a Shakespeare.
I'm doing "Othello" in a year.
My gosh, you know, black man falling in love and marrying
a young white girl.
Dare he barbecue in Lake Merritt?
It's like how we are doingthings in today that Shakespeare
wrote about so many yearsago, and it's still so poignant.
Michael: That actuallyanswers a bit of my one question
that I had is why Shakespeare?
You've done over 27 Shakespearean performances.
And it's the fact that it's so relevant is one reason.
L. Peter: That's one reason, of course.
I love language.
I was born in the West Indies.
I'm well read in the historicalplays and the classics.
I love the classics.
And there's something about thisman's writing that moves me,
that I find--and I don't know where it is.
It's a blessing.
Thank you--that I understand, that I "get it."
It fits in my mouth. It fits in my body.
It fits in my heart. I understand it.
I don't fear it, and Shakespeare,
no matter which of his plays, nomatter which of his characters,
you play and you always find abit of yourself in it no matter
what the character is.
It could be from a porter in "The Scottish Play," or a king
or a maiden or a duke or a villain.
You find that person inside of you.
So the parallels to our currentlife and Shakespeare's works,
this is why I love the plays.
This is why we do them.
This is why the African-AmericanShakespeare Company is here to
allow actors of color to play these roles because,
when I was coming up in New York,
there were reviewers and someteachers who actually said black
actors should never do Shakespeare.
We don't have the technique.
We don't have the wherewithal.
We can't speak those words.
And one of the reasons why I'm here today,
working with Sherri Young and working with the
African-American Shakespeare Company,
is to dispel that, to let everyone know that we are
absolutely and powerfully capable of doing anything,
And having done over 27 or 26 ofhis plays myself and acted and
directed a few, I'm here with Sherri Young and the
African-American Shakespeare Company to say,
"We're here, and we're not goin' anywhere."
Michael: Whenever I get to theater,
OG, if you will--
L. Peter: Oh, man, wow, yeah.
Michael: To sit in a seat, since we have so many
up-and-coming actors out there,watching "Theatre Corner,"
what type of advice would you have for those young actors?
L. Peter: As a young actor coming up,
I would always say study hard, work hard.
Mediocrity does not exist in theater.
My favorite quote is "Perfection is unattainable,
but if you chase perfection, you might catch excellence.
That's Vince Lombardi.
And that's a quote that I live by every day.
Always, always chase excellence in theater
'cause that's all we have.
We have our reputation in theater.
Work hard, always be ontime, always be prepared, right?
Your reputation is all you have in this business.
Work hard to maintain that.
Your body is your instrument.
Encase it. Protect it.
Make sure that you do well, that you speak well,
that you don't--that you don't put anything in your body that
could harm your bodybecause this is your instrument.
Your teeth, your mouth, your face,
your arms, your legs, your--everything, your breath.
Your breath is your inspiration.
Be inspired by it and use it so that when you get on stage,
there's nothing in your way so that you're open to receive
everything that your fellow actors give you,
your director gives you, the playwright gives you,
and certainly those people sitting in
those red seats give you, right?
'Cause you have to be ready and open.
So that's my advice.
Michael: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse."
A quote from Shakespeare's "Richard III."
A production that has continually captivated me.
The unique experiences that these incredible performers
illustrate never fail to dazzle me.
So thank you for tuning in.
I'm Michael Taylor, and we'll see you on the next episode
of "Theatre Corner."
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