Living His Dream
by Otis Stokes
Anthony Anderson may not be what you call a household name, more like household-ish, but he sure as heck is a “household face.” If you have been watching television or movies anywhere in the past 20 years, you’ve seen his face and you know his work. Anderson has appeared in over 20 films, and his performance on the longtime NBC hit drama “Law & Order” earned him his fourth consecutive NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series for the 2010 season. He has shared the screen with such Hollywood notables as Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning feature, “The Departed,” as well as Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Cicely Tyson, just to name a few. Anthony Anderson grew up in the impoverished community of Compton, California, where he and his mother apparently had the same idea about education. Anderson said, “I’m the oldest of four, and my mother didn’t want me to go to high school in Compton. My younger brothers and sisters were going to school in Torrance and Compton, and my mother just felt there was a better school district for me to go and I was in one of my weekend acting classes, and I saw this note on this invite on the flyer on the wall that said, ‘The Fame school is coming to L.A. High School for the Performing Arts.’ And I took one of the flyers and I brought it home, and I asked my mother if I got accepted into the school, if I could go there. She was like, ‘Yeah, if you get accepted, you can go there.’ So I put my stuff on tape, I auditioned, wrote an essay, sent it in, and I was accepted into the Los Angeles County High School for the Performing Arts, their inaugural class. I did my tenth and eleventh grade years there, and then I transferred over to Hollywood Performing Arts Magnet my senior year. That’s how that all happened.”
That experience is what stoked the fire in him to become an actor and performer in the entertainment field. But in the quest to find his creative voice, Anderson tried standup comedy early on and met with disastrous results. “My first attempt at it was pretty humbling. I was booed off the stage, they turned off my mic, and they turned off my light. But it’s just you, and a microphone, and an audience up there. You are the producer, the director, the writer, and all of that. You feel what works and what doesn’t work instantly, because the feedback is right there. No, it didn’t work out for me the first time at all, and it kept me away from doing it for quite some time. It shook me that bad. I never really considered myself to be a stand-up; I was just a comedic actor. But I wanted to get my foot wet in that world and that’s what happened.”
Getting his “foot wet,” is an understatement inasmuch as Anderson has produced a resume of acting credits as long as a runway. He has become quite a creative force and is primed to take his career to the next level as star and executive producer of a brand new hit sitcom on ABC called “Black-ish.” The comedy co-stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne. Anderson plays the main character in a series that takes a humorous, yet bold look at one man’s determination to establish a sense of cultural identity for his family, while raising his kids in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood. The show’s premiere episode generated the kind of ratings numbers that make network executives salivate, especially when generated by a new show. The airing drew a 3.3 rating with adults 18-49 and 10.8 million viewers. LATF got a chance to talk to the versatile actor by phone during what has become a very busy schedule.
What was it that made you pursue a career as an actor, since you started off with stand-up?
I’ve always been an actor. Stand-up was something that I just wanted to try. All I ever wanted to do since I was nine years old was be an actor. I wanted to play football for the Dallas Cowboys, I wanted to be a lawyer, and I wanted to be an actor. And at the age of nine, I realized that if I became an actor, I could be all three of those things, and whatever else I wanted to become in life.
You were born and raised in Compton graduated from Hollywood High, did you commute from Compton to Hollywood every day?
It was a two hour bus ride from Compton. The L.A. High School for the Performing Arts was on the campus of Cal State L.A, so I would wake up at 5:30, be on the bus at 6, and would get to school at 7:50, and school started at 8. And school ended at 4, so at 4:30, I was on the bus. At 6:30 I was just walking through the door at home.
You can see the dedication when you had to go through all of that to get to the next step.
This is all I ever prepared myself to do, man. Call it naiveté, call it foolishness or whatnot, but I didn’t prepare myself for anything else but this. I believe that this is what my energy was created to do. This is why I’ve been placed on this earth — to entertain and to share this gift that I’ve been blessed with.
You’ve been very active in both film and television for about 20 years —to what do you attribute your success there?
Diversity. I attribute it to diversity. My first 20-plus films have all been comedic films, and they’ve been with some of the greats — Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence, and Obba Babatundé, and Bernie Mac, and Cicely Tyson, and the Farrelly brothers and Jim Carrey. So before I got typecast as just the fat, funny guy and all that, I decided to take it upon myself to take a step back, and show my dramatic side, just so I wouldn’t be pigeon-holed into that. From that, I did shows like “Law & Order: SVU,” which got me onto “Law & Order” for the last three years of its run. I did movies like “Hustle & Flow.” I did television shows like “NYPD Blue,” and there were detective roles like Antwon Mitchell on “The Shield.”
And so that showed Hollywood and my core audience that I wasn’t just a funny guy. It’s like, ‘Oh no, wait a minute, he runs the gamut!’
Yeah, and because of that, I was able to work with Martin Scorsese in “The Departed,” and go on and do other things, so I attribute my longevity in this industry for having a plan for the future, and not just the immediate present. In order to have longevity, I had to show them other facets of my talent, and that’s what I’ve done.
Do you prefer film or television?
That’s like asking me which one of my children I love more.
(laughs) I thought you might say that.
I love them both, but I love them differently. That’s like asking you, ‘Which one of your jams do you like most, or which one is a “B” side? When you love what you do, you do it.
Fair enough. Let’s get back to the sitcom “Black-ish.” What is the message that you’re trying to convey through that show?
We don’t try to hit you over the head with a message. What our show is doing is talking about issues and ‘ish,’ you know, that a black family is going through being a first generation, successful family, and giving your children a better upbringing than what you had growing up.
And it’s universal — it’s not unique to just black people and the characters on this show that we’re doing. It’s a universal thing that for anybody who’s out there striving for the American dream, if you’re not careful in your quest for this dream and assimilation, you lose a little bit of who you are. That’s what it says, it’s like it’s okay to be who you are and to soar to these heights and to be in these places. And it’s really just about a family that loves one another, that wants to have the best of everything for all. But it’s the ‘ish’ that goes along with it and we all have our ‘ish’ that we deal with. It so happens that we’re black, and we’re dealing with this ‘ish.’
Are you concerned at all about any backlash from the African American community about the show, on any level?
I wasn’t worried about any backlash. I knew with the title of the show, calling it “Blackish,” that we may get some blowback from that, but when they see the show, it puts that title into context. And that no longer is an issue with anyone who had an issue with this before seeing the show. And I don’t see how we can get backlash by being a positive, successful black family that loves one another, on primetime television. The humor in our show comes out of the love that Tracee Ellis Ross and I — Rainbow and Dre’s characters — have between one another. In black families on television, the humor comes out of the hate that the husband and wife may have for one another and whatnot. But we find our humor from our love and that’s different. I don’t see how anyone can hate on that — that’s just my opinion.
I agree. I noticed that you and Laurence Fishburne are executive producers on the show. How did the project come about?
Our creator, Kenya Barris, is a good friend of mine, and we sat down a year ago. We’re managed by the same manager; we couldn’t believe that we had never sat down and met. So when we sat down and met, and talked with one another, we realized that we have more in common than we don’t. He grew up in Inglewood, California; I grew up in Compton, California. We’re both the same age. We’re both first generation and successful. We both have kids in private school, we both are the only black families in our neighborhood and we’re both going through the same ish. So from that, he was like, ‘Yo man, hold on, let me think about something,’ and a month or so later, he came back to me with the idea for “Black-ish.” And he went out and approached Laurence Fishburne to see if he wanted to be attached as my father. Laurence agreed, and then we went on and we pitched it to every network out there; every network wanted it. And it just so happens that ABC had the best deal, and that’s why we went with them. Everything that you see in the pilot and on the show, theses are events that have taken place in our lives. My son came home, at 12 years old, and told me he didn’t feel black. We had to sit down and have a conversation about why he felt that he didn’t feel black enough. But his black experience growing up in suburbia and going to private school, and the majority of his friends being white, Jewish, Greek and everything but black. At one point, my son was the only chocolate drop in his class, and not only the only chocolate drop in his class, but the only chocolate drop in his grade. So I understood where he was coming from, because his experience was a different experience than the experience I had as a 12-year-old boy growing up in Compton dodging gang fights.
So we have that, but as we ended that discussion, he turns to me and says, ‘Okay, dad, for my thirteenth birthday, I want to have a Bar Mitzvah.’ And I had to look him dead in his face, and say, ‘So you really aren’t black, are you?’ So I threw him a hip-hop Bro-Mitzvah.
So this is really true, this is part of your life?
Yes. Rainbow is my partner Kenya Barris’ wife. That’s her. Tracee Ellis Ross is portraying a real woman. Her name is Rainbow; she’s an anesthesiologist; she is biracial. That is Kenya’s wife. And all four of these kids represent our kids. Kenya has five and I only have two, but they’re a blend of our children. So in the things that we talk about on the show — in the pilot and subsequent episodes — are the things that we have actually gone through as black men living in America, raising our families in the suburbs and going to private school.
Yeah, I didn’t know that the show was actually based on, more or less, on your life.
Yeah, so when people were up in arms about the title “Black-ish,” I’m like, you don’t even know what this show is about. Their whole thing was, ‘How could you let a studio do this?’ A studio didn’t do this. I said, ‘Two black men created this.’ And not only that, but we have several black men and women who are employed as executive producers on this show. Our costume designer is black, our set designer is black, our cameramen are black.
So I always get into debates about why are we doing this, and I have to turn it around on them. I’m like, ‘Do you know how many African-Americans or Latinos that I employ?’ What are you doing for the cause, and what are you doing for the community, if you’re saying I’m doing a disservice by having a show titled “Black-ish.” Come hang out on set and see what we do and how we do it, and who’s doing it with them.
That’s awesome, man; I wasn’t aware of any of that. That’s going to be good for people to read, too. You directed a one-minute short in 2009. Do you have any other plans to direct, like for the show or movies?
I do. I do plan on doing it. Hopefully, if everything goes well — not the immediate future, but while we’re up and running for a while, I would love to direct an episode of “Black-ish.” That is part of the plan.
What about writing. Do you do any writing as well?
Writing is a discipline that I do not have right now. But, hopefully one day I will get that discipline and do it, but I was talking to a writer the other day, and they were telling me that to be a writer, you have to be manic depressive or bipolar. I was like, well, I’m neither one of those so I don’t know if this is gonna fit for me.
What is it that you ultimately want to accomplish as an actor? What’s your ultimate goal?
My ultimate goal is simple — it’s just to continue to do great work, build a legacy, build an empire, and create content. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t want awards. I don’t do it for that, and I don’t need any of that to validate me. Those are selfish, narcissistic wants. I don’t need those things, but I would love to have a trophy case full of trophies.
Who wouldn’t? I mean, you’re lying to yourself if you don’t admit that and say, ‘Yeah, of course I’d like to be recognized for my work.’
Yeah, I’m just going to be honest with you.
Sure, and I think you should. When all is said and done, what do you want Anthony Anderson’s legacy to be?
That he gave his heart and soul to what he believed in; that he was blessed with a gift and realized at an early age it was his duty and his responsibility to share that gift with the world and not hold onto it.
It’s inspiring to see an African American actor who has realized his lot in life; knows what he wants to do and accomplish with his craft, and possesses a desire to help others reach and succeed in their goals. A man who obviously puts his money where his mouth is. And I can assure you that one day in the not-so-distant future; Anthony Anderson will not only be recognized for his highly successful career, but his name will go from being “household-ish,” to a bonafide household name.