I have been a dreamer my whole life. Like most kids, play was the most important thing to me. Growing up as an only child (my brother was twenty years older than I), just as television was coming into its own as the mainstay of American entertainment, I was literally raised on the stories emanating from that little box. Westerns and detective shows were the rage, and I would spend endless hours by myself creating scenarios with imaginary friends and foes where I was the hero. I have lost count of how many times I was jumped in my “office” or knocked unconscious to wake up tied to a chair by some sinister villain. I always escaped, always prevailed, and usually got the girl (unless I was being the tragic, lonely hero, which I thought was kind of cool too).

My other obsession was music. I started studying classical piano when I was six and wrote my first love song when I was seven. Although I would spend the next almost twenty years studying classical music and composition, even going so far as to go to conservatory for college (the Eastman School of Music), it was really pop music that reached into my heart and soul. It was the stories told in songs that fascinated me as much as the vignettes being played out on an hourly basis on the television. 

I was also continually grappling with the gap between how I saw myself as simply human, and how I felt I was often perceived, as being black. In other words, even as a child, I often felt the unnerving sense that I was not seen—only my color was—and that my color meant something very specific to many, if not most white people that was completely lost on me.

To me, I was just, well…me. That constant dissonance made something inside me begin searching for something to give me power over my sense of self. That something, as I got older, I would identify as the quest for enlightenment. I remember reading something about autohypnosis, and going to the school library when I was in eighth grade and checking out a book on it. Given my short attention span and how much I hated reading at the time, my experiments based on that particular book were predictably short-lived. But it was the beginning of a journey into three questions that have continued to shape the rest of my life. “Who am I?” “Why do people do what they do?” And “What’s the meaning, or purpose of life?”

Stumbling onto acting in college, I initially found a place where I could finally express and be all the things that I was afraid to express and be in my real life. It was the only structured activity I ever did just for fun.

Each time I have changed direction in life against the grain of the culture, it has been because I have been living someone else’s truth, not mine. And it has always been hard, often excruciating at the moment, but I have never regretted it in the long run. I dropped out of music school because it was like pulling teeth trying to get myself to compose. People in my life who believed that the prestige of Eastman and having a degree were so important, felt that there must be something wrong with me for dropping out. But for me, I had been living a lie for years. I had never really wanted to be a classical composer. I had wanted to be a pop star since I was eight years old, but the culture I grew up in told me that wasn’t real music. Beginning to act at age twenty-seven, when I was broke with a one-year-old child, and then applying to the Yale School of Drama two years later (the only school I applied to) were not rational acts. But they weren’t simply acts of desperation either. I was following some inner guidance that I can never really explain or even understand, and those choices have obviously changed my life. As I began to study the craft of acting, to truly study it, I realized that it was a chance to explore the human condition, that my job was to literally learn how to let go of my ego and channel the spirit, the being of the character I was playing. To me, that’s a sacred trust. It’s also an incredible exercise in compassion, because I spend so much time walking around in other people’s shoes. Every character is a study in the questions “Who am I?” and “Why do people do what they do?” And I have been very fortunate that I have been able to consistently be a part of telling stories as an actor who explores the question, “What is the purpose or the meaning of life?”

One of my spiritual teachers once said that living inside a question can be more powerful than having answers, because when you stand inside a question and look out to your life to see what you can see, you get lots and lots of answers.

What is my truth? And how do I live it? Those are questions I’ll be asking for as long as I’m breathing. And so far—mistakes, successes, failures and all—it’s been worth it.
photography by Martina Tolot