BWW Interview: Neil Brown Jr. Talks Film Roles, TV & Love for HAMILTON
Neil Brown Jr. (Insecure, SEAL Team) has built up an impressive acting resume over his career. He took time out of his busy filming schedule to discuss his current shows, acting process, and love for Hamilton.
I know you started out with martial arts and then moved into acting, is there a particular moment when you knew that acting is what you wanted to do?
Yeah my first show, which I got through my martial arts-I did Muay Thai, Shotokan Karate, and boxing since I was a little kid-since I was 4. And I won some championships: ISKA, JKA, and the youth championship. I was 14 and they came into the dojo and there was this producer Patti Thomas-Robinson who needed a kid to be in this T.V. show called WMAC Masters. Originally it was called Quest for the Dragon Star and they brought me into Universal Studios and allowed me to audition with a bunch of other kids who were also pretty far along in their respective arts. Everything was great and then they gave us all lines and I could memorize stuff really quickly so I did it and got the part on the spot. Once I shot it that day on set, I knew I was with Erik Betts and Herb Perez-Herb Perez was a Taekwondo champion and Betts is a stuntman who also did kung fu and all that-and I was with those guys and I just knew I wanted to do it forever, right then and there. I was on set, I caught the bug, and that was it for me. It took a while for it to really set in and for me to get into the minutiae of what it takes to be an actor but I was ready to go full force and Patti Thomas-Robinson and Shannon Thomas-Stewart, her daughter, they got me some headshots and introduced me to an agent in Florida and I was acting ever since.
You've been acting since you were a kid and have built up an impressive resume, is there a certain project you've worked on that stands out to you or that is your favorite?
I've learned so much from each one of them. In terms of "favorite," I don't have a favorite project; I have a favorite learning experience. Dirk Gently was a huge learning experience for me working with Richard Schiff. I learned so much from playing his partner that I actually started to use what I learned in all of the shows I did afterwards, including Insecure and what I'm doing now on SEAL Team. Straight Outta Compton was probably the most fun because we got to learn how to DJ and to perform live in front of a crowd and feel the energy of the crowd. So each movie I've done-they've all been my favorite, I mean, it would probably be easier to think of THE ONE where I had the worst time as opposed to the favorite one because I learned so much from each one and they're all like paintings, I couldn't decide which one was my favorite painting. I just learned different things from each one but Dirk Gently really helped me with the different projects that I did afterwards-I really learned a lot from Richard.
What was it like to audition for and then book Straight Outta Compton? Do you remember where you were or what you were doing when you booked it?
Yeah, I remember exactly where I was. My first audition for it went nowhere. Three months later I got a call from my manager saying "I have a great audition for you" and I said "What is it?" and she said "Straight Outta Compton" and I was like "Oh so it's a callback" and she was like "No it's a re-do." And it was for Vicky Thomas. At that time her dad commissioned her to find the DJ Yella and MC Ren parts because they had the other two parts already cast. I went in for Vicky and it was a great experience. She put me through the works, kept telling me to do less. I was like, "What do you want me to do, nothing?" and she said "Exactly!" So I did that and by the time I got home, a friend of mine hit me up randomly and said, "Hey man they really like you so you're going to get a meeting with F. Gary Gray and so embody Yella all this weekend." And I was like "What!" and my manager called me and then I went in with F. Gary Gray a couple days later. But before I met with him I was outside with the other guys O'Shea [Jackson Jr.], Jason Mitchell, and Corey Hawkins. We were just there for hours talking outside, you know, chopping it up, laughing, and having a good time. And then we went in and auditioned together and I think it was supposed to be a week but two or three days later I was at home and I got the call. I was with my best friend and I was like "Yo, I got it!" We started buggin' out and my wife was on they way home and she didn't know so I kept it a secret from her. I put on the record-I put on "Straight Outta Compton" so when she walked inside the house I had it blasting and she was like "Why is the music so loud?!" and I kept looking at her, I was like "Do you get it?!" and she was like "Oh my god, oh my god!" I cried like a baby, I was very, very happy.
How did you get involved with HBO's Insecure?
I auditioned for Lawrence, Jay Ellis's part. I tested for it-it didn't go my way. I flew to Jordan to do a movie, Sand Castle, and then once I got back and did the whole circuit of award shows and whatnot, the show got picked up-they did the pilot and the show got picked up and Vicky Thomas contacted my manager and said "Well there's this part we'd love Neil for." I had actually tested for another show, Dirk Gently, and the test deal for that-once they got it done, four hours later they pulled the test deal and said that there was an offer out. I was like "Oh I guess that's gone" and then they called me back and said "Hey there's this other part on the show [Dirk Gently] for Estevez, would you come in?" and I was like "Absolutely I'd come in." That same night my manager called and said, "Hey we just got this last minute thing, remember we talked about shows coming back, well Insecure came back and they want to see you for this other role." And I was like "The same day?" and they were like "yeah" and I was like "Alright I'll do them both." I wore the same suit for both auditions and I booked them both.
Yeah that never happens. I was very happy. Once I got into that room-the Insecure room, especially, we were like a family. It just fit like a glove. And playing Chad is great, it's very awesome. Everybody on the show writes him so well.
How do you prepare for a role? Do you have one general process or does it change based on the project?
It changes, but my foundation is that I treat a script like a play. That's probably been the best tool that I've learned from my coaches. Treating every script like a play-rehearse, rehearse, rehearse-read it, read it, read it. So I read the scrip three times before I even start to look at my character. And I find out where he fits within the spectrum of the entire arc of the show or the script or whatever it may be. Once I realize that then I start to write down his traits and then I start to learn the words. Then I adapt those traits and then I go into scene study with each scene and break it down according to the traits that he has and put those inside those scenes to see how he would respond and if it feels natural, if it's rights for me. I read a script so I can see-do I fit? Am I the right person for it or am I just the right idea of it? It's a process, I like to get into it-each role I have a little notebook and I take pictures of what animal I think he is and all that type of stuff. I get pretty into it. I love rehearsal.
Going off of that, what was the training process like for CBS's SEAL Team?
I'm fortunate with SEAL Team because-this would be probably my fifth military project. I was in JROTC, I was working toward a scholarship to West Point as a kid in high school and duel-enrolled in college. My father is a Marine, all my cousins, uncles, come from a military background so that helped. Once I knew that I got the role-the training that I had already done because I grew up hunting and fishing and whatnot and I knew military tactics, a lot of CQB (close quarters battle)-I just went deeper into that. I grabbed every book that I could get on these operators, every reputable book that I could get. I watched tons of documentaries, which are a great source of information, old and new. I picked the brains of the tech advisers we have, who are all former Delta Force and SEAL Operators and I just called them constantly, went out to dinner with them, talked, ate. And then they started teaching us tactics. We had physical training, which we all had our different respective physical training because we all had a lot of personal trainers and we were all on a regiment to get physically fit to look right for the role and to be able to handle these weapons. I had a lot of work prior to that so I was very familiar with the tactics that they were using, at least with the weaponry, and I just soaked up all the information I could.
Do you have any desire to work behind the camera-maybe writing or directing?
Absolutely not. I write, I think any good actor is a writer at heart-they're writing a story, the subtext that's not even on the page. I think every director should take a course in acting and writing and every writer should take a course in acting and every actor should take a course in writing so they can understand the other parts that go into this-so you can have a better picture. So you have more color and more tools, more paintbrushes, more canvas and you know what strokes work. Like I said, I write, directing is-it's too much for me. They have to live with the project so much longer after it's done and that's just not me. I want to perfect this thing that I do, my part of storytelling, which is being the vehicle within the story that the story lives through as opposed to the entire painting. I want to become a master at being responsible for this piece of it. So I can be more present and should be able to affect the story even without saying anything.
Or branch out into theatre?
I love theatre. I've always been a fan of theatre and musical theatre and Broadway plays and whatnot. But Hamilton just took it to another level for me. I just had this desire to be up there even though I haven't done plays or anything since high school. I had kids very early on while I was in high school so I had to make money and there wasn't a lot of money in theatre. So every time I wanted to do a play, I would get a part in a show or movie and my wife was like "Hey we got these mouths to feed." So back to Hamilton, I want to do it. All these auditions were happening and my friend was like "hey dude meet me over in New York right quick, we'll just go in on the open call blah blah blah." I was like "Alright if it's meant to be it'll be." And it never happened. But then one day Tiffany Little Canfield's office called and they were like "Hey we have an audition for Hamilton" and I was like "What, it's in L.A.?! You're crazy." So it chased me. One thing that I don't get-I don't get nervous, I'm very used to auditioning, I've been doing this for 23 years. So I don't have fear. But I was scared. I remember being in the shower and saying "Should I go to this audition or should I not? I mean there are people out there who do this and they love this. This is their medium and this is what they do. I don't want to take away from anything they're doing." Who am I to get in their way, you know? Plus I really needed a T.V. series. Then I realized "Dude you're making excuses, you're scared! Scared to get in front of people and sing." The absence of fear is not courage, its not strength, it's acting in spite of fear. So I knew that once I was scared, I had to go in for the audition. There was no other choice. Otherwise I've actually let fear defeat me. So I did go in and it was the high point of my life. I felt more energized-I was so full of electricity after that audition I wanted to go run 20 miles. That part actually went to a friend of mine and then they came back later and wanted to keep me in mind but I had to pass because then I really needed the T.V. show-and I got the show! I think in the future I would love to do theatre just to stretch my muscle. I'm working on some Shakespeare now actually.
Can I ask what role you auditioned for in Hamilton?
Initially it was to be one of the-not main roles. But I did Aaron Burr's "Theodosia" and Jefferson. When they wanted me to come back, they wanted me to audition for Lafayette/Jefferson, which was a natural fit for me. I would have crushed it.
It's still going, you still have time!
I still have time. Trust me, I would have crushed it. And then I went and saw it out here in L.A. again. It was great. It was such a great show. I love it. It just speaks to me. Lin-Manuel is awesome. To be on that stage and feel the crowd-you work so much and there's so much rehearsal and so much performance you can't help but get better. With T.V. shows too, you're just constantly working and if you're engaged and you're loving it, it will serve you well and serve people well. I just want to affect people with my work.
I'm in my last year of film school and one of the topics we've been discussing in class is the need for more diversity in the industry and accurate representation behind and in front of the camera. I think the conversation is finally being addressed and people are speaking up more, which is leading to more positive change. As a seasoned actor, have you noticed a change over the years and things becoming more diverse since you started your career?
Oh yeah, I definitely have. Absolutely. When I started-I remember "Well you're not a commercial look," and I knew what me not being a "commercial look" was code for. And now, that's not the case. If I wanted to audition for certain things, for commercials, they'd say "well you're very specific." But now, it's like "No, you're in Vogue, let's put you in everything." Even me getting this part on SEAL Team was a shock for me. That spoke to me like the type of different thinking we're doing within our art. Actors man-I mean there has been a lack of diversity in the past but we're also some of the first people to integrate on camera and to put it out there and kind of make it cool, slowly but surely. So it's important what we do and representing all the people that make up the world because it's not just one color or one gender. And it's taken some time, but I think we're doing a great job and we can always do better and do more. But we are getting that diversity and it just takes time and patience. I like where we are going-we're definitely not going backwards. We're going in the right direction. We're not doing diversity for the sake of diversity; we're doing it because it feels right, because it is right. It should be addressed and the opportunities should be there. Don't just give me something because you need the black guy or you need the Spanish guy or you need the Asian girl. Give it to me because the opportunity is there and I was the best person for the job. I think that's the road we're on and that's where we need to be.
Do you have any future projects coming up that you could tell us about?
LAByrinth with Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp-that's going to be coming out sometime next year. I don't think we have a release date yet. That's the real story of Tupac and Biggie's murder as told by Russell Poole, the detective who investigated it all for the LAPD and they would not allow him to solve it. We start season three of Insecure next year in March and we'll be finishing up SEAL Team, I think we finish in April. You know, hopefully we'll get a second season and that's what's going on now. I have shows on Netflix and stuff like that-Sand Castle and Naked. I've been pretty busy. I've been blessed, very much blessed. It's great to be exhausted. I'm very fortunate.
Image courtesy of CBS
Image courtesy of Nate Taylor