Some actors never move past their most memorable role. Think of Robert Englund and it’s hard to picture him as anyone other than Freddie Kruger. Matt Le Blanc can never be anyone other than lovably dim-witted Joey Tribbiani. Mark Hamill will always and forever be Luke Skywalker, just like Alex Winter could grow a beard, dye his hair, put on a sharp suit and still be Bill S. Preston Esq. What’s also tricky for all the above is that these are the roles that first brought them widespread recognition.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner can relate. It would have been so easy for him to stay as little Theodore Huxtable forever, frozen in our memories as the middle child and only son on The Cosby Show. But that gig ended in 1992 and life carries on, as do careers. What’s immediately evident speaking to Warner is that he’s someone who plans ahead and leaves as little as possible to chance. Even at the height of The Cosby Show he was planning his next move, ensuring a longevity that has included roles across hit shows such as Sons Of Anarchy, Lethal Weapon, Community, Suits, Sneaky Pete and now – as series regular AJ Austin – on Fox’s medical drama The Resident.
Understandably reticent to discuss Bill Cosby himself, Warner spoke with us on the phone to chat about being promoted to series regular for season two of The Resident and the factors that have led to him being more satisfied than ever with his career.
It’s 34 years now since you started on The Cosby Show. How have you gone about maintaining your love for acting over such a long period in the industry?
That’s a really great question. I think, in general, when your love becomes your career, the politics and everything else that comes with the territory can get in the way of the joy. One of the things that helped me, years ago, was when I started playing music. That reinvigorated me as an artist and helped me redirect some of that passion back into the acting.
Do you feel like playing music has given you another creative outlet so that it’s ok if acting is just a job sometimes?
Yeah, definitely. Once I found music and poetry, I realised that there was another avenue for creative expression and I could express myself in a way that I could not as an actor and a director. I’ve always looked for things to keep me busy and working in between acting gigs. Early on as a teenager – because my focus was always on longevity – my mother said to me that anyone in this business who has longevity will have dry spells and she really stressed the importance of staying busy and staying active during those dry spells. The directing and then the music kept me creative and still in the entertainment business, because that’s my life. Over the years, the music and poetry became an even more important outlet for me. It was a voice that I needed to express myself.
Was it difficult to move on from The Cosby Show into the uncertainty of other jobs that are unlikely to offer eight years of stability?
It wasn’t hard, because I’d prepared for it. One of the reasons I started directing early on – because I’d directed on The Cosby Show – was that I was very aware that the transition from being seen as a child actor to being taken seriously as an adult actor might not be a smooth one. I was prepared for the long haul. And because I’m in it for the long haul, I never really expected to get on another show that lasted for eight years. Because I had such a strong foundation, in terms of career and financially, I was always more interested in taking roles that I was going to enjoy and roles that would stretch me and grow me as an artist. I’ve been very fortunate to have the financial wherewithal to not have to make desperate acting choices.
How was it going from the little brother on the show to then directing an episode?
It was kinda cool. There’s a television show that you can watch at all stages of my life. People can hide their high school yearbook. You can be an adult and hide all your awful stages. I have to own all my awful stages, I can’t hide from them. Anyone can look them up. It forces me to really have to be me.
It must be freeing to not have to worry about reinvention and hiding away the old versions of you.
Well there is a level of reinvention to it, in that I don’t want people to get used to seeing me one way. I would say that one of the challenges has been people accepting me in other roles, but I haven’t really had that. I’m fortunate that I have a fan base that has followed me and supported me through all the other characters I’ve played.
Speaking of which, you’re currently playing AJ on The Resident. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show yet, how would you describe him?
AJ Austin is one of the top cardiothoracic surgeons in the country. With that comes a huge amount of arrogance. He’s a really interesting character because his arrogance doesn’t come from over-compensating for insecurities; his arrogance comes from his confidence that he knows his shit. He’s very brash, he has low tolerance for bullshit. He’s brash in that he doesn’t think or care about how what he says might land on someone else. He just speaks his mind.
There’s a nice freedom in that.
There’s so much freedom in it. It’s one of the things that Malcolm admires in AJ, because I could use a little bit more of that in my own life.
Do you feel any of it rubbing off on you?
I’m hoping some of it will over the course of a very long run.
Season two has just started, right?
Yes, season two started at the end of September. Last season, I was just a recurring character in the last three episodes of the season and they’ve brought be back this year as a series regular.
That must be a nice validation for you, both from the fans and the showrunners.
One of the things I really love about the experience on this show is that I feel like I'm finally starting to get the handle on my craft that I've been chasing since Cosby.
What is it you feel like you've been looking for?
I grew up doing sitcoms for such a long time. The sitcom is a genre all unto itself. And for the longest time, industry-wise, people looked down on sitcoms. I don't think people really understood the intricacies of doing multi-camera situational comedy. There's an energy and muscles that you’re using that you can't really take any place else or any other genre. I spent a lot of years trying to let go of that sitcom energy so that I could find a different energy and a different approach or a different path to the craft. I’ve always done theatre and since Cosby, I’ve always looked for things that were quite different from Theo so that I could grow and stretch and find another level to my work. It’s multifaceted: being on The Resident, being a father, being in my… gee, I guess I have to say late 40s… the combination of all that has helped me find another layer to my work and it’s working. People seem to be really enjoying it.
Is it important that the audience enjoy it as much as you do?
As an artist, you don’t want to care what people think, but your success greatly depends on what people think about you.
So fatherhood, getting older and wiser and The Resident have all come together into something of a perfect storm for you?
Yeah, it’s definitely a perfect storm. My life journey, my career journey, all the roles I’ve done… once I met AJ, it was a perfect match. Prior to The Resident, I had a recurring role on Sneaky Pete. That used to be my favourite role. Looking at the last few years, I’ve been very fortunate. I had Sons Of Anarchy, American Horror Story, lots of interesting shows. But I think my spots on Lethal Weapon and Sneaky Pete really helped me with AJ. That’s where I found the different energy to my work. They were precursors to AJ. Those were characters who didn’t give a fuck. As a person and as an actor who sometimes gives too much of a fuck, playing those roles that are the opposite of me really helped me access a different part of me.
What do you do to get into the headspace of someone who is so different to you?
No, it’s down to joy and escapism. I often speed to work to jump into that role.
The world seems too full of things to give a fuck about at the moment. Is there a freedom in becoming someone who cares a little less than you do?
Yeah, it’s very freeing. There are aspects of that role that probably will influence my personal life. Not that I’m going to become an asshole but it gives me a different perspective. My wife and I love to watch Ozark. Jason [Bateman] and I have had parallel lives; we both grew up on TV. One of the things I really love about that role is that there are so many concerns in his life that his concern is not trying to make people feel comfortable. I love that. He doesn’t have the time to try and make things right with people.
You became a dad recently for the first time. Has that changed how you approach acting?
Being a father has raised my awareness about everything. For the first time, I’m looking at life not just through my eyes but also through my daughter’s eyes. I’m taking everything in at a heightened level because I’m constantly thinking about how I’m going to raise her, how I’m going to teach her and how I’m going to express myself and teach her how to express herself. As challenging as it is to have a toddler, this is the easy part.
I’ve a two-year-old and it just keeps getting harder. One thing I learned was that my work has to be really worth it to justify being away from him. Has that factored into your decisions over what roles you take?
It has. When I first started on The Resident, it shoots in Atlanta and I live in Los Angeles. So, for a month and a half, I was going back and forward. It was hard for me to be away from my wife and my daughter and all the responsibility fell on my wife when I wasn’t there. Facetime is a wonderful piece of technology but it also tugs at your heart because you can see your family but you can’t be there. When the opportunity came up to be a series regular, it meant we were all moving to Atlanta. Fortunately, my daughter is young enough for that to be ok, but I have to think about future decisions when she’s at school, if it’s a job that’s elsewhere. Before, it was just, “Where are we shooting? Cool, let’s go!”