Malcolm Jamal Warner

Malcolm Jamal Warner, the Cosby star on frizzy hair, dreadlocks and more

My interview with Malcolm Jamal Warner, of the Cosby Show fame. He talks candidly about his role in the most famous TV show, music, politics and his dreadlocks. A world conversation.

 


MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER

Hi Malcolm. Thanks for this interview. I know you have a busy schedule so I really appreciate you taking the time for this conversation.

Most everyone knows you from the Cosby Show but can you tell us a little bit more about your background? Where did you grow up and what kind of child were you?
Well, I was born in New Jersey and lived there until I was five. My parents separated and my mother and I moved to her hometown – Los Angeles. My father moved to his hometown - Chicago. As a child, I traveled up and down from Los Angeles to Chicago to spend the summer months with my father and grandfather. When I got the part of Theo when I was 13, I went back to NY because Mr. Cosby wanted to record the show there.

This was fantastic for us as kids because we grew up in a real New York environment instead of growing up as Hollywood stars. New York gave us a realistic perspective, something I don't think we would have gotten if we grew up in LA with a part in the number one television show in the world! So Los Angeles, Chicago and New York all played a significant part in my upbringing. I was a pretty sweet kid I must say. I never really got into mischief because I didn't want to get in trouble with my parents. They have done a very good job protecting my inner light and nurturing me as a young artist.

You are a poet with a gift for puns. When did this ever start? Do you remember your first poem?
(Laughing) I started writing as a small child. When I was 7 I told my mother that I would be either a famous actor or a famous basketball player or a famous poet. Now that I look back, I realize that my current life is the result of all those ideas I came up with back then.

While I don't remember my first poem, I do remember one I wrote as an adult, one that sparked my active participation in the revival of the underground poem scene. It was the year 1993. The place was The Juke Joint, one of two places in LA you could go to listen to poems. The first time I was there, every woman had a poem in which they razed a man to the ground. The evening seemed to be an opportunity to express through poems why men were no good. I felt like we needed someone to stand up for the guys. So I came back the next week with a poem entitled "My Wife." It discussed the relationship from the man's point of view. It started:

""What I can't understand is your plan 
to leave me be
after years of trying to change your man
NOW you claim you don't understand me?
Well, I don't understand you, but that doesn't mean we're through
Imagine if I flipped the script and pulled that same bullshit on you...
"

(Laughing) My writing has progressed in leaps and bounds since that poem, but it talked about the man's point of view and feelings that we don't talk about enough and that women don't hear enough about. The poem also put some of the responsibility on the woman because I think it's wrong to put all the mistakes on the man when it comes to miscommunication between the two.

The poem came from such an honest and universal place that everyone who attended understood it. The men loved it of course, but even the women nodded like "hmmm, he has an argument." That was when I realized I had found another way to touch souls. My way. My second CD is titled “Confessions of a Confused Romantic.” “Love & Other Social Issues” is a more developed expression of the man's vulnerability in a relationship. And again, it's stuff we don't talk about, women hardly hear about this.

When did you start playing bass guitar?
I started playing in late '97. I was employed by UPN for the show “Malcolm & Eddie.” I went from NBC and learning under Mr. Cosby — recruiting everyone to more consciously combat the typical stereotypical black images — to working for UPN. Precisely a network that used a marketing strategy for black demographics that relied heavily on those same stereotypical images. 

When I realized that I would have to hold out for a while I decided I needed a hobby. Something that had nothing to do with acting or directing. Acting had always been my hobby. Even when it became my career, it remained my most beloved activity. Directing started as a hobby and turned into a career. I thought if I started with an instrument it wouldn't become a career. I said I would never start a band or record a CD. I started, of course, after a year with Miles Long and I started playing on the LA club circuit. With two CDs, tours and performing at jazz festivals, music has become that other career I thought I could avoid!

Why bass guitar?
I always say that bass guitar chose me. I've always been drawn to the background when it comes to music. I got my first record player when I was 7. The first record I took from my mother's collection was Graham Central Station. I grew up with Larry Graham, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller (through the music of Miles Davis and Luther Vandross), Verdine White, Louis Johnson, Bootsey, MeShell Ndege'Ocello and many other bass guitarists who were used in hip hop music . They all had a big influence on the way I listen to music. I also thought that a bass guitar would be easy. Very silly, I thought I could be a bass guitarist without having to learn strings and music theory. I thought I could only play the base notes. The moment I started playing upright bass I realized that I would have to learn the language of music as well as all the other things I thought I could avoid in order to become the bass guitarist I wanted to be. Unavoidable.

And how did you actually start acting?
My mom was always looking for activities I could do outside of coming home from school, doing homework, and hanging out on the street with friends. One season it was basketball. Another was an acting workgroup where I immediately turned to acting. I loved it! Our first play was "Alice, Is That You?" which is somewhat based on The Wiz. I had the role of The Tin Man. I loved the recall as I came back on stage and bowed while people applauded me! For a child that is nirvana! Besides that part, I also enjoyed the playground the stage had to offer. So that's how it started.

The Cosby Show is a classic. What is the most important thing you have taken away from that period?
There were so many things. Work ethics was an important one. It got to the point where we only worked 4 days a week because Mr. Cosby spent his Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Tahoe or some other place with his cabaret shows. This man had the number one television show in the world, but he still worked almost every weekend. It was impressive to say the least. I learned from that that you have to work really hard, even if you're popular so that when the popularity drops a bit – as any long-term entertainer will experience – you don't have to make desperate career choices. I am quite critical of the type of work I take on because integrity is very important to me.

This is probably a difficult question to answer, but do you have a favorite episode and why?
I even have a few favorites, but the most favorite has to be the first episode where Theo tells Cliff that he doesn't want to be a doctor like him or a lawyer like Claire.

He wants to be an ordinary person and if they were normal people he wouldn't love them one bit less so they should love him the way he is. He ends his speech and the audience immediately applauds his touching honesty. Cliff, who immediately senses the shrewdness of his 13-year-old son, replies: Theo ... that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life! No wonder you only get unsatisfactory grades! You are afraid to study because you think your brain will explode and leak out of your ear.” Cliff Huxtable confronts the kid about his stupid reasons for not studying and gets angry with him for not trying his best. He ends with this classic: “You go to college because I say so. I put you into this world and I can take you out too.” It is the moment when as a parent all reason simply disappears. I love that moment because it would be the moment in any other sitcom where music would start after that kid's speech, the father would have hugged the son, apologized and told him he was right and that he loved him and it would be the end of the show.

Cliff hugged Theo and told him he loved him, but not before putting him on the line. That moment signaled that this show was different from the other shows. In the Huxtable world, it was not the case that children could impose their will on adults.

A while back I was watching the episode where Theo has an earring. The scene on the bed where Cliff tries to take a look at Theo's ear made me laugh. I was alone in the living room shaking bellies. I called Mr. Cosby and said to him, "Hey man, we were funny." He said, "You are quite right!"

While I am grateful for the blessing of having been a part of such a successful show, it was a little difficult to have a full realization and appreciation for the show in the midst of all the cheers. Now that I've finally got enough distance to the point where I don't criticize myself anymore while I'm watching it, I can enjoy the episodes as a normal viewer.

Malcolm Jamal Waner

I can see it and laugh and finally appreciate what others have benefited from it. I always thought Theo was so bland but now I fully understand his charm. My friends think it's funny that I refer to the Cosby Show so often these days. This may sound silly, but I've recently come to realize how important the influence of Cliff and Claire's relationship has always been on my own relationships. I just love women. But the way I love MY wife is the Cliff Huxtable way. To this day, that's one of the pleasures I get from watching the show – how much love there was in that household.

One of your last movies I saw was titled I Believe Fools Gold. How did the set and shooting go?
Five months in Australia at someone else's expense. Need I say more? It was just fantastic. We arrived towards the beginning of summer and it really was like a paid holiday. Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson were very cool. A movie with a big budget coupled with cool protagonists is always fun!

What's next for you in acting? Can we expect you in another movie soon?
At the moment I am more involved with music. I've been promoting my second CD, "Love & Other Social Issues." We are now going to start work on the third CD. Music is the passion and the other career that satisfies my creativity in between acting. “Fools Gold” was my last studio film and is now out on DVD (as is the independent film “The List” with Wayne Brady). I also have my solo performance titled, “Love & Other Social Issues” which premiered on the West Coast. We've gotten really good reviews - the kind you can't buy. This was already hard to believe, right now we are working hard to get it on Off Broadway. I am very interested in moving on to more film work. TV has been good to me so I'll never turn my back on it, but as an artist I'm always looking to push my limits. I'm very meticulous about the work I've chosen so believe me, if I come across an interesting TV project I certainly won't refuse it.

And of course you are also a poet. How do you write? I mean, do you do it in between on set, when something in the studio inspires you or do you really need to be all alone, far away from work?
Inspiration comes when it comes. While I'm trying to fall asleep, while I'm driving a car, when I'm in the shower, while shaving and sometimes while waiting for the set.

My first Miles Long songs were poems that I set to the music we were making. Towards the end of the recordings was when I actually started writing music. This brought me back to the time when I wrote rhymes because I wanted to be a rapper. So the challenge was to ascribe to the music, not just write rhymes. The key was to still write in a poetic way. I still have a lot of pieces that are just better as a poem. They don't come into their own when set to music. On the other hand, I have written other pieces that cannot function as poems because they are written according to the structure of a song or music.

Your music is beautiful. You're a good bass player and I thought it was funny that you mentioned on your myspace page that people are really surprised that you're good. Why do you think this is the case?
Because there's a kind of stigma when an actor makes the transition to music. Nowadays it is easier for a singer or rapper to be accepted in the movie or TV world. However, I think people don't realize there was a time when you had to be able to act, sing and dance to be considered a accomplished artist.

So it should come as no surprise that actors are also singers or at least have musical talent. However, if I were a singer, I would probably have a harder time being accepted because it's like a singer or actor, no matter how fantastic they are, would be harder to accept from the public if they were first known as an actor. But because I am a poet and musician first without a record label to dictate what kind of music I should make, I have the opportunity to be as honest and passionate as I wish.

It allows me to have a freshness in the music. This is something people crave. I always say my music is for people like me. We grew up with hip hop but it no longer appeals to us because we are no longer that target audience. We want something with more sophistication – we want to move our heads to a rhythm but we have words with depth and – let's face it – sexy words that stimulate our imagination.

My music is jazz funk – not too jazzy not to disturb the hipness, but jazzy enough to stimulate the senses. It sounds good on CD but it's fantastic to hear live. There's something else involved, people still think I'm 'Theo'. They are always pleasantly surprised to find that Theo is nowhere to be found. Let's put it this way, my live show is totally anti-Theo. I like that because our live shows, despite their love for Theo, give the audience a chance to get to know and love Malcolm (by the way, he's legal age and more charming).

Is it difficult to choose between music and acting?
I do not know. I don't choose. I'm always into music, even when I'm acting. I don't refuse acting because of music. It is not necessary. It never happened to me. Music has been really good for me because it allows me to express myself in ways I can't express myself as an actor or director, but I have no plan whatsoever to turn my back on my acting. It will always be a passion of mine and also a viable and necessary way to express myself.

You said musicians are always busy. What would your ideal setup for Miles Long be if everyone were available and when/where would be the ideal place to perform?
Well, both my CDs were independent productions and they were also distributed independently so I don't have a record company or a tour budget.

When I have to perform from home I use local musicians. I play in New York, DC, Atlanta and Chicago so often that I have bands there – guys who have done my show a few times and already know my material, the flow etc. In other cities I can hold someone responsible beforehand to act as act as a sort of music director and put together the rest of the band. I arrive, we practice twice and we perform. It's nice because it gives me the chance to perform with different musicians which in turn influences my own performance. An ideal scenario would be to do a tour - eg with a duration of 6 weeks - with the same musicians so that after a few weeks of rehearsing and doing shows you can put the band together. In a band situation, it's not just playing the notes – anyone you hire can do that. It's about the feel, the vibration, and knowing your band members well enough that you can almost say you feel them spiritually. Then you can create a certain level of magic. As my situation is right now, I can't do that yet but I know I will soon…of course with the cool, huge and super comfortable tour buses.

We have at least one favorite author in common, Wayne Dyer. How did you find “Your Ultimate Calling” and what do you think your Ultimate Calling is?
I thought it was powerful. I was reading it while also reworking both “A New Earth” and “Conversations With God (book 3),” and found its spiritual message consistent with what I was already reading.

I have dr. Chose Dyer's book because I was at a point where I needed inspiration – some days I'm not so clear. I'm still processing it because I don't know clearly what my ultimate calling is yet.

It is clear that it is about teaching, but I do not know exactly how to interpret it. In a simple way I teach purely by the way I live my life. I certainly teach through my music and poems. There was a time when I stopped speaking in schools and with young people because I was frustrated that my messages of self love, self confidence, self responsibility, responsibility and positivism were considered cliché because these kids prefer Tupac, Biggie or Snoop heard.

Malcolm Jamal WanerIt was frustrating because these kids blindly believed the big lies these rap artists were selling. I was also fighting my own hypocrisy for listening to the same hip-hop. But I knew better and I knew hip-hop before the so-called 'gangsta rap' so I wasn't that susceptible to the message.

When I discovered poems, I found another way to get my message across in a way that young people could identify with. I've found a way to show that being positive isn't cliché. You can be positive and still be 'cool'. You can be smart and nice and still be cool.

I'll be honest, there are still times when I get frustrated because I don't know if anyone is listening or even values ​​my words, but I always think about what a teacher once said to me: “As a teacher you will never know how many people you really touch but you have to continue teaching because there are people who receive what you are learning and who need it.” That's what drives me. After all, my life is too blessed to keep everything I'm learning to myself. I think it's powerful when Dr. Dyer says that everything you wish for yourself, you should wish more for another.

When did you start with locs and why?
In April 1997. It was a period of fasting through the Master Cleanse method and because I didn't want to be in a social environment I spent a lot of time alone. During this period of loneliness, I made that decision. So it was a spiritual decision.

For some, locs are a style. For others, a spiritual sensation. So for you it was a spiritual decision?
Well, to be honest, both. Well, it's more of a statement than a style. I made a commitment when I decided to have my hair curled.

It's a style that many actors withhold or have to cut their hair to take on roles. I was very familiar with the stigma attached to 'dread' locs so I knew that having locs would make it less menacing. I hated seeing Isiah Washington cut his hair, so considering that "Malcolm and Eddie" had already been picked up for a second season, I knew it was easy for me to have locs. I already had a job. I didn't think UPN would have a problem with my locs. My hair was never brought up as a problem.

As for the spiritual side of it all, I had already studied my mother's experience with her locs. I teased her when she started twirling her hair because I didn't think she would seriously let it lure. I teased her for joining a fad because a lot of people were spinning but actually luring is another story. However, when her hair started to grow I will literally see the transformation in her.

As you know you can have a lot of days when you don't want her to sit for a while when you're in the locs process but I saw how she even lasted those days through a wrap, scarf or hat. She showed me that even on those bad days, you should try your best and just keep going with the process. It's about how you think you look and how you feel about yourself. I saw that extra bit of pride she radiated when she walked and her confidence grew. It was fantastic to see. That was my deeper spiritual connection and also a sense of my personality.

How long have you had locks? Why did you cut them off?
I always said I would wear my loks for 10 years. It has become 10 . I was ready. My manager and my agents had suggested cutting them off for years. They felt that my hair kept me from getting a job. I had always known there was a possibility that I would have to cut my locs for a roll. Say I had to play an activist from the 60s, for example, but the idea of ​​having to cut my hair just to go to auditions was laughable.

Malcolm Jamal WarnerDid they harm me? I don't know, but I've done 5 movies and 3 television shows with my locs on my head. Could I have worked more? Who knows? But I certainly didn't let it play a part in the most important personal journey I've needed in my life. Everyone I've talked to with locs I've talked to has advised me not to cut them until I'm really ready. They did and they regretted it. Goapele was the only one I knew who had waited for her to finish and she had no regrets. She was one of those who convinced me to follow my own pace.

How much time has passed between thinking about it and actually cutting them off?
When I reached 9 ½ years I knew I was reaching 10 years. So I thought about it for a year.

Many people keep their locs after cutting them. I never understood that. Have you saved your locs? If so, could you tell me why?
(Laughing) I kept them because my mother told me to keep them! I don't know what I'm going to do with them yet.

What was the first feeling you had after the locs disappeared?
The best feeling in the world was to stand in a shower for the first time and feel the water right on your head. With locks as thick as mine, you miss that sensation. It was like taking the first bite of food after fasting for 10 days.

I read you're named after Malcolm X. Is that true? What do you think you have in common with him?
Yes, I was named after Malcolm X. My father, Ahmad Jamal, always wanted me to become a jazz musician. I look to Malcolm X for courage. He always spoke boldly of his thoughts. It took a great deal of courage and fearlessness to preach that the white man was the devil. To return from Mecca and yield