His favorite Cosby Episode, his new cd, poetry, locs and a lot more.
Hello Malcolm. Thank you for doing this interview. I know
your schedule is very busy so I really appreciate you doing this.
Malcolm Jamal Warner
You hardly need an introduction. Almost everybody knows you from the Cosby show but can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up and what kind of child were you?
Well, I was born in Jersey City, where I lived until I was 5. My parents went their separate ways-my mother and I moved back to her home, Los Angeles. My dad moved back to his home, Chicago, so as a kid I went back and forth to Chicago to spend the summer months with my dad and grandfather. Upon booking the role of Theo at 13, I moved back to NY because that’s where Mr. Cosby wanted to shoot the show, which turned out to be a great thing for us as kids because we got to grow up in the environment of real NY life as opposed to growing up as Hollywood stars. New York gave us a very real perspective that I don’t think we would have gotten growing up in LA on the number one television show in the world! So Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York have all played an integral role in my growing up. Growing up, I was a pretty good kid. I didn’t really get into too much trouble because I didn’t like getting in trouble with my parents. And they did a great job of protecting my light and nurturing me as a young artist.
You are a poet who knows how to spin words. Do you remember your first poem and can you tell us about it?
(Laughing) I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. When I was 7-years-old, I told my mother that I was either going to be a famous actor, a famous basketball player, or a famous poet. Looking back, I see my life now as the fruition of those seeds I planted back then, so though I don’t remember my very first poem I do remember the one I wrote as an adult that sparked my active participation in the resurgence of the underground poetry scene. It was 1993. The venue was The Juke Joint, one of the two places in LA you could go to hear poetry. My first time there every woman had poems tearing guys apart. It started feeling like the open mic was a ventfest to express through poetry all the reasons men are no good. I felt like we needed someone to stand up for us guys. So I came back the following week with a poem titled “My Woman” addressing the man’s side of the relationship. The opening line went:
“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 evolved a lot since then, but that poem expressed the man’s point of view and things we don’t say enough and things women don’t hear enough, but it also put a certain responsibility on women because I think it’s inaccurate to put all the blame on men when it comes to male/female miscommunication. The piece came from such an honest and universal place, that everybody in the spot got it-of course, the fellas loved it, but even the women nodded their heads like “damn, he’s got a point.” That’s when I realized that I had found another way to touch souls. My way. “Confessions of A Confused Romantic” on my second CD, “Love & Other Social Issues,” is a much more evolved expression of the man’s vulnerability in a relationship-again, the kinds of things we don’t talk about and therefore women don’t get to hear.
When did you start playing bass?
I started playing bass at the end of ’97. I was working for UPN doing “Malcolm & Eddie.” I went from NBC and training under Mr. Cosby’s wing-where he enrolled everyone into being more conscientious about battling stereotypical black images-to working for UPN, a network whose marketing strategy toward the black demographic heavily relied on those same stereotypical images. Once I realized the long haul for which I was getting ready to endure, I decided I need a hobby. Something that had nothing to do with acting or directing. Acting had always been my hobby. Even when it became a career for me, it was still the one thing I loved to do. Directing started out as a hobby, and then became a career. I figured if I picked up an instrument then I would never turn it into a career.
I said I would never start a band or even want to record. Of course, in the matter of a year I started Miles Long and was gigging the LA club circut. With two Cd’s out, tours, and playing jazz festivals, the music has become that other career I thought I was avoiding!
I tend to say that the bass chose me. I’ve always been attracted to the low end when it comes to music. I got my first record player at 7-years-old, and the first record I lifted from my mother’s collection was Graham Central Station. Growing up listening to Larry Graham, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller (via Miles Davis and Luther Vandross’ music), Verdine White, Louis Johnson, Bootsey, MeShell Ndege’Ocello, and countless other bass players who were being sampled in hip-hop music all had a big influence on the way I listen to music. I also thought bass would be easy. I naively thought that I would be able to just get by as a bass player just playing root notes and not have to learn chords and music theory stuff. Once I picked up the upright bass, I realized that to be the bass player I wanted to be, I actually needed to study the language of music and all that stuff I thought I’d be able to avoid.
How did you get into acting?
My mother was always looking for things for me to do outside of coming home from school, doing homework, and hanging out on the street with friends. One season it was basketball season. Another was an acting workshop, where I really took to performing. I loved it! Our first play was “Alice, Is That You?” which was loosely based on The Wiz. I played The Tin Man and absolutely loved curtain call when I got to come out and bow while people clapped for me! That’s nirvana for a Leo kid! Aside from that part, I seriously enjoyed the playground that the stage had to offer.
The Cosby show is a classic. What is the most important thing you got from this period that you still carry with you?
There were so many. Work ethic was a big one. It got to the point where we only worked four days a week because Mr. Cosby spent his Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights in either Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Tahoe, or somewhere else still doing his standup comedy shows. This man had the number one television show in the world and he was still on the grind almost every weekend. It was impressive to say the least and from that I learned that when you’re hot is when you really need to bust your ass so when you’re not hot-when you have those dry spells that any entertainer with longetivity will have-you don’t have to make desperate career choices. I’m quite meticulous about the work I do accept because integrity is a huge thing with me.
Probably a difficult question to answer, but do you have a favorite episode
Actually, I have a few favorites, but the absolute would be our very first episode, when Theo tells Cliff that he doesn’t want to be a doctor like him or a lawyer like Claire but just wants to be regular people and if they were just regular people he wouldn’t love them any less so they should just love him for him. He finishes his speech and immediately the audience applauds the touching honesty. Cliff, seeing through the cleverness of his 13-year-old son, responds: “Theo…that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! No wonder you get D’s in school! You are afraid to study because you think your brain is going to explode and leak out of your ear.” He calls this kid on his b.s. excuses for not studying and slams him for not applying himself and ends with the classic line, “You are going to study because I said so. I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out.” It’s the moment in parenthood when all reasoning simply goes out of the window. I love that moment because in any other sit-com, after the kid’s speech, the music would have started, and the father would have hugged the son, apologized, told him he was right and that he loved him, and it would have been end of show. Now Cliff did hug him and told him he loved him, but not before he set him straight. That moment signified that this show was not going to be like other tv shows. In the Huxtable world, there was no way that the kids were going to be smarter than the adults.
Recently, I was watching the episode where Theo gets his ear pierced. The scene on the bed when Cliff is trying to sneak a look at Theo’s ear had me rolling. I was in my living room by myself laughing my guts out. I called Mr. Cosby and said to him, “Hey man, we were funny.” He said, “You’re damn right!” Though I appreciated the blessing of being on a such successful show, being so in the middle of all the hoopla, it was difficult to have a full appreciation of everything about the show. Now that I’m finally removed enough from the show where I’m no longer critiquing my work, I can finally watch and enjoy the episodes as a regular viewer. I can watch it and laugh and finally fully appreciate what people got out of the show.
I used to always feel like Theo was so corny, but now I totally get his appeal. My friends find it funny that I make Cosby Show references so much now. This may sound crazy, but I recently realized how significant an influence Cliff and Claire’s relationship has always had on my relationships. I love women, point blank. But the way I love MY woman is very much Cliff Huxtable-ish. That is still one of the joys I get from watching the show-how much love was apparent in that household.
What is next for you in acting? Can we expect to see you in another movie
any time soon?
Right now, I’m doing more music related stuff. I’ve spent the past month on the road promoting my 2nd CD, “Love & Other Social Issues.” We’re beginning work on the 3rd CD now. This year has been kind of slow because of the writer’s strike. The music is the passion and that other career that keeps me creatively fulfilled between acting gigs. “Fool’s Gold,” was my last studio film and is on DVD now (as is the independent film “The List” with Wayne Brady). I also have my one man show, “Love & Other Social Issues,” that we premiered on the west coast last summer. We received some pretty critical acclaim-the kind of reviews money can’t buy, which was incredible in itself and now we’re working on getting it to off Broadway. I’m really looking to transition into doing more film work. Television has been good to me so I am in no way turning my back on it, but as an artist I’m always looking to expand. I’m pretty meticulous about the work I chose so trust me, if I come across a television project that turns me on, I wouldn’t turn it down.
And of course you are also a poet. How do you write? I mean do you do this while waiting on the set, when something inspires you in the studio, or do you really need to be by yourself away from work.
The inspiration comes when it comes. Trying to sleep, driving, showering, shaving, and sometimes standing around on the set waiting. My first Miles Long songs were poems that I put to music we created. Toward the end of recording was when I actually wrote to the music, which was took me back to my rhyme-writing rapper wannabe days so the challenge was to write to the music, but not just write rhymes. The key was still writing poetically. There are still many pieces I have that simply work better as poems not to be done to music. Conversely, there are pieces I’ve written to music that don’t work as straight poems because they were written to a song format or structure.
Your music is absolutely wonderful. You are a very good bass player and it’s funny that you mention on your myspace page that people are actually
surprised that you are good. Why do you think that is?
Because there’s a certain stigma when it comes to actor’s crossing over into being recording artists. It’s a little easier nowadays for a singer or a rapper to be accepted into the film and television world, but I think what people don’t realize is that there was a time where you had to act, sing, and dance in order to be a well rounded performer so there should be no secret that actors are also singers or at least musically inclined. However, if I were a singer, it’d probably be a little more difficult to be accepted because it seems that no matter how great a singer an actor may be, if they’re known as an actor first, people have a difficult time buying it. But being a poet and a musician who does not have a record label dictating to me the music I should make, allows me to be as honest and passionate as I want to be. It allows me to provide a freshness in music that people crave. I say that my music is for folks like me who have grown up on hip-hop, but hip-hop no longer speaks to us because we are no longer that target demographic. We want something a little more sophisticated-we want to bob our heads but still need thought provoking-and let’s face it-sexy words to stimulate our minds. My music is jazz funk-not too jazzy to disturb the groove, but jazzy enough to excite the senses. The music is great to listen to on CD, but awesome to hear live. Also, because people have such a “Theo” perception of me, they are always plesantly suprised to find that Theo is nowhere in the building. Let’s just say that my live set is a very-unTheo show, which I love because though people love Theo our live shows give the audience a chance to know and love Malcolm (who’s legal and even more lovable, I might add!)
Is it hard to choose between music and acting?
I don’t know. I don’t choose. I’m always doing music, whether I’m on an acting gig or not. I don’t turn down acting gigs to do my music. I don’t have to. It’s never come up. The music as been wonderful to me because it allows me to express myself in ways that I can’t as an actor or director, but I have no desire to turn down my day job. It will always be a passion as well as a viable and necessary avenue of expression for me.
As you said musicians are busy all the time. What would be your ideal
setting for your band Miles Long if they would all be available and
where/what would be the ideal stage to perform?
Well both of my Cd’s are independently produced and distributed so I neither have a record label nor a tour budget behind me. When I do out of town gigs, I use local musicians. I play New York, DC, Atlanta, and Chicago enough that I actually have bands there-guys who have done my show a few times and already know my material, flow, etc. In other cities, I get help pinpointing a cat ahead of time who will act as an MD of sorts (music director) and put the rest of the band together. I come to town, do two rehearsals, and we gig. It’s cool because it gives me a chance to play with different cats, which affects my own playing.
An ideal setting would be to do a tour-like 6 weeks at a time-with the same cats so that after a few weeks of rehearsals and weeks of doing shows we get to form that band shorthand. In a band situation, it’s not just about playing notes-any hired gun can do that. It’s about the feel, vibe, and knowing your band mates well enough that everybody feels everybody else in an almost spiritual sense. That’s when you get to create that next level magic. With my present situation I don’t get to have that experience yet, but I know it’s coming…with the cool, huge, and ultra comfortable tour buses of course!
We have at least one author in common, Wayne Dyer. How did you like “Your Ultimate Calling” and what do you think is your Ultimate Calling?
I dug it. I was reading it while in the middle of re-reading both, “A New Earth” and “Conversations With God (Book 3)”, and I found his spiritual message to be consistent with what I was already reading. I picked up Dr. Dyer’s book because I was in a place where I really needed some inspiration-some days I’m not as clear as on others. I’m still processing though because I’m still working out my ultimate calling. It’s obvious to me that it is to teach, but I’m not 100% sure of the ultimate capacity. In a simplistic way, I teach/lead by example just by how I live my life in the public eye. I definitely teach through my music and poetry. There was a time that I stopped speaking at schools and to young people because I was frustrated that my messages of self-love, self-esteem, self-accountability, responsibility, positivity were all frowned upon as corny because these kids really would have preferred to hear from Tupac, Biggie, or Snoop. I was so frustrated because these kids were all really buying the great lie that hip-hop artists were telling. And I was also dealing with my own concerns of hypocrisy because I was listening to the same hip-hop, but because I knew better and knew hip-hop life before so-called “gangsta rap”, I was therefore not as susceptible to buying into the hype. But once I found poetry, I found another way to teach my messages, but now couched in a language the young people could easily grab onto. I’ve now found a way to show that being positive doesn’t have to be corny. You can be positive and still be cool. You can be smart and a good person and still be cool. And honestly, I still get frustrated sometimes because I can’t tell if anyone is even listening or cares, but I always remind myself what a teacher once told me, “As a teacher, you’ll never know how many people you actually touch, but your job is to keep teaching because there are people who are receiving and do need what you have to offer.” That’s what keeps me going. At the end of the day, my life is too blessed to keep all that I’m learning to myself. I love when Dr. Dyer talks about how whatever it is that you want for yourself, you have to want it more for somebody else.
When did you start locing and why?
I started my locs in April 1997. It was the first time I did the Master Cleanse fast and I spent a lot of time in solitude since I didn’t want to be in a socializing environment. So during that time of solace, it became a spiritual decision.
For some locs are a style for others it is a spiritual experience. What was
it for you?
Honestly, it was both. Well, more statement than style. Committing to letting my hair loc meant that I was taking a stand and wearing my hair in a manner that was either holding a lot of actors back, or making them cut their hair in order to work. I was well aware of the stigma associated with “dread” locs so on one hand I knew that my having locs would in some way make it a little less threatening. I hated to see that Isiah Washington had to cut his, so considering “Malcolm & Eddie” had been picked up already for a second season I knew it’d be easier to get away with wearing locs when I already had a job. And I couldn’t see UPN sweating me for growing locs. My hair was never brought up to me as an issue. In terms of the spiritual experience of it all, I had already watched my mother’s journey with her locs. I used to tease her when she first started twisting because I didn’t believe that she’d commit to letting them loc. I teased that she was only jumping on the tail end of a fad because so many folks were twisting but not locking. But when her hair began to loc, I also saw a transformation within her. As you know, there can be many a bad hair day in the locking process, but I watched her make even the bad days work with a wrap, scarf, or hat. She showed me that even on bad hair days, you have to know how to rock it and keep stepping. It’s about how you look to yourself and how you feel about yourself. I noticed the extra pep in her step and her self-confidence got stronger. It was great to see. So on my journey, I found a deeper spiritual connection and sense of self as well.
How long did you wear them? Why did you cut them?
I always said that I’d do 10 years. It was 10 and a half so I was ready. My manager and agents had been suggesting for years that I cut them. They felt that my hair was getting in the way of getting work. I always knew that there’d be a possibility of having to cut them for a role if they just didn’t work for the character, such as a 60’s civil rights activist or something, but the concept of cutting my locs just to go on auditions was ludicrous. Did they hurt me? I don’t know, but I did do 5 films and 3 television series with my locs firmly in place. Could I have worked more? Who knows? But I definitely didn’t let that impact the important personal journey I needed in my life. Everyone I knew who cut their locs previously all told me not to cut them until I was absolutely ready because they regretted it. Goapele was the one person I knew who waited until she was absolutely ready and had no regrets. Just looking into her eyes as she told me her story confirmed my belief that I was doing the right thing by following my own time table.
How long between thinking about it and really cutting them off?
When I hit the 9 and a half year mark, I knew I was approaching 10 years. So I spent a year thinking about it.
Many people save their locs once they cut them but I never know why. Did you save your locs? If so do you mind sharing why?
(Laughing) I saved them because my mother told me to! Don’t know yet what I’m going to do with them.
How did you feel immediately after all the hair the long locs were gone?
The best feeling in the world was standing under the shower head for the first time. It was neck and neck with enjoying that first bite of food after fasting for 10 days.
I read that you were named after MalcomX. Is this true? What do you think
you have in common with him?
Yes, I was named after Malcolm X and Ahmad Jamal-my father always wanted me to be a jazz musician. I look to Malcolm X for courage. He was always courageous when it came to speaking his mind. The amount of courage and fearlessness to preach that the white man was the devil took a great amount of courage. To return from Mecca and admit that he was wrong took even more courage. He was a man who stood for something. That whole time period signified an era where we stood up and fought for what we believed in. It’s a different time period now, but I will take a stand for what I believe in. As an actor and director I fight for my integrity and the integrity for people of color. The problem is that I have a hard time deciphering who really cares and as a result, question if enough people care to even make a difference. Working under Mr. Cosby’s wing for so long taught me a lot about fighting the fight. Working for UPN taught me a lot about how difficult that fight is when you’re not Bill Cosby.
Going-Natural.com is a magazine to promote natural hair because we think
that a disproportional percentage (73%) of Black women suffer hair and scalp disorders. This is mainly because the use of relaxers and we need to work on this collectively. Now women claim that men don’t like nappy hair and very often women who transition will hear something like “You will never find a man with your hair like that.” What do you think of such a statement? Would you say that it is true that Black men in general prefer straight hair or is it just in their minds?
Obviously, I can’t speak for all black men, but that’s as broad a statement as “when black men get successful, they always get themselves a white woman.” Black men who love black women, love black women. Point blank. Let’s not forget that lack men have nappy hair too! I do believe that black men fall into the same social conditioning (read: brainwashing) as black women in terms of our images, but I also see an awakening as well. One of the greatest things about Eryka Badu when she hit the scene was that she made it so black women could win again. The way she wore her hair, wore wraps, or wore ornaments gave women another way to roll. It was beautiful to see women incorporate that into their dress on a larger scale. India Aire flips her hairstyle differently every time you see her. How many beautiful bald women do you see out there? My mother wears her hair almost bald now. It’s hot. It’s all about how you see yourself and how you carry yourself. And a man who is intimidated by that is not the kind of man you want anyway!
How important is a woman’s hair to you? Do you prefer a certain style?
For me, it’s not about the hair. It’s more about how a woman carries herself. In my song, “Keep Smilin'”, there’s a line that goes:
“and you can’t even be mad that her hair’s not really done
she’s looking like she doesn’t care if anyone gives her the time of day or not
she’s on her way and she’s got her own mission
and long ago decided she needs no man’s permission to feel good about how she rolls
so she holds her head up high and flashes a mile long smile to signify
that she loves the skin she’s in…”
That’s what we respond to-how a woman carries herself. As far as style goes, I like long hair as much as short hair. I like being able to caress my woman’s head if she has short hair as much as I like playing in long hair. Personally, I’m not a fan of weaves-only because I like running my fingers through my woman’s hair. Some women like having their hair pulled during lovemaking (some men too-which is what I miss most about my locs…shhhh). With a weave, I don’t want to be concerned with accidentally pulling a track out while wrapping her hair around my fist. (Laughing)
Natural hairstyles like locs are still not really accepted in the corporate
world which is a shame because we are the only people who need to go to
court to wear our natural hair. Something that is a birthright. How is this
in the acting world? Is it a plus or a hinder to have locs?
As I said earlier, many actors wind up cutting their locs so they can work. However, there are a number of actors who, like myself, have decided not to let the industry dictate to them how they wear their hair. In terms of casting, it’s more about how open producers and directors are. On one hand locs can be limiting because there are going to be instances where they just don’t fit for the character, but on the other hand, they can also make a strong statement. When I first started to loc, I was doing an independent film playing a law student. The producer, who was black, wasn’t digging the locs because he felt that lawyers in law firms don’t wear locs. I reminded him that the character was in law school and that his hair would not yet be an issue until it was time for him to be hired. I got to keep the locs. Fast forward to my last show on CBS, “Listen Up” (with Jason Alexander), my character was an ex-NFL player-turned-sportscaster. My locs were down my back and the producer absolutely loved them. So much so that I would jokingly mention cutting them just to watch her momentarily freak out.
From your blog on myspace I got that you are an Obama supporter. Were you a supporter from the beginning?
Initially, I was torn. As a black man I felt like how could I not vote for another black man and help make history? As an American, however, I knew it would be foolish to vote for someone just because they’re black. And admittedly, in the beginning I, too, bought into the thinking that Hillary had more White House experience and would therefore be a better candidate. But along the way, Barack really said the things I needed to hear that made me support him instead. America wants change. America needs change badly. Now, can Barack come through with all of the promises he’s made? What president has? I don’t even know how much change he can make during his tenure, given the mess he’ll be stuck with, but I think any amount of change will be positive. The president can’t single handedly fix our economy or the myriad of issues our country has as easily as he can screw them up, but he can definitely begin to steer us in a better direction. And he’s a shining example that you can be positive and still win.
What do you think about the Republicans’ offense?
We could already see the smear campaign against Obama at work and we could bet that it was only going to get worse. From religion to politics, America operates on fear and intimidation so we are used to fear tactic politricks. The fact that Barack isn’t backed by big corporate funding and doesn’t owe the same favors already makes him a threat to the current system so we can expect to see negative comments get worse before they get better. And every president gets raked over the coals anyway-it’s one of the many wonderful freedoms we have as American citizens-so once he is officially president, it’s going on be a non-stop barrage. We seem to be a society who loves to build public figures up and then tear them down.
Now last but not least. Where can we hear and see you live this year? Are
you going on tour?
Your readers can always check my myspace page at -http://myspace.com/malcolmjamalwarner -to see where we’re playing. I spend a good amount of time on the road doing spot dates so I make sure to have them posted. You can also join our mailing list at malcolmjamalwarner.com to keep tabs on what we’re doing as well.
Your new cd is received quite well. According to soultracks.com had a (Link to the review) Miles Long (Love, and Other Social Issues) is a winner. Is your cd in stores or is it only available on the internet?
The music from both CD’s, “the miles long mixtape” and “Love & Other Social Issues,” can be purchased on iTunes or from either one of my websites and by the time this interview is posted, we should also be in Best Buy as well.
Just that I have had a great career so far and a wonderful blessed journey through life and if there is anything that I can pass on to readers it’s the importance of having something to be passionate about. Find something that you love to do for fun and DO it. Since trials and tribulations in life are inevitable, then we might as well spend the time in between doing something that makes us happy. And LASTLY lastly, I’d just like to thank you, your readers, and all of the people who have supported me, been in my corner, and have allowed me to grow and expand as an artist. Contrary to how we make it seem, this is not an easy business. I’ve seen it destroy souls and drive people crazy. Having different outlets of expression that people enjoy and support helps me retain my sanity, so THANK YOU…