Friday, April 18, 2014

Interiors of Man Interviews Actor, Carl Lumbly

Courtesy of the Artist and Marin Theatre Company

Beginning his career as a freelance journalist, writing for the Associated Press with an English degree from Macalester College, Carl Lumbly’s rise as an outstanding actor began in the 70s and 80s with popular movies and TV series, as Cagney & Lacey; and the 90s film role, To Sleep with Anger, working with veteran actor, Danny Glover and the film’s director, MacArthur “Genius” Grant Recipient, Charles Burnett.

Successively landing dramatic roles with memorable scenes in The Wedding, co-starring Halle Berry; The Ditchdigger’s Daughters and an Outstanding Lead Actor, NAACP Image Award Nomination in Buffalo Soldiers, Lumbly’s acting credits extend beyond these and, action series, Alias, to the theatre with Lead Performance in Eden, earning him the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award.

Credited with other theatrical works, Lumbly takes star billing in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, Fences, currently running at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, California from April 10 to May 11, 2014. 

Speaking with Lumbly between performances, this distinguished actor whose presence conveys capability before a word is uttered graciously honored me an interview about his starring role in Fences, his acting techniques, and a few personal realities about his life and career.

Margo Hall as Rose and Carl Lumbly as Troy Maxson in
August Wilson's Fences directed by Derrick Sanders.

Interiors of Man:  Most actors who have honed their craft have done so through great theatrical productions. What is your starring role in August Wilson’s, Fences giving to you on and off stage?

Carl Lumbly:  August Wilson is one of the greatest playwrights the world has ever seen. And as an African-American writer, he set a very high bar for directors and actors who would seek to do his plays. Troy Maxson is a role of incredible depth and complexity.  It is also a very large role.  So, to master the text and develop the character has been, and continues to be a daily devotion.  Onstage, playing Troy calls upon all of my skill and commitment.  The language is gorgeous and muscular.  August has created a black man many of us have known, but who is rarely recognized.  These men held jobs many of us would not take, raised families, stayed in marriages and sacrificed for their children. They were plagued by doubts and fears, hemmed in by biases and indignities, but still managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Troy has had a very strict code of behavior.  He is in the process of betraying that code when the play starts, and that betrayal of personal code sets in motion the destruction of the world he has fought so hard to create.  It costs him his wife, his son, his best friend and his position in his community.  Playing him is a privilege.  He represents men of a generation that made hard choices, had fewer options and freedoms.  Portraying that struggle honestly is exhausting but gratifying.  Troy's journey makes an important point about how the relaxation of personal standards can upend the strongest of individuals.  Minus the betrayal, Troy has much in common with my father.  Black men of that generation had to fight on so many fronts Offstage.  As a father myself, this play gives me a perspective on the importance of being able to express love to our children. Love is a key ingredient in the development of children, and the preservation of a people.

Eddie Ray Jackson as Cory and Carl Lumbly as Troy (foreground) with Margo Hall as Rose (background)
 in August Wilson's Fences
IOM:  In Fences, Wilson expressed the responsibility of “owing” through the lecture your character, Troy, gives to his son.  As artists we feel obligated to our artistic debts – the creative urge to produce what’s inside of us.  What are your artistic debts or urgings?

CL:  When I first began doing this work, I simply wanted to try and portray black men who resembled black men I knew and respected.  I felt I owed them.  I wanted to do justice to them.  I wanted them to see images of themselves that they could relate to, and be proud of.  I wanted to be associated with positive and meaningful stories and characters.  And whenever I get the opportunity, I am compelled to do as thorough a job as I can.  I feel as though I must work as hard as they do.  I honor them with my intention and effort. And in this business, I know there are more talented individuals than myself who have not been given the opportunities I've worked for and received. So, any time I get a job, a part of me is motivated by the awareness that I am fortunate and blessed to be able to do this work.

Eddie Ray Jackson, Margo Hall and Carl Lumbly playing respective roles in

IOM: You bring intensity to your role[s] that few actors can capture. The characterization never slips into an imitation of the portrayal.  How do you capture and secure the realism of your characters?
    CL:  My intensity as an artist comes from my desire to answer questions about the character, as well as answering questions about myself.  I always find and compile a long list of similarities ... things I have in common with a character.  I do a lot of research about the time in which the character lives.  What are the broad political issues at work? What makes up the character's world view?  What does the character see and feel on any given day?  And, of course, the text of any play or script is replete with clues and avenues of exploration with which you can become an expert on every aspect of the character.  Then, I try to marry the words of the text to this construction of experiences, memories and actions that make up the character's world, and I add to that the places where I am in positive or negative alignment with the writer's creation. This process of 'quilting' starts when I get the script, and doesn't end until I have finished portraying the character.  I am driven to give myself as many chances for truth and honesty in a character as I can get.  And then, the work becomes making things appear seamless.  

IOM: Many may not know that you’re a writer as well as an actor, having worked for the Associated Press.  In what ways have writing, your appreciation for literature, and your English major served you as an actor?

CL:  I've loved reading my entire life.  As an English major, journalism minor in college, I am obsessed with stories.  Every character is a story and has a volume of stories inside them.  I write back stories for all the characters I play.  I make lists of character 'facts'... favorite colors, books, travel destinations, illnesses, weaknesses, fears and on and on.  It helps me in simplifying and particularizing what I'm doing as an actor. The more choices you make, the more options you have.  I also find that writing gives me greater points of attachment to the imagined life of the character.  If you can write a letter as your character, you can sometimes 'discover' things about a character that help cement a verity or sense of truth.  It's easier for me to play something that feels true. So I create as much history for a character as I can.

Carl Lumbly as Troy (foreground) and Margo Hall as Rose and
Steven Anthony Jones as Jim Bono (background) in

IOM: Is there a special character or story you’d like to play or produce in the near future, or future writings you’re considering?

CL:  James Baldwin is one of my heroes.  I am trying to write a one-man show about him.  His was a truly American voice.  Yet, he was an unapologetic citizen of the world. He was a brilliant thinker and writer, and lived an amazing life at an exciting moment in this country's history.  And as someone who had to leave this country for a while, in order to be able to sustain a creative life, he has a great deal to say about art and creativity... passion and politics... love and humanity...   

IOM:  Any closing remarks you’d like to add?

CL:  There is one other reality about my career and life.  My life made my career possible, not the other way around.  I was blessed to have had a creative partner for most of my career, my wife, Vonetta.  An extremely gifted and fiercely intelligent artist, she had a lot to do with the way I pursued my craft.  She was unabashedly enthusiastic about my acting, and I always wanted to live up to the standard she felt I set.  An avid reader and brilliant critical thinker, she was invaluable to my process and my well-being.  She and my son made everything make sense in my life.  I think my work was grounded in the bedrock reality of my marriage and fatherhood.  If I had a secret to happiness, that was it!  And it is that happiness that wasn't enough for Troy. He fell prey to something that still challenges us today.  It is the idea that there really is no such thing as 'enough'.

All Production photos, courtesy of Marin Theatre Company.  Production photographer, Ed Smith.

For more information on Fences and extended run dates, visit Marin Theatre Company at,