30 Years After "Diff'rent Strokes" Shavar Ross Reinvents Himself

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Most who were around at the time will probably remember Shavar Ross as young Dudley from Diff’rent Strokes in the 1980s. But the veteran actor has featured in several other TV shows and feature films since entering the business roughly 30 years ago; notably parts in popular series like Magnum PI, Designing Women, Amen, Growing Pains, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Chicago Hope, and a few others. He also played a young Booker T Washington in the 1984 made-for-tv movie Booker, about Washington’s youth in the South at the end of the Civil War and after.

Now 40 years old, Shavar operates his own film and television production company, Tri-Seven Entertainment, under which he not only continues to produce, write and direct his own material, independent of the mainstream studio system, but also serves as a home for a growing family of entertainment websites he created (ShavarRoss.com, ActorGuru.com, GoodLawd.com, and BlackThespian.com), as he transitions from content creation to covering already created content.

Shavar resides in Los Angeles, and has been married since 1992, now with two children.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Shavar about his 30 years in the business, looking back to his early starts, the present at current interests, and ahead to what’s on the horizon. The lengthy revealing interview follows below:

TUD: You’ve been working in the entertainment industry for about 30 years now mostly in TV, as well as a few films – how did you get your start?

SR: Well my parents separated when I was about six. My father eventually headed out to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career, so I’d like to say that he was the “real” actor, lol, and he was quite good. When I was seven years old I got to fly out to California to visit my dad during my school’s Christmas vacation. During my time in L.A., my dad and his friend Lawrence Hilton Jacobs took me to see this play that Kim Fields was starring in and after the play a top children’s talent agent came up to my father and told him that she wanted to represent me. I booked my first commercial shortly after that and ended up staying with my father and working a lot as a child actor.

TUD: And you now appear to be transitioning out of the uncertainty of the media production space (acting, writing, directing, producing) and into the just as uncertain world of media coverage. What prompted you to move into the online blog site space?

SR: I started blogging back in 2004 to document my experience making my first feature film, Lord Help Us, which hit the national retail market back in 2007. My goal was to transition into directing but it took me nearly three years to get my first film off the ground and I wasn’t too thrilled about that. If you’re a director for the studio system it’s a lot easier but as an independent filmmaker, it’s much tougher. I had a distribution deal before I had a script so that was good, but there was a lot of red tape involved with dealing with agents, unions, actors, producers, people’s egos, etc., [laughs] and I can do without all that. I started blogging in my personal blog around that time as well–August of 2005, actually. I started off on Blogger.com and I found that blogging about my life was a therapeutic and creative experience for me. Eventually I started blogging about some of my celebrity friends because their lives were seemingly more exciting than mine, but more importantly, I really enjoyed writing about others. For me, blogging is like creating “mini movies” and blogs and blog posts are a lot quicker to produce. I get to write, edit, work with video footage and distribute it all in 20 minutes [laughs] Love it.

TUD: Are you maybe pursuing the Nick Denton model with his family of Gawker sites? And can you talk the content of your different sites, your plans for them, whether you plan to add more sites, and how the whole operation is run, given the amount of work that’s involved in running sites like these (speaking from my own experience)?

SR: Yes, I started the idea of creating a blog network last year to see if the concept would be financially viable. I’m a big fan of a lot of the urban blogs out there and started blogging around the same time as popular sites such as Natasha Eubanks of’ theybf.com and Angel Laws of ConcreteLoop.com. However, I was doing it “for fun” and they were treating their blogs as a business. It wasn’t until I read Natasha’s story in Black Enterprise last year that made me become business minded about blogging. I was blogging every day for 5 years and didn’t know that you could make any real money from blogging. So far, I’ve created six blogs and I’m overseeing 4 right now. My blog ShavarRoss.com is an urban and pop culture blog and I blog about my personal life there as well. I started ActorGuru.com in 2008, that’s a site about actors. GoodLawd.com launched last year and we post about “anything that makes you say GoodLawd!” LOL. My latest blog is called BlackThespian.com, it’s two months old and it’s a blog solely about African-American actors in the entertainment business. I write in all the blogs but have recently started outsourcing other bloggers and so far I have a team of about five. Blogging is a lot of work and takes up a lot of time but I have a passion for writing so that’s what keeps me going…and not-to-mention my curiosity of the business model.

TUD: Are you continuing to pursue creative projects, whether originating with your production company, or film and/or TV roles you actively seek, or that are being offered to you?

SR: Well I recently got an agent but things seem a lot slower now that I’m older so I’m not sure what is going on as far as my acting career. I worked a lot up until the time I was 25 and ended up going to Bible school which took me four years to graduate. From there, in 1996, I ended up pastoring a small non-denominational church for actors and those in the entertainment industry for four years. I was somewhat naive getting into it and when I saw a lot of the politics and hypocrisy (not that I’m perfect) in “the church,” I took a lonnng break from the ministry. So trying to get back into acting after all these years has been tough. I just leave it in God’s hands. Also, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of roles available for black actors like it used to and that’s why I like creating new and exciting ventures. It has always been hard for me to wait around to get the call for an audition. As far as independent filmmaking, I’m cautious about that as well. I love filmmaking but we as African-Americans in the entertainment business need our own distribution outlets. In many ways, I’d rather sell my own movies on the street corner than let some corporate distributor take most of my profits. If my films only make two cents, at least it’ll be my two cents, lol. But I’m always open to anything if the deal is a win-win.

TUD: Can you talk about any projects you have currently in the works? Also, with the proliferation of web-based content (web series especially) are you attracted to that space?

SR: I’m very interested in using the internet as a way to distribute new narratives, webisodes and feature films, etc. Everything is still in its early stages and its a very new concept that many are still not grasping because it’s so new. There are urban films that cost 2 to 5 million to make and still don’t have distribution. There are even certain urban films that garnered theatrical distribution and still tanked at the box office. That’s a waste of money. I think we need to focus more on the concept of marketing and distributing our own films..and for less money. You can do this via the Internet.

TUD: You appeared in some of really popular shows in their time, from Diff’rent Strokes to MacGyver, to Magnum, P.I., Amen, Growing Pains, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Family Matters, and you worked alongside some really popular stars during each shows heyday, from Gary Coleman to Kirk Cameron to Will Smith (who’s grown to become maybe the biggest star in Hollywood right now). Any really memorable experiences working on any of those shows, or with cast members?

SR: I’m just thankful that I had the opportunity to work with all of those talented people and I’ve learned a lot indirectly from all of them. I try to keep up with some people who are working actors but everyone is so busy. I remember before actor Derek Luke got started, really cool guy. He used to have to take the bus to work when he was a security guard at Sony Pictures. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t wear religion on his sleeve but I remember giving him a ride home one time–in the car we shouted and spitted out some Bible scriptures and prayed for God to bless his career in a BIG way. And look at him now. That’s inspirational to me. No one can tell me that that man ain’t blessed, and that’s why you never hear no one say anything bad about the guy.

But I have many wonderful memories and experiences and try to blog about it whenever I’m inspired to. I love to document everything I’ve experienced from my acting career and have no regrets about it. And I don’t get upset when people call me by one of my characters’ name from those shows either, [laughs]. If I can somehow remain in the business in front or behind-the-scenes, I would be grateful. I’ve tried many other things but the entertainment business is all I know.

TUD: When you got into the entertainment business, was there a specific plan for you in terms of what kind of career to pursue, or was it just a matter of taking things a project at a time, with no real long-term approach to it?

SR: Well I never really planned to be an actor so there was never really a long-term plan for it. Actually, I’ve always wanted to be an OB/GYN, [laughs]. Y’all stop laugin’. But I think I was in the business too deep for that so it was hard to pursue it. I’m still a sophomore in college after all these years [laughs].

TUD: Was there much support along the way from other folks in the industry of your career? Or more specifically, anyone who really had an impact on your growth as a performer?

SR: I didn’t have a lot of support as an actor in the entertainment business. I became an emancipated minor at age 15 so I’ve been on my own since then. I’ve been married since I was was 21 so my wife has been my best friend and my biggest supporter. She is definitely a Godsend.

TUD: The place where you are currently, is this where you thought you’d be maybe 5 to 10 years ago, and are you content there? If not, what would be the most ideal situation for you right now?

SR: Oh no, I’m definitely not anywhere near where I thought I’d be! However, I am proud that I accomplish the things I set out to do, no matter what it may be, and that is a form of success to me. I did step away from the business for a good while and sacrificed my career to step into the ministry for many years and sometimes I wonder what my acting career would have been like if I continued with it but helping the homeless, praying for the sick, seeing folks’ lives changed for the better means more to me than the success of an acting career. (gulp) Right now, taking care of my wife and kids by any means necessary (without breaking the law, [laughs]) is my main priority. I think every man desires that for their family.

TUD: Projections? In another 5, 10, 20 years, where do you see yourself?

SR: 5 to 10 years from now? I don’t think God is through with me yet. I still believe he has something up his sleeve, I’m just not sure what it is yet. I know he wants the best for all of us even in the midst of our struggles.

TUD: Your own predictions: A snapshot of what you think the entertainment (specifically film, TV) industry might look like in another 10 to 20 years.

SR: Film and TV in 10 to 20 years? Three words: Internet, streaming, virtual. Bonus: cell phones.

TUD: What is your take on the state of African Americans in film and TV. I’m sure you’re privy to all the discussion over the years about how limited our portrayals are both in TV and film, and the lack of African American representation at the premiere awards shows like the Oscars, all the articles that are written annually about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, both in front and behind the camera, etc, etc, etc. As someone who’s been in the business for 30 years, have you noticed any particular shifts where any of those issues is concerned? Would you say opportunities have improved, or still about the same, since we’re still making similar arguments? And lastly, potential solutions to get us to that point in which these discussions no longer exist, or will they always?

SR: You ask some really good questions! (I’m taking notes) I think we have no choice but to learn about new media as filmmakers and people in the entertainment industry. Unless you’re already “in” as a black actor (and even being “in” is nothing concrete nowadays) you must learn new and creative ways to remain in the business. Now is the time to diversify your gifts or learn new crafts. Don’t just stick with one thing. No one is impressed anymore if you wrote a script. Better learn how to make the movie yourself too, or surround yourself around people who do know how. Nowadays you have to gain your respect if you are to be successful. Cameras are cheaper, editing software if available to you. No one is gonna help you until you start helping yourself.

The industry has changed a great deal when it comes to African-American actors. In my opinion, things were better for us back then than now. We have only a handful of our shows on the air and we can thank BET, TV One and a few cable networks for this. Also, black folks need to stick together more in the industry to form strategic alliances. Why is it so hard for us to help each other? There’s nothing wrong with letting the pride go and saying your business or production company needs help. Also, it would be nice to see some of our big stars do more in the urban filmmaking community. I would love to see “Smith” Studios or “Murphy” Studios. There is a difference between a studio and a production company. You have to give credit to people like Tim Reid and Tyler Perry for creating studios. I’m also speaking more in terms of physical places where AA productions can take place. We may not agree with all of Tyler’s productions but black folks (especially in the industry) shouldn’t complain or put our own people down. If you’re not happy with how Tyler runs his studio, then that’s your cue to start working on building your own ‘cause Tyler can’t be the only one, can he? Nope. And that’s the reason why we have The Weinstein Company AND Dreamworks, and others. I would love to speak on this more but I know everyone’s eyes are red, lol. The industry will change when we unite and change our attitudes and approach to the business as a people.

TUD: You’re a family man with 2 kids, which I’m sure influences the choices you make, since you’re not just living for yourself now. Is that accurate to say? And are your kids at all interested in getting into the entertainment business, despite how young they still both are – though one is a teenager already? Is that something you would embrace, or would you steer them away from that life, and into other areas?

SR: I’m not sure I’d want my children in the entertainment business without first getting a good education. From my experience, the acting business is very unpredictable and I wouldn’t wish the lifestyle on anyone unless they have a strong spiritual foundation. Just because you’re on a TV series means nothing. No, you’re on a hot show RIGHT NOW, and in this business you’re only as good as your last job. At least get an education even if it’s to learn how to manage your own money. Either way, I’d be there to guide my kids if it ever happened but I’m not actively trying to get my kids in the entertainment business.

TUD: And lastly, any general thoughts, concerns, comments you’d like to share, whether about yourself, your company, the industry, etc.

SR: Thanks for the opportunity and all the great questions.

And thanks to Shavar for taking the time to answer every single question I asked him, and doing so thoughtfully and openly. As noted in his response, you can find Shavar and all his offerings at ShavarRoss.com, ActorGuru.com, GoodLawd.com, and BlackThespian.com.

Tambay Obenson is Editor of Shadow And Act on the indieWIRE Network at blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact

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