It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, Morris Chestnut made his big screen debut in the coming of age drama, Boyz n the Hood. Since then, Chestnut has enjoyed an enviable career by being one of the most consistent working black actors in Hollywood. He’s reached heartthrob status with leading roles in smash hits like The Best Man, Two Can Play That Game, and The Brothers. In his new role on the T.V. series V, Chestnut has landed his most layered and complex role to date. Chestnut is Ryan Nichols, an alien double-agent working with the resistance group the Fifth Column to bring down the V’s reign of terror, headed by the cruel and devious Anna (Morena Baccarin).
TheUrbanDaily.com caught up with Chestnut to discuss his return to television, his character siring the first intergalactic love child and the future of black actors in the science fiction landscape.
TUD: How did you get the role of Ryan Nichols?
Morris Chestnut: I was looking to widen my audience a little bit and TV shows can do that pretty quickly. I had only read two T.V. pilots that year when my manager sent me the script for V. I really liked it because it read like a movie. I was familiar with the original series many years ago. It was just a great part. I met with the executive producer, Scott Peters and the director, Yves Simoneau. We had a sit down meeting, talked about the part and then they offered me the role.
Which characters did you use as inspiration to prepare for the role?
I would say the Ryan Nichols character is a hybrid of Robert Englund’s character, Willie and Donovan, from the original series.
Ryan’s been through a lot this past season. He’s a secret operative for the Fifth Column. He got engaged to his human lover Valerie, who ended up dying right after giving birth to your child. In retrospect, do you think it was the right thing to do for Ryan to hide his true identity from Valerie?
Ultimately, you can pretty much attribute her dying because of me keeping it a secret from her. I wish the storyline had gone in another direction, but the writers did what was best for the show and I understand.
Do you think if he told Valerie, things would have ended up differently? Or do you think that he didn’t have enough faith in the relationship for her to handle the truth?
Had Ryan told Valerie early on in the relationship, I think they could have made it through.
Did you know from the beginning that Valerie’s character would be killed off or was that something you found out later in the season?
We didn’t know until later into the first season. That was the choice of a few different people.
Jane Badler, who played Diana in the original show, has joined the cast for the second season. What was your reaction when you found out she would be joining ‘V’?
That was great. The writers and Scott Rosenbaum (producer) sent us an email basically saying she was going to join the show. That was something they discussed with her during the first season. They had always wanted her to be on the show. And then when it finally came through, we were excited. She’s an iconic character. We thought it would just give a huge lift to viewership and give the show new energy.
So, let’s talk about Anna. So far, she’s kidnapped and killed Valerie, and raising the baby as her own. Now she’s put human skin on your daughter, who looks a lot like Valerie. What was that about?
That was definitely Anna’s way of manipulating Ryan and basically she’s playing me against the Fifth Column. She’s using the baby to get information out of me. I think the last episode I finally go up to the mothership with some information because she’s wondering what’s going on with Malick, The V we just tortured in the last episode.
Why torture and skin Malick?
That was the only way we would get the information we wanted to get out of her. Sometimes in the V world, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Like Anna making your daughter sick in order to get Ryan to comply?
Exactly. She makes an innocent infant sick in order to get Ryan to give her the information. She’s cruel and cold.
How far do you think Ryan will go to get his baby back?
Ryan will pretty much do anything. In the upcoming episodes there’s going to be some very challenging situations for Ryan where’s going to have to have to choose between his daughter’s well-being and the Fifth Column.
Your daughter is the first V and human hybrid baby. In V: The Final Battle, Elizabeth was also a V& human hybrid, who ended up being the ‘Star Child’, the chosen one who would bring both species together. Do you think the show will go in that direction with Ryan’s child?
That’s definitely a possibility.
This is your first series since Out All Night with Patti LaBelle and Vivica Fox. How was the transition from doing feature films to doing a weekly series?
That was a huge transition because of the grind. We’re shooting several pages a day at breakneck speed and that was something I definitely had to get adjusted to. In another sense it was fun because when you shoot a feature, you come to the set like “I’m ready.” Then you’re in your trailer for hours upon hours and it’s like “Man, are we going to shoot this or are we not going shoot this scene today?” So it’s frustrating that way. The one thing I do know when I go to work at V is that we’re going to be shooting very quickly. When they call me in to do all these scenes, they’re going to get done.
This version of V seems a lot darker than its predecessor and more topical. What parallels do you see between the show and the issues of today’s society?
It’s strange because when we shot the pilot a couple of years ago, we had some things about healthcare. When we did a screening, Obama was making all these statements about the healthcare issue. It was one of those things that happened to work in our favor. I don’t know if the writers write specifically to issues, but I like it when they do.
What would you say to someone to explain why it’s important for actors of color to be in sci-fi flicks and TV shows? Do you think that’s the direction we need to go in?
I will say this. Speaking on V specifically, I do know that a lot of people of color that I’ve come across, they don’t watch science fiction. Some people say to me “What have you been doing? How come you’re not working?” Well, I’ve been on a series for two years! They don’t watch sci-fi. It’s different when Will Smith does a big budget movie with special effects and CGI. But with sci-fi TV series you get your hardcore sci-fi buffs. Even some of my closest friends say “I tried to watch the show, check you out and support you, but I just can’t get into the spaceships, the science and all that.” What I’m noticing is that most people of color don’t care for science fiction.
When you watch the old episodes of Star Trek they tackled issues like sexism, racism and politics. Perhaps if it could be understood that’s science fiction stories serve as parables. That’s it’s not just about the bells and the whistles, but about humanity.
That’s actually an excellent point. With science fiction, you do have to think quite a bit. Sometimes people want to turn on the TV and let the TV watch them. The one thing about science fiction fans is that nothing gets by them. I’m always cautious about every little thing. I’m always checking with our script supervisor for continuity because sci-fi fans are very sharp.
What can we expect for the rest of the season concerning Ryan, his daughter and the Fifth Column?
All I can say is that Ryan is hugely conflicted. He’s going to have to make a lot of split second decisions between his daughter and the Fifth Column. Someone’s going to have to sacrifice something.
New episodes of V air on ABC, Tuesday nights at 9P.M. EST. Check your local listings.