Remember once upon a time in the mid 1990’s when Black Hollywood ruled the T.V. airwaves on Thursday nights? After a visit with the Huxtables on the “Cosby Show” and a lesson in higher learning at Hillman College on “A Different World”, over 15 million viewers would tune in at 9:00 P.M. for their weekly fix of “New York Undercover.” Malik Yoba became an overnight sensation in his role as J.C. Williams, a street smart police detective and loving father to his 11 year old son. Since then Yoba has remained a fixture on the pop culture radar, from his role as Jamaican bobsledder Yul Brenner in Cool Runnings to loving hubby Gavin in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married 1 & 2. Yoba has also kept busy by producing and directing his own web series “Shop Talk” on BET.com.
In his latest role on the hit Syfy series “Alphas” Yoba has been elevated to superhero status–literally. He plays Bill Harken, a former FBI detective with the special ability of “fight or flight.” The Urban Daily caught up with Yoba to discuss his new love for Twitter, his surreal experience working with Janet Jackson, which black superhero he’d like to play on the big screen and why we need to stop whining about the lack of quality black programming on television.
Congratulations on “Alphas”—it was the most watched series debut on Syfy in 2 yrs. Why do you think the show has been successful?
I think the folks at Syfy are really smart. It’s very enjoyable to be a part of the show–the cast is just great. It’s a network that really seems to understand its core audience and how to appeal to them.
There’s a lot of support for the show on Twitter. How do you like being on Twitter?
I’m actually on Twitter right now. I’m usually on there through my phone, but up in Canada I’ve been off the grid because my U.S. phone isn’t working. So I have my computer on all the time in my trailer. I’ve never seen Twitter as effective as I did in the last few weeks. People have taken ownership of the show. When people reach out to me, I respond to them and engage with them in a very real way. When you engage with people as an artist you know exactly what they feel and what they’re thinking. We live in a different time so I just think it’s amazing.
How did you land the role of Bill Harken?
When I first found out about the role I wasn’t interested. I had just done a series the year before that had me in Vancouver for six months that went nowhere and I was very frustrated because it didn’t have a distributor yet, but it had the studio and had a global partnership. The producer and the studio gave me a lot of pushback when I said “Let’s take a lot of the behind the scenes stuff and put it on line and get a viral campaign going. We can get six months of free publicity” and no one was listening to me. They were like “No, let’s not put anything on line yet because we haven’t been picked up yet” and I was like “You guys are missing the point. We’re living in 2009.”I was frustrated because I was away from my family for six months for a show I thought was pretty cool but they weren’t very intelligent in how they marketed the show.
For 2010 I was producing and directing my own content (“Shop Talk”) and I was happy doing that. I was branding myself and taking a more entrepreneurial path. That’s where my head was. I heard Jack Bender (Executive Producer) was coming into town to meet with a few actors for the part. So I decided to look him up online. What attracted me to him was three years into acting he began directing and producing. He was also a father. I felt like someone who started out as an actor and went into directing and producing would know where my head was at. I met with Jack and I immediately liked his vibe because he is also an artist, a painter. He walked in and had paint on his boots. They actually had the role written for a white dude but at a certain point they decided they just wanted the best actor for the role. The producers and the director knew from watching my audition tape with Jack that I was the right choice.
Lately we’ve been flooded with lots of comic book movies, but there hasn’t been a lot of representation of minorities in these movies. Which black superhero would you like to see adapted to the big screen?
Well I was a fan of Luke Cage (Power Man) when I was a kid. I definitely wanted to do that and also Spawn, but my man Michael Jai White did that. Yeah, Luke Cage but I heard Tyrese is supposed to be doing that.
Really? I know Idris Elba has expressed interest in the role and The Old Spice guy Isaiah Mustafa has been campaigning on Twitter for the role as well.
See, now I’m gonna have to start some shit on Twitter since I’m officially the only black man on T.V. that has powers. I’mma tweet that right now, “Who thinks Malik Yoba should play Power Man?” We’ll see what happens.
Let’s talk about some of your other roles. You were on “Girlfriends” as Brock Harris. One of things I really liked about your storyline was your chemistry with Tracee Ellis Ross. How did the two of you translate that chemistry on screen?
The funny thing is I actually knew Tracee before she was an actress, when she was still working in fashion publishing. So the funniest thing about playing her boyfriend, was that we actually went on one date. We went out one time while I was on “New York Undercover” in our 20’s, so when Mara Brock Akil asked me to join the show in 2003, it was always a running joke between me and Tracee because nothing ever happened after that first date. But I loved doing that show because it made me want to do a sitcom. It’s an easy work week, like 20 hours a week. At some point I’d love to do a really good sitcom.
You played Gavin, Janet Jackson’s husband in Why Did I Get Married? and Why Did I Get Married Too? How difficult was it to play all that tension and hostility opposite Janet, in light of her just losing her brother Michael, knowing she was in such a vulnerable state?
It was a little bit surreal working with Janet in general, because of her resemblance to Michael. So there were times when we were filming the fight scenes, she would do something that would take me out of the moment. Because it felt like Michael was in the room. That was bizarre. There was a high level of sensitivity around what she was going through. We didn’t talk about it but I admired her for showing up and doing the work.
Audiences also remember you as bobsledder Yul Brenner in Cool Runnings. Now we’ve seen a lot of actors play Jamaican characters, but their accents for the most part are pretty terrible. Can you share the secret to doing a proper Jamaican accent?
I just think some people have an ear for dialects and nuances in language and some people don’t. I wrote a character who was based on a dude I knew. He was British, his mother was Jamaican, and his father was Nigerian. I had a conversation with the son and the parents, and I’m going back and forth with all these different accents. I’ve actually bought tapes on how to do a British accent but for me it’s not that cerebral. It’s more of an instinctive thing.
Your most iconic role of course is J.C. Williams on NY Undercover. Looking back, did you know that this show would have such a cultural impact?
I had no idea. You only know these things in retrospect but the one thing you do know is when you’re shooting it, it feels real. Like everything I’ve ever done that has worked, is when I get that feeling. Like Cool Runnings the crew was cracking up, you’re cracking up, you’re like “this works.” So “New York Undercover” had that. Being someone from New York, raised in Harlem and the Bronx, I was like “I need my patent leather Adidas, my army jacket, and my Tims. I was 26 years old, I’m from the hood, I know this. When I’m doing a role the one thing I ask is “Is this believable? am I being truthful?” People think acting is just memorizing lines and doing facial expressions. No it’s about traveling along a path of discovery, intention and connection.
When I think about “New York Undercover” one of the things that stood out to me was the relationship between J.C. and his son G. It was a great portrayal of a single black father actively co-parenting in raising his child. Did you have any input in how this father/son relationship played out?
Absolutely. That role I based on my father and my brother. My brother was a teenage father, so when I was doing the show my character was a 26 year old father with an 11 year old son. I was always injecting my ideas into the show based on my father’s values. There would be a scene where G was doing his homework with the T.V. on and I’d say “Absolutely not.” We didn’t even have a T.V. in my house until I was 13. My dad called it the “idiot box.” I’d tell them to get some books and put them around G, while he was doing his homework. Or the script would read “J.C. cooks G a T.V. dinner” and I was like “Nope, because I’m going to cook him some real food in this scene.”
A T.V. dinner? Really?
That’s what the writers thought, that my character couldn’t cook. But my dad taught me how to cook so that was total bullshit. In the pilot episode of “Alphas” you see me in my first scene with my wife. The director asked me “So how are we going to do this?” Because this particular scene was in the kitchen, I asked props for an ironing board and an iron because I was going to iron my shirt. I did that because my dad taught me how to iron, and also because you certainly don’t see black men doing that on T.V.
“New York Undercover” was also known for its soundtrack (by James Mtume) and the musical guests featured performing at Natalie’s night club. Which ones are your most memorable?
We had the biggest stars everyone from Biggie to James Brown. B.B. King let me play his guitar Lucille. I sang with Stevie Wonder on the show. Those were the highlights of my life. Every show I’m on I wish we could do something like that.
You’re also a musician. If we were to scroll through your iPod what songs or artists would be in your most songs played rotation?
I’m all over the place. On the low I’m a huge Lil Wayne fan. I think dude’s a genius. Everything from Adele to reggae to Moby. The hottest group I’m listening to right now is House of Balloons. You can download their free EP “The Weeknd.” It’s this Ethiopian kid from Toronto and Drake co-signed him. The kid is bananas.
Looking back on the 90’s we had such an abundance of scripted black shows from “Living Single,” “Martin,” “A Different World” etc. Today with the exception of “The Game” and Tyler Perry sitcoms, all we have are a lot of reality shows like “Basketball Wives” or “Love and Hip Hop” that many in the community feel send a negative image of African-Americans. Do you think there’s an underlying agenda where that’s concerned, or are the networks just giving the people what they want?
I think we need to create our own shit, period, end of story. People need to be willing to create their own content. That’s why I have my own web series. In 2011 with digital cameras and new media we don’t have to keep saying there’s lack of opportunities blah, blah, blah. It’s an old story and I’m not interested in having that conversation. Creative conversation is what needs to replace the complaining conversation.
“Alphas” airs on Syfy Monday nights 10 P.M. EST/9c
Follow Malik Yoba on Twitter: @MalikYoba
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