One on One with David Ramsey

David Ramsey

You know you’re a smooth operator when
you serenade a cop with a song calling her a “white skinny bitch” and instead of roughing you up and hauling you off to jail, she actually falls in love with you. But that’s just how Anton Briggs, the guitar-playing, drug dealing confidential informant on Dexter, rolls.

Playing Briggs on the hit show is David Ramsey, a man so cool that he openly admits to owning a moped, which he used to drive around the streets of LA. Ramsey recently talked to us about the new season of Dexter, his affinity for “charactery” roles and the love scene with Kerry Washington he can’t show his wife.

How did you get into acting? When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?

It’s strange for me because my parents have been together for almost 50 years; I’m from Detroit, Mich., and I have two older brothers, an older sister and a younger sister. There are five of us. And my second oldest brother is an incredible artist and actor. I saw him perform in some little church community play when I was about 12 and I always idolized him. I wanted to be like him and so that’s what I really wanted to do.

Oddly enough, it turns out that he and I are kind of estranged at this point. We don’t really talk very much and he went off to do different things with his life. But originally, that’s what the deal was. I wanted to be like my brother. And then, as time went on, I realized that I really did have some talent in these areas and I just decided to keep on doing it. And listen, for a nerdy kid like me, 12, growing up in Detroit, it got a lot of attention from girls. So I kind of appreciated that. And the rest is history.

So did you start doing local theatre in Detroit?

Yeah, just kind of local stuff. I went to this school called Wayne State University in Detroit and before that, in high school I was doing school plays and I went to college and did some stuff and I worked in the local professional theatre as a college student. So I was doing pretty well in Detroit and I was accepted to USC Film and didn’t go. I just stayed in Detroit and studied theatre. I didn’t quite know if I wanted to go into film production or theatre. And I was 17 and my mother was like, “You know, I don’t want you going all the way to California.”

And I’ll tell you something. I came out here after I graduated from Wayne State in ‘93 and I was 21 or whatever when I came out here, 22, whatever. And if I had come out here when I was 17, I don’t know what I would have done. Seventeen in Southern California from Detroit or any of those Midwestern cities, it’s just you don’t want to do that. There’s so much temptation. You’re like a kid in a candy store at 21, so if I was 17, it would have been crazy. So my mother was right.

I stayed in Detroit; I did local theatre around the city. I did a lot of professional theatre, a lot of community theatre and just kind of earned my stripes. And there was a dean of the theatre department at Wayne State University, who knew I was interested in coming out to California and he had a contact. He knew the head of casting at ABC Daytime casting and he called her and said, “You know, there’s a great actor here, a young actor named David Ramsey, and he’s coming out to Los Angeles and I would love for you to meet him.”

And she sent me what are called sides. I didn’t know what sides were at this point. It was of a scene in General Hospital. And she talked to me on the phone and said, “You come out here, have the audition ready and let’s meet.” I did, I came out and I stayed in Orange County with a friend of a friend and I drove from Orange County to Los Angeles and I auditioned for her.

She said, “You know something? You are really talented. You need an agent. You have to have an agent in Los Angeles.” So she called about six people and I went on these interviews with these agents and one agent, Bauman and Associates, they’re still around, we fell in love with each other and I was with them for a number of years. That’s how I first got into LA. It was just a matter of some people kind of doing me a favor here, doing me a favor here and thinking maybe I was somewhat talented and giving me things I probably didn’t deserve.

Did you work pretty steadily starting out? Were you able to be just an actor?

When I first came out here, I was like Quentin Tarantino; I worked at a video store. And I was on a moped. I came out here with about 700 bucks in my pocket. And I had a headache for about two days when I first came out here because you come out here from like Detroit or any of these cities like Detroit or Ann Arbor, Buffalo or something; they’re nice-sized cities, but you just can’t compare them to the metropolis of a city like Los Angeles, how sprawling LA is.

And when I came out here, it was just so much. This isn’t a city where you kind of have a downtown where most of the action is and then the city is built around downtown. That’s not the way LA is. You kind of have these districts like Culver City, Beverly Hills, West LA, Santa Monica, The Valley, Downtown, Korea Town. You know, all these things that kind of exist within their own as a personality, and I just wasn’t used to that. So I had a moped and I just drove around the city and I was just flabbergasted at how much culture and the landscape of the city just kind of amazes me.

So anyway, I had a job at 20-20 Video. That was my first job and I worked there for a few years. Within about 26 months, maybe two years, maybe a little less than that, I kind of started to work and I got a little guest spot on The Bold and the Beautiful and there was a show called Murder One, which was this [Steven] Bochco show that dealt with a case for a whole season. The premise was kind of based off of dealing with one murder trial for a whole season from the O.J. trial. I got that. And then I got Con Air, which was a big movie. I did Nutty Professor. So I couldn’t continue working at my video store. So after about two years, I became a legitimate working actor in Los Angeles.

At what point did you sell the moped?

You know what’s weird? I’m staring at the moped right now. It doesn’t work. I don’t even know if it can be restored. I banged it up, but I will not get rid of this thing. I’m looking at it right now. It’s a Yamaha 200, it’s black and it’s completely beat to crap, but I just keep it as a reminder of how it started.

You could start a thing with the paparazzi. You’re starting to get bigger now, so you start driving a moped around, it might become like a cool thing. You might bring back the moped.

You know, I hadn’t thought of that. It’s not real high on the cool quotient, but you know, I might consider that.

But it’s so uncool, that it’s almost …

You’re right, you’re right, and then it becomes cool. You and I agree. It’s so uncool that it just might become hip.

You have had guest spots on a variety of shows, including CSI, CSI: Miami, The West Wing and Criminal Minds. Are you someone who enjoys getting to go in and do different characters?

The character actors have all the fun, I’ve come to realize. I kind of somewhat, at first, got pegged as a leading guy a little bit, but the character actors have a lot of fun. And the guest stars get to kind of be charactery. It’s weird because, listen, at the end of the day, does everyone love that regular job on a show as a series regular? Yes, of course. And I’ve had that and I’ve done Dexter for a season, I’m doing Dexter right now. It’s a guest star role and he gets to be a little charactery. And that’s fun. You kind of get to sink your teeth into a character.

And oddly enough, when you’re in an ensemble sometimes, as a regular on a show, you just kind of facilitate the show and facilitate the script. Not that that’s bad, because that’s great and it’s fantastic, but sometimes as a guest star, you kind of come in and you add a spark and you get to do things that even the leads don’t get to do in some cases.

A great example would be this role I’m playing on Dexter. I got to sing and play the guitar and I nearly get murdered on the show. I mean, these are things that didn’t happen to the regular cast. It has been and it still is a great character and sometimes the guest stars get a lot of meat. I’ve been very fortunate.

David Ramsey

With Dexter, we’ve got to say you have definitely had a presence on this last season. They introduced you and all of the sudden you are dating one of the main characters, you’re getting kidnapped; you definitely had a big impact on the season. And you were certainly a welcome addition to the show. But how did that come about? How did you end up on Dexter?

I was just coming off of this movie called Nailed, which is with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel. And we shot that in South Carolina, which that movie, by itself, has a lot of personality. But anyway, I came in and my manager called me and said, “There’s a great guest role for Dexter and the producers would like to meet you.” I said great.

I went in and I met with producers, Sarah and some other people there and we just hit it off. It was great. It was just a meeting and they wanted me to read and I did. But it was really just about a connection that we all kind of shared in the room. And that was it. The next thing I know, I’m playing Dexter’s sister’s boyfriend. And I’m playing the guitar.

And listen, they jumped right into it. They called me and said, “We want to give you guitar lessons.” I picked around on guitar back in college, but I never really played it. Now I’m having four lessons a week for the next three months. I’m becoming a fairly decent amateur guitarist. I’m working with a great jazz guitar player, who is incredible, and I’m learning the guitar. They’re teaching me the guitar for this role.

That’s what I’m saying. When you look at the regular characters on the show and then you have this guest star come in and he gets to sing and play the guitar, that’s a great role. I don’t even know if the regulars get to have that type of meat to play with. This role has been really a great treat for me. Anton has been incredible, not just because of what they are giving me in terms of playing the guitar and singing, but just the personality that they’ve allowed me to bring to him. The words they are giving me.

Dexter is a great show. It’s just been nominated for an Emmy this year. And it’s just been great to be part of it. It’s been a lot of fun.

Do you have a hit song that you’ve got down at this point with your guitar lessons? Do you have your own “Free Bird” yet?

I don’t yet. There is a song that Anton made famous on the show called “Una Puta Flaca Mala,” which is Spanish for “white skinny bitch.” And he was talking about Debra in the song. I got a lot of hits on my website and blog about how funny that song was. So that song, Anton’s made famous, but I don’t have anything personally for David yet. But that one has been a hit for me.

Did the writers give you any indication of where things were headed with your character or when Anton got kidnapped, were you looking at the scripts every week wondering if Anton is going to get out of it?

It’s interesting you asked that because David Zayas, who is on the show as well, he told me: “A lot of times, we don’t know necessarily week to week what’s going to happen.” So no. The quick answer would be yes and no. First of all, they do tell me where the character is going, but no they don’t tell me ultimately where he will wind up. They kind of give me a roundabout suggestion as to where he’s going for the next couple of episodes, but ultimately, do I know what will happen to him at the end of the season? No. Did I know that he was going to survive the skinning? No, I didn’t know that.

For example, when I came in and I read the script and I found out I was being skinned, people came up to me at the table reading like, “David, it was great working with you.” Other actors and other people from the show were like, “David, you did a fantastic job on the show. We were fortunate to have you.” I was just saying thanks.

And the producers won’t even look at me. The writers won’t even look at me. Because they know. They’ll just say, “Hey, great read, Dave,” and they’ll disappear. They gave me no time or opportunity to probe them at all. Fortunately enough for me, I find out the next week that no, I do indeed survive the attack and I go on and we continue to live together.

So no, they are not forthright with letting us know exactly where the character will end up.

You are filming season four now. Obviously, you can’t say much, but can you give any indication what is in store?

Yes and no. The relationship between me and Debra deepens, I can tell you that. She moves in. We live together now. But I can’t go much further than that.

In terms of the show, you may or may not know this, but last season Jimmy Smits was the season-long heavy on the show. He was the ultimate nemesis for Dexter. And that same format will be followed this year. There will be one actor who is a nemesis for Dexter the whole season long. That you should probably know just in general for the show.

But in terms of me, Anton, I can only tell you that the relationship between me and Debra deepens to a new level.

David Ramsey

You mentioned the film Nailed with Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal. What can you tell us about that film and your role in it?

Catherine Keener, myself and Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman, play kind of the group of nemeses for Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s a political satire. And it was a lot of fun. We shot it over a year ago in Columbia, South Carolina and again, it’s another charactery role where I kind of get to play. David O. Russell directed it and he let me play. I’ve been fortunate to get to work with directors that let me play. I worked on Pay It Forward some years ago, with Haley Joel Osment and Kevin Spacey; another funny role in that movie where Mimi Leder, who directed it, kind of let me play.

It’s interesting when you work with directors. They’ll have an idea of what you should do and you do it. Then, you kind of come in and say, “Can I try one take doing this?” And, they’re like, “Alright, just try it.” And you do and they love it. That ends up being the take that they keep, the one that you came up with. So, like I said, I’ve been fortunate to have directors who have allowed me to play around.

Do you know when Nailed will come out?

Nailed is supposed to be out hopefully next year, along with the movie I just finished called Mother and Child. That was directed by Rodrigo García and that’s with Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington and I think Sam Jackson has a role in that as well, and Annette Bening. That should be out next year, as well.

Mother and Child is a more of a dramatic film and you are married to Kerry Washington in it, correct?

I am. And we have a love scene in it. You know what’s funny? Rodrigo, who is the director, I was doing ADR and he said, “Oh man, your stuff in the film is fantastic.”

I said, “Great, great.”

He said, “The love scene between you and Kerry …”

I said, “Uh huh.”

He said, “Don’t let your wife come to the premiere.”

I said, “Really?”

He said, “Oh, hot.”

I said, “That hot?”

Everyone in the room said, “Hot.”

I was like, “Oh my god. I can’t wait to see it.” They didn’t let me see it.

But that was a lot of fun. Me and Kerry are playing husband and wife and we can’t conceive and it deals with some of the drama and the tragedy of that. It was a dramatic turn for me, I guess a lot like Anton on Dexter. But, you know, you’re working with some of the best actors in the business with Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Sam Jackson. You have a tendency of just getting better when you are around that type of talent. Either you shrink or you rise to the occasion. Hopefully, in my case, I rose to the occasion.

Most important, how does your wife feel about the scene? You haven’t had the premiere yet, but did you already warn her about it?

Well, we haven’t had the premiere yet and so she hasn’t seen it, but I told her what Rodrigo said because she would have killed me if he has said something like that and I didn’t tell her, so I made sure I told her. And she said, “Great, I won’t be coming to the premiere.”

What other projects are you working on?

Well, Dexter is really taking a lot of the time right now. Like I said, I just got finished with Mother and Child. So we’ll see how long we can ride this Dexter situation out. Fortunate for us, we were nominated for an Emmy and so, all of that bodes well for the show. The show has been picked up for this season four and season five, so it has at least two more seasons. So it will be around for a couple more years. We’ll see what happens to Anton on the show.

Try to stay out of trouble. No dangerous situations.

I know. This guy, this guy. That’s what happens sometimes. He’s a confident informant, C.I., and sometimes they get skinned. What can you say?

Occupational hazard.

It’s an occupational hazard.

What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?

I heard someone once say, “Only become an actor if there is nothing else you can do.” I think they were right, for a lot of different reasons. It’s a very tough business. There’s a lot of rejection. There’s a lot of second guessing. That can do a lot to your psyche, to your personality, to your self-assurance. Obviously, if you just hear that once or twice, it’s one thing. But when you have that happening to yourself every single day, then it can grow old.

That’s one element of it. The other element of it is just dealing with creating a character, the politics of it. This is a very political game.

So I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t an actor because I think I was born to do this. And I have that type of resolve and I think that type of resolve is needed to really be successful in this business. I think you have to have a determination that says, “I’m here to stay and I’m giving it up until the tank’s empty. I’m not saving anything. This is who I am, this is all I’m giving, this is all I am. And I’m married to it.”

So a quick answer to your question would be: I was born to do this and if I wasn’t doing this, I just wouldn’t be here. This is what I’m here to do.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

Well, I’ve been in this business a long time, so I’m immensely private, so that’s probably why people haven’t heard about me as much as they have. Because I haven’t chased after the paparazzi as much as probably other actors have. I am very private and most people probably know that about me.

What most people don’t know about me is that I’m an avid kung fu practitioner. And maybe that helps me keep some sense of solace in this business. It centers me. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. And I meditate a lot.

I guess something else about me is, even with practicing kung fu and trying to shy away from the paparazzi, I’m an action junkie. You would think those things wouldn’t coincide. You meditate a lot, you stay away from the paparazzi, yet you like and are drawn to a lot of action. How those two contradictory things exist in the same person is I guess what makes us human.

But I love to jump out of planes, I love fast cars, I love fast motorcycles. I have a couple of motorcycles and I had a fast car before I totaled it. So I love fast things, but at the same time, I’m a very, very calm person. I kind of work with those dualities, like a lot of actors do. I think a lot of actors have a few personalities they deal with.

What does the future hold for you?

I think I’m here for the long haul. I think that I’ll be in this business doing acting until I’m retiring age, until I’m 80 or older. I think the sky’s the limit.

David Ramsey

Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Season four of Dexter begins September 27 on Showtime. For more information on David Ramsey, visit his official website.

You can listen to audio highlights of our interview with David Ramsey by clicking on the play button below or by subscribing to our Hobo Radio podcast:


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