One on One with Mark Christopher Lawrence

Chuck Bartowski may moonlight as a government spy, but he still has to work a day job at the Buy More. And while his government handlers may be a bit difficult to deal with, luckily his Buy More boss Big Mike is a bit more down to earth.

Playing Big Mike is Mark Christopher Lawrence, an easily recognizable character actor who has appeared in a variety of television shows, as well as the cult classic mockumentary Fear of a Black Hat. We recently talked with Lawrence about Chuck, the Tijuana Boys Club and the possibility of a NWH reunion.

Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?

I’m originally from Compton, California and I call San Diego home now.

How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?

Wow, it’s a long story. I grew up in Compton, as I said. My English teacher in the 10th grade and she actually ended up being my English teacher for all three years of high school taught speech and debate and she ran a speech team for my high school.

I was playing football and in my fifth period class I had a teacher who was the football equipment manager and he was the drafting teacher. And I wanted to really be an architect and so me and two other friends would get there early and we were way ahead of pretty much all of his classes in drawings and all of my work was A/B work. When grades came out, I had a D and I was shocked.

I went and told my mother, so we went to the principal to have a conference with this teacher, brought my work in and basically, his thing was he thought that I talked a lot in class. And, what it boiled down to was that he didn’t like football players in his class because he sees them after school and that was the thing. And so I got out of his class, I was totally disillusioned from wanting to be a draftsman, architect and all that and I didn’t have a fifth period class. My English teacher said to me, “You can take my fifth period class,” which was the speech and debate class.

Once I was in there, she said to me, “You can’t pass this class without going to tournaments.” And I did that and loved it. From there, she talked me into doing a play – she was also the drama teacher. And our school was a small school in comparison to other schools, so we didn’t have a theater. Plays were produced in a double room sort of configuration – two rooms that didn’t have a wall between them. So in the three years in high school, I did two plays. One of the plays we took to the literary Olympiad and I won best actor in the Compton Unified School District.

And then, I went to college at USC on a debate scholarship and at that point I decided I was going to be a lawyer. Clearly, debate was the tool that was going to teach me to do well in court and I took a voice class for speaking and centering and the professor talked me into the acting program at USC and at that point I was already a junior. So I auditioned probably thinking that I wasn’t going to get in because it was one of the harder programs to get into in the country at the time and I got in. And they put me in as a sophomore, so it added two years to my graduation.

That same year, I started working professionally. Clearly, the bug had bit me at that point and there was no looking back.

Once you made the decision to go for it, how tough is it to break into the business?

I was in the program – that same year, I started doing an underground play called Tracers, I say underground in that it wasn’t part of the school curriculum, so we would put it up in a different building every night and it got to be so huge that the security guards would tell us what buildings we could use – you know, “If you got to this building at such and such a time, you can set up your lights and all that stuff and do your play here.” And so, it became a huge thing that lasted all semester. There were several letters that we sent out just trying to get a little funding to help this thing along to draw some attention to the play itself.

And, in the process, what we did was send a letter to John DiFusco who originally wrote the play and was in it off-Broadway. He and Merlin Marston came to see our first preview of the play and Merlin asked me if I did Shakespeare. I said, “Yeah.” So he gave me an address, which was the address to the Los Angeles Theater Center, which at the time was being run as a theater company. So I go over, do the audition and get a job and proceeded to do probably 10 plays at the Los Angeles Theater Center between that audition and the year after I got out of college. So theatrically, I worked right away. And then the next year, one of my debate coaches was friends with an agent and he brought her to see me in a play at USC and she said to me, “Come and meet me at my office tomorrow, we should have a conversation.” We talked and she became my first agent, sent me out the very next day for a part on Hill Street Blues and I was hired. So I started working immediately.

Here’s the thing that I always tell kids – if you’re going to be an actor, know that there are going to be good times and bad times. Before I got home from the audition, the message was already on my machine that I had gotten this job.

So then, after every audition for the next year, I rushed home to check my machine – and I didn’t work again for a year. And then it hit me, which was great.

It was the best thing that could happen to me because now when I go to auditions, I let it go. It’s like I do it, if I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I won’t.

So now I go to an audition and I’m very comfortable with the fact that I may or may not get this job. No matter how well I do, sometimes it has nothing to do with me.

You have been a bit of a journeyman actor, appearing in small roles in a variety of popular television shows, including Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, Martin, Malcolm in the Middle and 3rd Rock from the Sun. What was it like appearing on so many different popular shows and what stands out to you from those experiences?

I think the thing that strikes me about my career is that I haven’t been sort of pigeon-holed as a certain type. I’m truly a character actor in that I’m not just the guy who plays the drug dealer or the pimp. Early in my career, I think part of it was that at the time that’s the sort of thing that was available to black actors, but at the time, I had such a sort of baby face and such a likeable demeanor that even if I go in and knock that audition out of the park, they look at my face – in fact, Gail Levin said to me one time, it was a part for a drug dealer in some gang movie, she said, “Clearly, you were the best actor in the room, but I just want to hug you. So they’re going to go another way, but we wanted to tell you that, wanted to let you know that it has nothing to do with your acting.” I was like, “Okay.”

So, I think it’s been great that I haven’t had to play the drug dealer or the pimp again and again and again and again and it opened up doors to me to play things that are real life characters that you would see every day because not every black person is a drug dealer, not every black person is a pimp. So the experience has been wonderful in that it allows me to really stretch and grow because every time you do the homework to learn about what this character does or who this character is, you’ll learn something that you didn’t know. And so, it’s been fabulous.

You played Tone Def in the underrated film Fear of a Black Hat. How much fun was it working on that film?

Fear of a Black Hat is probably the only thing I’ve ever done that I watch and I have no regrets. Sometimes you watch something and you go, “Ah, I should have done this, I should have done that, I should have said this line like that,” and I watch that and just laugh every time.

It’s funny, Rusty Cundieff and I are still good friends. We’ve been friends since the 11th grade. He was a frat brother of one of my mentors. In fact, he and I just got back from D.C. doing one performance of his play Black Horror Show and he and I were actually talking about possibly touring during the strike as NWH. Right now, we are kind of looking at colleges and seeing where to go. We screened Fear of a Black Hat here in San Diego at UCSD last semester and the response was so huge that we thought, “Wow, there’s a whole other generation of people that are starting to see this movie,” so we thought while the writers’ strike is going on, it could give us something to do.

We’re seriously rolling it around – trying to figure out how to do it. My original idea was, “We should do Fear of a Black Hat the musical and put it up like a play.” Then that morphed into, “Let’s just tour,” which morphed into, “Well, we could tour and kind of have some theatricality by adding in some sketches that sort of resemble what these guys are like in the movie.” And then we decided we’d have to travel all these people, so what we’ll do is maybe shoot some sketches and then as we do numbers in the show, we’ll show a sketch, then do another number. We’re still working out the details, but I think it’s going to happen. We’ll probably call ourselves FNWH – formerly NWH – because we don’t own those characters.

How did you land the role of Big Mike on Chuck, and how was the character explained to you initially?

Well, it’s interesting – Chuck came along right at the end of this past pilot season and I was up for a series regular on about five other shows and Chuck wasn’t my highest priority in studying for because it was just a guest spot with possibly reoccurring.

It was literally within the last week and a half of pilot season, all of the sudden I was out every day going to producer, the next day going to studio, next day go to network and it was five pilots and right away two of them got weeded out. Then I was down to three and then Chuck came along and my agent said, “Well, it’s just reoccurring, but you should just go in there anyway.”

So I go in, do the thing – I didn’t even read the script. I just read the sides and just from what was given in the sides decided that I knew who this guy was and went in, auditioned and actually, when I went in to read, I read for the role of Harry Tang.

So, I finished up these other auditions over the next week and a half and then I was sort of in vacation mode. I was like, “Okay, I’m going on vacation – get out of here and I’m going to let this crazy sort of half-baked pilot season go,” because I had all of these pilots rolling around and dropped them all.

So then, I get a call, “Hey, they gave you a job on this thing Chuck. It’s not the role that you originally read for; it’s the role of Big Mike.”

I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I literally came in, worked one day on the pilot, drove to San Diego that night at like three in the morning and was on a plane to Maui at 6 a.m. out of San Diego, so I had to drive home and fly. I really just let it go, I didn’t even think about it.

Then, March rolled around and I thought, “I wonder whatever happened with that thing Chuck – if it got picked up or not?” And then, June rolled around and then I get a call, “Hey, we’re going.” And all of the sudden, there was this job with Big Mike and I hadn’t seen the pilot because I was in Maui when they did the screening. My first day on the set, Adam Baldwin asked me if I had seen it. I said no, se he went and got a copy and I watched it in my dressing room and I thought, “Wow, this is a really interesting and funny script.” Because I hadn’t read the pilot. And it was all of the sudden looking like a piece that had legs. I said, “This thing could probably go.”

The opening night, Peter Roth was there, he’s the head of Warner Bros. Company and I know they had a bunch of other shows that were opening that same night. I was like, “If he’s here, this show is high on his priority list.”

And, all of the sudden, it sort of did what it does – the writers have been writing really funny and interesting things, which makes it easy as an actor when you don’t have to make something funny. So I really started getting into the role of Big Mike and each episode when a different writer would come in with their script to shoot, they all kept saying to me, “Wow, we love writing for Big Mike. You’re really great in it.” It’s been a lot of fun, because you usually don’t hear that. Writers kind of stick to themselves. It was great to sort of get this feedback.

For me, I’m going to do my best anyway, but once you hear that somebody is really taking an interest in your work, it really makes you step up even more. The stuff that they’ve been giving me has been getting really funny and a lot of fun to work on.

Big Mike and Harry Tang are two of the best characters on the show. We were really sad to see Tang written out of the show.

He’s on the show Dexter and they didn’t want to share him. He’s just a great guy and really just a great actor, so it was kind of a bummer.

Do you have a favorite episode so far? If so, why is it your favorite?

I think my favorite episode hasn’t aired yet, so I probably can’t talk about it. But you learn something about Big Mike that seems to be out of character and it’s really funny. It’s hysterical. When you find out what it is, it’s like the last thing in the episode and it’s hysterical.

How will Chuck be affected by the writers’ strike?

Our writers worked really hard to finish the order. The first order of Chuck was for 13 episodes and so they worked really hard and finished the order so that it could be as seamless as possible and then they came in and apologized and said that they have to do what they have to do. I write as well, so I clearly understand it. I’ve also been on the negotiating team with SAG and AFTRA for the last contract that the actors had with the producers, so I know what they’re up against and don’t envy them at all.

So yeah, it’s going to affect Chuck – once we finish the next two episodes, we’re down until the strike is over. So hopefully, that doesn’t affect whether or not we’re picked up for the back nine. And all indications seem like it should be okay for us. Our numbers are pretty good and it seems like the network really likes the show, so we’ll see how it goes.

You also appeared as Mr. LaMarr on an episode of Heroes this season. What was that experience like for you and will we be seeing Mr. LaMarr again in any future episodes?

It’s funny that you mention that because Dana Davis that I’m in that scene with, she auditioned during pilot season with me for one of the pilots that I was up for series regular for and she was auditioning to play my daughter – my 16-year-old daughter. And clearly, she’s a woman, she’s a 28-year-old woman, but when I saw her at the audition, I thought she was a kid. She had a little Catholic school outfit and a little backpack and standing next to the other kids, she looked like a kid.

And then, when I saw her at Heroes, I was like, “Okay, clearly, you are a woman. That’s a purse, not a backpack.” And she starts laughing. She and I have talked recently and she said that her character is still working at the Burger Bonanza, so there’s a possibility that I could end up over there again, but really the role itself is kind of a nothing role, it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Both Chuck and Heroes are action-packed shows, but in both shows, you have played a store manager. We know you’ve got more to offer than your mild-mannered manager role suggest. Do you ever wish that you were the one kicking bad guy’s asses and who do we need to talk to to make it happen?

I do get a little action in Chuck, there’s an episode that we shot where there is a small action sequence that involved a stunt and I suspect that because they know that I’m pretty physical and can do physical comedy and I’m very athletic for my size that I suspect that the character will have more fun stuff to do.

And sure, you always want to be the guy the show is about but I understand the business and I understand that I’m a character actor and I understand that they hired me because I’m funny, as opposed to sexy. Even though my wife thinks I’m sexy.

We’re surprised that the ladies didn’t go for the pimp outfit you wore on the show.

(Laughs.) Yep, I got about 20 phone calls when that aired.

How often do you get recognized in public?

Every day.

What role do you usually get recognized for? What types of people approach you?

Most of it is people not really knowing where they know me from. They’ll go, “Tell me what I’ve seen you on.”

“I don’t know what you’ve seen.”

Or, sometimes people think that they know me. They’ll go, “Hey, where’d you go to school?” or “Where do you go to church?”

In fact, one of my good friends, she and her husband were misplaced by Katrina and I actually met them in TJ. So now they’re really good friends of ours and she’s a professor at San Diego State. When I met her, that’s what she said to me – she said, “Wait a minute, why do I know you?”

I said, “You probably saw me in a movie or TV or something.”

She goes, “Nah, that’s not it.” (Laughs.) Her husband just started cracking up.

He goes, “That is.”

So literally, everyday. When I leave the house today, I expect if I go to the store or if I go to the gas station, somebody is going to recognize me and they may not know why, but it will start a conversation.

Do you enjoy that?

Yeah, as long as people are respectful and talk to you. You know, sometimes people just kind of stare at me from a distance and it makes me a little nervous. I grew up in Compton, so if someone is staring at me, immediately I’m getting defensive.

So, it’s fun sometimes – especially when other people who haven’t seen it before.

So you can kind of show off a little bit?

Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. I was doing a play at the San Diego Rep a few years ago and me and this guy Fernando went upstairs to the food court and I got stopped like 20 times and we got back to the theater, Fernando was going, “How come you don’t have this guy’s picture on the poster? Everybody knows him.” (Laughs.) So it was pretty funny.

What goals do you have set for yourself? Where would you like to see your career go?

I think early on I said that I want to be in that group of actors who you see all the time like J.T. Walsh, somebody like that, where people don’t necessarily know who they are, but they recognize them and then the people the do know who they are really like their work.

I just want to have that career where I can always work, I’m just floating from one thing to the next so that you don’t get into that rut of “Man, I wish I had another job” because early in your career, it’s so much of that that you have to feel like there’s got to be something better. So far, I’ve been very lucky to float from, if I’m not doing a movie or TV, I’ll get a commercial or I’ll do some voiceover or a play. I’m also a standup, so I’m always floating from one thing to another. In one respect, I’m doing what my goal was, but on the other side of it is I think when I’m working in film and TV, I just need to get to that point where more people are calling me and I’m not jumping through all the hoops.

What do you do to unwind when you are not working?

Tequila and cigars. A couple of my closest friends, we have a club called the TJBC – the Tijuana Boys Club. We consider ourselves tequila aficionados and cigar aficionados.

So what are your brands of choice?

Well, I’ll tell you, by far, my favorite tequila, not necessarily my favorite brand, is Jose Cuervo De La Familia Reserva. It’s Cuervo’s family reserve. Every year, they get a different artist that creates the artwork on the box that it comes in – it’s a wooden box – and then the bottle is like a really dark green bottle and the tequila has sort of an oaky flavor to it and it’s really, really smooth, it’s very high end. It kind of reminds you of a Cognac. It’s really awesome. If you’ve never had it, treat yourself. Costco sometimes has it for like $70 and it’s worth every penny.

And I’ve had tequila that – down here, there’s a place that has hundreds of tequilas. And they have one that’s 600 bucks. So one day, I said, “You know what, I have to know.” And so I got a shot – a shot of it was $30 and it was okay. It wasn’t in the ballpark of Familia Reserva.

And cigars, I was definitely a Rocky Patel Vintage series kind of guy. He does the Vintage 1992s with a 60-ring gauge and that was my favorite cigar until recently, on my birthday, my friend Aaron gave me a Gurkha Fuerte and that is fastly becoming one of my favorites. I think my top three in cigars would be the Rocky Patel, the Gurkha Fuerte and then La Gloria Cubana Series R.

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

I think if I would have never gotten into acting, had I never taken that voice class, I’d probably be a lawyer today. If my career were over today, like if I got punched in the throat or something and couldn’t speak, I think I would go with costuming.

Is that something you’ve tried before?

I like to shop and I like to design. I started doing my own clothes – designing my own clothes and going to the tailor and having them put things together based on kind of what I had in my head. And I started doing a very small boutique business of it with big guys who were friends with, you know, “Hey, you don’t have to wear just jeans or just suits. You can wear other stuff that’s nice.”

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

Most people probably don’t know that I volunteer – I’ve sort of adopted a school down in Palo Cedro called Willow Elementary and over the past few years I’ve taken to them people from different walks of life to show the kids there that you don’t have to be a drug dealer or the next Kobe Bryant to better yourself. For instance, I took them a master diver, one of five black master divers in the Navy ever – Mike Washington. I took another guy, Tony Washington, whose actually Mike’s son, he does animation work for Sony. I took them a financial planner. Just so that they could see that there’s other things – you can be happy without being a millionaire.

Most people don’t know that because I work in LA and the people I hang around with here in San Diego are very, very close friends, so the two sides of me never really meet.

Interviewed by Joel Murphy, November 2007. Chuck airs Monday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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