Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Romany Malco took a roundabout path to an acting career, his showbiz breakthrough arriving via the hip-hop group College Boyz in the early ’90s. (Contrary to popular belief, Malco did not perform the raps for Paula Abdul’s cartoon duet partner MC Skat Kat, though he did write the animated cat’s “Opposites Attract” verse.) After transitioning into music production, Malco was persuaded to try his hand at acting by John Leguizamo, for whom Malco produced The Pest’s soundtrack. Since then, Malco has coached Steve Carell’s 40-Year-Old Virgin in the ways of romance, grown pot for Mary-Louise Parker on Weeds, and portrayed an über-player in Think Like A Man, the ensemble rom-com based on Steve Harvey’s book Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man. Malco reprises that role in the Las Vegas-set sequel Think Like A Man Too, which opened nationwide June 20.
Think Like A Man (2012)/Think Like A Man Too (2014)—“Zeke”
Romany Malco: Nothing could be further from me and my behavior. Having to be this cool, calculating guy is not really my strong suit in real life, and having to have this perspective—like in the first movie—of just wanting to get in bed with every girl is not how I carry myself in real life. So the tough thing for me in that was playing someone cool, because the truth is, I’m goofy. My instinct’s to go big, but there’s no place for that in the movie.
I could not memorize the dialogue, because I couldn’t get it to connect. I want to walk around and figure out who this dude is. And I literally started to engage and look at the world in the way I thought Zeke would. There’s a genuine optimism I have when I see people in the street or when I’m at the dog park, whereas Zeke looks at things from the perspective of what he can get from the person. So he made an assessment of each person then he calculated, “Okay, my best bet would be this…” What Zeke would do is look at some hot girls in the dog park, make an assessment of each girl, see which one was on the phone the most, see which one wasn’t, see which one was available—from a distance—and decide the one he wants. And then, rather than go to her, he’d approach the girl he believes is more inferior to the one he wants, then eventually work his way to her. That is too much for me, that is too much maintenance.
AVC: What does it mean to you to be able to return to a character in a sequel, to revisit this guy and his world?
RM: It’s kind of dangerous because you go into it with this preconceived notion of who you’re supposed to be, who the character is and how the character is supposed to behave. I forgot that, actually, [Malco’s character and Meagan Good’s character] have been together for a year or two and everything has changed. And I had to remind myself to show up and allow myself to experience it that way. I liked it—it inspired me to write and create my own stuff because seeing it grow this way is just another reminder that it’s possible.
At the same time, it taught me the dangers of being preconceived. The biggest cardinal sin is not being in the moment whether in life or on-screen. You owe it to your fellow actor that if they feed you something, you give them an earnest response to what they’ve said to you as opposed to what you wanted to do before they ever showed up. If that’s the case, you’re might as well be performing with a mannequin. The actors have to be able to feed each other and inspire each other. On Weeds, Mary-Louise Parker would always say, “Romany: The best thing you can ever give someone on camera is a surprise. And you do it all the time.” And when she told me that, I went out of my way to surprise her on camera. I mean, sometimes she got mad at me and slapped me, but it made for some great TV. [Laughs.]
Weeds (2005-2007)—“Conrad Shepard”
AVC: What was the biggest surprise you ever gave Mary-Louise on camera?
RM: We were doing this one scene where I was using Heylia’s house to grow weed right in the center of it and [Parker’s character, Nancy] came by to tell me some bullshit that was going to get me in trouble with Heylia. Up till this point—this was season three and we’re nearing the end of it—and we’d had this really soft, gentle exchange and what she was telling me about was so detrimental to my character’s welfare that I was able to justify being extremely angry. Because of the way our dialogue is, you notice we only speak in closed quarters. We kind of lean in to each other when we speak, you can’t tell if we’re going to talk or kiss, and I just erupted with, “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU?…” Yo, her eyes went so huge and then her character has to beeline to the door—and I closed it. She opened and I closed it and she hit me in the face with her purse. She opened it again, I closed it again and she punched me in the face. She opened it again and I closed it again and she started beating the shit out of me. Then I took some fruit punch and just dumped it on her. [Laughs.] It just got out of hand. Afterward she hugged the shit out of me and I hugged back, too. If you really want to get real shit, she taught me—she and Vince Vaughn both taught me—that if you want real shit, you can’t fear the people you act with. She came to me that night and goes, “Everyone is so scared to play with me. I love you.” I’ll never forget it. Mary-Louise Parker was like a sensei because she’d beat your ass, but you’d always want to say thank you when you left the dojo.
AVC: Leaving the show after three seasons, what did you take with you from that experience?
RM: What I took from it was everything Mary-Louise Parker taught me. That show justified for me a couple of things: it confirmed for me that drama and comedy don’t have to be two completely separate entities. You can engage them as one and the same and in my real life, in the most dramatic moments, I tend to find the most laughter because the laughs can represent so many different things. The way Mary-Louise Parker was, it was hard not to learn something. Here is a direct steal from Mary-Louise Parker: In the first Think Like A Man, Meagan tells me it’s going to take three or four more dates before she invites me up and I turn around and smile and say, “This bitch is crazy.” And it gets this really big laugh. That’s a Mary-Louise Parker skill: It looked like I was going to say something completely different and I had a big old smile on my face but through that smile came, “This bitch is crazy.” That’s MLP all damn day: Smiling through the chaos.
AVC: Have you continued following Jenji’s career? Did you watch Orange Is The New Black?
RM: I watched the whole season in two weeks. I got my girlfriend hooked on it. It was like crack, and I didn’t talk to her for two weeks. When I first showed it to her, she didn’t like it. She didn’t get the pilot, she didn’t get the second one and the next thing you know, I wasn’t hearing from her and I was like, “Where are you?” and she was like, “Come help me! I have a problem.”
The Prime Gig (2000)—“Zeke”
AVC: You mentioned that your experience with Mary-Louise Parker was similar to working with Vince Vaughn in The Prime Gig.
RM: When I was doing The Prime Gig with Vince, we played around so much that the director separated us like children! [Laughs.] But we were doing all these really cool acting exercises during breaks and it was a way to figure out how to stay in the moment and not make anything and be comfortable enough to not have to do anything. You get with actors some times and they show up because they want to act—and we would do these exercises on not acting. He’s just witty as hell and he cracked so many good jokes on me, man. [Laughs.] Vince is like Kevin Nealon: really tall, really funny, and every time they crack on you, you want to hug them.
I was going to say something else, another story about that job. Ed Harris: He can be a really committed actor, everything he did in the moment, right? He’s doing this speech to us, he’s selling us and these extras and myself and Vince Vaughn on this idea of how we’re going to make money. He takes us to this site, he climbs on top of this trailer and explains it to us and everything. Then he got his arms out and, all of a sudden, he decides to do this free fall right when everyone was supposed to walk away. And no one really volunteered to catch him so I had to run and catch him myself! And he’s like, [Mimics Ed Harris.] “Thanks for catching me!” I got to be real: I want those balls. I don’t want the prefabricated ones; I want those balls.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)—“Jay”
Baby Mama (2008)—“Oscar”
Blades Of Glory (2007)—“Jesse”
AVC: What’s the role that most people on the street recognize you for?
RM: It’s probably going to be for my very first acting job. I had one line in a very great show called Touched By An Angel and I think that’s what gets me—no, I’m kidding. It’s a toss up really between Weeds and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, still. And it’s so surprising to me. I have 40 Year-Old Virgin, Baby Mama, and Blades Of Glory fans come up to me and ask, “Why haven’t you done anything else?”—while I have the No. 1 movie in the country. I don’t want to assume it’s this, but some people are just into a specific type of movie. When I did Think Like A Man, I would run into people who were acting like it was the first thing I’d ever done. I was at the premiere of Think Like A Man and people were coming up to me like, “Man, you’re going to get work after this, bruh. Man, this is a great way to start your career off.” Oh my God! I’m like, wait a minute, do black people only watch black movies and white people only watch white movies? That can’t be true. I don’t know when or how, but it seems as though there is this like division in what people will engage and sometimes you have those movies where the demographic—and it’s not a white or black thing—the demographic that will engage that kind of movie will not engage another type of movie that you’ve done. For me, it’s a blessing in the sense that it makes me believe that with every job that I’m doing that I’m actually expanding my audience rather than servicing the exact same people. And it’s nice to know that they remain loyalist in the process.
AVC: One of your real showcase moments in 40-Year-Old Virgin is the argument you have with Kevin Hart’s character. How well did you know Kevin before shooting that?
RM: I’d never met him, but I fell in love instantly. It was kind of like the Mary-Louise Parker thing where you wanted someone who’d play with you and I was on set with a bunch of guys that were down to go for broke. And then in comes Kevin doing a style of comedy that I really appreciated. And that was all she wrote after that! The minute we started doing it, I was like, “He’s that dude! He’s that dude!”
AVC: That’s an intense scene to do with someone you’ve just met.
RM: Yeah, I think it’s really intense to non-blacks. I think for brothers who’ve grown up or spent plenty of time in the hood it’s not an intense conversation at all. As I was talking to Adam Carolla the other day, he said, “I don’t get it: White people don’t love their families the way black people love their families. I don’t understand that. I love my mom, but I’m not going to buy her a house and fucking move in with her.” I was like, “Yeah, man, but with black people, we see our moms go through so much more shit.” There’s a level of empathy with a black woman, when you take into consideration the imbalance of opportunity, aside from gender, the redlining, the limited education you get when you live in a community where you don’t have the highest value in property. When you see the absence of black men and the way in which black men make up such a huge part of the prison population because of this scapegoat need to incarcerate a certain quota every year, and you see black women like your mom manage to sustain and keep you afloat and enable you to experience your dream in the process. I’m sorry dude, but that shit right there—I don’t care what color you are—if you see your mom go through that shit, then you’re going to love her. You’re going to love her, love her, love her. Why is that relevant? I forgot.
AVC: It ties back to what you were saying about the people who recognize you from 40-Year-Old Virgin and the people who recognize you from Think Like A Man. There are these divisions between moviegoers, and in a way you’re bridging them.
RM: Yes, exactly. I feel like Kevin is doing it. I was lucky that I started on the mainstream side and came over and Kevin kind of started on the grassroots and is expanding tremendously on a completely different level. It’s bizarre how incredibly huge Kevin is and how busy he is.
Various projects, “Tijuana Jackson”
RM: Probably my passion project, my baby, it’s my freedom. It allows me to say whatever I feel like saying. The type and style of response I get from people who follow T.J. are probably the most moving bits of accolades I receive in my career, and I actually get to make a difference. We’re doing a movie about him right now, I can’t tell you too much about it because you never speak before that sucker is in production. But I’m really passionate about playing this ex-convict-turned-motivational-speaker because of the way he impacts the kids, and how it helps me help people think outside the paradigm that’s imposed on you. We don’t see the new slavery—we don’t see that it’s not just a division, it’s debt. It’s a student loan and a fucking mortgage and a car note and fricking a child before you’re 30. We’re basically trying to make poverty look good because when you line up your assets, this is your liability. You are actually in debt and you’re actually poorer than the guy in the trailer park because he doesn’t have that debt and you just want to make your debt look good. So I just want to teach people to get out of that paradigm and I want these people to engage education from a different perspective and influence people to try deductive reasoning rather than memorization.
My thing is to use Tijuana Jackson as an opportunity, as an avenue to influence a demographic that would never really go to a therapist or a self-help seminar, or could give a fuck about watching a self-help program and have this guy who is extremely vulgar and angry and determined and driven and he’s speaking to a demographic that actually appreciates that. And it’s like not like urban youth; T.J’s biggest demographic is white males—white males ages 18 to 25 and 25 to 44, those are his demographics. So that’s why I do everything else—so I can do that. Tijuana Jackson: ex-convict-turned-motivational speaker, life coach with a goon hand. [Laughs.]
AVC: What is it about the persona that allows you to do that you couldn’t do it as Romany?
RM: Well there are a couple of things: The first thing is the indoctrination. One of the biggest flaws we have is in the meaning we attach to things. We are limited in the way we assess things because of our inability to think independently. We perceive people based on very limited bits of information and then we find things to polarize the whole. We have a very binary way of looking at things: good guy, bad guy; tough guy, soft guy. She’s either a pristine virgin or she’s a ho? Of course, when all you learn to do is memorize and stand in a line with your peers, you don’t exercise your ability to think independently. So as a result of that, I think people have a lot of preconceived notions of who I am and they might see me as some conservative guy who grew up with a silver spoon and lot of people really, really believe that—and it’s fucking hilarious! And rather than have to hurdle that preconceived notion before I can get the message to you, I think it’s better to do it that way because I grew up in an environment—and this is one of my biggest beefs with Hollywood, and as I’m beginning to make my own films I’m starting to see it change—is that Hollywood really services a binary way of thinking. You either have the good guy or the bad guy, the vixen or the saint—and I grew up around people that were heavily flawed, but had the best of intentions and actually were rather insightful and skewed at the same time. Those were the types of people I grew up relating to, and those are the types of people I love to play. You loved those people growing up anyway and you couldn’t discern between what was functional and what was dysfunctional. Those were the people that were there and that gave you the time and you’re going to love them.
So sometimes it’s easier to take advice from someone that you feel has walked a similar walk to you rather than taking information from someone that you feel has no connection to your roots. And it’s one of the reasons that Tijuana Jackson was a great way to go: You’re looking at a heavily flawed character not just telling you what you’ve got to do, but telling you what he has to do, too. So you’re in it together and there’s way less judgment, much more empathy. That’s what the fuck people relate to and that’s the demographic I’m seeking. Another reason is that a lot of stuff that T.J. says, if I said that, for real, shit… it’s just hilarious. If I use a curse word on Twitter, I lose 50 followers.
Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story (2001), “M.C. Hammer”
AVC: Did your background as a rapper help open a door to this role?
RM: It did. It did. I broke my ankle on the first day of that job, so I didn’t really get to dance the way that I wanted to, but what it did do was—I was with an agency and I had just gotten new management. The management was big and the agency was small, and didn’t want me to get with the big management, so the agency was sending me out for the role of Tupac. And they liked me and they were going to pay me $2,500 to do it, but the management was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?! You’re going for the lead! You’re playing Hammer, bro!” It had never crossed my mind. It had never. Crossed. My mind. And, sure enough, I went out there and auditioned for it and there were a bunch of guys auditioning for it and I was the first person to audition and they said, “Wow! This is going to be exciting.” After that audition, they called me back and said, “Let’s talk about availability” and the pay scale was completely different. And I got to hang out with Hammer, ended up dating a really cool chick for a while. That was a fun job.
AVC: Now that it looks like a Tupac biopic might be a reality, you may still have a chance to play that role as well.
RM: I don’t know, I think the Tupac that they’re portraying is much younger than me. I really, really wanted to play Tupac because I just believe, I’m telling to you, dude, I’d really give you something consider. I’m being real; I really believe I have an understanding of Tupac’s existence that’s unique to a lot of people, but if it’s meant to be, it will be. We’ll see.