Malcolm Jamal Warner has been a fixture on our TVs for over 30 years now. He just completed a successful run as Lt. Chuck Cooper on TNT’s Major Crimes, a universe away from his breakout role of Theo Huxtable, and now there’s rumors of Lt. Cooper appearing in a Major Crimes spin-off. During our recent conversation with Malcolm we spoke about his current career plans, his passion for music, and a surprising influence on his acting style.
1. What do you think was the key to your role as Lt. Chuck Cooper on TNT’s Major Crimes connecting so well with the audience?
It’s always engaging to see someone who is good at what they do, be it a detective, barista, or a traffic cop. Cooper loves his job and is good at it. He also has an innate charm, which I didn’t actually notice until watching him for a few episodes. But hell, it took me 20 years to be far removed enough from Cosby to finally get why people loved Theo so much. So at least I’m catching up to speed quicker this time around!
2. There’s tons of rumors about Lt. Cooper being apart of a Major Crimes spin-off. Anything you can tell us about that?
(Laughs) Just that I hope the rumors are true. It’d be great to play Cooper on a regular basis. Plus, because single camera television is such a different field, I’d love to be able to use those muscles on the regular. I’m known for comedy, but Cosby was really my first comedic role, so I jump at the opportunity to do something other than sitcom. Don’t get me wrong, sitcom has been VERY good to me. It’s a different muscle and technique. And my journey is to have mastery enough of my craft that I can fire off any of the genre-required muscles at will without having them overlap in areas they don’t need to. Cooper is serious, but also has a level of wit that is very different from the comedic timing and energy that is needed on a sitcom.
3. What’s sort of research did you do in preparation to play a SIS (Special Investigation Section) supervisor on Major Crimes?
I didn’t get much preparation time for SIS specifically. I’ve interacted with police officers for other roles, but this one was pretty much one of those last minute audition, book the role, and show up to work in the next breath. I did get to spend some time on set with the real Chuck Cooper which was very enlightening. If a spin-off does happen, then I’m really looking forward to spending some time in the SIS world for research purposes. That will be very enriching.
4. You’ve been a household name since your breakout role on The Cosby Show, but most people might not know about your work as a Director. What’s the lure for you to get behind the camera?
Being acutely aware of the often tough transition from child actor to being taken seriously as an adult actor, I wanted to still be actively involved in the industry in my post Cosby life just in case the acting slowed down a bit. Being on a number 1 television show doesn’t guarantee acting work after that ride is over. My sights were always set on life after Cosby and my mother had impressed upon me the reality that any actor who has longevity in this business has dry spells every now and then so the plan was to always have a Plan B so I would never have to make desperate career choices during those dry spells. Plus, as an actor you’re only telling the story of your character. At some point you begin craving the opportunity to tell an entire story. Directing tends to be the next logical step for actors.
5. Did you ever turn down an acting opportunity that you later had regrets about?
I’m knocking on wood right now. No, I’ve not had that situation. And even now, after as long as I’ve been in this business there have only been two roles I went out for and didn’t get that I halfway wish I did. Denzel’s role in Glory, but after seeing it, I knew even at that age I never would have been able to bring to the table what he did. He deserved every Oscar vote he received for that. And most recently, Omar Epps role in ABC’s Resurrection. I loved the character when I was up for it and really dig how cool Omar plays him. I can’t wait for season 2.
6. What was the moment like when you realized that The Cosby Show had become a nationwide phenomenon?
What I remember most is my mother sitting me down and saying to me, “Baby, it’s great that this show has taken off the way it has, but you know how this business is. This show could be over next year. What are you going to do when it’s over?” I also remember critics-professional and otherwise-trying to pan the show for not being a realistic portrayal of black family life, but at the same time getting tens of thousands of letters from people whose parents were doctors and lawyers thanking us for finally representing them. At that point I knew it was more than just a funny sitcom; Mr. Cosby had us making a social statement without trying to make a social statement. That’s when the cultural significance hit me.
7. What advice would you give to younger actors on sustaining their careers?
Being hot right now-whether it’s being on a hot tv show, in a hot movie, or even having a hot song-is only temporary. Enjoy it, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture, which is to parlay that into a life long career. Think about how you want to see yourself 15, 20 years from now. Your being hot right now should be viewed as a stepping stone toward a life long career. Look at other aspects of your field, because being famous forever might not be your path. Your future and ultimate success may lie elsewhere. And also, whatever money you’re making now won’t necessarily sustain you for the rest of your life. It’s what you do with that money that will ensure a long financially successful future.
8. What TV shows influenced you as a young actor, and which shows of today are on your must see list?
“Benson.” And I know this is going to sound strange, but I’ll say it anyway. Cosby probably influenced me the most. Since Robert Guillaume’s underrated work on Benson, it was the first time I saw black people in a comedy series where the comedy wasn’t predicated on what was perceived as “black behavior.” Though I watched other black comedies growing up I never felt like I could relate. And trust, my upbringing was quite different from The Huxtables, but what I learned from Mr. Cosby and the success of that show was that black people could be funny without having to “act black.” I wasn’t able to put it into words as a kid, but the execution of the comedy of both of those shows had a definite impact on my comedic work. As far as my must see tv now…well, um…True Blood is my guilty pleasure. And House of Cards.
9. We know of your love for music, so what song title do you think captures the ethos of Malcolm-Jamal Warner?
Man, I’ve thought long and hard on that one. The song that keeps coming up is a song on my CD, “Love & Other Social Issues,” called “Running On Empty.” More so than just the title, the lyrics to the song completely captures the ethos of MJW. Though all of my writing is from my heart, even today when I hear that one I go, “Damn, I really meant and stand by every word of that song.”