Richmond-area native Corey Reynolds will receive the third Virginia Excellence in Theatre award during Virginia Repertory Theatre's “Anything Goes Gala” on Saturday.
He had been scheduled to appear at the gala, but due to a conflict, will instead accept the award via video. We talked by phone last week about his experience in Chesterfield County schools, his recent work in "Selma" and "Straight Outta Compton" — and the latter film's perceived Oscar snub —plus a new project he has up his sleeve.
The Virginia Rep honor is a benchmark for the actor who received nominations for Tony and Drama Desk Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical awards for his Broadway work and five for the Screen Actors Guild award. When I spoke with him by phone, he chuckled in recalling that he has not received that many of these kinds of recognitions. He says in his rich timbre voice, “I was Security Officer of the Year in 1995 at Paramount’s Kings Dominion.”
He got into park security after performing in several of the amusement park’s music reviews: "Rock On" (1992), "Rock the House" (1993) and "Dancing in the Streets" (1994). But after Paramount acquired the park, the stage shows received cuts. He liked the summer job, though, because in the fall and winter, he performed on cruise ships. That, too, was a globe-girdling educational experience. He recalls getting asked by passengers, ‘Have you ever thought of doing this for a living?’ Reynolds laughs big.
Kings Dominion supervisor Hezy Braxton sent Reynolds into the park with a uniform and radio to keep an eye on things. “I was the king of lost children,” Reynolds says. “I found them, got them back with their parents or whoever brought them. Because I think like a kid. So, you know, a door closes and another opens.”
One of his colleagues told him that if the entertainment didn’t work out for Reynolds, maybe he’d consider a role in law enforcement. He has several police officers in his extended family, thus it made some kind of sense. At one point between traveling in shows, he became a security guard working the graveyard shift at Caesar’s Palace in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. “Oh, the things you can see at a casino at 3 a.m. working security,” he says, chuckling. “But there’s a big difference between private security and uniformed police work.”
Show business proved more connected to his talents. For seven years, he played Sgt. David Gabriel in TNT’s 'The Closer,' opposite Kyra Sedgwick. Before landing the role, Reynolds had already auditioned for six television pilots. There wasn’t any indication that this one would go any better than the others.
The contrast between auditions in the two entertainment cities is profound. “In New York, if you’re willing to wait, stand in line, your resume can be put on a sheet of spiral notebook paper with a Polaroid attached for your headshot. If you get in the room and you have the goods, you've got a chance. In L.A., it’s more about the right manager, right agent, or lawyer, or connection. There are no open calls. There’s a gate keeper, so it’s a little more challenging for someone who may come out here without much experience.”
Auditioning for a Los Angeles-based television series is a several-step process, involving callbacks with the director, a studio test and a network test. Warner Bros. executive Peter Roth attended the latter. Roth was looking at Reynolds’ headshot when he entered. “He told me, ‘You were my daughter’s favorite character in "Hairspray" and I have the cast CD in my car.’ Which he then went to get and had me sign. So I thought: This is going pretty well.” He auditioned and shortly after arriving home, was summoned back and told, “Make the character a little more …,” and Reynolds supplied the word “charming.” So he turned on some of that Richmond charm, and got the role.
Reynolds found his talent as a way out of difficult circumstances. He self-emancipated from his mother at age 16, which meant he left home to live on his own. “I was not the most disciplined of students,” he recalls. He received frequent suspensions for reacting to racial slurs hurled at him. Yet at Monacan High School, he found his way into theater. He credits that school’s assistant principal, Kent Walker, as acting as his guardian angel. “He understood that there was something to me, maybe something I didn’t see in myself. It wasn’t about looking at me as a troubled kid, but a person who was going through some stuff.”
Another impetus came a different way. Reynolds wanted to sing solo in Monacan’s show choir. The school’s music director, Dwight W. Graham, brought Reynolds into his office to tell him, "Corey, you don’t have solo talent." Reynolds then left Monacan for Manchester High, “and we kicked Monacan’s butt in every concert,” he says, with a laugh. “Mr. Graham made me step up by questioning my abilities.”
Coincidentally, assistant principal Walker transferred to Manchester, too. “He was patient and compassionate. Doesn’t mean he didn’t discipline me if I needed it.”
Reynolds' only training, aside from on-the-job experience, was in public school arts programs that are often the first programs cut when budgets are tightened. He considers himself blessed because at the time he attended Robious Middle and Monacan, there were high quality music and theater departments that started the engine that propelled his professional life.
“The arts are a refuge for people’s creativity and it was a game changer in my life. I don’t want to say I wouldn’t be somewhere positive if I hadn’t gone on this path that allowed me to chase my dreams. But it’s worked. To receive support from strangers, and people who didn’t have any reason to, that made all the difference.”
During the mid-1990s, Reynolds toured the world in the road versions of "Smokey Joe’s Café" and "Saturday Night Fever." And that to getting cast as Seaweed in the Broadway version of "Hairspray."
Reynolds made a little confession. “I’m actually not a huge fan of musical theater. But I left the rehearsal hall singing the tunes. And I knew if I liked it, then my friends who watched 'South Park' and [stuff] like that would like it, too.”
"Hairspray" started as an ensemble and two years of workshops. Marc Shaiman, who adapted the John Waters film for stage, picked Reynolds for the part. The offer and being able to perform with Kerry Butler made him choose to turn down another offer – joining the first "Lion King" tour. “For me it was a no-brainer,” he says.
The show received 13 Tony nominations. And Waters once made Christmas gifts for the cast, glass ornaments with cockroaches in them. “Man, I loved him,” Reynolds enthuses. “Great energy and so [incredibly] smart.”
Steven Spielberg attended the show and ultimately cast Reynolds as Waylin, a security officer in "The Terminal," starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Reynolds broke audition protocol for "Selma" when he, in an emotional manner, told director Ava DuVernay how important for him it was to get in the film. He was cast as civil rights activist and minister C.T. Vivian. The role was a tremendous responsibility and gave Reynolds a profound insight, supplied by Vivian. “He said that this wasn’t a race problem, but a humanity problem. No man can desecrate a man without damaging himself. The root case of the fear in the white community then was that whites would get treated the way they treated blacks.”
Equality, Reynolds says, is what makes America a superpower, its ability to embrace other cultures. “This isn’t about 'tolerance,' but empathy and acceptance. We’re all part of the same team. All too often we marginalize people to our own detriment. I mean, come on. We have a truck driving around on Mars. We sent Voyager out of the solar system. There’s a unity that can be so powerful in America. And we bridge gaps not by yelling at each other but if we just simply listen. There’s enormous strength in empathy.”
Reynolds also played club owner and music promoter Alonzo Williams in 'Straight Outta Compton,' the origin story of the hip-hop group N.W.A. Williams thought Reynolds nailed the portrayal except for wearing platform heels. “I have a whole new respect for women,” Reynolds says. “My pinky toe went numb for a week.” Another challenge was playing Williams, at first, not liking what he was hearing. “In truth, off camera, I was rocking to it, but I had to act like I hated it when I loved it.”
The film garnered piles of nominations for various honors, including its (white) screenwriters for an Academy Award. The lack of minority representation in the Academy’s choices has spurred controversy and calls for boycotts.
Reynolds observes that there were complaints about the Academy snubbing "Selma" in 2015, though John Legend and Common's “Glory” won for best song. “Here’s my thing. I think being up in arms about the nominations is too late. I think that real issue becomes that people of color only have a couple of films we can hang our hopes on every year. There aren’t enough projects to find enough nominees.”
Rather than not go, attending the ceremony, as Reynolds sees it, throws more light on the problem. The viewing audience is looking for people they recognize.
Four films could’ve been considered this year, and to have them almost entirely overlooked is, to Reynolds, “egregious.” He notes, "The cultural swath across the board isn’t recognized. There’s not been an Asian honoree since Pat Morita [nominated for 1984's 'The Karate Kid'] or 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' picked up several honors in 2001. The Academy is largely white and male. Prominent black directors can’t get films green-lit because the studios say they can’t generate enough foreign market sales.”
Reynolds has long been interested in writing. He’s working on a piece called "Meeting John Doe," inspired by an event in the life of a Monacan classmate. "He gave a stranger a ride home and it [screwed] up his life for months. It’s terrible but hilarious.” Former colleague on "The Closer," and Oscar honoree JK Simmons is attached to the script, with another name that Reynolds can’t right now divulge pending a decision.
“Now it’s an issue of securing financing.” If the film gets backing, he’ll direct himself as part of the cast. He lowers and roughens his voice to imitate a Hollywood wheeler-dealer, “ 'Never use your own money.’ But if this person comes through, we may get a shot at it.”