Photo by Jordan Matter
Before landing a meaty role on the HBO hit series The Wire, Richmond-born actor Chad L. Coleman had already racked up some acting credits in television, including parts in Law & Order and the soap Guiding Light and the role of O.J. Simpson in the TV film Monday Night Mayhem. Recently, he made his first blockbuster appearance in The Green Hornet, and last year, he finished work on another movie, the yet-to-be-released Horrible Bosses, which is packed with top-list names like Jason Bateman, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey. As children, Coleman and his siblings survived some tumult and ended up in foster care. It was on stage where Coleman eventually found himself at home. He tells how his teachers in the Richmond Public Schools helped him find the way.
Q: From all accounts it appears that you've been hopping back and forth between coasts. Where are you now?
A: I am back on the West Coast now. I was just in Richmond working in tandem with the fathers/daughters dance and working in tandem with Camp Diva and Angela Patton and her amazing self. So, my daughter [SaCha Stewart-Coleman] and I were in Richmond, and then I had to take her back to New York because she had rehearsal.
You know, she's doing her thing on Broadway with Denzel [Washington in August Wilson's Fences, which opened in April 2010 at the Cort Theater]. Yeah, her first professional audition she books a Broadway show with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. OK? [Laughs.] That's how easy it is for her, OK?
I made my Broadway debut last year . I started in '89, I've been in the business for 21 years, and I made my Broadway debut in an August Wilson revival called Joe Turner's Come and Gone. That's the one that the president came to. That was his date night. Now, a year later SaCha is making her Broadway debut in an August Wilson revival of Fences. So, we're a trivia question. There's no father-daughter thespians who made their Broadway debuts in back-to-back August Wilson revivals during the 2009-2010 Broadway season.
Q: Your bio says you were born and raised in Richmond but not much more than that. What was your life like here as a younger man?
A: First and foremost, I grew up in a foster home. Myself, two older older brothers and two older sisters. My brothers were 7 and 6. My sisters were 4 and 3. And then there was me at 11 months old.
So, through unfortunate circumstances we ended up in … were we in Creighton Court? What's the project that's right off from Armstrong High School? [Fairfield Court -ed.] That's where we were, and my brother tried to cook for us. And he set the daggone place on fire. So, the people came in to grab us and they find five kids.
Yeah, so, we end up in the foster care system and George and Lottie Byrd took five of us, took us all. They were raising their real grandson, Tony Byrd. So, they were raising him, and they just wanted to have another little boy. You know, someone for him to play with. And they were like, "OK, we'll just go over here and adopt one kid." Well, when she got there the woman in foster care was like, "You've gotta see these five kids. You have to see them."
So, she saw them and went home and told George about it. He was like, "Bring ‘em on, Lottie. We'll raise them." And so that's how it all started for me. These people were like our grandparents. They were hard-working, and they were instilling values in us. And it's all really cool. I get into the school system, and I think that all my teachers knew what my situation was. And they were all incredibly encouraging of me. They all made me believe you can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it.
Then I had this amazing experience in school, and my first introduction to acting was a Thanksgiving play at George Mason [Elementary]. I was in third grade. And I had one line. [Laughs.] According to my teachers and what was told to me — they'll talk about it to this day — they were like, "Oh, my God. We could hear every word he said." I had a very big voice, and all I said was, "I have two drumsticks!" [Laughs.] But they said they saw the talent right then and there.
But I was always very popular and, you know, always involved in whatever activities were going on. Once I was in high school at John F. Kennedy, my buddy — as it would be — was the top acting guy. And he said to me, "Chad, you should do it." And I was like, "Acting? What is acting? How do you act?" But at the same time, I would always watch plays and go, "That's not real. I don't believe that." I had an internal voice that was already there.
As far as interpreting the written word, I was reading Dr. Seuss in the fourth grade so well that they called the assistant principal to come and watch me read it. So it was stuff like that was going on all the time. Finally, I became a part of the all-city theatrical company, which was a program that was designed to take all the best from all the high schools, bring us together and produce shows.
At that time, I was living in South Side because my foster parents — I was 12 years old — said, "We're going to move to Boston. Do you want to go?" That was such a crucial time in my life and because they gave me the option, I said no. Because the things that were influencing me — friends, community, my brothers and sisters — I decided, no, I'm going to live here. We went to live with our maternal grandmother in South Side, but I was being bused into that program, which happened to be two blocks from where I grew up.
It was pretty amazing. We did some beautiful productions. We did Wonderful Town, Damn Yankees, Hallelujah Baby. Our teacher, Robert Pemberton, had spent two years in New York at American Academy of Dramatic Arts. So he had this sense of New York that most people didn't have, and he was fierce with us.
It wasn't like, "We're going to do a cute little production." It was like, "No, this is professional. If you are going to do it, you are going to have give everything you've got." That's when I really locked in and knew what it's really what I wanted to do. And that started in my sophomore year in high school.
Q: You were just a kid, but there must have been something that allured you.
A: Oh, yeah, I loved language — I didn't know it, but I did. I was the guy that we would get Scholastic magazine, and in the back was the play. And we would read it in class, but I was the only one that would do it, like, for real. [Laughs.]
I always say God made me an actor. I didn't do it because I can't explain anywhere else that it came from. With all of that tumultuous background I had, there was a place to put it, you know? It served me well.
Q: What's the best thing you remember about Richmond?
A: My teachers. They encouraged me. They made me feel special. They told me I could do anything I wanted to do. They were facilitators of my dream.
Q: What's the toughest thing?
A: Growing up in the ‘hood. It was a crabs-in-the-barrel mentality. That was the hardest part. There were always people who were trying to snuff out whatever it was you thought you had. They were going to take it from you. It was like, "Wow. Wow, why are people so mean?" I was constantly getting accosted, because I was little, but I had a big mouth. [Laughs.] We'd go to the boys club and somebody just thinks it's funny to throw ice at your head.
I'm telling you graphically because this is exactly the way it happened. I got on the school bus and the baddest bully looks over at me and says to the other bully, "Tommy, smash that n---ger's head in the glass." And so I'm like, "OK, Chad, prepare for impact." And the gods were with me, because Tommy said, "Nah, man, that's my friend." But that's the weird stuff they would do. On any given day, you just didn't know how it was going to play out. It was like being under siege. I kid you not, no exaggerations.
Then, when I'd beat somebody, they'd come up to me and say, "Yo, I wanted to fight you. I wanted to kick your ass. But I don't want to fight you now. You can fight."
As hard as Baltimore is, Richmond is just as hard, when it comes down to that aspect and element of it.
Q: One of your biggest projects in recent years was your recurring role as Dennis "Cutty" Wise on the HBO series The Wire, which ran from 2002 to 2007. Has that role opened other doors for you?
A: Yes. The Green Hornet with Seth Rogen. It's one of those big Hollywood blockbusters — and my first. I know that happened because Seth Rogen's a huge fan of The Wire. When I met him, that's how he presented himself, that he really loves my work. So, yeah, those dots are connecting. I was in an episode of the [USA] show In Plain Sight, where I played Ricky Dumont, a boxer who has pugilistic dementia. It's just the most compelling, heartbreaking, beautiful— ah, just the most amazing stuff they put on the page and I was able to actualize.
Q: You were on board for a role in Boldly Going Nowhere, a project from the same team that writes It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, but it seems the project hit a snag. Is there any hope that it will resurface?
A: I don't know, really. I can only say that 20th Century Fox and Fox network are definitely fans of mine now because they saw that. I almost had a Ron Howard sitcom called The IRS, but they went with Mike Epps. And Mike Epps is amazing, too, so I can't knock him out of the box. But I'm definitely in the right neighborhood.
Q: You've done work on stage, on TV and for film projects — which is your favorite medium to work in?
A: All of the above. The thing is the application. It doesn't matter what the medium is. It's the ability to be able to express yourself through this thing we call active. I love all the mediums. The nearest and dearest and the most laborious is the stage. That's how I was introduced to [acting], so that's always going to be really near and dear to me. But then you get into all of these economics. [Laughs.] That becomes a part of the whole scheme when you're dealing with raising a child and all of that good stuff.
Q: As you were working on an August Wilson play last year, you told a theater critic that you were cast as Cutty in The Wire because, "I looked like I was tough enough to kill somebody, and I could play vulnerability." What personal experience do you draw on for those two aspects of your character?
A: The real deal for me is that with acting I don't have to have the experience to actuate what's on the page. My vessel is just open enough. There is no thought or emotion that is foreign to me. But in the past, I would think about my foster parents. … At that time I had a wealth of tangible, real, hot stuff in my life what would prick certain emotions. Look, there it is as intellectual property. It's just a matter of you surrendering to it.
Q: You play a bad guy named Chili in The Green Hornet. The film has a pretty eclectic cast. Who did you find yourself most impressed with?
A: It would have to be Seth Rogen. He is one of the most real individuals I have ever met in my life. He's a generous, real, kind person.
I worked closely with Christoph Waltz [2010 Academy Award winner for his supporting role in Inglourious Basterds ]. He's a very fine actor. But there's that German thing, you know. [ Laughs. ] It was like pulling teeth to reach him, to get him to open up. He was always off in his own head.