Malik Yoba (Courtesy: Fox)

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: Malik Yoba’s career bolted out of the gate, so to speak, with his appearance opposite John Candy in the Disney hit Cool Runnings. That film helped launch Yoba’s television career, including a five-year stint on Dick Wolf’s New York Undercover, a cop drama set in Yoba’s old Harlem stomping ground. Since then, Yoba has worked steadily, racking up film and television credits. Most recently, he was a cast regular on Empire, one of the biggest television successes in recent history, but his character was killed off at the end of the first season.

Cool Runnings (1993)—“Yul Brenner”

The A.V. Club: It’s amazing that this was your first acting gig.

Malik Yoba: Yeah, the whole experience was great. Going to an open call, doing some improv, and two months later getting a call from Disney saying, “Can you fly to L.A. tomorrow to screen test?” And I didn’t have an agent, didn’t have a head shot, and I wasn’t necessarily pursuing acting parts but I would hear about auditions. Just growing up in New York City and being around the theater community and the music community, you hear about things. I found out about the open call, went to it, and two months later, I got the call. For me, Cool Runnings was amazing because I always wanted to bobsled and go to the Olympics. So that was a trip, in terms of creative visualization and manifesting your vision.

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Law And Order (1994)—“Pat Williams”
New York Undercover (1994-99)—“Detective James ‘J.C.’ Williams”

AVC: You were cast in two Dick Wolf productions back-to-back. How did that come together?

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MY: I got an audition to go in for Law And Order, and it was for a role of a thug character. When I got to the casting, there was a young lady there named Gabrielle, who used to be in a youth organization I was the vice president of the time called CityKids. She was one of the original kids in that group. She worked at casting and she was like, “They brought you in for this role but why don’t you read for this one?” The one she suggested I read for was the one I ultimately got, which was the main guest role in the episode. While I was shooting that episode, they were starting to cast New York Undercover, so I got an audition for that. The same casting director who originally cast me in Cool Runnings, Jaki Brown, was casting New York Undercover, and she thought I was right for it. So I literally took a break for lunch while shooting Law And Order, went into one of the producers’ office to have my audition for New York Undercover, then went back to work.

AVC: Was that the only audition? It came together that quickly?

MY: I did that, and then there was definitely a screen test, and I had to fly to L.A. for that. And then once I got it, I remember being in L.A. working on some other things and being asked to fly to New York to read with different actresses for it. Dick used to talk about some other actor that he wanted to play the role but the dude was busy in Mexico doing something.

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AVC: Who was that?

MY: I have no idea, I never knew who it was. It was the beginning of my career and I just assumed it was a big name.

AVC: New York Undercover takes place in Harlem. As someone who grew up in there, did you ever have notes on scripts given how important it was to capture to vibe of the neighborhood?

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MY: No, because New York Undercover had real New Yorkers writing for it. Like, Reggie Rock Bythewood is from the Bronx, and we knew each other before we did that show. We were part of a creative community in New York of writers, actors, and directors working and supporting each other. So there weren’t a whole lot of notes from me. It’s hard to recall and I’m sure there were tweaks I made along the way. But we had a lot of freedom and the reason it’s hard to recall is because we had freedom to tweak those things on the set.

AVC: That show went through quite a bit of retooling and cast shuffling, and ultimately you were the only actor to appear on all of the episodes. Does that kind of upheaval affect your process or how you approach the work?

MY: It depends. In my career I’ve watched cast mates be killed off, people be replaced, people be added, I’ve replaced people, and most recently, I got killed off of a show, which is the first time that’s happened. So I’ve seen it from a lot of different perspectives. It didn’t affect the work but it affected the way I approach my career. At the end of the day, if you are an actor, you definitely know that you’re just work-for-hire. So for me, the goal has always been about producing and directing and ownership. Part of rolling with the punches is making sure you have the other aspects of your business life in order so you can make moves if you need to, so that’s how it affected my process.

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Empire (2015)—“Vernon Turner”

AVC: You came aboard Empire because you’re a big Lee Daniels fan.

MY: Yeah, it was definitely the opportunity to work with Lee, and also his sister, Leah [Daniels-Butler], was part of the team that casted me in Cool Runnings. I ran into Leah on the Fox lot and she said, “You have an appointment on Wednesday to meet my brother about the new series.” And I was like, “Word?” She said “Yeah, I just sent the email to your agent.” So it was a good opportunity to work with Lee and to be a part of television history.

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AVC: To be honest, it seemed like the writers didn’t quite know what to do with Vernon. I was waiting for the big Vernon moment, and then he got killed.

MY: Oh yeah, definitely.

AVC: How did you find out you were being killed off?

MY: Lee called and told me. We were filming the season, we were on the 11th episode, 11 of 12, and I got the call. I had another two or three weeks on the set at that point.

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AVC: What’s your fondest memory of being on Empire?

MY: Probably the moment that Lee apologized for asking me to audition.

AVC: Say more about that.

MY: We were just having a conversation, and he said, “You’ve been in this business for all of these years, how do you still put yourself through this process of auditioning?” He said, “They’re making me do this. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t make you go through this process. I know you. I know your work.” I said, “I wish I could record you saying this right now.” But of course he wouldn’t let me do it.

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Cop Land (1997)—“Detective Carson”

MY: One of my fondest memories at that point of my career was being on set in a scene with De Niro and Stallone. It was amazing to be there with those two dudes doing that scene. But with De Niro, the way he approaches the work, it’s similar to the way I approach the work, and I remember feeling kind of affirmed when I would see him approach something the way I would. It was an interesting time in my career and an interesting time to have that experience.

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AVC: What were the similarities between your approach and De Niro’s?

MY: I think just the specificity of certain things, as I recall. The way he asked the director questions, stuff like, “Do you want this prop in my left hand or my right hand?” There’s a certain deference you give to the director, and his approach was similar in that way. His approach was organic. Some people are more cerebral, some are intuitive, and the way he thought about and approached things was similar to mine and that let me know I was doing the right things.

Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? (2007); Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010)—“Gavin”

MY: A lot of the cast knew each other before the films. So on the first film, it was like going to camp with folks you’ve known. We went to Vancouver for the first one, and we were in the Bahamas for the second one. But it was good, Tyler made it easy. He was like, “Come do this movie with your friends,” so it was an easy decision.

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AVC: Is the dynamic on set different when you’re acting opposite the director?

MY: I haven’t done a lot of films or television with a director that’s acting in it, though I’ve been the person directing and acting in something. In his case, it’s his film, so he would improv a lot. I don’t have that much experience with it, but he was still a relatively young filmmaker at the time. He would definitely take a lot of liberties, but he can do that because it’s his film. He wrote it, he directed it, he produced it. It’s his sandbox and the rest of us were invited to play.

AVC: Was Tyler the only one doing improv and everyone else had to stick to the script? Or is he generally open to improv?

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MY: He definitely lets people improv, but he does it the most. I remember a scene we filmed on the beach in the second movie. He would go on these runs for a while, and he could do that because it’s his movie. But he’s a great director. I personally don’t prefer acting and directing in something because I don’t have the same objectivity. But directing is kind of like acting through other people. You see moments and you see things and if you don’t see the actors hit it, you paint in those little spaces and tell them what direction to go in. It’s possible to do both well.

Betty And Coretta (2013)—Martin Luther King Jr.

AVC: How intimidating was it to play Martin Luther King Jr., and how do you prepare for a role so many others have played before?

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MY: It definitely was an honor. At first I thought I shouldn’t do it because I’m physically a much larger man than he was, and that was the first thing I said to the casting director. But she thought I should do it, and I’m glad I did. I had about a month to listen to him speaking for hours at a time and saturate myself with his rhythms and his mannerisms. I based my performance not on his speeches, but on interviews of his that I found. I just let it seep into my pores. I recorded him and listened back. It was one of the great honors of my career.

AVC: When you’re preparing for a role based on a historical figure, how do you draw a distinction between accuracy and mimicry?

MY: I think from an acting perspective, it’s all about dropping into the truth. No matter what you are layering on top of the emotion and the thought process and the authenticity of any given moment, whether it’s body work, prosthetics, wardrobe, or whatever, it’s about getting to the truth and to the essence of that moment. I don’t deal in impersonations, and I can feel it when it’s headed in that direction. I was doing voiceover work for a documentary and it’s an interesting process when you’re acting just with your voice. You read some text and with the combination of intuition and experience, there’s a process of reading this text and knowing the difference between “That doesn’t feel right” and “I know I nailed that.” You just know. You get to the point where it sounds the most truthful.

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Other Plans (2014)—“Harold”

MY: I was happy to help my friend [director] Joe Eckardt out. I’ve known him since I was 17; he was a production assistant on New York Undercover. He’s been working on his directing thing for a minute, and he asked me to be in his directorial debut. I haven’t seen it yet, but Joe has and he said he loves it, so I’m excited to see it. I play a fairy godfather, sort of, in a film about a young woman who is convinced her life should look a certain way and I’m there to guide her and let her know God has other plans. It’s a sweet little film.

Arrested Development (2004)—“Ice”

AVC: Do Arrested Development fans ever approach you?

MY: They do. Man, people love that show. It’s amazing that people still come up to me. That show got me out of trouble with the police once. The cop was a huge fan of it. It was this young dude who looked like he was trying to be a racist cop. He was overzealous and young. I had a tail light out and I didn’t realize it. This was in New York. He was hyper-aggressive and ready to throw me in jail, but when he found out I was Ice on Arrested Development, everything changed. His entire demeanor changed. He went from being an asshole, super-aggressive cop to a superfan because of Arrested Development.

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AVC: He recognized you instantly?

MY: No, he went back to the car and Googled my name.

AVC: What was your experience like on that set?

MY: They were having a good time, man. People say they love that character, and people love that show, but to be honest I wanted to do something a little more outrageous because that show was so over the top. It wasn’t quite what I wanted from a character perspective, but it was fun. It was a cool gig and it’s nice to be part of a classic TV show.

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AVC: Do you wish more people would call and say “I have this outrageous thing for you?”

MY: I’m grateful that people call at all. The things I’m focused on now give me an opportunity to do that. I’m in a good place right now. The things I’m most excited about are projects I’m producing. But if a director I’d love to work with calls, I’m always game.

Raines (2007)—“Charlie Lincoln”
Justified (2010)—“Toby Griffin”

AVC: You got to work with a really great cast on Raines.

MY: Yeah, Jeff Goldblum has such a way with words, and how he expresses himself. Working with Jeff was cool. And that was one of those experiences we talked about where I replaced someone. Luis Guzmán was originally in that role and I replaced Luis.

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AVC: You worked on Raines with Graham Yost, who went on to do Justified. Is that how that gig came about?

MY: Yeah, I got a call to say “Hey, Graham’s doing a new show and we want you to come and play this role.” I said, “Thank you very much, let’s do it.”

That’s So Raven (2006)—“Judge”

AVC: How did you wind up doing That’s So Raven?

MY: How did that come about? That’s a good question. I feel like I was there one day visiting somebody on that set, and I was like, “I want to be on this show.” My kids were big fans of it, so I wanted to be on it and not tell them so they could be surprised when they saw it. It was fun. I was traveling when they saw it, but it was cute.

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