One of Black television programming’s crown jewels is the Showtime series, Soul Food. Rockmond Dunbar played the devoted husband and father of three, Kenny Chadway. Despite its success, Soul Food was cancelled after five seasons in 2004. Since the cancellation, Dunbar hasn’t stopped working. He’s turned up on television dramas like The Closer, CSI: Miami, and Prison Break. Tyler Perry gave him a platform to further showcase his acting abilities in The Family That Preys.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Rockmond. What was supposed to be a super brief interview turned into a candid conversation about why he supports the gay community, his distaste for the term, “Black Hollywood,” and what inspires him.
We haven’t seen you in a while. What have you been doing with yourself?
I’m working on Sons of Anarchy. It’s in its fourth season on FX. It’s funny how I got the role. The creator of the show, Kurt Sutter worked with Shawn Ryan on The Shield. Shawn Ryan was the executive producer on The Chicago Code, which I had a small recurring role on. I wanted to audition for the new sheriff on Sons of Anarchy, but I was working on an independent film and couldn’t get to the audition. So Kurt called me and asked to meet with me at his office. He says to me, “I called Shawn Ryan and asked him if Rockmond Dunbar could do the job of playing the new sheriff. Shawn Ryan told me he f***ing loved you.” So Kurt offered me the role as the new sheriff on the spot and I reported to the set the very next day. All of our episodes have been airing to high numbers. I was supposed to do a ten episode arc, but it looks like I’ll be on there a little longer.
Do people still come up to you and talk to you about Soul Food?
Man, yeah. I get called by my character’s name all the time. People will scream, “Hey, Kenny!” when they see me. I’m not one of those actors who hates to be called by their character’s name. If that’s what you associate to, as a fan of the show, that’s fine. I know my real name. [laughs] That’s a character I never get down on people for calling me.
What inspires you?
You know, there are always really great moments that inspire me. Even if it’s a great moment of my dad saying that he’s not ready to retire. He goes into work and I look at him like, “Dude, you really need to retire.” He’s like, “Look, when I get to work, I feel good. I’m doing something. I’m making six figures. What do you want me to do? Sit home?” That’s a great moment. That inspires me to get up. If this guy, who’s over 70, can get up and do his job with a smile on his face and not want to quit, that inspires me.
A lot of the characters you’ve played have always been strong men. What made you take the role of a sexually confused man in Patrik-Ian Polk‘s film, Punks?
I was offered two roles at the same time. There was one role where I would have to play a struggling actor from Juliard who is working in a restaurant and he has these friends who are all struggling artists. Then, I get offered a role to play a guy who finds himself in love again after a difficult relationship, only it’s with another man. To me, that role was more challenging. I looked at it like, “I’m already an unemployed actor with unemployed actor friends. Let me try this film, Punks.”
To tell you the truth, Patrik-Ian Polk offered a lot of actors that part and nobody wanted to take it because they didn’t want to kiss a man. I’m heterosexual and comfortable in my own skin. I am an actor, first and foremost. I’m so glad I chose to do that film because even now the film stands the test of time. Punks isn’t forgotten like that other film that I didn’t do. Even if that film had Molly Ringwald in it, nobody remembers the name of that movie. People remember Punks thirteen years later.
What were some of the reactions to you playing that character in Punks?
I got a call from E. Lynn Harris and he invited me over to a dinner party. I didn’t know who he was at the time. I asked around and my friends told me I should go to the party because he is an incredible writer. I’m glad I went because it was the best Hollywood meeting I’ve ever had. He sat me down and said, “We love what you did with Punks. We love the movie. We loved how you portrayed the character. We know you’re not gay, but if you continue to do the work you’re doing– by representing the gay community in a positive light–we will always be here to support you.” That was big to me because I’ve never had anybody from Black Hollywood, White Hollywood, Chinese Hollywood, or anyone say that to me. So I will always support the gay community.
What are your feelings on Black Hollywood and White Hollywood not embracing black actors?
There’s a really awkward answer for that. Just recently I posted on Facebook, “There is no Black Hollywood!” After my 25 years of doing research and studying, I cannot find the CEO. I can’t find the president and there are no board members. There isn’t even a public service number I can call to get help as a black producer, actor, director. There is no Black Hollywood and I hate separatism. Let’s just cancel out the term “Black Hollywood.” We should just call them Hollywood actors and watch their films because they’re great, not because they’re black.
Some of my actor friends and I were talking about this and I was the only one who spoke from a place of honest hurt. I was hurt because I’ve played a prolific father of three and a devoted husband on the longest running drama. I’ve played a black heart surgeon on Heartland. I’ve played so many different characters that my career is diverse. But on Soul Food, it was our third NAACP nomination. I was walking the red carpet and a guy waved me over for an interview and asked, “How do you feel about being snubbed for the third year in a row?” I said, “What are you talking about? We’re nominated as a cast.” He said, “Yeah, the cast is nominated, but you are the only one who hasn’t been nominated in an individual acting category.” That question devastated me for years. It burned a little bit. Idris Elba was on the show and he said, “Man, I get nominated by NAACP for playing a drug dealer and you play a father and haven’t been nominated.” Gary Dourdan said the same thing. He thought I was going to get nominated and I didn’t.
So when you talk about White Hollywood accepting us, White Hollywood has accepted me. I have been on a number of shows where I have been the only black character. Sons of Anarchy is in its fourth season and didn’t have a main black character for the first three. You rarely see me in Jet Magazine, Ebony, and Essence. You rarely see me in black publications, but I’m a Goodwill Ambassador with diplomatic status for West Africa. So this whole notion of Black Hollywood existing, I haven’t felt it. Maybe I need to cut a rap album or something. [laughs]