“Learn what you are as an artist, what your brand is and what you really want. Instead of letting the industry dictate it for you.” – Chris Chalk
I remember watching Chris Chalk in Fences on Broadway a few years ago. His performance really stood out and that was no easy task because he was acting opposite true powerhouses, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Since then, his career has blossomed, starring in shows like Newsroom and Homeland. Now, he’s moved into the Dark Knight’s neighborhood of Gotham, playing Lucius Fox, the man who will eventually supply Batman with his gadgets and weapons.
I talked to Chalk recently about Gotham and playing Lucius Fox, his miserably wet experience filming an episode of Law & Order:SVU and why he’s giving back to younger actors.
Gotham has got to be a blast to work on. Were you a big comic book fan growing up?
Chris Chalk: Loved comics growing up. I was a big Batman fan, huge X-Men fan. I’m more of a Marvel guy, so I was big into X-Men and Wolverine. But Batman was always that one DC character where I was like, ‘Let me go see what he’s doing real quick. Let me check him out.’ So I was a huge Batman fan.
What was your audition like for the show? I’m sure you saw Morgan Freeman when he did older version of your character in the films. Did you have to erase them from your memory before you started working on the sides?
Chris Chalk: I actually didn’t audition. I auditioned the year before for a different character but because of reasons that were out of my control, I booked it but then I had to pass on it because of issues with other shows. And I was like, ‘Oh, that sucks. I’m not gonna be on Gotham and I really wanted to do that.’ And then it came back around a year later and they called and asked me if I wanted to do it.
But to speak to the Morgan Freeman question, I’m not gonna lie, you the only person that’s ever asked this question specifically. It was hard to get him out of my head. My very first day of work, I was very much like, ‘I’m doing my own thing. It’s mine and I don’t have to honor him in any way because it’s separate stories.’ But every time I read the sides, I started hearing his voice. I was like, ‘No, no, no. It’s my thing!’ But it was really hard, I gotta say. It was probably two episodes of him in my head, I’m not gonna lie.
You guys shoot in New York. Were you living in New York before you got the show?
Chris Chalk: I lived in New York and then LA and this brought me back here. So I was in LA right before the show.
I’m an actor as well and my dream would just be to be a working actor in New York. TV, film, theater whatever. I think it’s got to be the best thing ever.
Chris Chalk: Well I’ll tell you what, it’s better working on TV and film in New York then theater. I worked in theater for 10 years and was like, ‘Man, I’m really hungry. Food cost money.’
But coming back especially, it’s a new filter to see New York through, working on a decently popular TV show and so it’s really nice. It’s really nice to work as an actor in New York. And work work, not like working at a hotel like I first started out doing.
Was working at a hotel your survival job?
Chris Chalk: Yeah, my first two years in New York… well, my first six months I was a little depressed. I don’t think I left the house. Like, literally, I don’t think I left the house because I was scared because coming from North Carolina it’s so much. I didn’t expect it to get to me so much.
And then I booked… I thought it was an audition. It was advertised in playbill.com, a job at the W New York Times Square. But for some reason, it was in Playbill so I was like, ‘I might as well go out for this job.’ And it ended up being work! But I was like, ‘I need a job anyway and I’m here.’ It was awesome money but it was hard on the spirit man.
Oh yeah, why is that?
Chris Chalk: Being a doorman in New York is tough because you’re outside constantly. I was the smallest doorman and I was out of my mind. Like, you start to get really territorial about the 5 feet in front of your hotel and it gets dangerous. I remember once a guy pulled a machete out on me.
Chris Chalk: A cab driver. I lost my mind, I’m not gonna lie. We were talking and I said, “Hey, hey poppy, you got a move. You gotta move your taxi,” because I was out of my mind and I was talking to people like that, which I would never do unless I was clocked in. And he was like, “I’m not gonna move.” And I said, “You gotta move brother, you gotta move.” And then I like threatened him and he said, “Okay, okay.” And he reaches down and grabs a machete and we are face to face. And I know if I turn around, I am done. But I was like, “Police!” And the security came and separated us and they were like, “You better leave Chris alone!” But then when the taxi driver was gone he was like, “Chris, you’re an idiot. You almost got killed! What are you doing?” And I was like, “I don’t know! Thank you so much! Thank you!”
It’s a weird job because the cops are your friends and so you kind of feeling invulnerable but you’re not. You’re just a dude in front of the hotel. You’re in a terribly vulnerable position as a doorman. It’s a tough gig.
With the craziest request a hotel patron asked you to do?
Chris Chalk: This guy wanted his tub filled with chocolate syrup. At the W, I don’t know if it still is, but it used to be whatever, whenever as long as it doesn’t break the law. So they filled up his tub with chocolate and it ruined the pipes.
How was it the day you quit? Was it liberating?
Chris Chalk: I got hurt, actually. I booked my first gig which was with the King Company. It’s an off-Broadway theater company now but back then it was an off-off-Broadway theater company and I had like eight lines. $50 for eight weeks of work. And so I took that job and then I booked Law & Order: SVU. And then I got hurt picking up this Dora the Explorer bag which was really heavy and I was like, ‘That’s my body saying you got to get out of his job. You’re miserable.’ And I was miserable. I was huge, 261 pounds. I was sad but I was making so much money that was hard to say no.
I read a great story about you and I think it might be the same Law & Order, but you lied and said that you knew how to kayak?
Chris Chalk: Oh God, what a dummy. I was younger so I didn’t really pay attention to everything, like the details. So I was at the audition and I killed it. I slammed it. And I even knew I was good. It was one of those moments you see outside of yourself, you know, like ‘Who is that dude killing it?’ And then I leave and a producer literally runs out and goes, “Chris, can you kayak?” And I’m not a liar, I do my best never to lie. And I turn around and say, “I’m from North Carolina.” Which means nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. But he took it to mean, which is what I intended, like of course I can kayak. I can’t even swim.
And so on the day of what was supposed to take probably two hours of the schedule, it took six because I thought I was gonna die. It was February, they didn’t give us gloves. There are so many reasons that it took long but most of it was because I was terrible because I was petrified the entire time. And they didn’t call me for six years.
I can kayak but being in New York in the water in February, I’d be scared too. And cold.
Chris Chalk: Oh my God, it was so scary. I mean, I can canoe because I like to test fate. I white water raft, I canoe. But you got on life vests and, you know, you’re not gonna die but something about that freezing cold water. I was like, ‘If I go in this, it’s over. It’s done.’
It was a miserable, miserable thing but I really wish I hadn’t stretch that truth because they literally wouldn’t call me for six years. That’s what I heard from them again. I got back in and I did another SVU. I was like, ‘Yes, I’m back!’ I auditioned and I booked it probably because I was like, ‘Okay, I gotta prove that I’m not some jerk who just says I’m from North Carolina all the time.’
On Gotham, you probably don’t work that many days in a week because it’s such a huge cast.
Chris Chalk: Huge cast, yeah. I don’t work that many days. I mean, there’s some episodes where I work a bunch but the good thing about Gotham is that they’ve been really generous, like insanely generous. They let me go do other shows. Like, I’m recurring guest star on The Underground and went and shot a film a little bit ago and so they are really good about letting the actors go when there’s time as long as it doesn’t conflict. It has to not conflict in any way but they are really generous. Because a lot of shows are like, ‘No we own you and I’ll set you on the bench’ even if they’re not using you. Whereas Gotham, Warner Bros., FOX and Gotham producers are really kind about letting people, when there’s time, go out and do another gig and come back. That’s why I think everyone is so happy to be there because everybody there is just so generous.
So on your off time, are you auditioning and working other projects?
Chris Chalk: I work on other projects. It’s not that many auditions because most people don’t want to deal with my schedule because Gotham owns me for nine months out of the year so I usually audition closer to the end of the season. But yeah, there’s a short film I’m going to be doing in the end of October, I’m gonna film my own short film at the end of November and there’s a project I wrote that I want to get produced on a larger scale but I can’t quite afford by myself, by a long shot.
I coach actors because I think it’s important. I love to do that. I know coming up in acting school there’s so much I didn’t know that they should have been teaching where it’s like the teachers aren’t in the business so they don’t know. They don’t know the ins and outs of the stuff that’s really easy to avoid and most of its mindset stuff. They teach us as artists, you too, I’m sure, you’re lucky if you make it. Whereas that’s not completely true, if you change your mindset and you really focus on what you want… it’s not the easiest job in the world but there’s so much out there today that there’s enough jobs for everybody. Every mouth can be fed if you kind of learn what you are as an artist, what your brand is and what you really want. Instead of letting the industry dictate it for you. Because it’s tough to let the industry dictate because then you’ll end up anywhere but if you can start to kind of control it and take risks on yourself, those of the people that end up working.
That’s so true. I wish I was taught that years ago.
Chris Chalk: And they don’t teach it. It’s like they teach you fear, they teach you to be afraid. “Get that waiter job.” What you should be telling me is how to get that acting job, not a waiter job. Like they teach you how to not succeed as opposed to giving you 10 or 20 options of how you personally can succeed. Because yours is going to be different from mine, it’s gonna be different from my lady. That’s the thing there’s so many variables in our industry but everybody who trains and really has a passion for this will find a place.
Voiceovers, for example, pay way more than I make, you know what I mean? And that’s using the same acting skills. Books on tape, commercials, promos, there’s so many ways to make money using your creative side. The teachers, I feel like they limit you a lot. And I don’t mean to be mean but they’re just thinking in a very small box. So I like to go in teach in various universities. I go back to my school, I teach to students here New York when I have free time just to help people’s mindset. I do my best to avoid fear mindset.
I saw you in Fences on Broadway. Man, that was such a great show. I think working with Viola Davis alone I’d get completely nervous but then you add Denzel Washington into that mix, I think the first couple weeks I’d be a bundle of nerves.
Chris Chalk: But, you know what, you wouldn’t though because I can tell you work hard and you come in and once you book a job you know you deserve to be there. It’s not like everybody’s waiting to go, “Well, you know, he’s gonna mess it up.” And the good thing about that show, especially for me coming up, was that I worked really hard, I treat acting like a blue-collar job. I think you should work on an 8 to 10 hours a day if you can. I know you can’t always do it but do your best to always be sharpening your tools and so when you have actual work that I’m being paid for, I’m working really hard.
Then Denzel came in with a bunch of work, Stephen McKinley, Viola, even the kids. Everybody was working so hard that I was like, ‘Oh, I’m at home. This is just people who are more recognizable but everybody here is bringing it to the table every day.’ That’s what you really want. And that’s a little encourager along the way. When you’re like, ‘All the people at the top are doing exactly what I’m doing, they’ve just been doing it longer and they been practicing it longer than me. So I just have to keep practicing but I still deserve to be in this room.’
I would think working with them every night or watching them in rehearsal, that’s gotta be the best gift an actor can get.
Chris Chalk: Particularly Viola Davis. Watching her, she’s so vulnerable man and that’s what I’m into. She just brings it and there’s not a day when she’s holding back ever. I did a movie with her later on because were good friends, her and her husband produced this movie and I was in it, and it’s still like even on-set, every take, whether the camera was on her not, she’s giving you every single thing she can. And that’s the lesson right there. You can be top-tier elite at your craft, be popular and still be generous. I think that is everything. I think that generosity she has is everything. I’ve worked with people who left on my coverage. On a TV show, they left and I had to do it with their stand-in who is 3 or 4 feet shorter than them and so I had to do it to an imaginary eye-line. And that doesn’t happen often luckily because I work on really good stuff where people are really honoring the text. But it happens where people get caught up in celebrity and fame and I’m like, ‘If we don’t do to a good job, we disappear.’
What was your worst audition ever?
Chris Chalk: Oh, worst audition was for Boardwalk Empire, easy. I went in and I just misread the character. I thought Chalky White was a little more like broken, so I came in in like a tight tank top and I was a little brutish and then I saw all the people in the waiting room and they were like in zoot suits looking fly and then I re-read my sides and I saw it said ‘dressed in zoot suit, looking fly’ and I went, ‘Oh no.’
So I walked in the room and I’m not a liar but I was so panicked and I made up this whole story that I was pooped on by a pigeon. I said, “A pigeon pooped on my suit.” And Ellen [Lewis, casting director] just kind of looked at me like, ‘I didn’t ask.’ No one asked me why I looked like an idiot. No one thought I looked like an idiot. I came in there and ratted myself out and obviously didn’t get a call back because I made up some dumb pigeon story.
GOTHAM air on Mondays at 8pm on FOX