Mark Christopher Lawrence has an incredible knack for stealing almost any scene that he’s in. Whether he’s got a couple of lines with Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness or yelling at Zachary Levi as Big Mike every week on Chuck – you always remember him.
And he’s not one to sit still and rest on his laurels. He does theater, stand-up, voice over, writing and producing.
He’s a truly multi-talented guy.
You’re currently starring in Chuck. The show has a rabid fan base. Do you get recognized a lot for that?
Yeah, pretty much everyday.
You were in for pilots the year you got Chuck, but Chuck was only a guest star role in that pilot.
So, was it just a gamble that you took when you got Chuck, that you auditioned for Chuck?
It was no real gamble, it was just one of the things that came across the plate that year. We auditioned for everything that came across. It just happened that Chuck was the only thing I got booked in.
Since it was only a guest star role, did you have a feeling that it could be moved up to a series regular?
No, I didn’t even read it. [LAUGHTER] I actually just read the sides because I was really concentrating on those other pilots, because they were series regular roles. I read the [sides]the night before I went in to audition, and just prepared to go in and get a job. Maybe because I was so relaxed, it wasn’t that important for me.
That happens a lot, when it’s not that important. Boom, you get it.
I think what happened is when you’re at that point—and not that you don’t care because you want to work—but when you’re at that point where it’s not that important, you have this sort of relaxed state that you walk into the room with. That was part of it, being really relaxed. The other was because you know what’s at stake before you go in and read for the network. Because they cut you a deal before you go in, so you know exactly how much money you will or will not get. So, I was just able to really relax and go in and have fun, and go out and concentrate on something else.
When people say they do it all, you seriously do it all. You’re not only an actor, you also do theatre and stand-up, and voice-overs, and write. Most people just stick to one thing or maybe two; how did you come to put your hands in everything, and not only that, but be successful at all of them?
I think part of it is just my drive to continue to work, to flow from one thing to the next. And then a lot of luck. The voice-over world is a really a hard nut to crack, and I literally work for the same people over and over again, the same 4 or 5 different producers. Once you’re in with some people that like what you do, they keep using you. That’s how that works. Then they will refer you to other people. So that’s what got the voice-over thing going. And the comedy, I started doing in high school. As an actor you just try to keep the ball rolling.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
People say that I used to say it in high school, that I would love to be on television. But I don’t remember saying that. I went to USC on a debate scholarship. I was using that to go to law school, and then it wasn’t until I changed majors and got into the Bachelors Fine Arts Acting program at USC that all of a sudden, “this has to work out.”
I think you said something like, “You don’t choose acting, acting chooses you.”
Yeah. If you just wake up one day and decide, “I think I’m going to be an actor,” what does that really mean? Until you have a taste of it, something inside you says, “Hey I’ve got to do this. This is calling me, it’s pulling me.” Because, clearly, at any point I could’ve went back and gone to law school. Especially in moments where nothing was going on, for a couple months at a time. But just that pull of the craft kept me going. I think that’s what that means. When people say you get bitten by the bug, and that’s what it is. It’s like you’re possessed.
Yeah, I know that possession. [LAUGHTER] You’re first professional job was Hill Street Blues, and you pretty much have been working non-stop from then on. How have you been able to maintain a career this long?
It’s just been a lot of luck. I had a couple years where I was having agency issues, and those were very slow years. But in those years I had a couple of great jobs.
Just being able to get the right team in place—like right now I think is the first time I’ve had all of the pieces in place to help me get to the next level. In terms of an agency that’s hungry, that really believes in what I do, a management team that feels the same way, and also a publicist who really getting me some name recognition, to add the name to the face. So this is the first time that I’ve had all those pieces in place at the same time, and I think that really is the key once you pass a certain point.
Clearly, early in your career you don’t need a manager per se because you don’t have anything to manage. You know what I mean? Why are you cutting off 15 to 20% when you’re not making that much. If you’re not making about 250 a year, it’s really not worth it for you to have a manager. And if you don’t do multiple things, it’s not worth it for you to have a manager. Because, the way I see management working is they capitalize on everything you do, and everything you can do. If you can excel as a producer/director/write/actor/comic, then that manager needs to make you money in all those areas. I do think that publicity is very important early on.
If you book a series and you’re not the lead in the series— if you’re not Chuck for example—the network really isn’t promoting you to promote the series, they’re using Chuck to promote the series. Clearly, if this is your first job then what you need to do is get a publicist to capitalize on your visibility—while you’re working get you onto magazines and blogs and guest appearances on television shows if that can happen. That’s the kind of work that needs to be done early in a career. The first series I had, nobody said that to me. Had I known that, I would’ve spent the money back then. It makes sense to spend that money because it only helps you.
A lot of your work, you come into a scene and you dominate it in a completely great way, then you leave. You’re so memorable in all the stuff you do. How do you prepare? What are the things you normally do when working on a role?
I was talking to a writer the other night in San Diego, a filmmakers event, and he had asked a question, “What do you want from the writer?” “Do you want him to give you directions that say ‘Frown here,’ or whatever.” I said to him “No, I don’t want you to give me any of that stuff. I want to find it organically.” In the process of preparing for a role, I go in and I find those things, but most importantly I find something active to play. The writer and I continued our conversation after the thing was over, and I said to him “Look, what I want you to give me in the script is ‘what do I want,’ but I don’t want you to give me that in stage directions. I want it in the writing so that I can see in the piece, my character wants ‘x’ and in every scene he’s driving towards ‘x.’” In some scenes, he gets it, and in some scenes he doesn’t. Maybe overall he doesn’t ultimately get what he’s after, but at least it gives me something active to play.
I drew an example for him. The last play I did was The Piano Lesson. My character in that play shows up at his sister and uncle’s house, and there’s a piano there that belongs to their family, and he needs that piano, he wants that piano so he can sell it and get some money to put with part of the money that he has saved. Then he shows up with a truck load of watermelons he’s going to sell. So he puts those three parts together, and buys land that he is currently working for as a share cropper, and that his family has worked for as slaves. He wants that piano. That’s what his through line is for the whole play, that’s his objective. So every time I hit the stage, before I went on I’d stand back stage and say “Ok, now go get that piano.” Even if the scene is not about me getting the piano, it really is. Underneath everything else that he’s saying, his objective is to get that piano. Let’s say in real life, for example, you are busted, you’re completely broke, your phone bill is due, your rent is due. You talk to your parents, but you don’t talk to them about what’s really going on in your life because you don’t want to upset them. Finally, the question “So, how’s everything going?” “Oh, everything’s okay.” And you never really say exactly what you need from them, you might say something to the effect of “Yeah, I just don’t know where this phone bill is coming from.” Something like that. You don’t straight out ask them for it. And sometimes writing doesn’t do that for you, writing gives you everything but what your “ask” needs to be. You have to use those words in a way to help you get what you want. Acting 101 is “What do I want?” That’s the way I prepare. I try to find out exactly what I want in the scene, and it gives me something active to play.
And that’s what I do. When you see me working, I’m active. That’s what’s different from a lot of people, because they’re playing emotions and stuff like that. Because I have a stage background, that’s the way you work. If you watch the really good actors, that’s what it is. When they’re really engaging, they’re actively playing something.
Do you still get nervous when you do a scene or when the lights come up on stage?
In theatre I do. Right before I go on for the first scene, I always have some butterflies. In TV and film, it’s so disjointed and distracted that I’m really concentrating on staying focused. So I don’t have time to get nervous. But in theatre—especially that first time I hit the stage, you really try to set a pace. I get nervous right before I do that.
What is your advice to actors?
Be prepared. Every step of the way. From the audition to the job, to the end of the job, be prepared. When you go in to audition, if you walk in and you haven’t really prepared, and you see me sitting in the room, you are not going to get a job. When I say “me,” there are other actors out there who are prepared. If you see an actor that you see all the time, it’s because they’re ready. You gotta be prepared. I remember one of my first auditions, I walk in—and I used to watch Baretta all the time—and Huggy Bear [Antonio Fargas) was there. And I saw his sides, and he was reading for the same part. And it kinda threw me. Then I thought, “Well if they want him, he’s been around a long time and he’s going to be the guy they get.” And it relaxed me. And I went in prepared, and I think because I was relaxed, Huggy Bear didn’t get a job. [LAUGHTER]
You stole a job from Huggy Bear!
I got past the fact that it was Huggy Bear, and either they wanted him or they wanted me, because we were so vastly different at the time. Even age-wise. I think there were even a couple of women reading for the same part. That’s when you know that they really don’t know what they want. And I ended up with that job. That was a great learning experience for me early on, that my preparation was there. No matter who’s in room, if you’re prepared you may do something that changes their mind about the way they see the role. Or if they don’t see it in a certain way, they will see you and go “Oh wow, that’s what it is.”
By “Be prepared,” are you saying memorizing the sides, knowing it backwards and forwards?
When I say “Be prepared,” I’m saying, for me that means having something to play. I’m not just saying or regurgitating words, I’m actively playing something. Also, I tend not to memorize the sides, and I actually use them in the scene because I feel like—and I don’t know where I got this from, nobody ever said this to me, but in my head, I feel like—if I come in memorized, I feel like they may think, “Okay, that was the performance.” And I know in my process, the way I work, I get better every take. So I don’t want them thinking this is the best they can get. Even if it is memorized, I still hold it in my hand and look at it as if I’m reading it, because I don’t want them to think of it as the performance, or that it’s the best it’s going to be.