Interview: Keith David Talks ‘Greenleaf’, Creating a Backstory and Never Taking Things for Granted

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“The root of my imagination is in what the playwright has given, and then I let my imagination go from there.” – Keith David

Keith David is in the upper ranks of character actors. Actors that are so good, that whenever they appear on screen, they immediately elevate every scene they’re in. That includes David’s current project, season 3 of OWN’s, Greenleaf.  The three-time Emmy award-winning actor plays Bishop James Greenleaf, the leader of a Memphis megachurch who’s got plenty of secrets hidden from his parishioners.

David talks about his role on Greenleaf, Juilliard, creating a backstory and why he doesn’t take things for granted.

I saw that Greenleaf was picked up for another season. Congrats!

Keith David: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. It is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Absolutely.  I read early on that Oprah said that from the moment she read the first script that she could only imagine you in the role.

Keith David: She told me that herself and I’m very grateful for that. That’s not something that happens every day, and it’s really wonderful when it does happen. When you’ve been around long enough, people request you, and that kind of request is a gift and I don’t take that for granted. It was my honor to accept the role and the responsibilities that come with it.

It looks like you’re having a blast putting on those robes and preaching.

Keith David: I used to want to be a preacher myself. In fact, they had no way of knowing this before that, but she has given me the opportunity to really live my dream. I am fulfilling fantasy that I’ve had since I was seven years old. So, I do not take this opportunity lightly. I do not take it for granted. I’m filled with gratitude. I have a lot of fun playing this part. This is some of the most fun I’ve had in life, but I take it very seriously. I really am grateful, deeply grateful.

How do you like telling an ongoing story of a character, as opposed to just one arc of a character in a film?  

Keith David: That’s the beauty of playing this part, is I get to explore more than just a day in the life of. I get to explore his day to day reality, not only in his profession, but in his life. And we tend to compartmentalize the preacher or the politician, as if that’s all they are.

There’s the man in the office every day. He goes to the bathroom, like everybody else. He puts his pants on one leg at a time, like everybody else. He has to wake up to deal with his life and his children, and all that stuff. He gets tempted, he gets Me Too-ed. So, to answer your question, the beauty of it is that the story is ongoing.

If I were doing a movie, and it was just about the one time he was tempted, then it ends, you can only imagine if it happens or comes up again. Here, we have the opportunity to bring it up again, and to see the resonance therein. Sometimes, just like the very premise of the series itself, something that happened 20 years ago comes back and bites you in the ass. You see something in my marriage, something that happened 40 years ago, comes back and it bites you. So, it may not happen in the time you think it should happen, but it happens in God’s time. When you fight that, when you think it should be other than that, and your mind tells you otherwise, that’s when you have problems.

Did you create a backstory for him? And if you did, at some point realize, “Oh, that’s totally different than I thought?”

Keith David: That happens too. Yeah, sometimes that happens even after having a talk with the writers. Any script, whether it’s a movie script or a play, until it gets performed, it’s a baby. It’s a living breathing thing, so things change. Now, sometimes those things change, and you have some privy to it. And sometimes they change without your privy to it.

So, that’s the way I’ve come to look at it, because sometimes you think the relationship started out this way, or could’ve went this way. And it could have. But then you find out something is different.

Part of my discovery is as we speak, because that’s not different than in life. When you grow up with someone, you grow up in the same household with your brother, and you think you know most everything that they do. And then you find out years later that you had a reaction to something you think they did, and you find out that it did not go that way at all. If you knew that, you’d go back and change your reaction, but that’s not how life works.

And sometimes that is how you live on a TV series. Sometimes you make up a backstory, and I’ve made a couple of things that I’ve had to throw away, because it couldn’t have happened that way.

Sometimes, you make the adaptation. Maybe I wasn’t totally wrong, but instead of going the way that I thought it would have, it took a turn somewhere, because something else happened that I don’t know about.

Whether it’s your wife or your mama, you don’t know what your mama does every day of her life, every minute of every day of her life. Let alone your children, especially when they are out of the house.  And they’re out of the house six to eight hours a day, and you’re out doing your life. You have some general idea, they’re in school. They’re taking math and science for two hours a day, and then they’re doing this and they have lunch. But what are they doing in the classroom? What are they doing walking from one class to another. You don’t know.

So, things can happen, and sometimes things can within the context of a conversation. They don’t necessarily have to be lived out actions in order to affect someone deeply. Of course, those things do, the things you do act out, the things that you do. But such is the power of thought. That if you harbor a “wrong” or “negative” thought early enough in your life, that process changes you. People are traumatized for years of their life, because of the seeming side of something that they never investigated any further, and they only let it go fester in the realm of their imagination. And if they knew the truth, that would never have happened, but they never investigated that. Or vice versa, or you investigate and you discover a different truth than the paradigm that you grew up with.

This isn’t so much a question, it’s more of a statement, but looking at your work over the years, you’re able to say so much in a glance or a stare where most actors would need an entire monologue.

Keith David: [laughs]I appreciate you saying that.

How did you like your time at Juilliard? Do you think as far as you are today without it?

Keith David: The short answer is, no, of course not. But the other answer is that I deeply appreciate my training at Juilliard, deeply appreciate it. Especially, retrospectively, because I know how to work, and that’s what it taught me. It taught me a working knowledge of how to work. Now, could I have gotten that someplace else? Many actors have, and do.  So, I would say, it would’ve only been different.

Now, I have never experienced myself, outside of working, of actually being someone else. So, I don’t know whether I would’ve been a different person. I wanted to be an actor my whole life. So, I believe that wherever I went, I would’ve sought to be the actor I am, but I had great training. So whatever I am today is in some part due to the fact that, that’s where I went.

Now, as I said, I have wonderful friends who are phenomenal actors. Some of which, if I weren’t myself, I would wish myself only them. And they didn’t go to Julliard, but they’re wonderful actors.

Again, the short answer is, I’m deeply grateful for my time there. I didn’t always say that because I didn’t want to seem like something else, but I had great training. Was it a perfect place? No. It had its problems and challenges, but I did get something invaluable out of it.

You told a great story about auditioning when you were starting out. You ran into Broadway actress, Irene Worth. As successful as she was, she was just coming from an audition.

Keith David: Irene Worth. Yes, Irene Worth. She said, “Well, darling, that’s what we do.” And that, again, is a deep truth. You don’t have to like it, it just is. And nowadays, whether that audition means that you put yourself on tape, or whether you’re actually in the room with the person who you’re gonna be working with, it’s an audition. It’s an opportunity to get work. That’s what we do.

What’s one of the first things you do when you get a role?

Keith David: I try to get as much information and do research on the time period that the piece is in. I try to, as we were talking about, make up some of form of biography. What is the playwright is not telling me? But I take all my clues from what the playwright has given me. The root of my imagination is in what the playwright has given, and then I let my imagination go from there. I try to figure out my relationship to the other people, and I also try to figure out, what is my role in the piece overall.

What’s been your most embarrassing audition?

Keith David: My most embarrassing audition was when I just took for granted… I took too many things for granted. I thought that once I read the piece and though, “Oh, I can do this.” I didn’t give myself ample time to really focus on the task at hand. So I went in with only an idea of what I wanted to do without fully focusing on how I was going to do that.  And when I finished the reading the first time, the director said, “What was that? Go back outside and come back in here and read that again. You didn’t even sound like an actor.”  I would’ve been more embarrassed if I hadn’t felt that way myself. I just totally pissed the energy away, and I got caught.

So, I would say to any actor, it’s an opportunity to get a job. Part of my thought process at the time was, “Well, I don’t have this job, so I’m not gonna put too much into it.” But if you don’t give yourself the best opportunity to get the job, then you’ll never get to the work you think you want to do. It was an exercise in futility based on something that my ego told me. And I should’ve told my ego to get away from me.

Greenleaf airs on Wednesdays at 10pm on OWN

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Lance Carter is an actor and the Editor of Daily Actor.

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