Interview: Rockmond Dunbar talks ‘Sons of Anarchy’, How He Got His Start and the Question That Changed His Life

Rockmond on acting: "If you’re creative, if you love doing it, then act like it. Do it because you love it"

rockmond-dunbar-sons-of-anarchyJust when I think Sons of Anarchy can’t get any better, the series one-ups itself. I just imagine creator Kurt Sutter leaning back in his office chair and smiling at what he’s done this year because I think we’re in for a huge season finale.

Will Rockmond Dunbar’s character factor in the season ender? One can only hope because Dunbar and his character Deputy Sheriff Eli Roosevelt are perfect in the show and with the recent death of his character’s wife and unborn child, he’s out for some vengeance.

I worked with Dunbar on Terriers and he was just the coolest. I only had one scene with him and Donal Logue but I had a great time and working with the two was a blast.

In this interview, Dunbar talks about how we’ll see a different side to Eli, how he got his start and his advice to actors!

Without giving too much away, where do you think your character is going?

Rockmond Dunbar: I have no idea. I really don’t.  This is one of those shows–let me give you an example.  Last night, we were shooting a scene; we just wrapped up the finale–we were shooting a scene, and I was in the scene with Jax and also Tara.  We were having a lot of dialogue about the scene, and Tara looked at Kurt and said, “Hey man, I wish we (break in audio)…” what’s going to happen, and Kurt didn’t even know what was going to happen. He was like, “Look; I’m leaving the doors open on this.”  Alright, so there’s four different options of–and different directions of where he could go and take this moment that played out last night.

So, I never know what’s going to happen until I get to the read-through and sit down with Kurt and the rest of the cast members and go through the script; I don’t know.  I didn’t know last year.  I thought I was going to die after 10 episodes; a horrible death.  That was it, but I’m here, and I signed on to do six episodes and ended up doing about eight.  My character is finding a nice little arch.

Do you like that element of surprise? Where you find out when you’re getting ready to do it?

Rockmond Dunbar: There’s not that many surprises that you get in life, so it kind of doesn’t work if you’re an actor who really loves to put in the work and create a character, but if you’re really good on your feet and you love doing the work and if you have a full life, then it really doesn’t matter.  I have so many different little projects going on right now where I just got into the groove of the S.O.A. crew, and you pull together what you can at the last minute and you make it happen.

Did Kurt Sutter call you to come to audition or did you audition on your own or how did you become involved with Sons?

Rockmond Dunbar: I originally–I was shooting a film, an independent film, and I just finished Terriers; I’m not sure if you remember that show with Shawn Ryan.

Then I get a call from my agent saying, “Hey, Kurt Sutter wants to talk to you about a role on Sons of Anarchy.”  I went to go see him, sat in his office and he was like, “Hey look, I called Shawn Ryan; what about this kid Rockmond Dunbar, do you think he’d do a job?”  Shawn gave me the stamp of approval.  Kurt and I sat in his office, and talked a little bit and he was like, “Hey, got to wardrobe.”  It was a straight offer; meet and greet type of situation.  I didn’t have to audition, which was great; most actors love to get to that… where they’re not auditioning.  So, it was a great meeting of the minds, and we made it work.

You’ve had a chance to play some pretty cool characters throughout your career.  What’s been the most rewarding part about being an actor for you?

Rockmond Dunbar: The most rewarding part I think to me is just to see my mom and my dad’s face and them expressing that they’re proud of me, that I did something that they approve of in my life.  That makes me very happy, very, very happy.  I think out of everything, out of the money, out of the gift bags, so I think that’s the most important thing to me; that it’s just my mother and father being happy.

Did you always want to be an actor?

Rockmond Dunbar: Yes.  I’m going to turn this a little bit backwards.  In high school I wanted to be a commodities executive, and then I started hanging around guys who wanted to be litigators; they wanted to be attorneys in high school, so we would all do …court together.

Then I stepped on stage my senior year, and I had the pleasure of creating six characters on stage in a play called “… poet” and that was only because a friend of mine, Wesley Ballard made me audition for this school play.  I wanted to go and have lunch; he was like, “No, dude, you gotta audition for this play; you’re taking this acting class, you gotta go for the play.”  And I was like, “Well, you know, I’m only taking acting classes because I don’t want to take gym anymore.”  I ended up doing those roles and decided I wanted to go to Morehouse College to study theatre, which at that time–I mean not study theatre, I studied poli-sci and was going to become a litigator.

In my first year, I booked the lead role in a play over at Spelman College called The Blue Vein Society.  I called some of my friends back home and said, “Hey, look man; I got this play it’s awesome I beat out all these upperclassmen, and I get to kiss two girls.”  This is awesome.  This is great.  My friend Terrell who I was telling this story to, he said, “Rock, let me ask you a question, man.  Is it the law that you love and that’s why you want to be a lawyer or is it acting like a lawyer?”  That question changed my life.  I knew instantly within my heart that it was acting like a lawyer.  I got off the phone, and I called my mom and I said, “Mom, I’m gonna change my major.”  She was like, “Well you’re just a freshman, don’t worry about it; you change your major a number of times.”  Then I was like, “Mom, I’m gonna change my major to acting.”  The very first line that came out of her mouth was, “You didn’t go to school to become an actor; period.”  My retort was, “Mom, when you first saw me on stage, what did you think?”  The longest pause ever, with the most beautiful thing she ever said to me was, “You know; I knew that was what you were going to do for the rest of your life, when you stepped on stage; I knew it.”  I’m sorry?

Isn’t it amazing how mothers are so perceptive, and they see those things and we don’t?

Rockmond Dunbar: Yes, definitely.  My mother is very intuitive and such a great woman.  After that, I just attacked it.  I started studying as much as I possibly could, and doing more plays and transferred to the College of Santa Fe where I got my butt kicked.  I booked my first television role my sophomore year with Steven Spielberg, it was a show called Earth 2; Clancy Brown, Deborah Farentino, Antonio Sabato, Jr., Rebecca Gayheart and Jessica Steen were all on the show at it was a great show.  I did that show for a full season.

I had a little bit of a problem because I broke a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy the same year, so I had to make a decision if I was going to go study at the Royal Academy, or if I was going to take this television series.  For me, I worked really hard to get that scholarship and I really wanted to study theatre, so I chose to go to London, but I had two guys who literally changed my life and gave me some really good advice.

Walter Beakel and Ted Flicker pulled me aside my sophomore year, and they were like, “Hey, you know; we want to have lunch with you.  Sit down.”  They said, “Look, kid, this opportunity of a television series –yeah I know you don’t see it yet, but it is something that you shouldn’t take lightly.  If you really want to go to the Royal Academy and study, I’m sure the scholarship will still be there.  Do the television series, even if it’s not there, you’ll be able to pay your way into that program.”  That was pretty much it.  I stayed with that show for about a year.

I learned a hard lesson of coming to LA thinking that the show was supposed to move or it was supposed to move to Los Angeles so everyone came back here to LA.  It’s my first time in LA; moved everything.  I heard on Entertainment Tonight that the show got cancelled and … so I went back to New Mexico and enrolled in the University of New Mexico and started taking some more acting classes.  I decided to come back to LA a little bit later and nickel and dime my way into a pretty decent career.

We’ve heard how Kurt Sutter runs a set, which is a lot different than a lot of directors and creators.  For you, how does he inspire you, Kurt, in the way he works on set?

Rockmond Dunbar: I’ll tell you this, one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.  He’s multi-talented.  Not only does he play Otto, which he kills that role, by the way, on Sons of Anarchy, he’s created the show.  His wife is on the show, and he directed the finale.

There was a scene just last Friday with Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal, myself and Theo [Rossi], which was one of –I would have to say, I could’ve shot that scene all night, and it was because the way Kurt organized the scene, choreographed the scene and wrote the scene.  He’s an incredible dude and my hats off to him.  I hope to have half the career he has when I start getting more and more into producing and creating.

Besides SOA, you have a bunch of other stuff in the works.  What do you have going on?

Rockmond Dunbar: I’m shopping around two pilots right now, which are near and dear to my heart.  I’m also getting on a plane tomorrow to go and finish another series that I helped put together called For Richer, For Poorer on the Gospel Channel Network.  Right after that, I go back to The Game, so I’ll finish out the year with them.  The Game is on BET.  It’s been a series that has been out for a little while; doing pretty well.

January, I’ll do another feature with Russ Parr called Definitely Divorcing.  It looks like I’ll go back, sit back in the director’s chair for a script that my girlfriend penned, which is absolutely hilarious called Tying the Knot.  We’ll see what the season brings for Sons of Anarchy next year.  If I can get these two pilots up and running, we’ll see.

So far, we’re having some good traction and there’s a movie that I directed called Pastor Brown several years ago, which we have gone through some litigation, cleared out all of the legal aspects after I shot the film which was my directorial debut.  That’s having distribution next year, I think it’s going to be like April.  So, we’re sitting down at the table, doing the finishing touches on the distribution deal today actually.  That’s it.

Man, so when do you sleep?

Rockmond Dunbar: When my girlfriend knocks me over the head.  I just try to get it in where I can.

What’s your advice to actors?

Rockmond Dunbar: My most important advice and I’ve said this for a long time; if you’re creative, if you love doing it, then act like it.  Do it because you love it.  Don’t do it for the money.  Don’t do it for the fame.  Don’t do it outside of anything for creating and giving back and being the best.  Tenacity is everything.  Of course, we know the ratios and the statistics of how many people make it in Hollywood and create a lifestyle and a career with acting, creating, writing, producing and all that stuff, but just don’t give up if you really believe in it; don’t give up.  If you have to have it as a hobby, just make sure you don’t put yourself in harm’s way trying to live off of …and bash in your kidneys.  Just do it in a safe and healthy way and just do it for the right reasons.

You’ve had a great career before Sons of Anarchy, have you noticed that your appearance on the show has raised your profile even more?

Rockmond Dunbar: I hope so.  You hope that you choose jobs that will get you some more star power so you can continue to work.  That’s pretty much how it works.  I’m happy to be on the show, man.  Even though I’m only recurring; I’m not a series regular on it or anything like that, but I’ve had some great opportunities and worked with some really great people, and we’ll see how long that goes.

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