Carl Lumbly has one of those faces you know you’ve seen somewhere. And chances are that you have—on the screen, where the actor has played prominent roles in TV (Cagney and Lacey, Alias), film (Men of Honor, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and even superhero cartoons (Justice League). Or maybe you’ve seen him bopping around Berkeley, where Lumby, 62, has lived for two decades. Now you can see him at SF Playhouse, where he’s starring in the West Coast premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker With the Hat (in the role originated on Broadway by Chris Rock), which has its official opening on Feb. 2 and runs through March 16. Here Lumbly speaks with San Francisco's Scott Lucas.
Scott Lucas: You don’t drink or eat meat; you don’t even swear. What do you draw on to play an AA sponsor and womanizer in The Motherf#@ker with the Hat?
Carl Lumbly: An MF is someone whom neither obstacles nor morals can prevent from imposing his will.There are MFs who operate for good, and some for the dark side. My father was the original MF. With little formal education, he and my mother (a rare female MF) moved their family from Jamaica to Minneapolis, faced down racism, sent four children to college, and withstood the icy conditions of life as black immigrants in a white world. His unflinching stare and self-taught eloquence made him legendary in the Twin Cities. He manipulated, emotionally blackmailed, and even stretched the truth—but never wavered in his focus. If he’d been a boxer, he would have been impossible to knockout. That’s my MF, for real.
SL: Carl, you live in the Berkeley hills. How long have you been there?
CL: Since 1993 or 94—just after the fire. It’s a wonderful place to raise children. Wonderfully diverse. There’s an intellectual curiosity about everything.
SL: And the politics.
CL: We used to amuse ourselves by going to City Council meetings with our kids. Back then, there was a tremendous debate about nudity in Berkeley. I supposed San Francisco is behind us in that regard.
SL: In the play, your character is a recovering alcoholic who cheats on his wife, lies to his friends, and generally behaves like a motherfucker. Is it fun to play someone so different from yourself?
CL: Sometimes it's the only fun I have. Remember, I don't drink, eat meat or swear. Part of the fun is the degree to which I resemble characters that appear to be so different from me. I've always loved the idea that acting allowed me legitimate access and permission to discover and exercise aspects of my personality that my life's circumstances, my upbringing and experiences, and my personal temperament did not lead me to naturally. I set out wanting to be a versatile actor. I admire power and emotion, but I revel in nuance. I want my characters to cover a lot of ground, but I don't care how fast they go.
SL: How do you go from your life in the here to the lower-class New York setting?
CL: I selfishly concentrate on my character. Ralph has this argument about how to make it through this world as a flawed human being. Sobriety forces us to deal with our dysfunctions. But, the success that Ralph has had in overcoming his substance abuse has not spread to other areas of his life. I first thought that Ralph was a Judas, but the sweet thing about Steven’s play is that it is not hierarchical.
SL: What do you mean?
CL: What I mean is that no character has a clear primacy over the others. Each one of them is good-hearted, decent, and sweet in their own ways.
SL: What do you think of Guirgis as a writer?
CL: Guirgis is one of those people with a saint-like intuition. He’s open to our promise, despite how jacked up we are. I did another one of his play where I was an imprisoned serial killer. Whether you want to call it a conduit from the divine or a channel from our collective unconsciousness, he can leap into someone, to understand them. He is really, truly good-hearted. There is something pure about the way that he writes.
SL: It’s such a food play. When I read the script, I figured you’d need green eggs, blueberry pancakes, sausages, and empanadas. And that was just what I counted in a quick read through.
CL: I hope they’re vegan sausages. I have to eat those onstage.
SL: Why don't you eat meat?
CL: I haven't eaten any red meat since 1974. For many of those years, I haven't eaten any chicken. There was about an eight-year window after my son was born and I didn't want to stigmatize him. “Why doesn't Daddy eat what I do?” So, I ate a few fowls. That ended around 1999. I eat copious amounts of fish. I guess technically I'm a pescaterian. I was an athlete and runner in my youth, and have continued to be pretty active. I just felt like I didn't need meat. And it's heavy!
SL: So it’s not a theater thing?
CL: I have a great deal of suspicion about 'theater things', so I could never make any life decisions on that basis.
SL: Cagney and Lacey. Alias. You even did an episode of The West Wing. You've played so many cops or authority figures over your career. How did that happen?
CL: Timing. I think the fact that we were immigrants had something to do with the fact that I wanted to portray serious, positive black males. Didn't see a lot of them in television and film at that time. Sidney Poitier was an obvious exception and a personal hero, because he is dark, West Indian, and well-spoken. But, for the most part, the roles were split into 'street' or 'square'.
SL: And you went square?
CL: Street smarts, for me, was “.... and, look both ways before you cross.” So, cops, lawyers, doctors, teachers, were the roles for which I was most often submitted. And, as I cultivated and perfected the mirthless, stiff-backed paragon of stolidity that was to become my calling card, I firmly etched that image of me on the minds and imaginations of the casting community. So law enforcement portrayals became the well from which I drew my professional water.
SL: You were, for years and years, the voice of the Martian Manhunter, an alien superhero who fought crime along with Superman and Batman on the Cartoon Network show, The Justice League. Is the superhero thing the same as the law enforcement thing?
CL: The superhero thing had more to do with my experiences on other planets, the bulk of which is classified. You understand, I'm sure.
SL: You’re character was rubbing elbows with Superman and Batman and all the rest. It’s to be something to go from being the voice in a superhero cartoon to this.
CL: I am the only actor in the world to have improvised a Martian Christmas carol. I played a discorporating green super-hero.
CL: The power to pass through walls or floors like a ghost. You know, I used to believe I could do that when I was a kid with my dad. He was a strict father. Really strict. And I used to believe that I could pass right by him without him seeing me. Like when he was sitting in the living room reading the newspaper, I would discorporate and pass right by him. It didn’t always work.
SL: Is it harder to play a motherfucker or a Martian?
CL: It is much harder to play a m-fer. Playing a Martian was a piece of cake given my aforementioned 'interplanetary' background (I played a Black Lectroid from the 8th dimension, in a film called 'Buckaroo Banzai'. That was a much harder role. But primarily, no one knows any Martians, so I was able to get away with murder in my portrayal. Plus, playing a green man isn't really so far from playing a black man. You can discorporate, or you can't. It's that simple.
A shorter version of this Q&A was published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco.
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The Motherfucker With the Hat runs from January 29th to March 16th at SF Playhouse, 450 Post St. Tickets are available here.