Television

David Alan Grier: Bringing the Laughs and the Drama

David Alan Grier.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

Listen to A Word … With Jason Johnson:

It takes a lot to break through in Hollywood. Talent, hard work, and a lot of luck, but to stay booked and busy for decades is a whole ‘nother level of star power. One of the people who has it is comedian David Alan Grier. He had his big break in the 1990s with the iconic sketch comedy show In Living Color. He’s been in films and television ever since. Most recently, he co-starred as a pot-smoking grandpa on Jamie Foxx Netflix comedy Dad Stop Embarrassing Me! On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Grier about his career and how his new show with Jamie Foxx came together. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: You’ve worked with Jamie Foxx and with a lot of majority Black creators. What’s the difference between that experience and working on projects that are led by white folks?

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David Alan Grier: As a Black artist and actor, I can’t tell you how much time is wasted and spent trying to explain to white creatives why I can’t do this, why what you’re asking me to say can’t come out of my mouth, trying to negotiate what would be better, why it’s not working for me, all that stuff. When you come into a sound stage or a creative environment in which Jamie and I have known each other for over 30 years I’m comfortable. I’m free to just do my thing. When you know somebody has your back creatively, then that allows you the freedom to do your thing. So that’s kind of what was reignited with us working together.

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After we wrapped, I immediately did a movie with Jamie in Atlanta. It’s like a futuristic, sci-fi kind of trip, yet it’s throwback in terms of design. John Boyega’s in it. I don’t know when it will come out, but it was so much fun to do. I’ll tell you a quick story. So Jamie said, “Listen, we’re doing this movie.” And I was like, “Yeah, but where, man, I can’t…” Because I told him, I said, “First of all, I can’t fly in and out of town.” This is at the beginning of this year. I don’t feel comfortable. I’m not vaccinated. I just can’t do it. So I figured that was the end. So we hang up, and the agent calls me, and he said, “All right, I understand your feelings. If they sent a private plane, how would you feel?” I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to stay in a hotel because…” Agent goes, “Look, we have a house for you.” So I was like, “We doing the movie.”

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You had me at private jet, but I was really just kind of holding out for the house.

Listen, the universe spoke to me and my lesson that day was ask for what you require, what you deserve. You’ll be surprised, sometimes you get it.

You’re actually very active on Twitter. You’re making jokes. You talk to people. Is that something that you got into because it’s like, “Hey, I like the public discourse anyway.” You find that’s introduced you to new audiences? Was it just you keeping in touch with America?

It’s a way to keep in touch with America, especially over the last year. But when I first got on Twitter, it took me a while to actually figure it out, because for the first two weeks, I threw out a bunch of stuff and it was more like trying to write jokes, and these guys would be like, “Bad joke, unfollow, I expect more.” And I’m like, “You expected more for free? 24 hours a day?” You don’t get a Sunday meal. I was trying to negotiate and try and find my way until I just talked the way I talk. So if I’m scrolling in Twitter and something catches my eye, I’m just going to talk to Twitter like if you and I were just out having a couple beers. And once I started doing that, then everything was fine, I think.

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What was the point where you realized, “I need to protect my privacy,” in a way that you didn’t think of when you first started your career?

Well, it was probably when In Living Color was on. Yeah, I remember staying in Palm Beach, Florida, and the hotel staff, which were surprisingly largely African American, called me every 30 to 45 seconds to say hello, what am I doing? They brought me fruit. They slipped things under my door to sign. That was a very young show and the audience was in and of the moment. I mean, it was all about the culture of hip-hop—from dress to music to comedy to language, everything. And that was very, very in the moment, a young audience, and that elicited that kind of response.

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And one of your most famous recurring characters was in the sketch Men on Film. You and Damon Wayans played two flamboyantly gay men. A lot of comedians today, they complain about cancel culture. They say we can’t make jokes anymore. But there’s also an argument to be made that some humor is dated. As somebody who’s been in the comedy game as long as you have, what do you think about these current arguments?

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Here’s my thing on Men on Film. At the time, as far as I know, there were no out gay or trans/genderfluid cast members. There was nothing in that comedy which I felt was homophobic gay hatred. But I also am smart enough to know it’s not how your heart was behind the joke; it’s how that joke or that characterization lands with other people. So that was a long time ago. I don’t think we could do that now, which is fine. If Living Color were on now, I would hope that there would be more than one gay cast members in the show, and then they could tackle this humor using their voice.

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A whole new generation of viewers got to know you in the family drama on OWN, Queen Sugar. You play a really bad man. Jimmy Dale, the abusive ex-husband of matriarch Violet Bordelon. She’s played by actress Tina Lifford. What was that like? What was your friends’ and colleagues’ reaction? What was the audience reaction like to seeing David Alan Grier play this… basically a modern-day version of Mister from The Color Purple.

My agent called me and was like, “Look, we got this offer from Queen Sugar.” When you hear that [tone], it’s just like, “We’ll pass on your behalf.” And I said, “Hold on, hold on, hold on. Well, what’s the offer?” And they said, “Well, it’s like two or three episodes. They haven’t really figured it out. We’ll send you the sides.” And our agreement is never turn down any role; I don’t care how small it is. Let me decide. So they send me the sides. I read the first scene, and I called them back. I was like, “I don’t care if this show been on 20 years. I got to do this.” Because I am not Jimmy Dale, but I know people like that. You can smell it, you know what I mean, through the pages. So that scene that you played, the way I played it was as a vampire. Meaning the rules of the vampire is you have to invite a vampire into your house.

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So when I came to the door, I wouldn’t come in. Because I kept saying, he says in the script, “You’re not going to invite me in? Well, I just want to come in. I mean, can I just come through the threshold? I just want to see you. It’s been so long.” So as soon as she opens the door and I walked down that hallway, it’s like he unfolds and develops and spreads his wings and he claims a space like, “Ah, you fucked up now.”

He tosses his hat on the table, he’s looking around up and down, “Yeah, this is my house.” So it was so juicy and so much fun to play that role. Because another thing, real evil, when you talk about devilish people, evil people, you think, “Oh, he’s going to be twitching and slimy and drooly.” No, man. Most times when we’ve been around someone where you discover, “Oh, this is a bad person,” they’re already in your business. They have to be there cause they have to gain your confidence. And the other thing is there was an obvious attraction—you understand?—that this woman still has. Although she’s fought to cure herself of this addiction, those weaknesses are still there, and he knows those buttons to push.

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What do you think your comedy legacy will be? We just lost Paul Mooney a couple of weeks ago, and everybody talks about how Paul Mooney touched everything. Where do you think your legacy is going to be when this is all said and done in another maybe 50 years?

I don’t know. I mean, I don’t worry about that. I’ll be dead anyway. I’m serious. I leave that for others to figure out. But I know in trying to plan and craft my career, there was one year in which Michael Keaton did Clean and Sober in the same year that he did Beetlejuice. And I use that as a template because I said, “That’s what I want to do.” So showing that range, completely polar opposites. Just ripping it in all areas. I just wanted to be a working actor. That’s what I wanted to be, a working actor, and I’ve surpassed my goal. I’m going to be 65 at the end of this month, and I never, in a million years thought at my age my career would be what it is. I’m in demand constantly. This pandemic year has probably been one of the best years of my career. I didn’t see that coming last year. I mean, like everybody else, I was like, “Well I guess this is it. This is what will take us out. It’s like War of the Worlds.”

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I really could not have anticipated this, and for the first time I have a sense of calm, meaning I know I’m going to get another job. The vast majority of time in most actors’ careers, I don’t care how famous you perceive them to be, is spent wondering, “Will we work again?” And I feel secure that, I don’t know if it’s going to be big or small, but I’m going to be doing something. So I never thought—I thought I would be just retired and doing other stuff. But yeah, this is amazing. I’m going to roll with this till the wheels fall off.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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