Editor's note: This interview was conducted prior to the passing of John Singleton.
It has been 20 years since Morris Chestnut sizzled on the big screen as NFL baller, Lance Sullivan in The Best Man, and nearly thirty years since he stole our hearts as Ricky Baker in the late John Singleton's debut feature, Boyz n the Hood. Now at age 50, one of film and television's most iconic leading men hasn't slowed down one bit.
These days, Chestnut stars on the NBC thriller, The Enemy Within as Supervising Special Agent Will Keaton. As the hard-charging leader of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, Keaton is trying to catch terrorists while mourning his fiancé's death and relying on the treasonous Erica Shepherd (Jennifer Carpenter), the former CIA Deputy Director of Operations, to help him stop the very man she betrayed her country for.
Shadow And Act recently sat down with Chestnut at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room to discuss The Enemy Within, his extensive career, the uneasiness he felt about being labeled a sex symbol, and why it's always been about the work for him.
"I like to stay busy, I just don't stop," Chestnut said, reflecting on his thirty-year career. "That's the fun of doing what we do as actors. It's not having to do the same thing every time, even though the characters or storylines may be similar. What the character is going through is always different. There's just a lot of variety —that's what I love about it."
We last saw Chestnut as the carefree Dr. Beaumont Rosewood Jr. on Fox's Rosewood, but his role as Will Keaton on The Enemy Within is much darker and physically demanding. "That's the tough part about this show because the schedule is so rough," he said. "We're working so much. For all the stunts, I worked them out right before we started filming. A couple of times we tried to schedule some rehearsal time for the stunts before we started shooting that episode, but it never worked that way."
Image: Virginia Sherwood/NBC.
It wasn't just the stunt work that drew Chestnut to the series. The Enemy Within is shockingly sinister for a network series and the surprising storylines keep the actors and the audience on their toes. "I like that element of the show," he chuckled. "There's this one character when she got killed no one really saw it coming, but I loved that element of surprise there. You never know what's gonna happen or where it's going to go."
Despite its complex material, The Enemy Within is a welcome change for Chestnut. "We have fun on set, it's fun and light, but then we have to go to a place like this [which] is insane," The Brothers actor shared. "After doing Rosewood, I did want to be in this space, with this show. It was a daunting task, but I felt that I needed to do it for my career. I did two seasons of a show where it was a light soft show. I was just having fun being a little goofy and I did want to do something that was more in-line with a leading man. So I was looking for something like this."
Looking back at where he started, Chestnut can easily reflect on how much the entertainment industry has shifted and evolved over the past three decades, especially for Black actors. "I just go back to when I was starting," he said. "A lot of times I think we all forget where we come from and where we were at a certain point in our lives and our careers. There was a point in time when I said, 'Oh, I got an agent. I just want to get a job.' You would take anything. Then all of a sudden, you get a job and they keep hiring you as a certain character because that's how they see you. I don't mind being typecast, but I do have more range and more depth. I don't necessarily get the opportunity to play that. [The Enemy Within] is somewhat of a departure from what I normally play, but I'm just blessed to still be able to be here and to be able to enjoy going to work every day, working with beautiful people inside and out."
We love and know Chestnut best for his roles in films like The Best Man, its sequel The Best Man Holiday, Breakin' All the Rules, Two Can Play That Game, and Think Like A Man, but for awhile now, Chestnut has been in search of something different. "I like to be liked. I like to be fun," he explained. "But it's not really fun going to work every day, being in an emotional space. If I had to do The Best Man as a series it'd be too challenging, I wouldn't want to do it. In the very first Best Man, we were all younger, and everybody was partying and everything. Then there is the wedding scene where I had to be all emotional; I just had to go into a little corner and put in my headphones. To go to an emotional place like that, you guys see it one time, but it was done several times. It took a minute because, at that point in my career, I never had to go that deep. So doing that scene all day was a lot. For like a year, I would think about that scene, and I would have chills."
Image: Universal Studios.
At one point in his career, The Perfect Guy actor even resented his leading man sex symbol persona. "There was a point where I felt the pressure because the focus shifted from the work to how I look," he reflected. "I had done The Best Man, and I had done The Brothers, and people were framing me as this sex symbol, so I said, 'I have to refocus on the work.' For Two Can Play That Game, there was a shower scene, and the director said, 'Ok, you have to take your shirt off.' I said, 'No, I'm not going to take my shirt off. I don't want to be [in] a shower. I'm not going to do it.' The head of the studio drove from the studio to the set; he was mad. In L.A. especially, you go to the gym, and that's where you'll see a lot of actors. You'll see actors spending more time in the gym than in acting class and taking care of the business. Younger dudes come up to me in the gym all the time, and I'm like, 'You have to remember that this is acting, this is not modeling. They are two different beasts.' So, I let that go a long time ago."
With streaming platforms and an increasingly diverse industry, Chestnut is eager to lend his own voice to the world by telling the stories he wants to tell. "There's a push to develop so much content," he said. "There are so many platforms, and opportunities are opening up across the board. I'm developing a few things now. There is something that I have set up at Paramount Players that I am producing, but not starring in. Television is a little bit more challenging because television is a writer's medium. Writers are truly the stars of TV. If you look at the huge shows, Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, these writers break stars on television. So it's a little more challenging, but I'm expanding into that."
Image: Columbia Pictures.
As far as his longevity is concerned, it hasn't just been the beloved roles (or his charm) that have sustained Chestnut for all of this time. His secret to success is much more obvious than that. "I personally believe that it's simple for me," he revealed. "But when I've told people, and when I've had discussions with other actors, it seems a little complicated. For me, it's basic: come to work on time, know your lines, do your work, and treat people with respect. I mind my own business, I don't get into anybody's business, and that's really at the core of it. I just take my job seriously."
The Enemy Within airs Mondays at 10/9c on NBC.
Photo: NBCUNIVERSAL UPFRONT EVENTS -- Upfront Portrait Studio -- Pictured: Morris Chestnut, "The Enemy Within" -- (Photo by: Maarten de Boer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide