Melvin Gregg is a rising star. The Virginia native initially came westward to start his acting career. However, after being quickly sidelined by the competitive industry, the performer switched the game up and went online, leveraging social media like YouTube and Vine as a platform for his talent.
Source: YouTube | Melvin Gregg
“You get acknowledgement from being on top with social media, and people know who you are, and you get a little bit of love. But it’s like being a top AND1 player. They be like, ‘He can hoop. He's got all these tricks.' People know who they are, but 'can (he) play in the league?' So doing bigger projects — there’s just more prestige around it. It gets respected a little differently,” he told Shadow and Act.
And the acting projects did come. Despite having been in two indie films, it was Gregg’s involvement in director Steven Caple Jr.’s 2014 short The Land of Misfits that proved to be his big break. Then in 2016, the short was adapted into the feature film The Land, which is about a group of young men struggling to survive in the underbelly of Cleveland’s urban landscape. The film was a festival darling, and its success opened doors for Gregg, earning him prime real estate on Hulu’s Freakish and season three of Lifetime’s UnREAL.
In the midst of all this, Gregg got a call from his agents to audition for a role on the sophomore season of Netflix's American Vandal. Gregg said he binge-watched the first season shortly after securing the audition. However, when Shadow and Act asked whether he knew the season would be scatological, Gregg explained that the full extent of the second season's storyline remained a mystery during the audition process.
“I just knew it was gonna be in the same wheelhouse, but just a different story,” he said. “It’s like that a lot in Hollywood. A lot of the time, you kind of agree to a role, and you don’t even know what it is — all you really have is the audition side. And (you) kind of got context of what the character is, but you don't really know the world around them. You don’t know the other characters or the storyline.”
“Sometimes you get the script. But a lot of times — at least half the time — you don’t. It’s normal. You’ve got to trust the producers. You gotta look at who’s attached to the project, as far as the writers, the producers and the actors, and see what they did. That’s really all you gotta rely on, in regards to being a part of a quality project,” Gregg continued.
While reading American Vandal, Gregg felt that the character of DeMarcus aligned with his personal goals, in terms of seeking interesting acting roles.
"Somebody who’s interesting; somebody who drives the story — character that’s got something to lose," Gregg said, when describing his ideal role. "I don’t wanna play nobody boring, because I’m not trying to be boring on TV. I don’t wanna watch nobody boring, so I don’t wanna hop in those shoes. But just — something different.”
This is why he had no doubts of joining American Vandal once he was officially offered the role of DeMarcus Tillman, a character that gets thrown into a labyrinth of lies, deceit and excrement. Ever the charmer, DeMarcus is a star basketball player at St. Bernadine’s, a prep school in Bellevue, Washington. After a mass poisoning sends all the students home with stained pants, DeMarcus quickly joins a shortlist of potential perpetrators. His untouchability and unlimited access to the school makes him a prime suspect, but his daring and genuineness often throws dogged investigators Sam and Peter off of his trail.
When it came to fleshing out his disarming, yet guarded character throughout the season, Gregg built from the ground up.
“I was just trying to create a character — trying to figure out who he was and who he is. Just the dynamic he plays [with] the people around him, and establish his relationships, like with the Lou character," he explained. "Every actor has a different process. I created a world, and I just lived in it. I just made it real to me. Whatever you got from DeMarcus was how I felt DeMarcus would react — so not so much a character choice, but a character reaction.”
Lou, played by DeRon Horton, is DeMarcus’ right hand man. On screen, their chemistry is simultaneously easy and uncanny. Together they illustrate some of the bonding that goes on when young, Black folks enter an all-white prep school world.
“DeRon Horton is a true professional. If you look at his body of work, his characters are all kind of different," Gregg said, while speaking on Horton’s craft and how they meshed as actors. He had nothing but high accolades for his co-star. "In Dear White People (the Netflix TV series), he plays a timid, (queer) character. In Burning Sands, he's a different character. And when you see him in Denzel’s Roman J. Israel, he’s a different character.”
From left to right: Melvin Gregg and DeRon Horton shooting season 2 of American Vandal. Courtesy of Netflix.
Thus, Gregg trusted that Horton would be the perfect ace boon for DeMarcus. “Lou is my man. He’s my friend, but I get that attention. And I demand that attention, because that’s just who I am. But I still trust in Lou, because there’s really nobody closer.”
"Also, I could feel like — in the right circumstances — he could probably betray me, too," Gregg said, in reference to the other, competitive side of their friendship. "Just because with me getting the spotlight all the time, it can kind of weigh on his character at some point." Despite this, Lou’s core remains loyal. “In any situation where he felt like he needed to step up every now and then, he did that. And I think he understood that too. So he kind of played that dynamic between player one and player two.”
Social media also plays a big role in the second season of American Vandal, from the infamous “fruit ninja” scenes to the more insidious ways the Turd Burglar harasses and stalks victims. These elements made it prudent to question the social media veteran about how social media has helped to shape his career. More specifically, how exactly did Gregg keep up with the changing landscape of social media, and use it to grow his own popularity?
“You just gotta figure out what works. When I came up, YouTube had already kind of moved on; there were people that I came up watching on YouTube, who had already come and gone. There weren’t too many urban creators that I knew about, who created the type of stuff that I liked. And then Vine came and went, but then the Instagram wave [happened]," he said.
His advice for other aspiring social media influencers?
"A lot of people have neglected and [still] don't really acknowledge how big Facebook is — it’s still the biggest social media platform on the planet. People are thriving on Facebook; they just don’t get the notoriety as others, but they still do the same numbers, if not more," Gregg said. “You just gotta figure out what works for you and what people respond to, because stuff changes and transitions out. At one point pranks were popular, then sketch comedy – which I came out doing. Then it was dance videos, and Boonk Gang-type of stuff, and Shiggy Challenges. So you just gotta see what’s moving, and what works best for what you do — not to conform to what’s popular, but to figure out where what you do is appreciated," he continued. "I think things are always gonna change, you just gotta move with it.”
Melvin Gregg. Courtesy of Erik Umprhery.
While DeMarcus’ story is done for now, Gregg’s is far from finished. He has a litany of upcoming projects for 2019, including Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh. It’s amazing and heartening to see Gregg push forward. And yet, even the nearly unflappable, multihyphenate man can be starstruck.
“When I first moved out to [Los Angeles], I was doing extra work on Jimmy Kimmel's show. They were doing a sketch show, and Will Smith was part of the sketch. I grew up watching Will Smith, wanting to be like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. So when I seen him, it was kind of crazy — but that was probably the one time I was starstruck. I try to play it cool. After being in the social media space and being in LA, you start to just see people as people.”
Malik Adán is a film and media critic. His words have landed at FilmThreat and REELYDOPE. A lover of food and most genre entries, his tastes are as broad as his afro. His work can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, malikadan.com or in the moment on Twitter @dapisdope.