As I observe my daily life and that of others, I have come to the conclusion that genuine joy is a potent mixture of harsh reality, and the realization that life can be funny.
Even in the midst of tragic situations.
My first impression of Tone Bell was that he was very serious. Before he sat down to interview, he informed me that he was no good at interviews. I laughed at his notion, however, his eyes did not laugh with me, but the exchange ended with his charming smile.
During our interview, there was not a lot of laughter, not a lot of knee slapping jokes (unlike what I saw online), but every once in awhile, his eyes would pick up on the most random things surrounding us, and that’s when I realized that he was indeed funny.
On Monday afternoon in Studio City, CA, Shadow and Act had the chance to catch up with Tone and talk about his career aspirations, his series regular role as RJ on NBC’s Whitney, and his philosophies about Hollywood.
Shadow and Act: Two weeks ago I attended this SAG foundation event where actor Kelsey Grammar gave advice for people entering Hollywood. He said that you have to be able to say, “Fuck you, with no fuck you money.”I felt that was a Hollywood mantra for him. Do you have a Hollywood mantra that you live by?
Tone Bell: My mantra is that I can go back home at anytime. I have a degree, I am smart, and I am honest. I care about my career and what I do out here, yet I know my lane and where I desire to go. The money is not my mission. I’ve been broke. I’m from Decatur. There is a lot that I will not do in Hollywood. And I have decided this now, early on in my career. I’m thankful for all of my opportunities. But I’m not trying to have a career where I am hanging on one of Dr. Drew’s rehab shows. I can go home.
Shadow and Act: Congrats on Whitney, tell us a bit about the show and your role RJ.
Tone Bell: Thank you, the show is cool. And I’m not going to lie and say that I watched a lot of the first season. Number one, I don’t have cable so it’s difficult. The show is about comedian Whitney Cummings. It’s a show about her standup, her relationships, and the people in her life.
My character RJ replaces the role of Malik who was in season one. I play RJ, the high school friend of Chris D’elia. They played basketball together in high school. The character is recently divorced, and he has moved from Atlanta, back to Chicago. He has taken on a new job as a local bartender to get back into the swing of things. I play the old wise black dude with all the answers.
Shadow and Act: How did you actually book this role?
Tone Bell: It was so much auditioning. I auditioned for just about every NBC show that had a black dude in it. I had a holding deal with NBC. But, the story behind that is that I auditioned for that program for years, and I was rejected four times. I got to the semi finals one year, but did not make it past that. I got this deal after being in Hollywood for five months.
During the first three auditions I was like well it’s just auditioning. And as a stand up they already know your delivery. They knew my style. I kept on coming back in. And then my manager mentioned that I may be too young for the role. And so I didn’t want to get my hopes up. So, I was about to hit the road up for a comedy tour run in Philly, when received a call to come back to read for the show. And I was like who's paying for this? (Laughter). I mean at one point I was spending like six hundred to eight hundred a month in gas just hopping around to auditions, so I needed to know.
And so, I read with Whitney, and I tested against a couple of guys that I’m big fans of. And so then, after that reading with Whitney, they called me to read with Chris D’elia. I knew Chris from the stand up community. So, I read with him, and I didn’t feel too good about my reading. I mean I did well, but I could've done better. And then I got the call, and I was like what just happened? I called my mother and I was like I think I just offered a role on a TV show and I start next week. So of course, she starts crying, and I started crying.
Shadow and Act: Can you explain what a network holding deal is for our readers?
Tone Bell: The deal is an agreement between a network and a person of interest and talent. They then see where they'd like to place you within the network. You can get placed as an actor, writer, etc. It pretty much keeps you from going on to other networks.
Shadow and Act: Can you walk us through an average day when you are taping the show?
Tone Bell: It’s a nine to five. Basically, you clock in and you clock out. We start our week with the table read. We read it in character, and then the writers go through it and see what jokes worked, and what jokes don’t work. They rewrite the script, and then as talent, you get the revised script. You perform it in front of the producers. They leave it as it is, or they tweak it. The next day would be wardrobe. Then you rehearse for the network, they let us know what they like and what they don’t like. The goal is to make sure the show is in top form for the networks.
One time we were rehearsing in front of the network executives and this man came up to me and said that I did a good job. I was like cool, thanks. Then someone came up to me and was like did you know who that was? I’m like well if I didn’t know I do. It ends up being the president of the network.
We then do a run through with the crew, and our show has a live audience. Then the next day we perform. And then we do it again. We have the weekend off, and then another script. Most days are two to three hours and then some days are way longer.
Shadow and Act: Can you tell us about your comedy writing? What is your process?
Tone Bell: I hate to force anything. A lot of people say that comedy is twenty percent truth, and eighty percent fallacy. I believe that you have to have lived through something to write about it. I’m pretty mixed with my writing style. I’m not very animated, and I’m too dry.
Shadow and Act: Can you tell us about your training.
Tone Bell: I really have not had a lot of professional training. In high school and college I did theater. Since I’ve gotten out to LA, I’ve taken classes at UCB.
Shadow and Act: What one thing do you love most about your career evolution?
Tone Bell: I love seeing the people that I have worked with reach new career heights. I was in LA for three weeks when I starred in a commercial with “Middle of Nowhere” actress Emayatzy Corinealdi and now, she’s a movie star. I am inspired by the success of those that came to LA around the time that I started.
And Omari from the film is such a nice dude. I’m actually working on a project for him now.
Shadow and Act: Who do you desire to work with?
Tone Bell: It’s a coffee bean right up the street from us right now, and I see Eddie Murphy there once a week. I’m a huge Eddie fan, and I want to work with him. I even auditioned for the new film his team has coming out, and I did not make the cut, but I wanted to be seen. I also love Don Cheadle.
Shadow and Act: What makes you stand out as a comic actor?
Tone Bell: I have a pretty fresh delivery. I feel that I am probably more of a dramatic actor, but I’m also a comedian. Every day I am polishing up my skills.
I really admire the work of comedic actor Mike Epps. I remember when he took over Chris Tucker’s role in Friday and how people questioned whether or not he was even funny. But he blew people away. He has gradually taken on other roles of great substance. So, I aim to do like Mike. I think the boy is going to win an Oscar one day.
I don’t feel that America has a black dude right now. I’m that dude.
Shadow and Act: In closing, can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
Tone Bell: Well, I have the commitment with the NBC show. I just booked a Dodge commercial that will air during a Spike TV roast for Eddie Murphy. So, you know I’m excited about that. I’ve auditioned for a few films, and I am waiting to hear about those projects. I’m doing some stand up in Westwood tonight. My goal is to forever do stand up.