There comes a point when an artist has to take their craft to the next level — for veteran actor Dennis Haysbert that opportunity came with his latest film, Welcome to the Jungle. Featuring a diverse cast, including Adam Brody, comedienne Kristen Schaal and legendary action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, the movie tells the story of a group of co-workers who are sent to a leadership retreat on a tropical island after their boss, played by Haysbert, decides that his quarreling team needs a little bonding time. Often referred to as “The Allstate Guy” and known by many for his roles in Love & Basketball and Waiting to Exhale, Haysbert gives us a taste of his comedic side in this hilarious comedy that will have the audience ready to take a walk on the wild side.
We’re used to seeing you in dramatic films, what made you choose to star in a comedy?
It’s because I like to be as well-rounded as possible. I like to get out of the box. The industry tries to put you in a box. I’m very definite doing a role of authority, and sometimes even if it’s a role of authority, that it be funny. This was my chance to be that so I embraced it and went for it.
Are there similarities between you and your character?
There are some similarities but not very much. I would probably handle things a lot differently. I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Playboy Club; I would’ve gone with my people to the island or at least been there in observation mode to see how they all act with one another.
You’re working with an interesting group of cast members because you have comedians and then Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s a martial arts action star, what was it like working with your cast mates?
It was a delight, actually. I think Jean-Claude redeemed himself very well. He enjoyed himself. I know it’s kind of a stretch for him, but it was great. I like them a lot.
I’d have to say that everyone stood out in his or her roles. They had some really nice and talented up-and-coming comedians that have been around for a while, and I thought that they were just hilarious. I learned so much from watching them work, and of course, after watching the film I was like wow, these people are just hilarious. I really wish I had a part on the island.
What do you look for when you’re considering a role?
I look for the through-line. I look for where the character begins and where he ends and then try to fill in those gaps. I have a great deal of fun with whatever genre I’m working with so I’m always trying to learn and keep evolving. I think that’s the secret, is that you always have to keep evolving, even within the time that you’re shooting. I look for the arc of the character. I try to look at where they are from point A to point Z. Even if they start a point H and then back to B and then to Z, and then figuratively covering every letter of the alphabet because nothing is ever shot in sequence, so you have to always work on where your arc is and what position you are in that arc that you’re working. That’s what the challenge is in film.
You have an expansive career in film and television, what would you say is your key to longevity?
Constant growth and evolution; you cannot stay stagnant; you have to grow.
Can you give us three tips on how to get work in Hollywood?
First, learn your craft. Just coming out here being cute and having a nice voice and everything else means nothing unless you have some substance to back it up. That’s my best advice. Find a really good acting class and do your homework. Stay healthy. Exercise. Read. Learn as much about your craft as you can and do as many workshops as you can. You’re only as good as you dare to be bad. You have to work at it; it’s not something that you just show up and be like “here I am, hire me.”
How important is it to have an agent in your business?
It’s everything to have an agent and if you can have a manager that believes in you, and that will go out there and pound the pavement for you and with you. There’s only so much you can do on your own, you just have to get the interviews, and that falls on your agent and your manager. You just have to have people that believe in you and your career.
What characteristics should someone look for in an agent?
They should have a genuine interest in you. It’s tough to find. I haven’t always been successful in that. The most important [part of] your team — and it does take a team — is that you have a really good manager who will put you in front of the people that you need to be involved with. If you watched the Golden Globes last night, Hayley Adams did something interesting; she came out here over 15 years ago and she found someone who had a feeling about her. They’ve been working together ever since and you see where her career has gone. She’s one of the best actresses in her career.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to work out and stay healthy. I just finished a role where I had to gain a little weight so now I’m trying to slim down again. I like to scuba dive, play ball, walk, kayak and play golf.
Welcome to the Jungle hits select theaters and VOD on Feb. 7.