Multitalented actor James T. Alfred is a rarity in the acting world in that he can effortlessly transition from theater to film to television and back.
Having appeared in such hit shows as “Prison Break,” “Boss,” and most recently Fox’s breakout drama, “Empire,” Alfred has etched out quite the résumé for himself. Initially cutting his teeth in the theater community, the Chicago native studied Shakespeare in New York at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab In addition to acting, he also writes and produces for both the screen and the stage, and is the founder of Turhan International, a Chicago-based multimedia production company.
Alfred recently sat down with rolling out to discuss his “aha” moment, his role on Empire, and his critically acclaimed one-man show, A Brown Tale.
Was there an “aha” moment when you knew for sure that you wanted to make a living being an actor?
My “aha” moment occurred during a performance of August Wilson’s Jitney that I was watching at the Goodman Theater. I’d never seen black life celebrated in such a fashion. These were real, interesting, colossal characters with whom I identified. The language of the play resonated with me, as it was of my own experience and out of a world with which I was familiar. The care, pride and dignity that was displayed in the effort to celebrate the unsung was astounding. I remember sitting in the theater at the end of the play wanting to see more. I had witnessed something that affirmed me, my humanity and my experience outside of the community. I knew that I had to be a part of that celebration.
If you could have dinner with any three actors, past or present, who would you choose and why?
This is almost impossible to answer, but I am going to pick Judi Dench, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Javier Bardem. These three actors have a body of work that has the level of truth in it to which I aspire. There is not a false note in any of these individuals. They bring themselves to the work and you can see them working through the negotiation process that occurs between people as they navigate life. Each time I watch their work, I learn and I am inspired to keep working toward the truth. And they all have very interesting faces.
Film, stage and television acting are all vastly different but you juggle all three pretty well. Do you have a preference for one in particular?
I love the theater. It’s immediate. It’s dangerous. Immediate gratification has become a guiding principle in our society. The desire for immediate gratification has subverted the ethic of work to the detriment of the every day citizen. The theater gives you that! I don’t have to wait until it comes out on screen to know if the work is appreciated. Television and film acting is a different animal and requires different aspect of the craft. The actor has less control over what is presented, unless he or she is the director or producer. And the gratification is delayed. Acting for the screen is smaller. It doesn’t require the use of the entire body as the stage demands. I prefer working on the stage but you can’t beat the pay in television and film.
Tell us about your turn in the Fox’s hit show “Empire” as Tyree and what your thoughts are on its runaway success thus far?
I play Tyree, owner of “Ghetto Ass Studio,” as its called. It is a no frills and thrills shop, with a reputation for turning out hits. It’s an interesting character with a lot of potential. I really hope Tyree is developed and not thrown away. There is so many story lines with Tyree that has the potential for development. Tyree and Jamal. Tyree and Cookie. The guy eats cereal and totes a shotgun. Gotta love it! The show’s success is remarkable. It has broken all types of viewing records and the viewership continues to increase each week. I think it is a testament to the public wanting to see different people on screen than what they usually see. People want to meet people they wouldn’t normally make occasion to meet. There is a plot that can be accessed by all and drama that titillates. Drama makes good TV. I think the show has the potential to be one of the longest running television series since “Dynasty.”
What can you tell us about your upcoming one-man show, A Brown Tale?
A Brown Tale is a comedic narrative about my life growing up on the south side of Chicago in public housing, and how the community impacted my personal development. It’s a memory play that celebrates the people and community from whence I came. The play comments on a number of things, such as public schools, the African-American church tradition, public housing and much more. I play about 20 different characters, and I talk about circumstances and situations that occur in our everyday lives which makes the material accessible to most, regardless of sex, race, religion or political affiliation. A Brown Tale is my ode to those pillars whose shoulders on which I stand. It is to say to them that your humanity, your ethos and pathos are as story-worthy as any character in Shakespeare’s canon or any hero found in the works of the Greek dramatists.
What’s the best and worst part of putting together a one-man show?
Each time the show is mounted it comes with a new set of challenges. It could be limitations of the venue, the personnel…a number of things. The best part is seeing it all come together. I know that I have a terrific piece of theater built around a rich story. I get to share it over and over, and experience the audience enthralled in a good time. They laugh with me. In addition to being the writer and actor, I produce the show. Whether the show happens or not rests in my hands. A one-person show is an elaborate production. We aren’t just turning on the lights and getting on stage with a couch and table. It is a very simple show, but it has been meticulously and artistically crafted. The worst part is the attempt by others to dismiss the production as some “little play” or “stand up routine.” It reminds me of how limited our cultural palettes have become. But that’s the task of the artist, to expand that palette by creating honest work in a truthful aesthetic. And as a producer, you must have a good team. It’s always disappointing to find out that you didn’t properly identify an individual’s talents and strengths, and they are working in an area where they cannot be successful.
Is there a memorable one-man show that you’ve seen that really inspired you?
Whoopi Goldberg’s show and Bill Cosby’s Bill Cosby Himself ignited the interest in the solo genre. John Leguizamo’s Freak is my favorite. His show really inspired me to tell my story in the manner and convention that we employed. His show is culturally specific, as is mine, but also universal and accessible to anyone.
Any words of advice or words of wisdom for aspiring actors?
I would encourage anyone with aspirations of being an actor to first decide what it is they would like to do: be an actor or a star. If you want to be an actor, you should start acting in community theater. There you will discover what you don’t know and what you need. You will also discover whether you really enjoy doing it because there isn’t pay. It truly is about the work and your initial development. Getting as much time on the stage as possible is an essential part of an actor’s development. If you want to be a star, go to Hollywood and build the relationships necessary for making that happen. Being a star is not about your abilities, but rather your bankable potential.
What’s next for James T. Alfred?
I’m moving A Brown Tale to another city. In the immediate future, I am going up to do a play called Detroit ’67 by Domonique Morriseau at Penumbra Theatre, my artistic home, in Minnesota. I’m pretty focused on doing film and television at this point. I’m working on creating two other properties from A Brown Tale. I am converting the play into a book, a television show and a concert film. I’m writing a play with music based on the story of Samson and Delilah. I’m also finishing up a feature length film that I’ve been writing for months. All of this is contingent upon The Most High’s will. God obviously has a plan for my life. I can only hope that my plan is in harmony with God’s plan.
A Brown Tale plays Feb. 19, 20 and 22 at Chicago’s Beverly Arts Center located at 2407 W. 111th St.
For more information, please visit www.JamesTAlfred.com or www.ABrownTale.com