Black Hollywood is a term affectionately used to describe actors and actresses who have conquered Hollywood, proved their acting ability, and remain a treasure to the Black community. While White America is often clueless when it comes to acknowledging urban talent, there are several stars who have created illustrious careers focusing mainly on the blockbuster phenomenon that is Black Hollywood. Morris Chestnut is undeniably the reigning king of said club. With a career that spans 25 years and has remained consistent and without scandal, Chestnut has managed to effortlessly do what few actors have been able to achieve — remain on top. His roles in urban classics like Boyz N the Hood, The Best Man, Best Man Holiday, Two Can Play That Game, The Brothers, The Inkwell and countless others have earned his royal pedigree with the Black audience, but don’t eclipse his mainstream appeal. Although Black audiences claim ownership to Chestnut’s signature heartbreaking smile, he has experienced mainstream success as well, starring in “ER,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Bones,” “American Horror Story,” and the list goes on. Adding to his acting credits, Chestnut has managed to maintain his sex symbol good looks and six-pack abs, recently being named as one of People magazine’s sexiest men alive in 2015.
At the time of this interview, Chestnut is being followed by a team of at least five as he preps for scenes in his new prime-time drama “Rosewood.” The intense schedule includes 14- to 16-hour shoot days and daily scripts to memorize. Chestnut’s team praises him with “focused” and “professional” being words consistently used when explaining the experience of being a part of his team. During his interview, Chestnut is earnest but focused, warm but professional and it’s apparent he is polished when it comes to answering questions. It’s that dignified yet warm persona that caused Taraji P. Henson, one of his many leading ladies, to aptly nickname him “Dark Gable.” His classic good looks, unintentional charm and easy smile make him an obvious choice for leading male roles even if he didn’t have the acting chops to match. The assumption that his looks have opened doors for him is something Chestnut has struggled with throughout his career.
“A lot of people think this business is just about looks and keeping your body right. That is important, but models are the only people that the external is the focus of what they do. I’m not a model; I’m an actor, so I want to always lead with the work. The work is most important,” Chestnut says.
Earlier this year, audiences were elated to see Chestnut star opposite Sanaa Lathan and Michael Ealy in David E. Rosenthal’s The Perfect Guy. Press for the film bled into Chestnut’s new television series on Fox, giving audiences a double dose of Chestnut in 2015 on the big screen and small screen. The role was one that audiences have come to expect from Chestnut: leading man that comes to the aid of his damsel in distress.
Chestnut is excited that his new series has consistently received great ratings and has been renewed for a sophomore season. “We were lucky to be scheduled right before ‘Empire,’ which has a huge audience, so that was a great beginning. I wish we could’ve been slated after ‘Empire’ to get some of those 13 million viewers,” Chestnut joked, “but we got a great slot.”
On Fox’s “Rosewood,” Chestnut’s plays the title role, Beaumont Rosewood, a Miami-based pathologist, who is contracted by law enforcement to solve crimes. In addition to his intelligence and action hero status, Rosewood is dealing with a debilitating disease, which adds to the internal conflict of the character.
“Rosewood has all these physical limitations going on: he’s going blind, he knows that he could literally die any day, yet he is operating like superman,” Chestnut explains.
In addition to Rosewood’s action hero side, audiences get a glimpse into the character’s family life. Veteran actress Lorraine Toussaint plays his mother and newbie Gabrielle Dennis plays his tell-it-like-it-is sister.
“You get a chance to see a Black family interact. We’ve got issues. There’s some dysfunction, but it’s family. We’re not the Huxtables, but we’re not ‘Love & Hip Hop either,’ ” Chestnut says, laughing.
The overall complexity of the Rosewood character offers a challenge, something Chestnut looks for in the roles he considers at this point in his career.
“I look for opportunities to sharpen my skills. I want to continue to grow as an actor and keep getting better,” he says.
Chestnut was so focused on his work being taken seriously that he voiced concern over his Rosewood character being portrayed as eye candy only. “The script for the first few episodes had me in scenes with my shirt off,” he recalls. “I told the director that I didn’t want to be in every episode without my shirt on. I just want to make sure this is bigger than that. It’s about the character, and I’d like to be able to eat something every now and then,” he adds laughing.
Even if Chestnut could remove the eye candy element from the show, his on-screen chemistry with Jaina Lee Ortiz (Detective Villa) is one of the highlights fans are looking forward to seeing develop.
“There is a lot of sexual tension between the two but there won’t be a quick fix to that. Taye Diggs’ character comes in and blocks for a bit,” Chestnut reveals before the show’s much-talked about mid-season finale.
“Rosewood’s” mid-season finale will air Wednesday, Dec. 2, and the season will return after the top of 2016. Several hit shows have had success with splitting a series in half to keep audiences connected without burning out on the series in the long run. With 22 episodes in season one, “Rosewood” has managed to gain momentum every week and Chestnut’s character has begun building a favorable rapport with audiences.
When asked how his career has remained consistent at a time when many Black actors have found themselves out of work, even after being the “it” guy or girl for the moment, he likens acting to any other career where constant coaching would be needed.
“Kobe Bryant is the best at what he does, but he has a coach. You should never get to the place where you aren’t able to be coached,” he says.
His self-awareness is something else he attributes to remaining consistent; that and his hard work and ability to transform failure to internal motivation.
“I have failed countless times over my career,” he says. “It’s impossible to be successful in this business, and probably any business, without failure. I have learned to get back up and keep going and with every failure you learn something along the way.”
Instead of being driven by Emmys or Oscars, Chestnut says he focuses on perfecting his craft and works toward a flawless performance.
“I have learned to critique myself. There is nothing someone else can tell me about Morris that I don’t already know,” he says candidly.
Chestnut will return to the silver screen in 2016, starring alongside Oscar-winning actress Regina Hall in When the Bough Breaks. He also has a recurring role on TNT’s “Legends,” so fans will be able to catch a double dose of Chestnut on television.
From television to film and even a few live plays thrown in here and there, Chestnut is amongst a small group of privileged Black male actors who audiences have been able to grow consistently with over the last two decades. His acting skills are probably underrated but with opportunities like “Rosewood,” Chestnut is still looking to prove that he is more than just a pretty face. With his shirt on or off, Chestnut’s female fans aren’t going anywhere. Almost 25 years after hearts collectively broke after Tre’s tall, dark and handsome friend Ricky was gunned down in John Singleton’s cult classic, Boyz N the Hood, audiences are still swooning over Morris Chestnut.