Kenan Thompson has been making audiences laugh for more than three decades. But behind his funny, approachable demeanor is a focused, ownership-minded entrepreneur who feels most comfortable collaborating with like-talented individuals. As the principal cast member with the longest-running tenure on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” Thompson’s impeccable timing and physicality keep him at the forefront of the show with memorable sketches like “Black Jeopardy.”
Born in Columbus, Georgia, and raised in Atlanta, Thompson commands the ship on his new self-titled sitcom, “Kenan,” on NBC. With the show well into its freshman season, he is taking his latest steps outside of his comedian persona and showcasing his acting chops. Speaking to rolling out, Thompson explains why ownership is at the top of his priorities and how he’s fully capable of performing dramatic roles.
When your career is wholly rooted in comedy, is changing the course to dramatic roles a priority?
I definitely can do drama. Growing up, in high school, that’s all we did. I always wound up with a comic relief-type role. But they were all serious subjects, and they were plays we wrote ourselves. It was a deep exploration for high school kids. We put on shows, and we moved a lot of audiences in a lot of emotional ways. We were doing very heavy, rich material at a young age, so I think I’m more than capable. Hopefully, this sitcom will be like a nice, slow introduction to that ability. I always consider myself an actor first.
Do you have a play from that period in particular that stuck with you that you want to resurrect?
There was one that I never got to perform with my group that was amazing. It was called, “Soweto! Soweto! Soweto! A Township is Calling.” It was about kids in South Africa who were dealing with apartheid and also trying to do well. They were dealing with a lot of, like, crazy things [and] instances of violence when they really should be worried about playing soccer or doing their homework. That was one play that was always very emotional and moving. I wish I would have been able to perform with them, but the timing [wasn’t good]. I was all about in and out with Nickelodeon or whatever else I was doing at the time. I wouldn’t want to let anybody down [doing drama]. I grew up around some amazing actors. The comedy thing is something I’ve always enjoyed, but the performance ensemble is serious.
Is it easier to break into comedy these days? What do you think about the path to the top now?
It’s changed how you can go about becoming a voice in the comedy world. I didn’t come up through the comedy club myself. I was acting on Nickelodeon or whatnot, [playing] other characters in movies and stuff that was down a comedic road [that] led me to try out for “SNL.” … I used Nickelodeon to bring attention to myself, but you don’t need that [now]. You have your phone, and if you’re funny enough or creative enough to keep putting it out on a timely basis, you garner attention. There hasn’t been a time like this, ever. Training, though, at the same time is very critical.
As you get further into the more professional world of it all, you should know what audiences see. If it’s an “SNL” audience or [another show], you should know where the camera is. You should know how all the departments work and how to work with other people. The pursuit of making your name can be very individual, but when it comes to working with an ensemble, you should know how to do that, too. That will serve you in the end. You can always show people you’re able to stand on your own two feet but, at the same time … can you put yourself in a position where it’s not necessarily about me but about the project?
What is the best advice you’ve received, and what advice would you give?
The best advice is never to give anybody power over your stuff, to always maintain ownership [of] the sound or shape of anything you’re doing. Banking, contracts, whatever — you should be the last say on anything that has to do with you. But my advice that I cherish [came from] Steve [Harvey]. Steve was like, you know, take every job they offered. I take that with a grain of salt, but I knew what he was trying to say.
Amid an already prolific career, what inspires you now?
Ownership is the biggest at the moment. Any project I’m going to be stepping into from this point? The percentage of ownership is going to be one of the motivating factors. Ownership is key.
Words by Jeandra LeBeauf
Images by Chris Haston/NBC