Michael Jai White Interview

Michael Jai White

'Wonder' Bread

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A New York City landmark

Silvercup Bakeries made the sandwich bread of choice when I was growing up in New Jersey. Biblical amounts of Silvercup loaves and (tuna) fishes went to school with me in my lunchbox.

The bakery is no more, but the buildings where the bread dough churned are now the studios of most of today's New York City-based television productions. Shows such as The Sopranos, Now and Again, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order are filmed cheek-by-jowl on the west side of Queens.

The newest production to film under the Silvercup sign is also the newest TV Single Dad show: ABC's Wonderland, a medical drama starring Michael Jai White as an emergency room doctor in a New York psychiatric hospital. The show, created by Chicago Hope's Peter Berg, begins airing at the end of March.

Y2K's mid-season replacement shows have been noticeably lacking in Single Dad-ness. The only other show featuring a dad who happened to be single is the animated Sammy, starring David Spade, on NBC. Sammy flunked the Grandpa Munster test, as the dad is not Head of Household. So, Wonderland became my sole focus on capturing a face-to-face interview.

I had a promise to keep: last year, I told my son James that he could come with me on my next face-to-face interview. Since this interview was going to take place within 300 miles of our home, I figured it was the best time to pay up. So, we loaded up the pickup truck and headed for Queens.

The studio is composed of several non-connected buildings, scattered over a ten-block area along the East River. My careful mis-read of the directions took us to the wrong studio, and navigating back to the right building ate up most of the morning. The sets for Wonderland were in Silvercup's east annex, a square, hangar-sized building sitting opposite the Long Island Expressway.

My son and I trudged into the freezing-cold Studio E, weaving around a maze of flood lights, cables, fake ambulances, hospital props, and extras dressed in police uniforms. In a studio, I learned a while back to track down the PA's (production assistants) who were easy to spot because they were always talking into headsets. I asked a PA to lead us to Eric, the ABC network publicist, and she located him in seconds. Eric was in the hospital office set, where an ABC crew was filming an Electronic Press Kit (EPK). EPK's are short interviews, sent out to network affiliates in places like Oshkosh and Baton Rouge for filler entertainment stories on the local news.

Eric said that Michael Jai was filming a scene at the moment, but he'd try to find some free time to conduct the interview. We walked over to the emergency room set to see when Michael Jai would be free.

Michael Jai was discussing the use of a medical intubator with a technical advisor as we arrived on the ER set. Michael's a tall man and very soft-spoken, and he seemed intrigued by the website. After talking with Eric, it seemed as though it would be a few minutes before the interview could get underway. Eric led me back to the hospital office set, and suggested that we watch an interview for the EPK before I had a chance with Michael.

Michelle Forbes - Courtesy ABC TelevisionMichelle Forbes

The EPK crew was set up for an interview with Michelle Forbes, formerly of NBC's Homicide and now one of the psychiatrists on Wonderland. Michelle had a previous screen credit she didn't want to talk about: she had been a recurring character as Ensign Ro on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I had a bunch of non-TV Single Dad questions I would have loved to ask her. Michelle had turned down the role which later became Major Kira on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and had also turned down a reprise of her role as a Maquis leader on Star Trek: Voyager. Both of these gigs were lucrative, considering the certain syndication residuals for years to come. Why would anyone turn down such a sure thing? She didn't want to talk about it and I had no reason to ask, so I just watched the interview proceed. An ABC rep asked off-camera, "What are the differences between your role on Homicide and your role on Wonderland?" Michelle thought a moment and said, "Well, in this series, my clients aren't DEAD, for one thing."

Michelle got me thinking about Star Trek. In its many incarnations, the Star Trek franchise produced three TV Single Dads - Worf on Michelle's series, Captain Sisko, and the Ferengi Rom, on Star Trek:Deep Space Nine. The actors who portrayed Worf and Sisko also reminded me of a sad rarity on television - to date, there were only four African Americans actors who have portrayed Single Dads on television: Michael Dorn (Worf), Avery Brooks (Sisko), Redd Foxx (of Sanford & Son) and Gregory Hines (of the short-lived Gregory Hines Show). Michael Jai White would be the fifth African American actor in the fifty-year history of television to portray a TV Single Dad.

The television networks received a rightfully-deserved pummeling over the nearly all-white casts of shows premiering the previous fall. That said, I don't think Michael Jai was hired as some atonement or appeasement for the mistakes of the previous season. In his own right, Michael Jai White has displayed an acting range from drama, to comedy, to science fiction, romance, and classic works. He's worked in the most difficult of dramatic stages: trying to emote in front of special effects "green screen" backgrounds and still managing to convey a storyline. His role as Mike Tyson in an HBO biography rode the difficult line between portrayal and mimicry - - an unforgiving place where a misstep would bring critical assault. Michael Jai survived all these arduous roles and now must compete with the crop of already-successful medical dramas.

Eric came back to the office set with Michael Jai and suggested we try to get at least part of the interview while there was a break in the filming. Michael sat down, and I fumbled with the minidisc recorder. The microphone had been giving me problems, so I changed out the battery for a fresh one. Must be the cold weather, I said, and Eric agreed with me.

The Interview Begins

Michael Jai - So, weather kills batteries?

Eric - The cold weather will draw a battery down.

Michael Jai - Oh, I'd never heard of that. Two things I've learned: heating pads [holds up a heating pad], and cold weather drains energy from batteries!

Michael, I appreciate you taking this time - -

Michael Jai - No problem.

I - I think I explained before that my site, TVDADS.COM, tracks the history of single dads on television for the past fifty years -

Michael Jai - Mm-hmm -

And you're the newest TV Single Dad -

Michael Jai - Right -

And - most of the questions I'm going to ask you about - are about your role on the show and how - how being a Single Dad on the show works. But, I have some questions - - just general questions about your career and things -

Michael Jai - Mm-hmm -

Um, you're filming here in New York, and I believe you live out on the west coast. Is the filming of a series in New York - does that pose a lot of special difficulties for you while you're jumping back and forth? I mean, is it -

Michael Jai - Well, not really. Um, well, I jump back and forth, but one of the things is that - - well, it's been good being on the east coast. I'm from the east coast. I'm from New York, originally.

Oh -

Michael Jai - And I get a chance to spend time with my son. I have a 9-year-old - -

Oh, great!

Michael Jai - - who's in Connecticut, so that's been - that's been wonderful! I've had loads of time with him --


Michael Jai --- you know, so I am - - I am actually a *Single TV Dad! * [laughs] - - like, "squared," you know?

Yeah! So, do you draw on a lot of your personal experiences?

Michael Jai - Oh, definitely!

So, you act like a dad, from the dad you know you already are?

Michael Jai - Yeah, yeah - - definitely!

Now, this is your first regular TV series?

Michael Jai - Yes. Yes it is.

And previously, you've worked mostly in movies that involved green screens and fighting and things..

Michael Jai - Well, some - some of them. I've only worked in one special-effect movie. But, most of the parts I've played have been - - on the "macho-side" of the - you know, kind of action-ish - - - and some comedies and what-have-you. I've been blessed to -- to have been a part of - - - varying roles.

Is it difficult in a sense of - - I mean, I would imagine that this is - this is a great opportunity, this is a great role to be in, and it's a different role from a lot of the roles in what you've been in the past - -

Michael Jai - Mm-hmm - -

Is it difficult to get into a role like this? That, um, you know, casting people look at you and say, "oh wait, you do action / adventure - you do, um, that kind of stuff." Is that- have you had any kind of difficulties with that in casting for say, for this series?

Michael Jai - No, not with this series. See, well - - Peter Berg had known me from a dramatic movie, and so that's where he drew from - as far as his knowledge of me. And I don't think he's ever seen me do -- the --- UniversalSoldier: The Return - - type of thing... Even though you can say Tyson was somewhat of a "physical" role, but like 90% of that is all acting. It's a total - - drama - - actually there's just a small part in the ring, as far as the movie's concerned.

When you go into video stores and things like that, and you see your previous works in boxes on the shelves - - when you work on things now, and you know that your work here will be looked at twenty, thirty years in the future - I mean, right now it's something that you're doing every day, but when you get to thinking that people are going to be looking at your role here, twenty or thirty years from now and judge your work - - does that ever - do you ever get that feeling of "cultural vertigo" about how long your particular work is going to be around?

Michael Jai - Oh boy, no! I barely think of it. Actually, once I've finished a role, I really - I don't know - almost to a fault, I don't think about it anymore. I'm not really trying to hypnotize myself and say, "forget about it" for any therapeutic reasons or what have you. I just think of it as, "I did that." I'm so focused on what I want to do next, or in the future - - and the past is in the past. I'd like to be able to do the best I can, so I won't look back and regret something, or regret not working as hard as I could have. That's one thing that would make me reflect back - if I left some stones unturned. But I just try to hit everything with the best of my ability. I don't really look back too much.

Now in previous works where - - you've done in feature films, where it's a very closely controlled script and you have to hit your marks in a certain way and a certain time - - the understanding I have about this show is - it's a lot more improv - that there' s a lot more leeway given to you. - -

And then Eric came back. "They need him," he said.

We broke for lunch. James and I grabbed a few sandwiches at a nearby deli and came back to chow down on the set.

"You know, when I watch this show," said James, "I'll always look for this stack of game boards next to this table. And I'll know that's the table where I ate my lunch." An interesting metanym for remembering this day.

A prop guy came by and started swapping fake clocks on the walls of the set. Since real clocks would make continuity a problem, and since stopped clocks would be too obvious, the clocks on the walls had moving second hands, but immobile minute and hour hands.

As we were finishing our sandwiches, Eric came back with Michael Jai. Michael Jai was shuffling a pack of playing cards - practicing a card trick for the show. We stepped inside an office set (ironically named "Interview Room 3") and

The Interview Continues

We were talking about your history, but let's talk about Wonderland. One of the things I was noticing while you were doing that last take up there is that you had to spout a lot of jargon. Has that been difficult? I mean, knowing about RBCs [red blood cell counts] and things like that, and just being able to spout that so quickly?

ABC TelevisionCourtesy ABC Television

Michael Jai - Yes, I kind of - - I guess it can be difficult, at times, you know. But, you've got people here to help you. Sometimes it's hard to memorize things when you don't know what you're talking about. That's why it helps out memorization if you can connect it with something - - in layman's terms. So they have to break that down to me, and it's like - - it's kinda like another language. So it can be a little difficult at times, but you know - - you'll get through it.

Did you have to make rounds and things? Did you have to go to psychiatric hospitals and get the feel of it?

Michael Jai - Well, I went to emergency rooms, just to get the feel of that. And I noticed that, depending on whoever is in charge, there would be different - - it would be a different kind of 'flavor,' so to speak. It's impossible to be around - to encounter every type of situation that comes in - but just the feel and the mood - I spent time just to grab that.

The filming itself - you've worked mostly on feature films - that has a more slower, ordered pace; where this is very intensive. Is it something you have to build up to - over doing so many episodes back-to-back?

Michael Jai - Yeah, this particular project encourages improv. I kinda miss out on it a little bit, because I can't improv medical terminology, or medical situations. Seeing that the majority of the time that I'm doing things here, it's dealing with medical terminology and what-have-you... if I were to improv, I'd say, "Bring me that BEEPING thing!" So, I can't really do that.

Yeah - -

Michael Jai - So, yeah, it's different. It's really comfortable in a locked-down situation where, in movies, you KNOW exactly what you're going to say and there's very little room for improv, usually. This one is a little looser, but I think that other actors on the program would kind of benefit from that a little more.

Now, you came late to the party - they did the pilot, and then you were brought in afterwards. Was it - are you the 'New Guy?' When you were first building up into the series, did it feel like you were playing catch-up with a couple of the other people here?

Michael Jai - Yeah, I was *definitely* the 'New Guy!' I've always felt that it's like two-fold: not only am I the New Guy, I'm the *Emergency Room Guy*.. So, I don't have as many scenes with everyone else, and the things that are going on between the cast, around the cast - I don't really see it very much. I don't know, you know, "what's the *scoop*?" [laughs] I come in, and the rest of the cast is *seldom* on the emergency room set, so we don't really encounter each other too much. But they encounter each other - not me. So I'm kind of - -

You're like - your own little show out here.

Michael Jai - Yes, it's like I'm doing my own little show!

The first episode that's coming out is going to be featuring the relationship between you and your daughter, with a spelling bee and things like that. Could you describe a little bit about the relationship, like how you became a Single Dad? Do you know the circumstances surrounding *being* a Single Dad on there?

Michael Jai - Well, I don't know what happened to the mom - I don't think anyone does. It's just written that way right now. But for myself, I have to create some kind of back story. If it works for me and I'm the character, so be it. As long as the back story is - so that it's real, and we haven't really dealt with it at all, anyway. I've kind of entertained the thought of - being that it's such a standard for women bringing up boys - or where a mom brings up a boy and has to be both a mother and a father, I entertained the thought of - you know, should I try to be a bit more sensitive in trying to be a mother also, as well as a father? So, I think there's a little bit of that in there - where I make an effort.

The buildup of your relationship with your daughter: was it - how do you get into that kind of a role, when you're first - I'm sure you read the script and say to yourself, "okay this is how I see it." Do you have to work that out with the actress who is portraying your daughter? Do you talk about it with her at all?

Michael Jai - Well for me, it's like this: whatever background they could have written for the daughter doesn't matter as much as what the particular actress brings to the program - - brings to me. If, in the description - - if she contradicts the description, I have to go with *her,* because that is the personality. If she's flighty by the description but she's - but they cast someone who's very mature for her age, or just on top of it, you've got to deal with that person. So, I don't really think about that kind of stuff. I let whatever natural chemistry unfold.

Now, she seems to be - - we were talking about the medical terminology and all that - - she seems to be the main focus for you to do improv in the series. Is that how - -

Michael Jai - Yeah, that's the only place I can do that, you know, because that's just - - human situations. And so, yeah, in that situation, yeah, I can do improv.

Do you spend - time-wise in the scripts, you've done these eight episodes, are you spending about half-and-half time on-screen with her versus being in the ER?

Michael Jai - No, actually it's a lot more ER stuff, because it's, after all, a drama. It's dealing with life-and-death issues and psychiatric medicine, and where I fit into all of that. A lot of times I'm dispatching - certain times I'm dispatching people to the psychiatric department. So, I would say the majority has been in the ER.

We've got other shows - ER, Chicago Hope, - - I'm sure you've probably been asked this question five hundred-thousand times before...

Michael Jai - Not really... [laughs]

What separates this medical drama from all the other medical dramas that seem to be surrounding it? I mean, you're going to be coming up on your premiere opposite ER - -

Michael Jai - Mm-hmm.

Do you feel there's enough of a separation between all the other shows? I mean, how do you stand out from all these other shows that are on the air?

Michael Jai - Yeah, I'm the only ER component. What stands out for this show is that it's the first one that delves into the human mind - - into psychiatric medicine. It's about time for a show like this to be on, really, and I think it's a great time for it, because I think people are fascinated with looking deeper within themselves and others. It's the one thing that I think - - in every school system, you don't learn about. I mean, everybody knows about, knows a degree about biology, and how to do the basics as far as health-wise is concerned for the *outer* health, basically. But, you know, I think people are more and more fascinated with what goes on in the brain.

The question that I ask every TV Single Dad about - you're joining a group of Single Dad shows, like Bonanza ---

Michael Jai - Mm-hmm..

There's been so many TV Single Dad shows on television - - as a TV Single Dad, do you have any idea why there's such a popularity, such a focus on single dads on television?

Michael Jai - Well, because it mirrors society, I think, number one. That's why you see more single dads, now, I think. The fact that there's more men on television now, will help that. It has been around for quite some time - - I think I can remember a majority of the TV Single Dads. It's in my mind now - -when I date back in my head, I think, "wow - - Bill Bixby!" and all these people... I don't really know what all the attraction was then, but I think it's a connection to society, nowadays.

Michael Jai recorded an ID for the website (Click here for a listen) and picked up his deck of cards. He turned to James.

" Pick a card." James picked a card.

"Okay, now put it back in the deck." Michael Jai shuffled the cards and flipped a few around, and cut them back-to-back. He laid the entire deck out on the set table, and spread all the face-down cards. Sure enough, James's card was the only card face up.

"Neat!" said James. Michael Jai smiled.

We thanked Michael and left the studio. I turned to James. "Sorry I didn't get you an autograph."

"Never mind that - the guy showed me a card trick!" His day was made.

It will take more than card tricks to get Wonderland to stand out from the other medical dramas. Being up against ER isn't going to be a picnic for the show, either. Even with the lead-in of the megahit Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, it's going to take strong marketing and writing to get this show past its first eight episodes. This time around, a product of Silvercup is hopefully *not* going to be eaten for lunch.