Wolé Parks is an American actor and philanthropist from the Bronx, New York. The son of a single mother who worked two jobs so he could get a good education, Parks fell in love with math from an early age. His mother helped foster that passion and it paid off when Wolé was accepted into Stuyvesant High School – a specialized math and science school where at the time, only 4% of the student body population was African-American. While math was his primary focus there, he also joined the football team and the school band. His first experience with acting was being cast in a Kit-Kat commercial when he was 16 years old.
Parks graduated from New York University with a double major – a BA in mathematics and a BFA in acting. After working for five years as an assistant finance director for Geotext Translations, he decided to move to Los Angeles in 2011 to pursue his acting career full time.
In 2012, Parks was cast in his first big movie, Premium Rush. He has been on numerous TV shows, including prominent roles in Devious Maids, The Vampire Diaries and most currently, the popular CW show All American.
When he’s not acting, Wolé Parks volunteers for a variety of nonprofits, including AIDS/LifeCycle and School on Wheels. He has also volunteered for hospices and at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. He enjoys participating in triathlons and has done Tough Mudder eight times.
How did you first get into acting? What drew you to the profession?
That’s a funny story. In high school, I was a well-rounded kid. I played football, I liked math, and I was in band. So I was in band class when I was 16-years-old, and a woman comes in and points to a bunch of students. I thought I was in trouble because I was one of those kids. After the class, she told everyone, “I’m casting for a national Kit-Kat commercial.” She said we could make all this money. I auditioned for the role, had a callback, and I got the part. And I did make a good amount of money, especially for a 16-year-old, and that was my first foray into the idea, “oh, you can make money from acting.”
So I started performing in school plays, and I enjoyed them. That’s what made me decide to audition for NYU for the Tisch program, and I got in. At the same time, however, I loved math as well, and I was also a very practical person. So, in addition to pursuing acting, I also pursued mathematics because I loved it, and I knew it would be my backup career since success in acting isn’t guaranteed.
What keeps you motivated?
Having a really strong sense of self. I say that because whereas in most corporate jobs, there is a sort of linear path for your career, starting at one place and moving up the ladder as you go, but with acting career , you can “do well,” yet not actually be working. You can go to an audition where everyone tells you that you did amazing but then never get a callback. A lot of it has nothing to do with you.
So for me, what keeps me motivated is pushing myself, the idea that I want to be better than I was before, and that I want to be able to leave the room being proud of the work I’ve done. That’s why I say it’s a lot of self-motivation. This is not a business where you can lean on external validation because you’re not going to get it. There are roles you’re going to get that you don’t want, and they’re roles that you really want that you’re not going to get. You just have to go with your own gut and be true to yourself.
What does a typical day consist of for you?
There is no such thing as a typical day for an actor. For example, I had four auditions last Friday. So that was a lot of running around to different casting offices. Some of them I had to put on tape. I also go over to friends’ places to run the auditions with them beforehand. Then there are other days where I don’t have any auditions, and I spend my time doing other things I’m involved with, like the places I volunteer at. I do a lot with School on Wheels. I’ll help out my friends, go work out, or go to cultural events. For the life of an actor, there is no typical day. Your day is what you make of it for that individual day because the next day, it could be completely different.
You do a lot in the community through outreach and volunteering programs such as AIDS/LifeCycle, and School on Wheels. Where do you get your inspiration from?
My inspiration comes from my mom. I was raised by a single mom who was a teacher for 30 years. She’s retired now, but she does a ton of philanthropy work. She runs a soup kitchen and does stuff through the church. I was raised with the idea that you have to leave the world a better place than when you came into it. She put on me the idea that you have to give back to the community.
As for School on Wheels, I tutor for it. I’m very passionate about education. I think it’s the best way to improve not just health and your income, but more like it’s a key to a better life in general. I was lucky enough to have a mom who was a teacher who pushed me. Even though she was a single mom working two jobs, she always pushed me toward education. Therefore, I believe if kids receive a good education, then they’ll have a better life.
As far as the AIDS/LifeCycle’s concerned, I’m a gay man. I’m a black gay man. It’s part of our community, unfortunately, that the statistics right now say that about one in every two black gay men in urban areas will become infected with HIV. Therefore, there’s still a stigma out there. I feel like it’s really important to combat that stigma.
Who has been a role model to you, and why?
Again, this would be my mother. She’s a big role model for me. Like I mentioned in the previous question, she does a ton of philanthropy work and raised me to leave the world a better place. It’s funny because the older I get, the more I realize I am my mother. It’s all the quirks and all the energy. It’s always go, go, go. You achieve something, and you’re like, “Great. Now, what’s next?” Which has pros and cons to it, of course. You do need to learn to have balance. But, I’m very much similar to her, and she’s very important to me.
How do you maintain a solid work-life balance in the entertainment industry?
So, I try and tell people this who are just coming here to LA and moving in. I always say you have to find the things you love that have nothing to do with acting or with the business because those are not in your control. For me, I do Portuguese lessons. I learn it because it’s something I find interesting.
I also work out a lot. I’ve done three triathlons, and I’ve done Tough Mudder eight times. There’s something about pushing myself physically that I’m really interested in. It’s something about the physical and mental balance and connection that intrigues me. I also meditate daily and pray. The mind-and-body balance is important.
What suggestions would you have for some of our readers who may be dreaming of a career in acting?
Get that strong sense of self. I’ll tell you; it is not as easy as you think. I think a lot of people get into it, saying, “Oh, I think I’m just going to become an actor.” But no, you have to make a choice because there is a lot of work entailed. There’s a lot of rehearsal. You’re not going to get that pat on the back that I think people are used to in their lives. So, if this is something you want to do, just know that you really have to love it. Also, sadly, remember that it is a business and a lot of things out of your control. You might not get a role, and it has nothing to do with you and your performance. You might be too short or too tall. You might look too much like the cousin of the producer whom they don’t like. You have to be able to accept that there are a lot of factors out of your control. You need to be passionate about it, and be willing to keep going and have a lot of self-motivation.
What has been the hardest obstacle you’ve overcome?
For me, it’s overcoming the idea that I’m not a good person, that I’m not worthy of good things. It’s more of a mental obstacle for me. I had a very good amount of trials and tribulations in my past, which I’ve had to overcome, but they left me with a negative outlook on myself. Therefore I’ve had to surpass that because I started believing the negative thoughts in my head. So I’ve had to overcome those thoughts. Also, I guess you’re technically supposed to be anonymous, but I have been sober for over 13 years, and that’s something that is very important to me. I do a lot of work in AA, as well. So those are the kinds of things which I’ve overcome.
What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?
I’m going to go back to my mom here, but when I was younger, she told me, “You can be anything you want to be. The only thing stopping you is you.”
What is the biggest life lesson you have learned?
To love me. The idea is kind of like what I said before about overcoming my own demons. It’s the idea that I don’t need anything outside of myself to tell me I’m a good person, or that I’m worthy. I feel like right now with social media, many people seek external validation through likes or posts, or the idea of your self worth is based on how many other people say that you are okay or that you are somebody important. So for me, it was getting past all that in my twenties and just learning to love myself as a person and not worry about other people’s opinions of me. So that’s my biggest lesson that I got for myself. I wish I could’ve gotten it earlier, but I’m glad that I got it at all because I feel like some people never do.
Outside of work, what defines you as a person?
My passion for life. I love to challenge myself. I’m one of those people where I see a problem, and I want to find the solution, sometimes even to my own detriment because I’ll bang my head on the wall to get through to the other side. It’s my sobriety, cultural stuff, volunteering, or even learning Portuguese. It’s my drive, my passion, and my commitment to whatever I do.
What advice would you give an 18-year old Wolé Parks?
I’m going to sound redundant, but I would tell my 18-year-old self to love himself and that he’s enough. That was something I didn’t know at the time, but I have grown to know now.
Explain the proudest day of your professional life.
It was probably being cast in the movie Premium Rush, which was so early in my career. It was going to the movie premiere and being on the red carpet, but more importantly, it was having a ton of my friends there and getting to bring my mother onto the red carpet with me because my mother worked so hard. My mother is an amazing woman, and to share that with her and all my loved ones was absolutely amazing.
What has been your biggest personal accomplishment?
I know this is weird to say, but I don’t know. I guess it’s because there are always new accomplishments every day, and I’m also a person where I’m not very good at resting on my laurels. For example, my biggest accomplishment for last week was getting through four auditions in one day, even though I was exhausted. There will be a new accomplishment next week. I guess I don’t look as far as what is individually my biggest accomplishment, because I don’t think an individual accomplishment defines me. Perhaps my accomplishment is that I’m still pursuing something that I decided to do on a whim eight years ago when I moved from New York to Los Angeles. I gave up everything I had in New York, my very safe life. So my biggest accomplishment is the fact that I still have a dream, I still dream new dreams, and I’m also willing to keep them going.
I guess my biggest accomplishment is my tenacity.