Washington is the seat of power, but Hollywood is the seat of influence. It is therefore crucial that people are properly represented with true, positive images. Our industry has a profound effect on not just our society, but the whole world. We need to be responsible.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make Film and TV more representative of the US population, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kirk Taylor. Kirk Taylor is finding his “second act” as a film performer, appearing in the new musical film “Revival!”, a new rendering of the Gospel according to John. Produced by and starring Harry Lennix (“The Blacklist”), Taylor stars as Cephas (known as Simon Peter), the apostle who denies knowing Jesus, appearing with an all-star cast that includes Chaka Khan, Michelle Williams, and T’Keyah Crystal Keymah. “Revival” opens in select cities in April 2019, and is co-directed by Danny Green (“Troubled Waters”) and Obba Babatunde (“Miss Evers’ Boys”), and features a gospel-inspired score by Grammy nominee Mali Music.
A student of both Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, Kirk Taylor’s life as a performer has found him working regularly in memorable supporting roles in films such as “Death Wish 3,” “School Daze,” The Last Dragon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and later in acclaimed indie dramas like “MacArthur Park” and “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn.”
Guided by his deep faith and a lifelong respect for the craft of performing, Taylor’s resurgence on the big screen follows years of work as an acting coach and stage performer, with Broadway, regional, and off-Broadway credits in both contemporary and classical works. An avid musician and composer, Taylor’s creativity knows few bounds.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Kirk! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It was a cold rainy afternoon in my sophomore year of High School, when I needed a ride home after class. I asked my cousin Monica, who agreed to give me that ride on one condition: I had to audition with her for the school play. I adamantly said no way, but the rain, sleet, and blustering wind inspired me to change my answer. To my surprise, I ended up getting the lead role of the M.C. in the musical “Cabaret.” After the standing ovation I received following my very first performance, I knew I found my place. Her coercion won out, and here I still am! Monica remains one of my biggest supporters and encouragers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In 2001, I landed a lead role in the indie feature “MacArthur Park,” the directorial debut of actor Billy Wirth (“The Lost Boys,” ”War Party”). We made it to the Sundance Film Festival, and as I watched the completed film for the first time, I knew I had captured something unique. But in their rush, they forgot to put my name in the credits! I was crushed. We then did a screening in LA, with a who’s who in attendance. And even though the response was great, I still felt cheated. I walked into the hallway to shake it off, and out of the corner of my eye I saw someone moving towards me… it was Sydney Poitier. He walked right up to me and said, “Excuse me, did you play the cop?” To which I replied, “Yes, Mr. Poitier I did.” He then said, “I want you to know that I watched you very closely, and I did not know if you were a real cop or an actor. That is meant to be a compliment to you. I thought to myself, ‘That cop should be an actor!’” Astonished I replied, “That really means so much to me, sir. They left my name out of the credits…” and he interrupted me with, “Where you are going in your career that will not matter. The presence you bring to the screen…” and at that point I was so overwhelmed by his words that my hearing went out. I literally could not hear anything else he said. All I could do was watch his lips moving and think, “That’s Mr. Tibbs!” I like to call that a God nod, like Him saying to me, “I got you son, don’t you worry!” That was one of the highest compliments possible, from one of the greatest actors of any generation. What an amazing moment.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a young actor, I had an audition that required me to play the violin. They made it very clear in the audition notes that they wanted real players. I played piano, trumpet, and a tiny bit of guitar, and knew I would not learn to play the violin overnight, but at that time I believed that if they asked you if you could do some skill or another, the answer was always yes! Then you just had to fake it ‘till you make it. I figured that it only needs to look like I played. I walked into the audition, greeted them, and was handed a violin and bow. I slowly positioned myself the way I had seen it done, and after a dramatic pause, started making the most ungodly screeches and scratches on that poor violin. They were stunned and mortified to say the least. I rushed out of there, and decided to never put myself in that situation again. Now I’m much more careful about what I commit to. I still take chances at times, but I’m much more realistic and grounded!
Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
Diversity should be my middle name. The song “We Are The World” is really about me and my family! As a child it was a concern, because being raised in an African American family but not looking like any of the other kids in the area became an identity crisis for me. I asked my Dad why we looked different than the other Black kids in the neighborhood. He responded by giving me the run down of all of the different people groups we came from. Besides representing different African nations, he told me that we have at least four Native American tribes; that we have Irish, English, French, Hispanic, and that we were even related to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General, via a visit to the slave quarters. He capped it all off by saying, “And we have a Rabbi in the family!” I now realize that my heritage is a gold mine. Even so, I feel like I’m part of a group of performers who don’t necessarily fit into the traditional or stereotypical molds that Hollywood has used in the past. I work closely with my team at GEM Entertainment Group to push for non-traditional submissions and casting. I believe that some of the roles I’ve secured have become an example to the wide array of possibilities as to what characters can look like. As an “ethnically ambiguous” actor, I can fit into many “looks.” I played a Jewish-French attorney on “All My Children,” a British arms dealer on “NCIS Los Angeles,” an Afro-Puerto Rican criminal in “Death Wish 3,” and a Russian General in a production of Chekhov’s play “Three Sisters,” among others. I think there needs to be more flexibility and creativity in writing and casting, to give actors like me more opportunites to represent diverse characters.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
I was doing the First Broadway Tour of the musical “Five Guys Named Moe” in 1993–1994. We stopped for a week in Nashville, Tennessee. As was my habit, I picked a church from the phone book on Sunday and took an early morning cab there. The church had a great service, but as it ended, I realized that I had very little time to make it back to the theater for the matinee. I was wondering how I was going to get back to the venue, when I got a tap on my shoulder from a young woman sitting directly behind me. She asked if I was in the show “Five Guys Named Moe,” to which I replied yes. She then told me she had recently gotten out of a terrible live-in relationship, and had to move back in with her parents. As she stayed at their place, depressed and discouraged, her mother bought her a ticket to our show, and informed her that it was mandatory she attend. She begrudgingly went. Within five minutes of the curtain rising, the “Five Guys” had popped out of the radio with the mission to get my character Nomax out of his depression and self pity. What were the chances?! With conga lines, on stage audience participation, a smoking hot Jazz Band, amazing vocal harmonies, and breathtaking choreography, the “Moes” not only rescued Nomax, but her in the audience as well! I had another habit that played a big part in this event: before every performance, I prayed backstage for the audience, that they would be refreshed and encouraged by our jubilant little Music-Box show. And there I was, sittting in what I thought was just a random church, directly in front of someone I didn’t know, but who had desperately needed the answer of that prayer. And she really received the answer! That young lady was transported from despair into joyful hope because of the “Five Guys.” She told me that our show probably saved her life. She thanked me profusely, then gave me a ride to the theater so I didn’t miss my matinee call time! What she didn’t realize is that as much as the show encouraged her, she encouraged me, and let me know to keep praying and keep giving my best during my performances.
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in film and television and its potential effects on our culture?
- Washington is the seat of power, but Hollywood is the seat of influence. It is therefore crucial that people are properly represented with true, positive images. Our industry has a profound effect on not just our society, but the whole world. We need to be responsible.
- In the history of film and television, certain people controlled the narrative about other people. The propaganda and lies displayed for those marginalized groups did untold damage to the self image and dignity of those unique groups throughout many generations. Each group should have their own say about the images that represent them.
- We have the power to inspire, encourage, and refresh people for generations to come. What we create can influence and change the world for the better.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
- Add a developmental wing to studios and production houses, to create stories for different under represented groups.
- Create and fund organizations like Kids In The Spotlight. They are a group of industry professionals who share their knowledge and provide a safe environment for foster youth to develop their stories: from script writing workshops to shooting and eventually screening their films. Lives are transformed and given purpose. We need much more of that!
- Build up a network of groups that will not only stand together for influence, but hold accountable those who are resisting reasonable change.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think the essence of leadership is to have a servant’s heart. Someone who comes alongside others to share the load. When I have worked with people who were involved, concerned, and compassionate, I was inspired to do almost anything to help the project work. I knew that they would have my back, so I could take more risks knowing that they would not let me fail. I have had the privilege of working with some directors who have employed these kinds of leadership strategies; they created an environment of trust, and were able to inspire and rally committed troops to successful exploits.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Have fun! There should be a joy that accompanies all of our artistic ventures. Even in painful moments that we portray for the world to see, embrace the joy of personal creation.
- You don’t have to have all the right answers, just keep the questions coming. In preparing for a project, the curiosity that fuels the process is invaluable. Discoveries will always come, so never lose your childlike wonder.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect; just be your committed, true self. We are often kinder to complete strangers than we are to ourselves. A little self love will help.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. The focus should not be about being better than someone else, but being better than yourself. Strive to be the best you.
- Growth can continue to happen throughout your life and career. Don’t get stuck, don’t ever think you know it all. Be willing to say “I don’t know,” and the universe will open to you.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think that it might be a movement for more practical and comprehensive education. We spend a lot of time learning things that we will never use in the real world, while other important things are almost completely ignored. There should be a practical class about relationships, so people know how to have healthy interactions. You’re going to be in relationships of one kind or another for an entire lifetime, whether good or bad, so why not learn how to treat people? Ultimately it comes down to loving people. The foundation of everything and anything can be love, compassion, and real tolerance. There should also be a “Morals and Ethics in Social Media” component to that education as well. That alone could be transformative!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 42:10 (NASB).
Written by one of the major prophets of Israel over 2,700 years ago during a tumultuous time in their history, these words still comfort and encourage me today. So many times in life and particularly in this business, we as artists can feel isolated. The great French actor Francois-Joseph Talma said that acting had twin requisites: “unusual sensitivity and extraordinary intelligence.” Those very elements can make life difficult, awkward, and lonely for those of an artistic temperament. It is common to feel isolated and misunderstood, and it is a great comfort to me that there is a higher power always there for me. I am truly never alone.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dustin Hoffman. Of the Method Acting trio that we have come to admire — DeNiro, Pacino and Hoffman — he is the most technically savvy of the group. He is a true craftsman and artist: consistent, creative, emotionally supported work. I was fortunate to see him perform on Broadway in “Death of A Salesman” and “The Merchant of Venice.” I came back multiple times for both productions, and was fascinated to see moments that were consistently nailed down emotionally, as well as moments that changed from night to night, with an in-the-moment almost improvisational element. When I was teaching at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York in the late 80s, I got in contact with his people to arrange for him to come and speak to my students, just as Anna Strasberg had done with Al Pacino when I was training there. We got so close to making final arrangements, but for some reason things fell through at the last minute. So now I want my lunch!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram and Twitter: @IAmKirkTaylor
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
It was my pleasure!