Late last week Orlando Jones released a video stating he was fired from the show American Gods on STARZ because of race implications. Here at Purposely Awakened, it is our mission to highlight issues such as this one that arise in our community.
I was blessed with the opportunity to interview Mr. Jones on behalf of the magazine where he chatted more on the situation and what his next moves are.
Growing up and still till this day, who are some of your inspirations and how did they impact your life?
I always think that is a tricky question because you can never name them all. You can only name the ones that come to you in the moment. If I had to sort of circle the ones that I think are probably the most impactful for me, one would be James Baldwin, his work was extremely impactful for me and Dick Gregory, is another human being who was extremely impactful, as he was one of the first comedians that I’d ever seen, as well as one of the first entertainers that didn’t discuss who he was as a victim, and I think that the same is true for James Baldwin. They described the conditions with a great deal of empathy and understanding but they were not victims.
When did you realize that you had a passion for acting and working in Hollywood?
I can’t say that I had a passion for working in Hollywood. I mean I’ve always been [in it]…my first job in Hollywood was as a writer. So, I think it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m a storyteller and I think that the truth of the matter is, that you have to make a simple and critical decision; which is that Hollywood has a very specific rule as a business, so either you are working in your craft. And the craft is in my world a very important aspect where you’re working but trying to be successful in the medium, whatever that is.
In my opinion, the medium changes. We see that happen in music. We’re watching it happen in television; in that they’ve gone from records, 78’s and 45’s to 8 tracks and compact discs and now we are at downloads. But someone’s ability to play, that’s the craft; someone’s ability to be successful in all of those formats, that’s the medium in the business. So for me, I’ve probably been doing that since I was a kid; maybe 15 or 16-years old, and I think that it was something that other people noticed in me; it wasn’t something that I noticed in myself but overtime it did become clear to me that if my public speaker teacher said to me; it was the lady who got me into debate, “I stand up in front of this class everyday and I can’t get these people to shut up and you get up and two seconds later, they’re quiet and want to hear what you have to say. That’s a very particular type of gift and I’m gonna teach you how to use it”, and she did.
What was your first your first job in Hollywood?
My first writing job in Hollywood was on A Different World.
At what point did you realize that you had “made it” as a writer and as an actor?
I don’t know what that means exactly. I think “made it” is very different to different people at different times in their careers and I also think it depends on how you see success; how you view success. For me, I’m still as passionate about what I do as I was then, so I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “made it”. There is always striving to continue to grow your craft but I don’t think that there’s a mountaintop and if there is, I don’t care about being on one mountaintop. I care about continuing to climb and grow and to expand but I don’t think that communication, which is what art is, is about “making it”. It’s about commerce and people who want to be famous. I don’t want to be famous. I wanted to tell stories and communicate with other human beings.
Over the years, you’ve had many memorable roles; most recently you were, Mr, Nancy in American Gods. How did you land that pivotal role in that show?
I was and I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan and I’d read the book and really liked it and when I heard that they were making the show, I sent him a message on Twitter and I was like, ‘Hey man, I’d love to do Mr. Nancy’. But the real way that it happened was Margie Simkin who was the casting director; along with her partner, Orly Sitiwitz. I had worked with Margie Simkin in the past and she went to Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and said, ‘What do you think of Orlando Jones for Mr. Nancy?’, they apparently liked that idea and they called me up and I had just flown in from Africa where I was shooting a project called, Madiba, with Laurence Fishburne. We had a conversation and that was it, after I spoke with Bryan and Michael, they sent an offer over as I was Mr. Nancy.
In Season One, your introduction to the show, the story of black people in America was polarizing. What were your initial thoughts on the reading of the script?
I don’t see truth as polarizing, I see it as liberating. For me, Anansi is a god, he’s not a man and I think that one of the things that people often struggle with is that they think that he is speaking as a man and he is not. He is speaking as a god; and he’s only there because someone prayed to him and he came to liberate the person who prayed to him and he is completely comfortable with everyone killing themselves in sacrifice to Anansi. So, I did it hilarious that people would find that polarizing because all of these….if you’re a racist, all the black people die in that scene; you should be happy and if you’re black or if you’re disenfranchised, then you are able to get a snapshot of the difficulties that has befallen my people; and that we are still fighting today and I thought it was beautifully written and it was not apologetic; and it was probably the first time I’d ever read anything for a movie or television that unapologetically described what it feels like; and I think that it laid out a clear action at the end of it for those slaves to take.
So, I was excited by it. I thought it was going to be groundbreaking. I’d never seen or heard anything like that. I’d never seen an African god or heard anything like that before, that’s why I was so excited about the character in the beginning and why I emailed Neil Gaiman. So, I was overjoyed that I had always dreamed of what Anansi could be, there it was in black and white on the page and all I had to do was to bring it to life.
Your role in season two would expand as you would also become a writer. Becoming a writer, did it help to make Anansi more real for you or all you to put more of yourself into that role?
I put myself into season one, so I don’t think that I put more of myself into it. It was simply a situation that was unfortunate in that I really didn’t have the time to be apart of American Gods season one because I was, as I said, shooting three films and doing something really comprehensive about the apartheid movement; playing someone who was one of my idols, Oliver Tambo. I remain in awe of Oliver Tambo as a human being and to play him from a young man to his death was extremely important to me, so I couldn’t get from Africa to Toronto, so I only did two scenes in season one.
In season two, those writers who were writing extremely extraordinary material were suddenly gone and I had a problem because the people who had the job at the time, didn’t know how to write the character and clearly had no interest in it, so having been a writer for 25 years, I know how to do the job but I really wasn’t expecting to have to do it for myself, let alone others. So I was just really acting out of survival mode.
We had set a very high bar in season one for Mr. Nancy and there was a lot excitement about getting to see more of him in season two and I just didn’t want to disappoint fans and so I jumped into the writing chair for Mr. Nancy really to try and maintain the high bar, quality and focus of the story that he told and I was just protecting the character and protect myself as a performer; you’re only as good as the last thing you did in this business and so I didn’t want these gifted writers who left the project to suddenly put me in a situation where now Mr. Nancy was crap and so I kind of dove into it with that responsibility.
What I also wasn’t expecting was that I was going to get all of the disenfranchised characters; Kahyum Kim, who plays “New Media”, a Korean born actress, I had Salim and Jinn, Palenstian and Muslim, both actors, who were straight in real life, but playing two gay characters; writing them. I had “Shadow Moon” the French born lead of the show. I had Demore, who was playing Mr. Ibis on the show. I had (Dobos?), a Nigerian born, African actress, I had Sam Blackcrow, a Native American actor. They handed me all of the disenfranchised; “Laura Moon”, who plays “Shadow’s” wife; a white actress. So I ended up with women and and the LGBTQ+ and the black people and Asian people and The Native American people. So suddenly, I found myself highly responsible for all of those; that’s the bulk of the show. I didn’t want to just write my stuff and tell my cast mates to go to hell and so there it was, that became my season two responsibility on American Gods.
In season two, your character gives a wonderful speech on peace, which was a wake up moment for modern black society. How much input did you have in the creation of this scene in this episode?
Well, I wrote it, so that was the input. I worked with Rodney Barnes throughout the course of the season. But if you’re asking who wrote all of those characters or who wrote Mr. Nancy, there’s only two people who wrote anything Mr. Nancy said and that would be me or Rodney Barnes, that’s pretty much it. If you’re talking about those other characters, the vast majority of their stuff was written by me or Rodney Barnes. There were small contributions that came from other people, so for the most part, the thrust of what you saw for the scenes was what we wrote.
After that speech, did you feel the energy change on set or in meetings or suffer any backlash before being fired?
No, because there was nobody there. I think people have a different idea of the way Hollywood really works. The truth of the matter is, the writers room for American Gods is in Los Angeles, we were shooting in Toronto, so there’s nobody there to fight with per se. They come in and visit and say what they say and then they go away and the director who is there shooting is actually a guest director. They are only there for a week, maybe two weeks before they go away. They don’t even know as much about the show as the cast and the crew do, so it was a difficult situation to get through because what was previously written had black gods worshipping and discussing a white Jesus and that just didn’t make any sense to what we’d established in season one of the show but the writers had written it anyway and that didn’t make sense for Ibis or Bilquist or Mr. Nancy and so I threw that out and decided that or suggested, I should say first, the way I thought the scene should go.
As Bilquist is sitting in a bizarre position in the “War between the Gods” because she’s kind of joined up with the “New Gods” but she is an “Old God” and I just wanted to have a real conversation about what Mr. Nancy might to her to get her to realize that her being in the middle, not making a choice; how detrimental that was to her worshippers and that’s really what that speech is about, it’s pointing out that women of color are the targets. They are the ones that are dying, being kidnapped or being human trafficked. There’s more slavery today in the world than ever before in the history of the world and that is the outcome of sitting on the fence and so Nancy was her to engage in helping fight that rather than waffle back and forth, the way she is right now because she’ll never experience true power or really, not so much power; she’ll never be fully realized as a Goddess again if she can’t liberate her worshippers and deal with Ibis’s death.
So for him, war is a good idea and whomever dies is a good news for him because they all as he says, “Lay before him”, and that seems to be a conversation that those African gods would have rather than us sitting around talking about a white Jesus; who we wouldn’t worship in the first place; we’re gods ourselves so why would we care about the white man’s iteration of us?
Recently, you posted in your social media that cultural implications and social standings played a part in their action. Why do you believe or feel that way?
I think the real outcome of what at least I experienced was American Gods had a 19 month hiatus between season one and season two and 11 of the cast members; the vast majority; the bulk, I think eight of them or seven of them are disenfranchised. So when you come to work and no one, not only has written your character but the studio is very clear that they didn’t care about those characters, as far as they were concerned, the show was really about “Mr. Wednesday” and “Shadow Moon”; they just wanted them riding around in a car and the rest of us were, you know, to be thrown away or used however but we weren’t important. That’s a very particular point of view and it takes skin color and it clearly says that if you have pigment or if you’re a woman, you’re less important than the white man and there’s this mixed black guy here; I shouldn’t say mixed because I don’t know what that is, drinks are mixed; bi-racial black man here and we’re going to take the story from his point of view because the story and the book are all about “Shadow Man’s” view of the world and we’re going to put the show in the white man’s point of view.
If you take the show and you take the point of view from the bi-racial man and give it to the white guy and you diminish and don’t care at all and are open and upfront about how little you care about all of the other characters, how does one conclude that that’s not about race? Well, so let’s say thatbim wrong, then you have a new show runner who goes around and tells all of my old writing colleagues, all the cast, the crew that he wrote from a black male perspective. This is a guy wearing a “stay woke” t-shirt, talking like a black man, wearing a “Black Panther” t-shirt. So that’s a blizzard thing to see, a black man who pretending to be a white man, who is saying that my character is bad for black America. Again, I guess we can try and conclude that that’s not about race but he’s talking about race.
When you throw in the last part of that, which is; they asked me to write the characters, they begged me to do the work to write those characters but then they didn’t want to pay me to do the work and when I point out to them that I was a Writers Guild member and that this was a Writers Guild show and what they really were asking me to do was to go against my Guild, they were very angry with me and I said, why are you angry? You paid all the white people to do the work; you paid the white men; you paid the white women but they’re not doing the work, they’re at home, fully paid. I’m here doing it and you don’t want to pay me. Again, I guess we can say that’s not about race but the only person who had their contract held was me.
The only person that got fired in the eleventh hour was me. So, if this isn’t about race, then why is the studio consistently talking about it and why do their actions consistently say, you’re not important and the reason you’re not important is because you’re black; who cares, what’s really important is this over here, you see and I don’t know how to conclude that things aren’t about race, though I do find it hilarious that people would say, I brought it up, but I like to point out to them that I didn’t write the words, angry get shit done! In season one, two white guys wrote that. The studio and the network approved that. So if the new show runner doesn’t like that, the people she should talk to, is the people who hired him and if they’ve decided that they don’t like that about Mr. Nancy, how is that my fault? I didn’t write the book, I performed it.
So all of it to me is the white power structure made decisions but their vitriol fell upon me, for what, doing a good job as an actor, doing a good job as a writer, doing a good job as a producer? So what crime and I guilty of in this scenario that would lead them to do the things they’ve done and if it’s not about race, then what is it about?
As a human rights activist, did you find purpose and ease in playing such a relatable, expressive role?
I think that I always try to bring some purpose and attention to whomever I am playing. I like to play different characters, this was a character, this is a character that I’m a huge fan of, that I very much wanted to play. I mean it was difficult. It had a high level of difficulty because there was not a lot of support, as you might have imagined. When you look at the sixteen months of production for American Gods; I only worked twenty-one days on it, in that season, I worked less than anybody on the series, so it was difficult.
I don’t think that I deserve a special prize for having the ability to do my job. It would have been nice to have had some support. It would have been nice if they cared about the character and write for that character and I’m really excited and proud of the work I did and I’m really happy and proud about the way it was received by people of all colors but to say the sound of it was difficult under these circumstances, blatantly being told that they didn’t give two shits about you and really not giving you a lot of screen time because you don’t see a lot of Mr. Nancy, but for my scenes to be the only ones that most people ever watched on that show is an odd irony but I’m proud of what I was able to do and excited about getting on to the next thing. I want to say it wasn’t easy.
What advice and words of wisdom can you offer to our readers and aspiring actors and actresses?
It’s a very different world than it once was and if what you’re waiting on is for someone to give you permission, that’s not the way it’s going to happen. You have to give yourself permission and once you realize that that’s what you need to do then I think it changes everything. That means that you’re not waiting on Hollywood to discover you and I think it also depends on if you want is fame or you really want to learn the craft. For me, it was all about learning the craft and your phone. You can make a movie with your phone and you can post it, if you want, when you’re done making it.
You don’t need anything else with a phone and a computer. You can absolutely make a movie with a phone, a computer and another camera, aside from your phone; you’ve now got two cameras. So you really don’t need Hollywood to make content or tell your story and you don’t need a distributor to broadcast your story. You don’t need millions and millions of adoring fans, you just need ten thousand people in your area who want to support you and with that you can build a successful business. So if you’re waiting For is for someone to give you permission to do this, it’s going to be a long wait and I don’t know that you’re waiting on, well if I get famous, then it’s all going to be fine, well I’m famous and I’ve been famous for a really long time but that didn’t stop any of the treatment that I experienced.
So I just think we have to look at these obstacles as what they are. I’m not new to racism, that’s why I’m not angry or broken up about what I experienced. I’m just calling it out for what it is and doing the best that I can to try and create better conditions for the ones that come after me. But in terms of being broken by or being surprised by it, yeah none of that is true. So if you really want to do this, work on your craft and once you feel like you’ve got something that you want to share, share it. But don’t ask for permission, you don’t need permission.
Is there anything else that you would like the readers to know about the situation that you’re going through that I may not have asked about?
No, not particularly. Not at this juncture. I think it’s a sort of, it is what it is situation. It will obviously continue to play out. I think the only thing I would add at this point is to say, I’ve been fortunate in that people have come out in my favor but to be fair there’s also been plenty of people who were quite upset with me and who only cared about how what I said affected them and some of those people were black. So if what you’re expecting is solidarity when you go down this road, that’s not what you’re going to get. All you can do is speak your truth and do the best you can to achieve your goals, which for me is trying to create a better work environment for the next disenfranchised person who walks into this type of scenario and doesn’t feel that they have the power to do anything.
So given what Free Mantle has done to Michaela Pereira, the British born actress who did the chewing gum series; Gabrielle Union, myself, Mel B, Nick Cannon; there’s a long history of this company diminishing people simply because of their gender or color of their skin or their sexual proclivity and if we really care about humanity and diversity and really believe that people are people and that artists are artists and that they all deserve to be treated equally, then we can’t all continue to let and support those types of companies that are going to blatantly do that and I’m hoping that we’re able to shed some light on that and create better conditions for whomever comes next.