Once upon a time, Gary Dourdan was amongst the ranks of struggling actors vying for screen time wherever he might find it. Fatefully, hard work, perseverance, and cautious choices have worked in his favor. With a professional resume spanning just over a decade, he has emerged as a vision of prime time, mainstream success. And damned if he’s not up in a TV Guide commercial, to boot.
Dourdan’s story originates in Philadelphia where he began honing his craft at the renowned Freedom Theater. After making the two-hour pilgrimage to New York to settle, for a few, he continued his studies and put his chops to use. While doing time in "bad theater" on the off-Broadway stage, he also began shuffling between the east and the left coasts. By 1991, he would saunter onto the small screen, hair flowing, as the jive-talking, career student, Shazza Zulu, on "A Different World." Two seasons later, he entered the world of film, in bit parts, and then lent a helping hand to Sigourney Weaver in the good fight against foreign beings in Alien: Resurrection. More film and television work followed, as did a shift in momentum which ultimately led him to ponder his spirituality and shear his trademark dreadlocks.
Dourdan resurfaced on television in the Muhammad Ali biopic, "King of the World" as Malcolm X, a role he credits as a career highlight. He went on to headline the cast of the indie film, Trois, which just might go down in cult classic history, maybe. Turning his attention to cable television, he effortlessly assumed reoccurring roles on Showtime’s "Beggars and Choosers" as well as "Soul Food," the latter which featured him as a less-than-stellar law enforcer by the name of Jack van Adams.
Since 2000, Dourdan has been blessing prime time audiences with his valiant portrayal of Warrick Brown, a gifted, yet troubled Crime Scene Investigator. Alongside the efforts of his co-stars– Marg Helgenberger, William Peterson, and Jorja Fox, among them– "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" sat atop the ratings during the 2000 —2001 season and has garnered nominations for Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Awards. This year, Dourdan, himself, took home an NAACP Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
One day following the Emmys and three days prior to the fourth season premiere of "CSI,&quo t; he strolls into the photographer’s studio sporting shades, in need of a double espresso. Venice sat down with Dourdan, who, coincidentally, is a gracious local resident, to pick his brain about the reciprocal relationship between artistic growth and creative energy and to his dismay, that film that just won’t go away.
It’s surely cliché by now, but the first thing one notices about Gary Dourdan are his eyes, which appear even more pronounced against the backdrop of his button-down shirt of identical hue. Similar to a mood ring, engaged, the windows to his soul seem to shift in tone between blue and green…and then back again. He is both proud and humbled to admit that he’s still a work in progress and looks forward to his evolution as a creative conduit, regardless of the medium. Needless to say, Gary Dourdan is kinda deep.
Venice: You’re about to embark on "CSI’s" fourth season. To date, we’ve seen Warrick Brown battle a gambling problem that he’s tried, unsuccessfully, to hide from his co-workers. What can we expect to see this time around?
Gary Dourdan: I don’t know what the writer’s were eating over the summer, but they were definitely ambitious with the storylines this season. Our first show is almost like a movie– it’s two hours long and it’s being broken up into a "to be continued" kind of vibe.
Venice: We’ve just finished a show called "Invisible Evidence" which features Warrick up on the stand. His evidence is eventually thrown out and [as a result] he has to run around with Grissom for 24 hours to retrieve more [proof] so they can close the case. We’re working on a ticking clock and it’s a really good episode. There are some really well-written shows this season.
Tell us about your experience portraying an A/V specialist.
Gary Dourdan: I’m really into electronics anyway, so I like that they throw that element into my character every now and then. Actually, they spread out the techniques among all of our characters so we each have skill in many different areas. So, there might be one show when I’m in the A/V lab and then there’s another show when I’m at the coroner’s office.
I think they’re trying to show the versatility of the characters and that we’re all competent in doing our jobs, which is pretty true to detail. There might be a fella who works in ballistics, but he’ll also have a lot of knowledge about DNA as well. Crime scene investigators have to know a great deal to do their jobs.
Venice: Looking over your resume, you seem to have gracefully graduated from the "dreadlock’d guy" to portray characters ranging from an alien fighter (Alien: Resurrection), Janet Jackson’s past love interest ("Again" music video), a shady cop ("Soul Food") to a Crime Scene Investigator. How do you know if a role is right, or wrong, for you?
Gary Dourdan: Well, it used to be that any role was right for me. [laughs] Coming from New York, I was acting to survive and pay the rent. I was doing theater, little movies and student films and also, working in bars and clubs– doing anything I could get my hands on. At the time, the advice that I got from many directors and actors was, "Just keep working."
Then again, [as an actor] you have to learn about the discipline, too. In Hollywood, it’s not just about the discipline of the work itself as much as it is about decision-making. Sometimes you have to say no to a job because it’s not right for you. After a while, you learn that once you’ve built a body of work, you don’t have to take just any role that comes around. If you get a little money in the bank, then you have a choice to take a role or not and you want to take roles that you feel are right for you.
So, it’s a heavy discipline. You see it in great actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro — they have the discipline to say no to something and then they’ll wait around for something right to come along. I’m learning that discipline as I get older.
Venice: Well, you know we have to talk about Trois, right?
Gary Dourdan: No, we really don’t have to talk about that. [laughs]
Venice: Oh, come on! It started out as this small, independent film and then all of a sudden, everybody was talking about it. Did you ever think it would become such a topic of conversation?
Gary Dourdan: A lot of people still come up to me and say, "God, I loved that film, Trois," and I certainly have to question [the character of] that human being. [laughs]
It was a fantastic script and I wanted to get with these young filmmakers from Atlanta and Philadelphia. The story was a great mixture of Indecent Proposal and Fatal Attraction and I was look ing to do something outside of the box that I was in. I wanted to try something unconventional with a gripping storyline.
It’s funny because I did a great film called New Jersey Turnpikes, which co-starred Kelsey Grammer and Orlando Jones, but no one ever saw it because it was never released. But you do a film like Trois, and the whole world sees it. Even my boss saw it. She said to me, "I was watching TV late one night and I saw this film– what was that, a porn or something, honey?" She signs my paycheck, so I was like, ‘Oh well, you know we all gotta start somewhere…’
Venice: So, what do you think went wrong?
Venice: It was about the execution. Not everyone has the same experience when it comes to lighting, wardrobe, and even setting up a shot the way you’re used to having it done– these are things you learn along the way. We had a lot of arguments on the set because I tend to get pretty vocal about what I like.
I’m studying directing right now so that I can stop all this talking because no one likes to listen to actors anyway. But these days, we have a lot more to say and the power to say it because we’re just coming out of the "do-it-yourself" ‘90s– actors are directing their own projects and starring in them. We used to be just work-for-hire, but it’s a different time we’re living in now.
Venice: I interviewed Debbie Allen a while back and she told me that you caught her eye while she was walking down the street in Paris. Did you have any idea at the time that that meeting would act as the launching pad for your career?
Venice: Not to be a typecaster, but you’ll always be Shazza to me. Which of your characters do you hold close to your heart?
Gary Dourdan: Well, Shazza was just the beginning for me and he was a great character to play– he was the kind of guy who talked a lot of crap to get ladies and respect. That period was also the first time that I began to recognize that I had a voi ce and could get a certain amount of power out of a character which really helped me out a lot with my acting. Even though my dialogue usually didn’t make any sense, that character helped me project more. You know Debbie comes from Broadway, so she always insisted that I project on her show. She pulled a lot out of me and was instrumental in getting me more involved. She taught me a lot.
Looking the way that I look, I certainly never thought that I’d be a working actor, so when I was finally able to play a biographical role like Malcolm X [in the TV movie, "King of the World"], I was blown away. I got to delve into the history of this man. I found past publications, his writings and speeches, but there were also lots of things that were out of print. It almost seemed as though there was dust over his legacy.
He’d traveled to Africa and witnessed people of different nationalities under one religion and there were so many positive things he tried to do to help our society. Staying committed to portraying that character helped me, as a human being, and also, in my career. That was one of my favorite jobs.
Venice: There was a period where you were not very visible. How did you maintain your momentum when things slowed down a bit?
Gary Dourdan: Well, I certainly lost some momentum. I was going back and forth between L.A. and New York, working, and then I went through a spiritual change with respect to the image I was providing on TV. I was probably the first guy with dreadlocks to be on a national TV show and I didn’t realize that [my image] had taken on such a life of its own. I certainly didn’t realize what kind of reaction the entertainment industry would have toward that character [Shazza]. So, I was getting a lot of parts based on [my] being that Rastafarian fella with the ‘locks. Sometimes, I would play the consciousness of the plotline and other times I’d be the drug dealer, but even tually, the roles became caricatures.
I went through a lot of changes with friends and in my love life and even with things going on back in New York. I needed a change and I think a lot of things got caught up in my hair. So, I went to Egypt and I cut my ‘locks.
I had a big buzz about me after I did Alien: Resurrection, but when I attended the premiere, I was bald-headed. People were like, "Who the hell is this guy? Was he in the film?" Jean-Pierre Jeunet was like [with French accent and laughter], "Gary, what did you do to your hair?" Then, I didn’t work for a while because no one knew who I was. That was definitely an experience for me.
I began to feel thwarted by the business and I tried to lay low for a while. I got into it for the craft and all of a sudden, the notoriety took over. I wasn’t ready for that. But now that I look back, I see that I probably broke a lot of molds and continue to do so. I’m certa inly not into molds or all of the romanticism of the 1950s and trying to keep things looking like that. I’m more into the revolutionaries who’ve tried to change the look of things by portraying a well-rounded culture of many, many different colors and hues so that when we look at TV, we can see something that opens us up and inspires us instead of keeping everyone in a fear zone.
Venice: Who or what inspires your creative work?
Gary Dourdan: Gregory Hines inspired me a great deal. I would see him around in Venice and he’d grab me and hug me and tell me how well I was doing and how much he believed in my work. He’d give me so much good energy every time I saw him. Sam Jackson does the same thing for me as well– he’s so open. I saw him at an audition once and he said, "Man, I’ve been looking at your work and I like what you’re doing." That made me feel like I wasn’t doing this for naught, you know? I knew that I wasn’t doing shit work.
I was on a plane recently and got the chance to catch up on about 10 episodes of "Friends." I thought Matthew Perry’s timing was incredible and when I saw him [at the Emmys], I had to tell him so. I appreciate the collective awareness of artists who are not afraid to talk to other artists. It’s about having the security to give support to other artists– it’s not a competition.
Venice: Is there any more film on the horizon?
Gary Dourdan: Yes. I’m working on the story of George Jackson, the prisoner of the Black Panther/ post ‘60s revolutionary movement. He’s a very intriguing character and I’m glad that I was approached with this film project. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to jump into it at this point in my career, but America has a lot of baggage to deal with these subject matters. The gatekeepers might think that this project will dig up some old dirt, but really, it’s about continually showing these types of characters so that we can remember and also, try to figure out some ways to change this society. Sam Styles is directing and Cinque’ is the writer. It’s a great script; it’s like a piece of poetry. We begin shooting in about a week or so and I’m looking forward to getting into it.
My brother and I are also working on a film called "A Song for My Father" which is the story of a father, an avant garde jazz musician, who leaves behind a legacy of debt to the mob for all of his recordings. His son, who later becomes a jazz musician as well, is chased by the mob for his father’s 30-year-old debt. It’s an exciting story and we look forward to incorporating more music into film.
Venice: Tell me about your work in music.
Gary Dourdan: Well, we have a recording studio and have been releasing a lot of projects and compilations throughout the U.K. and Europe.
I like to use pseudonyms for each project because there’s nothing worse than an actor trying to sing– no one’s looking for an old Don Johnson or Eddie Murphy album at a garage sale, you know? So, I’ve tried to put out good music and have people listen and make their judgment based on the music rather than the notoriety that I have as an actor. We’ve been pretty successful and we’re still building.
Garth Trinidad from KCRW, Mathieu Schreyer (a producer), and I have a company called Metisse. We’re working on music supervising some films, cutting some tracks, and also, trying to get more artists, who need to be heard, on the air with Garth. There are a lot of great artists, like Zero 7, Jill Scott, Beck, Bjork, and even Norah Jones, who got their start through word-of-mouth. These kinds of artists don’t get played in the middle of the dial, so we’re trying to re-shape more radio and video stations. We want to expose better music out there — that’s the strength of ou r company.
Venice: You’ve performed on stage, the large and small screen and also in music. Which medium offers you the most freedom?
Gary Dourdan: Well, I want to mix mediums so that it’s not about making a choice between music and film or TV. I don’t want to have to make an either/or decision.
That’s why I mentioned Gregory Hines and also, there’s Harry Belafonte. Back in the day, they had to do it all– sing, dance, act. Gregory Hines was one of the best performers of all time. I saw him in "Jelly’s Last Jam" on Broadway– he sang his heart out and danced like you wouldn’t believe.
It’s about incorporating each medium and then you can give a good show. I just want to give a great show.
Venice: So, rumor has it that you live here in Venice…
Gary Dourdan: Yes, I’ve lived in Venice for about seven years now. I really like it here because there are so many different cultures– it’s like a village. My tagline is "the lower east side with a beach." Unlike in Hollywood, people know their neighbors and will jump on their bikes and ride around, instead of just hopping in their cars all the time.
I lived in New York for so long and when I moved out to L.A., I underwent a culture shock. Everything is so spread out, you’ve got to get in your car for everything, and people aren’t as collectively cool, you know? In Venice, you can find your crew. They’re a lot of artists in the community and right now, I’m working with William Attaway. We’re trying to make Venice look like a Dali-esque city.
Venice: How would you like for your story to unfold?
Well, I look to the boundless energy of those people who brought me up. I want to continue to work in every aspect to elevate the craft to the highest level and leave a legacy for the younger cats that is not held by boundaries.