Saving Grace: Michael Ealy

michael ealy

Michael Ealy

Michael Ealy’s latest film, Unconditional, marks a milestone for the 39-year-old actor. The first time his grandfather, a Baptist minister, has ever gone to see one of Ealy’s films in theaters.

“I would talk to him frequently about the role while I was shooting in Nashville,” says Ealy, who was raised Southern Baptist, “so he was excited to see this film.”

The inspirational film is a shift for the actor whose square jaw and piercing blue eyes make him a natural for romantic leads, such as with last spring’s romantic hit, Think Like a Man. 

“This is the kind of movie that matters,” says Ealy. “It goes beyond entertainment and will hopefully be tangible to a vast audience.”

Based on a true story, the film centers around a woman on a downward, suicidal spiral after her husband is killed in a senseless act of violence. A chance encounter with an old friend, “Papa Joe” Bradford—played by Ealy, begins her journey back toward God’s unconditional love.

The real life Bradford established Elijah’s Heart in Nashville, a non-profit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of underprivileged, at-risk children, despite financial challenges.

Ealy hopes the film will inspire people who become more involved in helping children. 

“One of the things I find so special about what Joe does is that it’s not about how much money he makes,” says the Baltimore native. “It’s the time he spends day in and day out with the kids. It’s great if you give money. It’s great if you donate, but what’s really impactful and helpful is the time you spend. That’s how you can make a real difference.”

Ealy donates what time he can, visiting high schools to inspire and encourage the teenagers who look up to him. But the University of Maryland graduate tells the students to look elsewhere for a role model.

“I’m the first to say ‘Don’t look up to me. Look up to your teachers because they are there every single day,” says Ealy. “You’re contact to me is through a screen or when I come and visit but they’re here every day. Your parents are here every day. That’s who your role models should be.”

Perhaps it is close relationship with his own family that gives him that outlook.

“Who you hang with is a reflection of who you are,” says Ealy, who calls his parents, sister and close friends—who are more like brothers—his saving grace.

The church he grew up in was his second family. 

“You have friends there that you see every Sunday and the women at church would always feed me,” says Ealy. “My family moved away shortly after I graduated high school and the church threw a big going away party for us. I had never seen that before

With a laugh Ealy describes his childhood church as an “it takes a village” type of congregation “because if I got in trouble it got back to mom and dad.”

He thought so highly of his church that when his church split after he left for college, it came as an unbelievable shock.

“I’ll never forget that feeling,” says the 2012 Teen Choice and 2011 NAACP Image Awards nominee. “My parents have been together for 44 years but when my church split that was the first time I felt what divorce was like. I couldn’t believe it. Like, this group is going this way. This group is going with the pastor that way. How could this happen?”

Though it was rough, his faith was already engrained in him and remains with him to this day. 

In fact, the star of the USA Network series Common Law says that Unconditional came to him by the grace of God. 

“The script sent to a particular agency at my agency and he said maybe Michael would like this,” Ealy explains. “He gave it to my manager who read it and said, ‘I think you need to read this.’ He knows me. He knows my taste.”

He told him that Joe Bradford was a strong role and Ealy agreed.

 “For me it had a lot to do with the nobility of Joe,” Ealy says. “If I can rush to go play a bank robber in a movie like Takers, then I need to rush to go play a man of nobility and quality, like Joe.”

Though the film didn’t do as well as hoped in the box office, it did garner rave reviews from audiences who—on Rotten Tomatoes—gave Unconditional a whooping 92% positive response. Garnering a 71% positive response from critics, the film seems to have touched viewers with its inspiring message.

“I’ve always looked for films and roles with impact,” says Ealy who rose into the spotlight through films such as Barbarshop and Oprah Winfrey’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the television crime-drama Sleeper Cell. 

Interestingly, acting was not the first career choice for Ealy who’d set his sights on becoming an architect until he saw that the curriculum included a great deal of math and science. 

“I was struggling with Trig and physics and there was plenty of that,” he explains. “What I enjoyed about architecture was the creative aspect, which was drafting. I was good at drawing. But when we started doing beam analysis and trust analysis, I had to re-evaluate my plan.” 

Though he graduated with a degree in English, for a time he says he was lost.

“My grades were terrible and I was definitely not living right,” says the actor who appeared in a number of off-Broadway productions before transitioning to the screen. “It was the summer of ’93. I was 19 and two of my best friends were making a movie. I auditioned for it and found my passion.” 

He hasn’t totally given up on architecture, at least in some small form.

“I have a house, which has been somewhat of a project, a work in progress,” Ealy confessed. “It’s been a project of mine for many, many years, and it still is. When I’m not working I’m at Lowes or Home Depot even if I’m just trying to figure out where things go.

“I’m like hey, Jesus was a carpenter. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.”

Fortunately for Ealy, acting doesn’t require too much math. 

In his ten years since breaking into Hollywood, films to his credit include Underworld: Awakening, Takers, For Colored Girls, Miracle At St. Anna, and Seven Pounds. He’s also stared such heavy TV dramas as The Good Wife and Flash Forward.

Though he’s also taken on his fair share of comedy, such as his role in Californication, he calls drama his “wheel well.” 

“The deeper, the more real we go the better,” says Ealy. “In Sleeper Cell, we went to places of sheer depth and I love the fact that Showtime was willing to go there. The more real you can make it, the audience sees that and not only appreciate it but respect it.”

The opportunity to showcase range in his body of work is also important to Ealy who stole hearts as the love interest in Beyoncé’s music video for the 2009 hit “Halo.”

His next project, a remake of the 1986 box office hit, About Last Night, which stared Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, will take him in yet another direction.

“Whereby I am righteous and noble in Unconditional, in this movie I am a heathen,” Ealy laughs.  “I’m playing Rob Lowe’s part—a guy who is just trying to figure out this life, can’t quite get it together and doesn’t know what he has until it’s gone, which is a mistake many men make.”

The movie—tentatively slated for release next year—will also star Regina Hall and Kevin Hart.

“I don’t want to do the same thing every time,” says Ealy. “And the range—to go from Colored Girls to Takers to Miracle at St. Anna’s to Unconditional—the diversity is something I’m proud of.” 



Saving Grace: Derek Luke

derek lukeDerek Luke
In his latest film, a remake of the 1976 classic Sparkle, Derek Luke plays opposite Jordan Sparks as an up-and-coming record label executive who helps the young and talented title character fulfill her dreams of becoming a singer.

It’s a fitting role for the New Jersey native who knows a little something about pursuing his dreams.

“I was watching TV at age 9 or 10, and my mom said that I came from the front room and I told her that I want to act. And she said if you want to do this at 18, then you can,” recalls the 38-year-old who has since gone on to star in such heavy hitting films as Friday Night Lights, Glory Road, Catch a Fire, Miracle at St. Anna, played hip hop mogul P. Diddy in Notorious and whose television credits include Jada Pinkett Smith’s HawthoRNe.

“It was a very simple story. Yet, I didn’t even remember that conversation until my mother reminded me of it many years later.

Growing up, Hollywood seemed a far-away land for Luke. He struggled to find the courage to seek it out. “I didn’t see a lot of people talking about their dreams or reaching their dreams.” He tried college for a semester but knew deep down, that he was destined for something else.

“So I left—well, I failed out,” Luke laughs, “And then moved to L.A. I did not tell my mother why I moved here, until I arrived.”

It was a huge risk. Many come to Tinsel Town only to learn that Hollywood as the magical land of many a childhood dream is a myth. The reality—slowly eking out a career as an actor, always one rejection away from being sent home on the cheap bus while working low-paying and unfulfilling odd jobs—is far less attractive.

Luke remembers those days well. It was a long way from landing a role in one of last summer’s hottest blockbusters, Captain America: The First Avenger.

“I didn’t have an education, I was working a lot of odd jobs, I was selling cologne, I was even an audience page working on Martin,” he explains.

 “The journey was intense because I felt like I came to a city that was just like the mother of people’s dreams and a part of my journey was figuring out how to keep my dream on fire while I’m out here.”

He admits that it was tough.

“I tried to stayed around things that encouraged me even if that meant not taking another job. Sometimes I would cut work just to go to the movie theater just to sit in there. It was movies and books and words of encouragement.”

When he was at his lowest, Luke knew where to go for support.

“I would call my mother if I was feeling down and she would give me encouraging stories. She gave me this book, Finding and Controlling Your Purpose, which really shed some light on what I was going through.  It really changed my life.

“It basically talked about the potential of a seed in the right soil and [that if you’re] in the right environment, … you will bud.”

On top if that, Luke had his faith to lean on.

“My saving grace was knowing that no matter what I was going through, God was with me. It gave me a moral covering and a focus. My spirituality played a huge contribution to where I am right know.”

He had a couple missteps, trying to chase the dream a little too hard, when really he need to slow his roll and summon his faith.

“Initially, I was trying to do things my way and not trusting God. I’d see people doing things and hustling, and I’d think that’s what you need. That right hustle, that right aggressiveness.”

But that wasn’t his style so it didn’t work for him, and the sense of failure came at a price.

“I felt like all my self-esteem had drained. I didn’t believe in myself. Finally I was like I need to go back to church. My dad was a minister but I don’t remember anything he said, because I don’t think that I was conscious at that time.

“I had to look at things that could have made me angry or dysfunctional, and learn how to trust and to believe and to have faith, it was a focus on going forward.  I was taught to see God and not chase the blessing. That… slows things down so you can see life in a more positive prospective.”

With two new movies in his future, David E. Talbert’s Baggage Claim with Octavia Spencer and Paula Patton and Supremacy with Danny Glover and Lela Rochon, leaning on God and sticking out the tough times has certainly paid off.

His mother, Marjorie, was also a source of inspiration in his role as Sparkle’s love interest, specifically her relationship with his father Maurice.

“Their relationship reminded me a lot of Sparkle and Stix’s relationship,” says the actor whose first credited roles were on The King of Queens and Moesha. “I pulled a lot from my dad. I studied their courtship. I studied what my father did to get my mother back in the day.”

In particular, the fact that Luke’s father is eleven years older than his mother proved helpful.

“By better understanding my Mom and Dad’s relationship and courtship, I was able to approach my character's relationship with Sparkle better. It was like yes, be slick, but don’t be sly. My character had to be gentle with her based on the great age difference.

“With this film, I really loved the love story in it,” says Luke.

“Many times as relationships escalate to marriage, what it takes to breed a marriage, is the same thing that it takes to breed a career. So in the film, although Stix wants a relationship with Sparkle, he has to understand that she has other challenges that can prevent her from her goals. He learns in the film to see life from her perspective.”

Luke didn’t have to look far to understand marriage. Married now for fourteen years, Luke chose to marry young, even though others advised him against it. 

“But to me, marriage is so beautiful,” Luke says. “I met Sophia at a seminar that I would go to that teaches you how to birth your visions and dreams. [My relationship with my wife] really helped me get through those times when I felt defeated.”

Luke wears his adoration for his wife on his sleeve. That was not more apparent than when he won the best actor Independent Spirit Award for Antwone Fisher. That night he pulled Sophia on stage and gave her his award.

"She is the spirit that has kept me here. I can't accept this award because this belongs to you," he said before handing her the statuette and bringing her to tears.

He also pointed out that four years before that night he’d been waiting tables at the same event. Talk about coming a long away.

It was his role in Antwone Fisher, a film based on a book about a boy who survived foster care and repeated abuse to become a successful screenwriter, that got Luke’s career humming. Getting that first great part didn’t come easy for Luke, even though he’d met Fisher, and knew he was writing the story of his life, which Denzel Washington was to direct.

“In my heart, I was like “Aw man, maybe there’s part in there for me.” Though he got the audition, the movie “went away for 3 years.”  But when it came back, Luke got yet another reading, and another, and another.  He read for it five times, and one day, Washington came to see him and said, ‘You. You’re my Antowne Fisher.’ I think I went through every emotion. I screamed, I cried, I laughed, I even kissed him.” 

I called my wife and I said, ‘Hey Babe, I didn’t get the movie.’ She said, ‘I know you’re lying.’ She would not take my wolf ticket. I said [to myself], ‘Man! I found somebody that really believes in me.”


Saving Grace: Cedric The Entertainer

CedricCedric The Entertainer
Boyce “The Voice” Valentine was a famous ‘80s R&B singer who was popular, making a lot of money and living the high life in Las Vegas with his sexy wife and their daughter before God came calling and Boyce gave up his secular ambitions to become pastor of his aging father’s St. Louis church, taking his reluctant wife and daughter along for the ride.

The parishioners of his church, however, are not real. Neither for that matter is Valentine, but the more than 3 million viewers of the new TV Land show, The Soul Man also starring Niecey Nash would be surprised to find that the man who plays him — Cedric The Entertainer — has more in common with his TV character than most would think.

cedric full“The power of faith, the opportunity of already being an orator, a person who speaks to large groups of people—even though I do it in a stand up capacity, as you mature and you start to see things in the world like hard crime, the tragedies, and often times, yes I would love to have a voice. To be able to heal and guide people and show a form of leadership. So I wouldn’t put it past that at certain point in time in life I get the real calling and have a big church with lots of parishioners.”

In the meantime, the famed actor/comedian best known for his work onscreen in such "Cadillac Records",  "Code Name: The Cleaner" opposite Lucy Liu, "The Original Kings of Comedy," "The Honeymooners," "Barbershop," "Kingdom Come" with Whoopi Goldberg, "Johnson Family Vacation" and “Larry Crowne” with Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks, created the show as a great way to tell family-oriented stories reflecting the cultural fabric of the black community that were more universal in their appeal.

Cedric understands all too well the tightrope he is walking between the Christian community and entertainment industry in the show that airs on Wednesday nights at 10, but has never been one to steer clear of controversy.

“I believe people should be challenged —where they formulate and have to give thought to their true opinion about something. As a comedian and even as a TV pastor there are questions and jokes that lead my people to tell me “are you sure you want to say that?,” says the comedian who won a record-breaking four consecutive NAACP Image Awards for 'Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series' for his portrayal of the lovable Coach Cedric Robinson on the WB's #1-rated "The Steve Harvey Show," which ran for six seasons.

“But I’m going to say exactly that if it’s something I believe has an inkling of truth, and I want people to rebut me— to have an opinion and start having conversation about it. That’s usually where the greatest ideas come from, not from everybody agreeing.

Storylines have ranged in scope from approaching a parishioner dealing with alchoholism to the challenges of being a first lady and a big mega preacher who has lost his way and is out for the money.
“All of these things are a part of the show and as we continue to develop it, the show allows us to talk about other real issues that exist in our world from same sex marriage to bullying to gun crimes—with humor and a message.
As part of his research, Cedric visited a number of churches including First AME, West Angeles and City of Refuge and for as surprised as some might be, the 48-year old married father of three feels quite at home in church.
‘Faith is very important in my life,” says Cedric, whose full name is Cedric Antonio Kyles. “I grew up a member of the Church of Christ for most of my teenage years when you really formulate your real faith or what you carry as an adult. I do try to talk in a manner that is an example of Christ in the sense of somebody that people want to be like and hopefully I’m giving a good example of what it’s like just to be a good guy in the world.

“Except,” he laughs, “for the days I have to slap people. “For me, faith was a process,” Cedric continues in a more serious vein. “It was one of those things where I’ve was raised in the church with my mother and I wanted to go. There’s other kids your age and you start to find friends there. You join the choir and you get to like a girl. It was one of those things.

“As I had to deal with it in a real way and started to understand the Bible and the aspect of salvation I was in my early twenties when it started to make more sense. Because my mother was dealing with some hard things, I had to ask real questions. She was operating on the old school line “just believe, don’t worry about it and don’t ask any questions”.
‘I was like “you have to as questions. You’re an educated woman. You don’t just sit around and let somebody else tell you what to believe. Why do you believe that?’ From there I was able to grow spiritually.”

Attending church in L.A., however, turned out to be somewhat the distraction.

“When I first came to L.A., it surprised me that I was a celebrity at church,” states the Atlanta native who grew up in St. Louis. “It was a bit of a turn off because you come there as a fellow sinner trying to find yourself and be saved and you turn around and see somebody trying to take a picture or people assuming that you have benevolence money for everything. So I found myself not wanting to belong to an organization, but deeming it necessary in the raising of my kids. So at this point, we go and visit churches more than we stay at one church.”

He hopes that is not the case of fans who he hopes will find Rev. Boyce's path from "singing soul to saving souls" very compelling.

“In a society where the popular shows are about mean attitudes and showing black culture in a way that has people degrading each other, this show feels like a positive beacon of light even though for a hard Christian base, we may cross lines.”
soul manOf course as with most things, there are “haters”.

“The folks who find Neicey’s dresses cut too short or that the reverend said a cuss word,” Cedric notes. “Inside the storyline we are working on, my wife is not interested in coming along for the ride. She’s doing it for me because she loves me but is not a first lady by choice. We want to show that in a process through the series and show her growth. We don’t want to be pressured into taking her out of low cut dresses.”

“The Soul Man”, which ranks as TV Land’s second highest-rated original series debut, is just the latest of a number of projects Cedric has on tap for his “A Bird & A Bear Productions”, including a sketch comedy show in development at Comedy Central and a show in development for Disney. And for a young man who struggled to overcome not having a father in the household and doubting who he was and how to find his way, Cedric—who once worked as a substitute teacher and State Farm insurance claims adjuster before getting his break on “Showtime At The Apollo” and HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” nearly 20 years ago—is more than pleased with where he is today.

“I’ve done some really amazing things for a guy from Saint Louis who started out doing comedy because I was encouraged by making people around me laugh,” Cedric reveals. “To be able to have done that on an international level, traveled, done movies and film, commercials, written a book, producing and directing—I have to say I’m really blessed. Of course, I could always be richer.”

His saving grace, he says, is the love of my family and laughter.

“I love to laugh and give laughter, which is a gift from God,” Cedric states. “It’s that blessing that allows me to see joy in little bitty things. Laughter is something that is new everyday and a fantastic feeling. It is my saving grace for sure.”

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