Due to some technical difficulties, we are unable to show the video from our interview with Mark Christopher Lawrence. However, the content was too good not to share, so here is the text to that interview. Audio coming soon.
SM: Hi. I’m here with Mark Christopher Lawrence, stand-up comedian and currently plays “Big Mike” on Chuck. Thank you for being on the show.
MCL: Thanks for having me.
SM: Chuck has been on the air for 4 years and counting. And this is the first time you’ve played a continuous role like this…
MCL: No, not true.
SM: Oh? Sorry! (laughs) What other roles did you do?
MCL: I was a series regular on The George Wendt Show in ’95. I did a show called Kelly Kelly with Shelley Long. I was on the final season of Men Behaving Badly.
SM: Those were about a year or so that it lasted?
MCL: Yes. This is my longest run…
SM: The longest run. That’s what I meant. Do you find it to be a lot different than doing your other roles since you have been doing the same role for four years?
MCL: No. I mean, as an actor, you approach it day by day from an acting standpoint which is “what do I want?” So I pick up every script and every script is fresh. Every want or objective for the character is gonna be fresh each week, so it keeps it interesting.
SM: That’s good. So it’s kind of like having a new role every week. And a lot of the plots change, too, so they do different themes and stuff in the show, which is nice. Do you find yourself being recognized more often when you’re out in public?
MCL: I think there is a contingent of Chuck fans that recognize me now. I get recognized equally, I think, from Fear of a Black Hat. So I guess if you add the two together, yes.
SM: Do they recognize you more as Mark Christopher Lawrence, or do they call you out as your character?
MCL: I think that’s probably why I’m sitting here right now, is that most people don’t know my name. Most people know my name or they know my face and they know my work and what we’re trying to do is connect the face with the name. (to the camera) Hi, I’m Mark Christopher Lawrence.
SM: How do you deal with that disconnect, when you’re talking to someone and they’re not talking to you they’re trying to talk to your character?
MCL: Well, usually it’s pretty funny. A lot of times people don’t know why they know me. They’ll come up to me and go “why do I know you?” And sometimes I let them struggle, sometimes I just tell them. In fact, one time one of my best friends, his wife, I met them down in TJ. And she said “why do I know you?” I said “I’m on television” and she goes “nah, that’s not it.” And he recognized me and knew my work immediately and started naming things that I was in. And she goes “nah, that’s not it.” And so now that we’re really good friends, I tease her all the time about it.
SM: That’s pretty awesome. You’ve been really great about connecting with your fans, especially on Twitter. Do you feel that being accessible is something that should always be a priority for an actor, or is that a personal priority?
MCL: Well, it’s a personal priority. I think that people that support the show and people that support me and the things I’m doing, I like to talk to them and I like to hear what they think. I think, as a comic, you know, really being able to connect with people it just gives you that much more freedom when you’re on stage, because people already think that they know you. You can really be loose and be free when you’re on stage.
SM: Do you think that social networking has changed the responsibility of actors and performers and the way they relate to their fans?
MCL: I don’t know that it’s changed the responsibility. I think it changes the way you connect with the fans. It’s a very hands on, sort of easy way to connect immediately. And I think that that can be a tremendous asset as well as a tremendous downfall. Because if you don’t respond to someone in a timely fashion you may hurt somebody’s feelings. And that’s a sort of fine line that I try to walk. I try to usually tweet something in the morning, something positive. And then throughout the day, I try not to go to it too often because it can be very time consuming, but if someone asks me a very specific question generally I’ll answer that question. But if it’s just “we love you Big Mike!” or whatever, then you get that almost 6,000, 7,000 Twitter friends, I can’t respond to everybody.
SM: I have noticed that a lot of your tweets are pretty encouraging. Do you find that that’s something that your fans have been responding to as well? Do they get encouragement through you?
MCL: I think a lot of people are affected by my ability to just be positive. It sort of came out of, when I first started working out a couple years ago after taking about a three year lay off from working out it was so rough and brutal the first six weeks. Every morning it was like I had nothing positive to say. And a friend of mine said to me, he says “man, why are you so negative?!” And the next morning I tweeted something positive and I’ve been tweeting positive ever since.
SM: So that helps to brighten your day?
MCL: Well, for me, I don’t even think about what I’m going to say until I get up. When I get up, I do two things. One, I pray. And then I stretch and I go work out. And after I pray, I just kind of click on the Twitter and see what pops on my head. And usually, I think, because I am a Christian, I think sometimes it’s not even coming from me. I think sometimes God has a message for somebody. Because some of the things that I say sometimes, I go, “why did I say that?” So I don’t know that it’s necessarily me. And then I get a message back later in the day that says “wow, I really needed to hear that today.” And sometimes the message is directly to me, and it just happens to be something that somebody else needed. So sometimes I need to tell myself things are going to be okay, hug somebody today, whatever the tweet is. And I think people respond to that and are affected by it.
SM: Well, the response that I got from people talking about it, they really like the interaction they have with you on Twitter and especially the encouraging things you have there, so I just kind of wanted to let you know, it is appreciated.
MCL: Well, good. Good good good. Now if I can just get some of those people to come out to the comedy shows so we can fill up some venues, that would be nice.
SM: That would be be awesome. Now, kind of getting back to your roots, being on the debate team is kind of an unconventional way of getting started in acting. Did you have any other aspirations before you decided to go into acting?
MCL: I was going to be a lawyer. I met a teacher in high school. You know, when you go into high school from junior high in California you take an English proficiency exam. And then they place you in your English class based on that. And I always said I was the dumbest guy in the smartest English class. And the teacher, Mrs. Shilling, was who introduced me to competitive speaking and debate. So that led to a scholarship to USC. But she also introduced me to acting. She talked me into doing a play. And I was in the 10th grade and that was my first experience with acting. And I got bit by the bug then and then here we are.
SM: What play were you in?
MCL: We did Bus Stop.
SM: Okay. You grew up in Compton, which has recognition for being a pretty dangerous neighborhood. I know you talked about your teacher helping you through stuff, but did you find it difficult to stay motivated when you were surrounded by so many people that had kind of lost their focus and motivation?
MCL: You know, I don’t know that that’s a correct characterization of Compton. I don’t know that everybody around me lost direction and focus. I think, in the neighborhood I grew up in, there were a lot of hardworking people. In fact, when I moved there, we were the second black family that moved into Compton on my street. By the mid-70s, there was one white family left. And I think what sort of happened was as the neighborhood changed and as gangs started coming into Compton and the media made it more than it necessarily is… You know, the media will take something and blow it way out of proportion. Now, that’s not to say that I grew up in a way that was all roses. I lived in a red neighborhood and went to school in a blue neighborhood. So it was very tough. But I was more afraid of my mother than I was the gangs. So, going that route wasn’t an option.
SM: Although you first gained recognition playing “Mix Master Tone Def” in Fear of a Black Hat, you’ve made your career in a variety of projects instead of just focusing on black cinema. Was that a conscious decision that you made, or were you just kind of finding work as you found it?
MCL: No. As an actor, you just want to work. And so the way my career has unfolded it really has been a blessing and a curse. One, the blessing is that I work in a wide variety of roles. The curse is that I don’t know that black filmmakers have really embraced me. You know, I’ve worked with Rusty Cundieff a lot and I worked with a couple of others and I don’t know exactly what it is. But I’m not complaining, I mean, my career is great (knocks on wood).
SM: Speaking of your career, you’re playing, on Chuck right now, you’re playing “Big Mike.” And the role was originally written to be a small, recurring guest role but due to the responses that people received from your character they made you into a full-time series regular. Do you find such responses to be an encouragement to your acting?
MCL: Well, one, midway through the first season I think it was the writers who decided that this character is probably more important to the story than we thought it was. And I think a lot of it had to do with what I bring. I mean, as an actor it’s like knowing one’s worth is really important. And I know what I bring. I have a stage background and it’s not just sort of spitting out what’s on the page. I think what happened was, once they decided that they wanted me on more often, I mean, I did every episode of the first 13. And then the audience sort of kicked in after that, but the deal had already been cut. Yes, I really appreciate that the audience likes my character. And I also appreciate that the writers and the producers of the show recognize what I bring.
SM: Right. Because even without the audience response, I mean, the audience definitely likes the character of “Big Mike”, but it’s kind of getting the recognition even from the writers, saying “hey, I think this is someone that we’re going to find pretty big” it’s getting a lot of recognition in the industry that’s saying you know what you’re doing.
MCL: The climate of Hollywood has changed so much in the way projects are made, it’s hard to sort of relax into any sort of comfort, even when you’re on a show because you never know what’s going to happen. Even now we don’t know if we’re picked up for next season. So it’s definitely comforting to know that no matter what happens there’s a cross section of people that enjoy what I do and I thank you, especially each and every one of the fans that watches the show.
SM: Do you have any plans for working over the summer, or even in season 5, are you making back up plans with your stand up or do you want to do more film?
MCL: Whatever my agents send my way I read and decide whether or not I’m going to go and read for it. So generally what we try to do is we try to lock down a film by May. Because, if you’re not in a film by May usually you’re not going to be in a film for the summer. So what I’m doing is just definitely working the comedy connections. And I’d like to kind of get out and tour a little bit but I think I want to wait until I know the show is picked up and then that way I can go to where I know the fans are.
SM: Speaking of, or going back to “Big Mike”, the character has kind of transferred from being a no nonsense, I’m the boss type of guy to a really caring, fatherly type. Do you relate any way to that, do you find people respond to you in similar ways.
MCL: I think that Mark Christopher Lawrence is similar to “Big Mike” in that I’m generally a nice guy, unless you push the wrong button. But usually that’s me. And I actually preferred playing “Big Mike” a little on the gruff side because it’s a stretch. You know, as an actor, you want to stretch, you want to grow. I think, the way the character is going now gives him more depth. It makes him less one dimensional. I think first couple of seasons that was one thing that I was really trying to fight against, because every line was “Bartowski!” and he’s yelling and screaming and it’s like, it doesn’t have to be that. You can get results without yelling and screaming and I think that they’ve really sort of responded to that, the writers.
SM: Now that you’ve had a chance to play him for four years, you’ve kind of got to know him a bit, what do you think about the guy? Is he someone you’d be friends with, someone you’d want to hang out with? What do you like about him?
MCL: Well, as an actor you try not to judge the character you play. If you judge him then it would be difficult to play him. You know, because if it’s somebody you don’t like, how do you let yourself be that, you know what I mean? But I would hang out with “Big Mike” (laughs)
SM: You have kind of found your way in a lot of acting mediums, pretty much every one like stand-up, mime, drama, television, movies. Is there anything you haven’t done that you want to?
MCL: I haven’t actually done mime. I worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe which, they do commedia dell’arte which is an Italian form of theatre acting. It’s a style of acting that’s based on a hierarchical system of characters, there’s nine characters. And each character has a posture that sort of suggests who that character is. The one that’s probably most recognizable is the common character of “Arlecchino” and he’s always sort of balancing on one foot and he’s usually the comic relief but also the guy that’s the sage in the plays. So I think that’s the reference to mime, and the mime troupe started as mime over 50 years ago and then they decided what better way to get our word out, our message out, by speaking. So they adopted the Italian commedia dell’arte style of theatre and that’s where that came from. But to answer your question, I’ve worked film, I’ve worked voice over, I’ve worked stage, comedy… You know, I don’t know if there’s anything else that I haven’t done. Clearly I like being on stage, I love being on stage because you get immediate feedback. You know if you suck right now. And I think as an actor that really sort of feeds your ego. I’d like to do more film. I’d like to do more interesting roles, more comedian roles. I’ve worked with some great folks, you know, Will Smith and Denzel. I think I’d just like to work more. You know, as an actor you want to do what you do. And without sounding like I’m begging, yes, I just want to work more in all mediums.
SM: Well, you love your job.
MCL: I do.
SM: And that’s a really great thing. Not a lot of people have that fortune.
MCL: You know, it’s better than digging a ditch. And I’ve done that!
SM: You have a lot of projects you’ve been working on. You have a company and your DVD and everything. Do you want to talk a bit more about those?
MCL: Well, my company, Prayer Dudz, basically we produce pretty funny stuff. We’re kind of leaning over to opening the possibility to do more dramatic stuff. But comedy lends itself to me and that seems to be the easiest reach with the least amount of effort is to go and do comedy things. So we produced two of probably a series of ten DVDs. Shout is the brand and we’re just getting them out there, kind of out of the trunk of the car and the Internet. And it’s been very funny. The first one is “Shout! An Evening of Gospel Comedy.” Basically it’s gospel music and squeaky clean comedy. I like to work clean and generally the comics that I hire are very clean comics. Sometimes they’re Christian comics, sometimes they’re not. But you can be safe bringing your family to see my show.
SM: Have you been receiving quite a bit of feedback about any of that?
MCL: Not necessarily. I mean, I think the best feedback is just come show up when I come to your city
SM: And are there any plans currently for your comedy tour? I know you talked about it a bit before, but…
MCL: Yeah, definitely. We’re looking right now at where to go with who and clearly you want to drive it by sponsorship so you’re not paying it out of your pocket to get it going. And my main thing is to get to where my fans are, to where people that know me and like me. So I kind of encourage people to go on to Facebook and Twitter and say “hey, come to this city” or “go to this city,” so I can sort of put together a list of where those people are and go to those cities.
SM: Excellent. A big theme about our show is passion, and I know you’re passionate about your acting, you’re passionate about a lot of different organizations. Are there any in particular you like to do, or like to support?
MCL: Yeah. ACT Today, which is Autism Care and Treatment. You know I love them, I love what they’re doing. You hear a lot about Autism Speaks and stuff like that and people that are searching for the cure, but in the meantime, what do people do who have an autistic child? How do they cope, how do they survive? And Autism Care and Treatment is an organization that does exactly that, they help you with finding a school, with finding program to get the child into, with finding things to help you go day by day. And right now one of their focuses is military families. And because I live in a city like San Diego which has one of the highest concentrations of military in the country, if not the world, I know a lot of people in the military and are friends with them. And so my heart goes out to them when they deploy several times. And you add into the mix an autistic child, now you’re a single parent at home with an autistic child and your spouse is away in Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran or wherever they are. And your day to day problems are complicated by, 1, your spouse being away, 2, you have an autistic child who needs services and things, and 3, you have no idea when your spouse is coming back. So, where’s the support, where’s the help? And so I just kind of help get the word out and part of that is you know, really sort of believing in the organization. And I really believe that Autism Care and Treatment and the people that run it, their hearts are in the right place.
The other thing that I like, that I’ve really been sort of focusing on, it’s sort of tormented me for awhile, was that I just sat down and thought about my life, for example. And I grew up in a time where really there were no major conflicts for the US when I grew up so I never felt compelled to join the military. But I knew people who did so they could go to college or whatever. And now that we’re for the past nine, ten years have been just enveloped in just a mess of a war, there are all these young people that go to war and come back broken. And Wounded Warriors is near and dear to my heart. And last year I took a trip to San Antonio and visited Fort Sam Houston, BAMC is there, the big medical center there, and there’s also the Center for the Intrepid. So I go in and, just on my own, no media, no anything, just went and spent a weekend hanging out with these guys and showing them some love and hugging and talking and there was even one night when I sang karaoke with their families, just to say thank you for your sacrifice. Because, for me, to do what I do is nothing. I mean, I’m not changing lives. It’s like, I’m giving people a momentary escape from whatever their daily grind is. But these guys taht go over to these conflicts throughout the world are giving us the freedom to do what I do. So clearly that’s high on my list.
You know, and then there’s breast cancer and things like that. I’m all for saving the breasts, that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
SM: Well, speaking of karaoke, on your website it talks about how you’re a vocalist?
MCL: (Laughs) I’m an actor who sings as opposed to a singer who acts. So I sing very well and just really have put the time into it that one would need to, I think, if you wanted to pursue a career as a singer. But I can go to an audition and sing well enough get into a play.
SM: Do you ever have the desire to do that, maybe if you find the time or in some of your gospel act DVDs?
MCL: I have sang in my shows but I always cringe at myself so I always cut me out. (Laughs)
SM: Well, I’m sure your fans would love to see that some time, maybe have a little B-reel.
MCL: I may post something on Twitter or Facebook some time soon. If I can stand it.
SM: (Laughs) You don’t have to watch it again. Just put it out there and forget about it.
MCL: Yeah, but my friends would be calling and playing it and sending me emails and stuff about it.
SM: That’s true. You can’t put too much blackmail stuff out there. Well, that’s all that I have for you. Is there anything you want to share that we haven’t covered?
MCL: Well, for the fans that are coming to Comic Con, I’m working on putting together a show for the Friday night of Comic Con, which I believe is the 22nd. And once we lock down the theatre, I’m just waiting for them to get back to me, as soon as we lock down the theatre I’ll put the tickets online for sale. And if we sell out the first show, cause it’s a small venue, if the first show sells out then I’ll add on more shows so people can come out and see it.
SM: Will that be affiliated with Comic Con or will people that are just in the area but not going to the convention still get tickets?
MCL: Yeah, not affiliated with Comic Con whatsoever.
SM: Just anyone can go down to San Diego can go. Hint hint.
MCL: (To the camera) Anyone can come down to San Diego and go. But basically I’m doing it for the fans cause I get tweets from everyone every day saying “when are you going to come to the east coast?” or “when are you going to come to Oklahoma?” or whatever and if people are going to be in my city I think I should probably try to make it easy for them to come and see me.
SM: Good. I think that’s good. I think a lot of people try to come down to San Diego just cause they… the Internet has such a strong community for people that come together. And not everyone can necessarily go to Comic Con but they still can come down to San Diego and hang out with their friends. So I think it’s great to have something that people can go to outside of the convention.
MCL: Yeah. And I mean, it’s going to be in the Gaslamp but this particular theatre is not part of the convention and that’s why I chose it.
SM: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for being on the show.
MCL: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s been great. And love you guys.