Charles Malik Whitfield – Last Call
Words + Interview By Tyrone Davis
Charles Malik Whitfield is a veteran actor who is widely known for his portrayal of Otis Williams in “The Temptations”, a film in which he won an NAACP Image Award for. The veteran actor has also appeared in “Tales”, “Lincoln Heights”, “Notorious”, “Behind Enemy Lines” (one of my favorite films) and more. He can currently be seen in Bounce TV’s “Last Call” and Tyler Perry’s “If Loving You Is Wrong”. During our interview, we went in depth about him growing up in the Bronx and how he got into acting, various film and television roles and his current projects.
How did you grow up?
I grew up in the Bronx selling drugs, hustling. I was in and out of high school between Walton High School and Satellite High School. I was fortunate enough to get myself back into school years later and got a high school degree.
I read that you had made 1 million dollars by the time you were 14. Were you able to save or invest any of it?
Most people have the idea that when you make a certain amount of money at a very young age that it’s all yours. The truth of the matter is that it’s really not. You work with a few people. It wasn’t something that was an overnight thing. I was introduced into the drug world on a smaller scale from marijuana to heroin as well as cocaine at 9 years old. So, it was over a course of some years. In between the time of making the most at about $1 million at a time, it still wasn’t necessarily all of mine. I still split it up with 3 other gentlemen. So, that’s a clear perspective, lol. When you say “keep all of the money” or “invest”, I don’t think people have a clear concept of how hard it is to keep even a million dollars. It sounds like a lot but when you have so many other things and people to take care of, the money either has to go towards the family to make sure they are good, you continue on the hustle or you continue on a change of course. It really was all about a change of course for myself because at a young age I was more than willing to die in the streets and as I was evolving and losing people and the connection with so many others, I realized all that seemed fun from a shallow perspective but it wasn’t a good feeling at all. It was more of a paranoid feeling, not knowing who, what, where, or sometimes even people you kinda don’t know intimately on a very, very extreme level, but you know in a passing that you kind of hang out, hook up, do some business here or there…all of a sudden they are the same people trying to rob you.
So, it really turns into a lifestyle that’s really, really not fun and can be very short lived. It was something that I knew that I had to change the course of my life for because it just wasn’t going to go anywhere. Lol, I wasn’t going to be any phenomenal drug dealing story. At least I realized that with so many people dying around me and I think that that change happened to me when I had somebody (while jumping in and out of school) challenging me to be more conscious, taking the people around me and not letting it be about the me, the I. Those things really evolved me, especially because I had someone who wasn’t looking to hook up. They weren’t looking for the hookup. They weren’t looking for the connect. They weren’t looking to double or triple up some money. They just wanted to see the best that I could be as a human being. That kind of humanity really touched and changed my life because my biggest question was “Why?” and “Why me?”. I think growing up in the Bronx with so much tragedy and death and so many burned buildings around, your imagination for what could be magical and possible out there is tunnel vision to where your head’s down and and everybody you look at is your possible enemy. So, you’re always on point for whatever and however, wherever and whenever.
So, I didn’t walk around with a great smile on my face saying, “Hey, how you doing?” and that wears on you and I think when you go through those certain situations and circumstances, you’re not a true 12, 13 or 14 year old. So, people that I’ve worked with, learned from, hustled with and became my close brothers were a lot older in their thirties and their forties and a few younger. They imparted a lot of information but they also imparted a lot of care and in that process, the ones who really care for you and really show some real guidance are like “If you can, go the other way and if you can’t then just know what this is”.
So what led you into acting, initially?
I didn’t have any interest in acting. It was a teacher, Mary Ann Larkin Reeves who taught at Satellite Academy High School and right after I got kicked out of Walton and went there for a second to see what I could do, it was her. She introduced me to acting because she was working on the weekends with a troupe of acting kids, getting them to different colleges and Ithica and so forth. I just had no interest and in between one of the days and times, I’d just lost one of my good close friends. He had gotten murdered and I think they had a choice to either shoot him or shoot me and he was just closer to them and the range of the bullets. I got out of there but at the end of the day, going into school was kind of a safe haven or break because there wasn’t any hustling going on super early in the morning or afternoon. Back around those days cases where being built on you for you being out all day in the morning than it was in the evening.
She said, “Look, I’d love to show you what I’m doing with some kids on the weekend and I was like, “If you want me to come through, I’ll come through and see what you’re talking about”. She was just this tiny woman and I gravitated to her and understood her because she was fearless to speak to me and growing up in the Bronx, we never saw many white people come up in the Bronx and there there weren’t hardly any of them in the Bronx. We knew that they were up in little Italy, Italians but other than that, the only time you saw people that were white coming from downtown was them coming to Yankee Stadium. If they missed the stop passing Yankee Stadium, they clearly got off to run back up towards Yankee Stadium. And so, you grow up with that certain kind of energy where there is not an open dialogue for you to speak to people when it comes to race and racism, how people interpret a young black man. So, you feel a certain kind of way when the white women react to you differently. I felt really inspired the way she had a fearlessness about just asking, “What is it you’re trying to do in life? What is it you’re about?” and I couldn’t thank that woman as much as I ever could have imagined for changing the course of and saving my life.
When I went to see her troop, they were okay. They were just talking about safe sex, domestic violence, don’t be beating up on the girlfriends etc. which is situational scenarios for young adults and out of the base of the platform of “Planned Parenthood” type of senario. In between one of those times, she said “Well, if you think it’s easy, why don’t you just come down and try and see what you can do, honey. I was like, “Nah, it’s not really my thing. It’s kind of cool but it ain’t that serious.” So, what happened was my time went on, I lost my close friend and came into school and I guess she could sense my energy was not in a good place. She said, “Why don’t you come over here and do one of the things” and I was like, “Bitch, I just need you to leave me the fuck alone and I’m in your class. I’m not fucking with you so let’s keep it like that.” So, she was like, “You got to get out of my classroom if you want to roll like that.” and I was like, “I ain’t going fucking nowhere.” I was really at kind of a belligerent stalemate place. So, when security came to get me out the class, they also realized that I was drinking in the class, you know what I mean? They was like, “This dude has alcohol in here too so you gotta get it expelled and kicked out.” So she fought for me to not get expelled and kicked out of school.
When she did that, I had to write a monologue.. When I wrote this monologue, it was about my best friend who had always had my back and that had passed away. In doing so, when I came back, she says, “I want you to meet me where I work with the kids and my ex students. Just come check it out.” I went and one of the actors….I almost want to say his name is Adonis. Adonis…I can almost remember his last name. I know he went to Ithica. He was one of her students. She loved him. He performed my monologue and I was like, “okay” and she came to me after it was over and she said, “Well, what do you think?” and I said, “Motherfucker changed my words up. That’s not what I said. He said it like this. You don’t do it like that.” She said, “Well, great. If you think it’s that simple, it’s uncomplicated and you’ve got that kind of attitude about it, you come up and do it.” I said, “If the motherfucker is going to do it like that, I might as well do it because that’s not what I said and that’s not how it sounds.” kind of in a heave about that but also trying to be hard hardheaded in the sense of if I said it, I was going to do it. So, I said I’d do it and it was about a week or so later that I was doing it, not really knowing and understanding that I’m even going through a grieving process because I don’t think I had a great concept of grievance at all as a young man because you just get numb to the sense of someone getting shot in the head or somebody getting shot in the chest on a constant basis. It doesn’t mean anything.
It just means that they didn’t make it but you gotta keep it moving. When you prioritize things in that kind of sense because you really get numb to it, you don’t really realize that you’re really not going through a grieving process. I probably didn’t realize it until I was a lot older but when I went to this class that she had in the South Bronx, I performed it for a bunch of group home kids. When I performed my monologue about how my boy always had my back and how we used to do all kinds of crazy things, but now he’s no longer here, but I still feel like he’s still got my back even though he’s dead. It’s a really weird feeling and I always think about him in that way.
This young Latin kid came up to me and he just started crying and he was like, “Man, I feel like you wrote this for me. I just lost my brother. My brother always had my back.” It was the first time that I ever felt like anything I had to say was worth saying or was worth being heard or received. That changed my outlook on so many things and was a real pivotal turning point because then I said to her, “This shit ain’t that bad. I mean, I could come around and kind of hang out a little more.” She just left the door wide open like “Come around. I want to introduce you to other people. There’s other places downtown. There’s a group called “City Kids.” It’s all these other different things that can help you get into training.” I said, “I don’t know about all of that” but she says, “Look, I think I can make you commercial.” I’m like, “What!? Commercial? Like, what and I going to do, Pepsi or Coke or some shit?” She was like, “No..nope, because you sound like you’re from the Bronx.” I had a really bad lisp at the time as well. She said, “I’ll work with you.” and I thought that was kind of cool. I dropped out of school for a good period , kind of figuring myself out, seeing if I still wanted it, still trying to go hard. I assume women and you know, you think you often, the next minute you’re like down the next minute you’re like, I need more money, and a regular job doesn’t feel like “it” when you’re trying to find yourself because you want immediate gratification that makes you feel like you’re ok now. She helped me a great deal while I was going through that process and living with that paranoia and depression and I started to think, “What if I am able to get in these films and on these shows and stages and am able to say something positive that would get people on the right track?” That’s where my passion for acting came in.
Okay, now you mentioned her being a white woman and you not being used to being around them in the Bronx. New York City has a lot of cultures mixed in a little bit and every time I go up there I see things changing, due to gentrification. How do you feel about those changes and how they’ve affected people whose families have been there for generations?
Some people understand what I’m saying and some people won’t. I feel like when a cat goes away and goes to jail for 10-15 years and gets out, he goes “Wow! You guys have cellphones! What is that? I don’t even know how that works.” It’s a culture shock. When I go back to NY, it’s a culture shock even though we understand different variables. We always wanted gentrification honestly, but the way gentrification has been going on is criminal. The people who have lived there who haven’t been able to buy these brownstones, Strivers’ Row, Brooklyn, Bedstuy…..in all of these different places, there were plans going on but the communities weren’t getting the information. So, it’s the same when we go to school. How can you expect me to be an excellent student and excel in school, but I’m not getting the right information? It’s a double edged sword because the gentrification is a good scenario because we want blended communities. However, is the gentrification ultimately just necessarily to push all of the minorities, the hispanics and the low income people out? Now, Harlem has penthouses on top of it. Now in Brooklyn, we’ve got super million dollar penthouses. So, are we upset about that? Absolutely not. I think people love living in beautiful communities. But are all of the people and all these gentrification cities in gentrified areas getting the opportunity to have the olive branch extended to them so they can be a part of that process and not be left out?
There’s a lot of exclusion instead of inclusion, unfortunately and so those are the things that are kind of a hard to swallow because we have the renters, we have the people who’ve been renting and haven’t had the greatest jobs for a long time. But the truth of the matter is, they raised the rent and now they got to go, even in some of the rent controlled buildings. So, they’ve been forced and put in a situation. Now, for you as a business owner who owns the place, you want your property to have the most value or bang for the bucks because at the end of the day, that is the entrepreneurial spirit. So, it’s not to say, “Hey, you’re doing the wrong thing!” It’s just the manner of the gentrification is going on to some extent for quite a bunch of people in the communities. That is the harshest reality that they aren’t a part of the the dream forward.
I grew up a military brat and one of my favorite films is “Behind Enemy Lines”. What was that experience like, working on that film?
It was a phenomenal experience spending time at Camp Pendleton and training with all the marines out there on the base doing special training. I don’t think people, unless they’ve been out there on the field and they’ve been on the front lines, they don’t have a great understanding of the courage and determination and the fortitude that our soldiers have. It’s really humbling truly a gracious and appreciative perspective that I have for our enlisted and our armed forces. So, doing the movie and not necessarily going through all of the different processes of true training as you might’ve gone for yourself and so many others. I am humbled beyond belief and also appreciative of the people that put their lives on the line. It also bothers me and rubs me the wrong way when I feel like our soldiers aren’t being taken care of when they return home and they cannot be forgotten at any point, the sacrifices that they have given not only for themselves, but for their families and for this country.
So, we wave the wave the American flag with a lot of honor and that honor comes from people such as yourself and so many others that have had to just persevere through some things that you can’t speak of. If you could speak on it all then some things would never be called classified. So, being a part of a film that represented something that was also a true story, right? Down behind enemy lines but not the acronym, not the false bravado of, not on my watch can I leave you behind. Not on my watch. I’ll stay behind with you, but I can’t leave you behind. It’s hard to put into words. It’s nothing but beyond humbling, you know? It’s more of a movie for myself because I think whenever we have these films and when we are honoring our heroes and there are so many more stories to be told and so many other African American soldiers stories to be told across the board, they have to be put out because their valor and their honor is just immeasurable.
I want to clarify something. I wasn’t enlisted in the military. My mother was and a lot of my friends growing up ended up joining. I guess it’s a family thing to a degree. A lot of my closest friends are in there till this day. A lot of the film is relatable because we were coming of age (I was 17) when 9-11 happened. I don’t know if you lived in NYC during that time, but it was real tough for you guys (NYC residents) but it was also tough for us because we were on a military base and we were also going through “Code Red” or whatever it was at that time. The whole base was locked down and we couldn’t really do anything. I think we (military families and people with military ties) probably felt it much worse than people outside of NYC during that time. It was really tough.
Absolutely. My father served in the Korean War. He passed just a few years ago. When the first attack happened on the World Trade Center where they put the bomb underneath in the parking structure, I had just finished working. I worked at the Church Street Post Office on the graveyard shift, 1230 to 8:30 or 9 in the morning. I was leaving, walking into the World Trade Center and jumping on the train to head back uptown to the Bronx. I remember just getting on the train and thinking, “Man, I want to get home, maybe try to stay up for an hour and a half or to eat some food” so I could get a little rest before I had to be back on the graveyard shift and the train stopped. Right when we’re rolling out, it stopped because the bomb went off.
So, I was in the train at that moment when the bomb went off at the World Trade and it took me hours to get home. I didn’t even know the bomb went off. I didn’t find out until I got home because of course I’m on the train and they are not saying anything or giving us any information. That was pretty much my last year at the post office. There’s so many people that I worked with at the post office and a few have passed away but even as a young man, as an actor and supporting me, sometimes someone will call me “Chucky” because of my name, Charles like “Forget what you’re telling us to call you! We’re going to call you Chucky because we’re older than you!” and they would just support me and go, “Man, you go out there and do those plays and we’re going to come see you every weekend. If you have to take a few extra days off, we’re going to make sure you’re all right. It was that kind of support that…..none of us would make it without someone else giving us the extra support and the extra push. I’m always so grateful because I mean really, my life is an example of that from Maryanne on to Gregory Hines to all of my people at the post office and many others. I’m truly appreciative.
All right. Let’s talk about “The Temptations” real quick. One of our business partners, Candy Fields of the “Candy Talk Show” has a few questions. They are as follows:
Is there anything that you learned about them or Otis Williams in particular that stood out to you?
Yeah. I love Otis. I still talk to him. I got to go support his play and hang out with him. He called me and told me come down for his opening night of his play, The Temptations: Ain’t Too Proud, when they were in the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles just a few months back. He was also on the road a lot while we were preparing for the film but I was really thankful that it was what he didn’t tell me that told me a lot. Lol, it was in between the lines because you also have to realize that sometimes, it’s great to be as transparent as we need to be, but if we’re too transparent and too black and white, it also can be too harsh for some of the people that are still alive and how it affects them. So, his thoughtfulness and his kindness about certain areas that he didn’t necessarily leave gray, he was just very, very shorthanded, thoughtful and compassionate about how in which he was selective on being detailed about certain things, which told me everything about him.
Being in Hollywood and being known for a role like that, did you ever worry about being typecast at all?
You know what? I remember I was going to do Paid In Full and play Alpo, right? As a young kid, I sold drugs to a bunch of these guys. People love that film a great deal so I almost had an opportunity to do that and Behind Enemy Lines at the same time. Dame dash and the other gentleman that we won’t talk about because they’ve been very, very disrespectful in the news, especially with women and their behavior, right?. But, what’s really, really interesting is that you never know what it is you’re going to be a part of. You just know that you want to do the best that you can and be as present as you can. I was clear about some things that I wanted to do and didn’t want to do. However, when it comes to The Temptations, it’s not about being typecast because it’s one of these projects that has really stirred up and been the platform for so much goodness that it’s overflowed and so much goodness has been given to me that when people recognize me and go, “Hey, Otis!” I’m thankful all day long. They can call me Otis any day. The real Otis, Otis Williams calls me Otis as well.
He’ll call me like “What’s up, O? and I’ll reply back, “Hey man, I’m chilling but you’re the Otis!” What I’m so grateful about about that process is that I might’ve looked back and he said, “Hey, I could have done that Paid In Full or whatever but it’s more important for me to be connected with something that could be so positive in different ways. A character, even though they went through so many different challenges in trying times. So yeah, it lifts me in a positive way.
Ok, tell us about “Last Call”, man.
It’s so interesting because I’ve done a few interviews and people go, “It sounds like a black Cheers” and I’m like, “Okay. What’s wrong with a black Cheers“? When I sat down and thought about it, in our neighborhoods, economically challenged neighborhoods or economically growing identified areas as we have them coming up in Atlanta and DC and all of these happening places, why not have a black Cheers, you know? The proprietor who owns this establishment is black and what’s so cool about it is there are these wonderful cast of characters that work in the neighborhood, the community and it’s their go to spot. They can either go home and maybe be with just mom or whoever, but it actually is their social waterhole.
It’s not the waterhole because they have to go there to get drunk and fall off the stool, but they go over there to vent. Everybody gets to vent. Everybody gets to release, everybody gets to kind of reguide, refocus and recenter themselves in a way. My character is an ex NFL player and I think you get to play with the perceptions of what an NFL player is and how when people say “Hollywood”, you know what I mean? Growing up on the east coast, people would go “Ay man, don’t go Hollywood on me.” It doesn’t mean don’t make it in Hollywood. They just mean don’t change up where you would ever think that we can never sit at the same table and all of a sudden you feel a little pretentious, precocious or feel better than me.
Here are these perceptions with this young cat who owns this thing and in his mind, he has definitely drank some of the sauce. I mean, everything should be cool. It should be good but it’s not. The reality is when we get caught up into falling asleep at the wheel, you wake up and realize somebody took over the wheel and you either ended up in jail or you ended up with a business manager who took all your money. Now, what are you going to do? So, it’s a good platform and a good starting point that not only introduces all of these other wonderful characters played by Carl Anthony Payne, TC Carson, Brele Evans, Mission, Erica Page, etc., that you realize that they could be a lot of other places.
Not only that, but they are all actively either the working, taking care of their businesses, doing their thing or even as TC’s (Carson) character, he’s living his life and enjoying his time and he can be enjoying it anywhere. He just likes to enjoy it there with a group of the other people that he kind of hangs out, hooks up and communes with. I dig it. It’s different for me from drama but I think the learning curve never stops. I’m always learning and I’m learning so much. Roger Bob has been so giving, Carl, TC, Brele, Mishon and everybody. It’s really a great core group of wonderful, wonderful actors. They are really talented and really funny. I get to find my funny moments in between enjoying them, sometimes even watching them because I’m just enjoying the time with them and I really hope we get opportunities to grow on it and to solidify it even that much more. It’s been a really, really awesome process.
I don’t want to forget the great guest stars that come through. I love the little niche of the platform of the show that it has where we can also highlight and accentuate a comedian outside of the guest stars. Maybe they’re the guest stars, maybe they’re not but to have a comic that could come up and do a couple of minutes of their spiel when I think about not necessarily everybody else but when they think about The Ed Sullivan Show when back in the day, they were like, “Hey, you get two minutes to do some comedy.” and they go, “Oh my God, we found Richard Pryor!” It’s those moments that kind of help people to stand out and bellow out not only their talent, but also be received with a different capacity. So, I think it’s got some cool variables to it.
Right. I wanted to ask you about Mishon. We’ve interviewed him a few times over the years. I watched him on “Lincoln Heights” back in the day and I know you’ve appeared on that show as well. How has it been working with Mishon in particular?
Working with him is like seeing myself young. Lol, I have such an affinity and such a love for him. I almost feel like a protective big brother in many ways and I want to be as helpful as I can to him. He is extremely talented. He has definitely got “it”, effortlessly. He’s got a great moral compass and a great balance with himself. He’s also a great artist and a great musicians along with Brele. We got a lot of double, triple threats going on in here. It’s great to be around all of them and especially Mishon because when I think of him, I think of Lee Thompson. You know who I’m talking about? Lee was on The Guardian with me. He played my nephew and he committed suicide six or seven years ago.
Oh, yea! He was on Nickelodeon back in the day.
Yeah, exactly. Lil Jet (Jackson) and then he was on the TNT show. I just spent so much time with him on and off set. We became great, dear friends and the same as Mishon. This business has a way of challenging young actors with when we have that downtime, what do we do with ourselves? How do we keep ourselves busy and occupied and in the positive frame of mind and mental state? We just have to keep surrounding ourselves with not just good people but great people who are really supportive. People that are willing to say, “Hey, this is this, this is that”, you know? Like you said, you might be out there in Hollywood but we don’t want to get too caught up in Hollywood. We want to find a balance. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of really great people over at Bounce TV, including at Bobcat Films and Angie Bones.
So, there is a lot of people who put a lot of hard work in. No one really gets to have that long conversation about the X factors but they are the real X factors, you know? We want to pour our love and our creative energy into it as well. But, when I think of him, I think of thee potential of a young artist when I circle back, a young artist that is exponentially limitless. When we look at Will Smith back in the day when he had The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it wasn’t so much that it was just, “Oh my God, it’s just so phenomenal!” He was good but there was something about him that we know that he’s running towards even something greater and Mishon has that in him as well.
Now, when does “Last Call” air?
It airs on Mondays on Bounce TV at 9PM. Sometimes, in California it airs at 9PM and 6PM. Sometimes, I double watch it, lol but east coast, it’s rocking at 9PM. Anyone having trouble finding the network on their service provider, there are also some Bounce and Brown Sugar apps that also allow you to tap in and see the show. We want as many people as we can to not only see this show but to support this show. Hopefully that insight and their responses are hopefully all positive they can allow us to keep growng because that’s what we want to do. We want it to be the nucleus and something that we can really, really grow with. Then, we can hopefully look back and go, “Wow, we’ve gotten to mature and grow up and do something worthwhile but so far, it’s been a fun and great experience.
Lastly, let’s talk about Tyler Perry’s “If Loving You Is Wrong”. New season coming?
Yes, brand new season (debuted February 24th) and you know, Tyler comes with so many twists and turns. I like to read some stuff and go, “Oh, I know where we’re going. Oh, okay” and then I go, “Really? You’re going in that direction, really?” So, Tyler does that to me all the time. So, after the second and third season, I just submitted and was like, “you know what? I’m not going to just pretend I know where you’re going” and then I laugh because every time I read anything that he’s written, I had no idea he was going a certain way. But you know, that’s the fun part for myself. So, a lot of people get to take in the show and be taken in by where it’s going, what’s happening, the messiness and the craziness and I’ve been fortunate to play this character that kind of walks in the middle of the road in many aspects, but he might be tipping a little bit of left now and maybe a little more right. Who knows? But, you just never know where Tyler is going and of course, having a show with Oprah and OWN and what they’ve done and been able to do, you’re grateful to be a part of the process with this show. The same way with Last Call.
Follow Charles Malik Whitfield on IG @malikwhitfield.
Photo courtesy of Charles Malik Whitfield.
Candy Fields can be reached on IG @candygirl3149.