Few actors are as timeless and dynamic as Larenz Tate.
The 47-year-old Chicago native, who apparently drinks from the fountain of youth every morning, has an acting career that spans more than 30 years. He started out acting as a child, making appearances on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Wonder Years,” “Family Matters” and “The Women of Brewster Place.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the classic “Menace II Society.” In the film, he plays O-Dog, a vengeful, yet misunderstood teen gang member who became the blueprint for many young, inner-city Black male characters who came after him. That movie paved the way for the very different, gentler role of Darius Lovehall in “Love Jones,” which is celebrating its 26th anniversary this year.
Those two milestones represent not only Tate’s versatility in acting, but the precedent he set in the 1990s for the next generation of actors. They also highlight Tate’s career longevity as he currently plays Councilman Rashad Tate on the Starz show “Power Book II: Ghost.” The show, which aired its Season 3 finale on Friday, is a testament to the range that the actor continues to expand and explore.
Tate told HuffPost that he knew early on the importance of fighting against the pigeonholes that many Black actors have found themselves in. He said being nimble after the rawness of “Menace II Society” was important.
“I knew that character. I knew O-Dogs for real, for real. So it resonated and I was happy that we were able to do it,” he said. “But after doing so, I didn’t want to be held in a box. I wanted to continue to show my range. And so when I was able to do these other projects like ‘The Inkwell,’ ‘Dead Presidents,’ ‘Love Jones,’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love,’ I was just wanted to show my range.”
Tate sat down to discuss the key to his career longevity, his most iconic roles and the one role he hasn’t done yet that’s on his bucket list.
Thirty years in acting is no small feat. How are you feeling now as you reflect on your long career?
It sounds crazy. Thirty-plus years. It has been a long journey and a long road, but it doesn’t feel like it, I feel like I’m still just getting started. I feel like I’m still just warming up, really. And the journey has been amazing. Something that my parents had always told myself and my brothers, “In this industry, it’s a privilege that you’re doing what you’re doing. You have to think about, do you want to run the sprint or do you want to run the marathon?” And I think that when we talk about 30 years, three-plus decades, is indicative in a reflection of that marathon that I’ve been running and I’m still running.
In that 30 years we’ve seen you play so many different characters. Throughout your career, has there been a specific thing that you’ve looked for when selecting each character?
The things that I look for are new challenges. I never want to play the same character again unless it’s a franchise and we making some money. You know what I mean? But outside of that, I love to find new characters, new stories that will allow me to sort of come out of my comfort zone.
It’s like always the through line is, “What can I do that allows me to get out of my comfort zone, but allows me also to find characters that I believe in, that I can make real, that will make an impact in some way or another?” And fortunately I’ve been able to have some gems that people still talk about to this day.
On “Power” and “Powerbook II: Ghost,” we fall in love with having you back on our screens, but your character Councilman Tate…
Right. What it is about Councilman Tate that intrigues you artistically?
Once again, me finding something that is a little different. We talk about Councilman Tate, it’s great to see me on screen, but playing a character that you kind of love to hate. And I’m good with that. You either love Rashad Tate or you hate him, and I’m good with it. Because it says people are talking about it. The thing about this councilman, he’s the guy that comes into the room and he’s high-fiving everybody. He’s giving love to everybody and he’s like, “I’m the voice of the voices. I got the answer to all your problems and I’m going to do my best.” Then the reality is he’s behind closed doors cutting these unpopular deals based on unpopular opinion, but he understands that’s what it takes.
I like the fact that I’m able to really play the duality. He’s the person who presents one thing and he wants to come in and gain your trust, and he believes he can do that by his charm. He smiles, he’s really cool. He’s like, “Yeah…” He gives a look. Everything is cool. When the fire is going on, the building is burning, he’s calm. That’s one thing. But then he can turn on a dime, if he feels somebody’s crossing him. He lets people know, “Ain’t nothing sweet about me. Understand?” You know what I’m saying? And I love to be able to play those dynamics, to be able to switch on a dime. It’s nice to do that.
March marked the 26th anniversary of when we first heard Darius Lovehall say, “I’m the blues in your left thigh trying to become the funk in your right.” What significance does this anniversary hold for you?
That’s wild. The fact that it’s been that long, I was shocked. How could there be a movie that’s 26 years ago that people still talk about? And still has this level of respect and just people, it’s sort of like this classic movie that has become cinematic treasure for us and especially our community, the Black community. And it just doesn’t feel like it’s been that long.
Nia [Long] and I talk about it all the time. It’s like, “We made a really fly movie.” And it’s hard to try to duplicate. We always talk about it. Anything that we do, people are going to think about “Love Jones.” So we have to make sure if we ever and when we ever do something, it has to be at that level. And it’s pressure because especially now, we didn’t have social media back then. We only can make cinematic treasures because if not, well, they are going to lay into us. So we got to make sure that we do something that strong. But it’s been a long time and I’m proud to know that people still love that film and it means something to them even to this day.
What has “Love Jones” done for how we watch Black love stories?
Well, first and foremost, the movie was told by us. When I say that it’s Black folks and our narrative. So it’s really important that the nuances were present, the authenticity of telling a story, things that we would do that are specific to us even though we’re dealing with a universal human story, human dynamics of love, but how we approach things. And to me, it was important for us to see these images and see how people relate to us, because oftentimes we have fallen into stereotypes that Black men and Black women are always fussing and fighting at each other. Of course, we have the same issues that everybody else, but our lowest essence of who we are are always magnified.
A movie like “Love Jones” shapes up something different. It’s more of a representation and a definition of who we are in a way, and we’re not monolithic. And we wanted to show that. And the movie really was really about two people or a community of people, intellectuals who weren’t worried about if “the man” has got they foot on their neck. And even though those issues are part of our journey, it really doesn’t represent who we are. “Love Jones” just allowed us to be vulnerable. It allowed men to be OK with falling in love and vulnerability and not actually having the answers and having to talk to each other about love. Black men talking to other Black men about how this is supposed to go. Single men, married men and women, sisters talking to each other. And it’s very unique because it’s important for us to see more of that and balance it out. So it was very special. It really was.
Your first feature film, “Menace II Society,” celebrates 30 years this year. I love how O-Dog has been this kind of fixture in a lot of media representations of Black men who are like him. For you, what was important about O-Dog being your first big character in a film?
I had been doing work before then and I have been doing guest-stars on different projects, but this one was important because I was 16 when I got the role, I was 17 when we actually filmed the movie. The writers and the directors and the production team were close in age, they were only three or four years older than me. So we were like these young artists telling a story about people who looked like us and came from our neighborhoods and had some very similar experiences. It wasn’t watered down, it was the true authentic voices.
It was usually older white males writing for a 14-year-old Black kid. So to be able to be in this situation, it was so impactful. And then just goes to show you when we are representing in our most authentic self, there’s success. It resonates, and that is something that’s necessary and it was really important. And when we were doing it, we were like, “We not sure what’s going to happen. We just telling a story, things that we know.”
And we’re talking about around the time of the police brutalizing Rodney King and the 1992 LA Rebellion. You were 17. Did you hold any additional weight on your shoulders in portraying this character and understanding how many people you were representing, especially because of what was happening in real life?
At the time I didn’t have a whole lot of weight on my shoulders. I was more or less relieved that I was in a safe space. I could really do the things that I would want to do and react the way I would react and think the way I believe this person would think. So that moment in the grocery store, in the opening of the movie when O-Dog is paying for his drink or whatever, and the store owners are following them and he pays for the drink and the store clerk says, “I feel sorry for your mother.” And that, “What you say about my mama?” came from me. That wasn’t written. And when you crossed those lines in our community, mothers and children, that’s off limits. You don’t, it’s a problem.
So I typically wouldn’t have that safe space to do so. I was just trying to be as authentic as I possibly can. And as a result, it was a representation of so many people. I think that was the voice of the voiceless in a real way.
One of the keys to my artistry is that I have to internalize it. It has to work for me. I have to feel like this is something that is real and honest and truthful. And if it’s not, I got to find a way to make it that way. And sometimes you don’t have that space to do so. But fortunately people hire me for that. They hire me to do what I do best and bring what I bring to characters. That’s why I’m here, you know why I’m here. So I’m grateful for that.
Talk to me about what you feel the industry is missing right now and how you’re answering that with you and your brothers’ production company, TateMen Entertainment.
I think the one thing that I really believe is missing, dare I say, when it comes to representation in terms of Black involvement, is ownership. We have put a lot of time and effort, blood, sweat and tears into the industry, into the craft, into the work, in front of the camera, also behind the scenes. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of ownership. Now, we might have a couple deals around town it’s really great we have taken care of. But I feel like in terms of being in a space that I feel like we earn a true seat at the table ― and oftentimes we don’t have a seat at the table ― so we have to create our own table and decide what that looks like and how that can be a part of the entire narrative.
I think what needs to happen. What my brothers and I creating TateMen Entertainment, what we decided to do was find ways to tell stories, to find new ideas. And as you grow in an industry, that’s what it’s really about. I talk to execs all the time. I say, “Just think about new ideas. In this industry there needs to be more representation of what the world looks like around us, and it’s not. So we got to keep that going. And so having a seat at the table, having a piece of that as we can now open up the doors for those who have great stories to be told.
You’ve done so much, but what else do you want to do that you haven’t yet?
At some point I want to direct a feature film. I don’t know exactly what that is right now because I kind of like a bunch of different genres. But I think directing an actual full-length feature, I’ve directed many other things, but really finding a story that is meaningful enough to tell and maybe that will come to fruition at some point and tell our stories, we have so many stories to tell. I want to be a part of telling our experiences.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I think just overall thematically a legacy that I was a man of integrity, that I actually cared about what I did and I cared about those who would come after me, and that they can look at me and say that I was thinking about them while I was doing what I was doing. And a man of principle and standards, for sure.
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