Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Kurdy in Jeremiah.
Once again, I have decided to open up the interview vault and revisit some of the many interviews I have had the pleasure of writing over the years and that just appeared in-print and not on-line. In today's interview, veteran actor and all-around nice guy Malcolm-Jamal Warner talks about struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world playing Kurdy in the MGM Sci-Fi series Jeremiah. Enjoy, and keep coming back for more familiar faces and shows!
From 1984 to 1992, millions of TV viewers across America watched Malcolm-Jamal Warner grow from a teenager into a young man on The Cosby Show. Four years later, the actor went on to co-star in as well as produce and direct his own sitcom Malcolm and Eddie. Nowadays, he is fighting for survival as Kurdy in the Sci-Fi series Jeremiah. For Warner, the switch from comedy to drama was a welcome one.
“I’d been looking for a one-hour project in order to continue to hone my craft in that genre,” says Warner. “What struck me about Jeremiah was the fact that although it was Sci-Fi it really didn’t feel like one to me, if that makes sense. I appreciated the fact that there weren’t any half-android, half-human characters. I saw it as a chance not only to do good work but also bring something to the Sci-Fi table. After reading the script, I met with [series creator and executive producer] Joe Michael Straczynski [of Babylon 5 fame]. I auditioned for him, had a callback and then went in for the final screentest where I read with a number of different actors up for the part of Jeremiah.
“Funnily enough, it was around this time that I began to change my perception of auditions. To me, an audition is a gig. I have a captive audience and five or ten minutes in which to serve them up the best I have to offer. ‘This is what I can do. If you dig it, cool. If not, well, I tried.’ As an actor it’s hard to go into an audition without feeling like you really want the job, and because our business has such a high level of rejection it can be hard when you don’t get the part. So now I try to have a certain detachment when I walk into an audition. With Jeremiah, I think this new ‘philosophy’ of mine took a lot of the pressure off me. Maybe that helped, who knows, but much to my delight I ended up being hired.”
The Jeremiah TV series is loosely based on the comic book by Belgian writer Hermann Huppen. It is set in America 2020, where a biological plague or ‘The Big Death’ has killed everyone over the age of 15. Society is in ruins and is slowly being rebuilt by groups of survivors that are scattered across the country. The show’s hero Jeremiah (Luke Perry) is in search of the Valhalla Sector. There he hopes to find information on the disease, which could return but in a far more virulent form. Along the way he crosses paths with Warner’s character of Kurdy.
“In the comic [book] version of Jeremiah, both he and Kurdy are white,” explains the actor. “It was also mentioned in the original draft of the show’s pilot script that Kurdy was illiterate. That was an issue I felt had to be addressed even before I screentested for the role. I said, ‘One guy being able to read but not the other is fine if your characters are both white. However, there’s no way you can do a show with two leads and the black guy can’t read.’ I discussed this with Joe and he said, ‘You’re right.’ He and the rest of the producers had already decided to make Kurdy black but hadn’t gotten any further when it came to changing anything else about him.
“Having that initial conversation with Joe really helped set the precedent for our working relationship,” he continues. “Joe is all about the collaborative effort, which I think is great. I did a TV series for four years where I spent so much time arguing with the writers, producers, the studio, the network, and my fellow actors about the fact that, ‘Hey, there are other ways black people can be funny.’ I even remember watching Mr. [Bill] Cosby fighting with writers on his own show. So it’s such a relief to be associated with a program like Jeremiah where people are all working towards a common goal.”
In the show’s two-part opener The Long Road, Jeremiah catches Kurdy trying to steal his fish. After convincing one another that the other can be trusted, the two continue their journey together. It is not long before they come upon a market community called Clairfield, whose leader is the beautiful and determined Theo (Kim Hawthone). She is obsessed with obtaining as much knowledge and technology as possible. Jeremiah does not agree with her methods and wants to help those looking to escape her tyranny. Kurdy, however, initially wants no part of this.
“Kurdy has a conflict between looking out for number one and helping people,” notes Warner. “It’s been his experience that when you go to someone’s aid you usually end up getting screwed. Jeremiah, however, is a hero and heroes help people. So it takes time for Kurdy to wrap his head around that ‘concept,’ but he eventually does,” chuckles the actor. “That inner struggle was one of the things about the character that appealed to me. I also like that he and Jeremiah have become equals. I don’t think that was necessarily their [the writers’] original intent. However, Kurdy is definitely not just a side-kick, and I think a lot of that is due to that collaborative effort I spoke of earlier.”
When it came to the actual filming of the pilot, the actor could not have been more pleased. “The first week on any new program can sometimes be a little awkward,” he says. “With Jeremiah, a lot of the crew had worked together before. When Luke and I arrived on the set in Vancouver these guys didn’t know what to expect. Naturally, they were curious as to, ‘What are Luke and Malcolm like?’ I’m pleased to say that there was a warm environment right from the get-go. You can see that Luke and I like each other as well as what we do and I think that vibe filters right down to the rest of the cast and crew.
“The very first phone conversation Luke and I had prior to coming up to Canada was about the fact that he and I have been doing this [acting] for a long time. We’ve both dealt with the politics, the bullshit, the egos, etc. We decided to make Jeremiah about the work, but also make sure we had a good time doing it. That’s been our focus from the onset and I think it’s worked out well.”
In the second half of The Long Road, Jeremiah and Kurdy meet up with Marcus Alexander (Peter Stebbings), who is in charge of a secret underground base located in Thunder Mountain. Up to now, Marcus and his people have kept their existence a secret from the outside world for fear of being overrun by needy souls. It is Jeremiah and Kurdy who convince him that he must join with other groups in order to guarantee the continued survival of humanity. They agree to liaison on Marcus’s behalf with outsiders in the hope of finding out who might be interested in forming alliances. While on their first mission in the episode Man of Iron, Woman Under Glass, they meet a young man who has convinced himself he is a superhero called Captain Iron.
“When I first read this script I thought, ‘This feels corny to me,’” recalls Warner. “However, after we filmed it, I received a rough cut of the story to watch. By the time it got to end when Jeremiah dons the Captain Iron costume and goes off to fight the bad guys I had tears in my eyes. It was such a wonderful, magical episode. The overall message of the show is that in all the darkness there is light or hope. It’s difficult to get that point across without being corny. Luckily, Joe Straczynski and Sam Egan [fellow executive producer] are both able to ride that fine line rather smoothly. This was just one example of that and I was suitably impressed. The story turned out to be one of my favorites in the first season.
“Another one I really enjoyed was City of Roses where Kurdy returns home and discovers how his parents really died. As an actor you always want to do emotional scenes to prove to people that you can act. This story gave me that opportunity. Not counting my mother, I’m my harshest critic. I remember watching this episode and, although I could see the disparity between what I ended up with and what I was going for, I could also see some growth. It was the first time I was able to track progress in my acting without beating myself up. I thought, ‘It wasn’t quite what I was going for but I can see how close I got. Now I know what I’ve got to work on so that I can get to the place I want to be as an actor.’ So the story was a real turning point for me.”
Born August 18th, 1970 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Warner was named after Malcolm X and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. According to the actor, he had his career path figured out from a young age. “I was going to become a famous poet, a famous basketball player and a famous actor – in that order. I got the actor part out of the way and now I’m working on the poet part. I gave up on the basketball, but I figure two out of three ain’t bad,” he jokes.
Warner was only 12 years old when he made his debut in an episode of the TV detective series Matt Houston. “It was my first audition and my first job,” says the actor. “Up to that point I had been doing theatre and I remember being intrigued by the differences in stage versus TV acting. In the theatre you do the whole play or a scene right through. With film, you do part of a scene, stop, wait for the set to be re-lit, shoot the same portion of the scene from a different angle, etc. I came to understand very early on about the different [acting] muscles you use depending on the genre.”
Besides the aforementioned Cosby Show and Malcolm and Eddie, the actor has appeared in countless made-for-TV films and guest-star roles. He has also worked behind the cameras directing several projects. Currently, Warner is in Vancouver where he and Luke Perry are busy shooting the second season of Jeremiah. “We’ve had a couple of conversations with Joe and he’s told us a bit about what he has planned for these new episodes,” he enthuses. “I’m like a kid with a comic book. I can’t wait for the next issue!”