Former Cosby kid Malcolm-Jamal Warner is appearing in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from Sept. 5 to Oct. 5. He grew up playing Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show from 1984 to 1992, and other television credits include Malcolm & Eddie, Community, Dexter, Reed Between the Lines and Sons of Anarchy. He’s appeared in the feature films Drop Zone and Fool’s Gold, while his extensive stage work includes Cryin’ Shame (for which he won an NAACP Theater Award), A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the La Jolla Playhouse and his one-man show Love and Other Social Issues. An accomplished poet, he has performed at the National Black Theater Festival since 2003 and hosts its Poetry Jam. He plays bass guitar in his jazz-funk band Miles Long, and he’s currently taking classes at Berklee. He lives in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Soroff: So there is life after Cosby?
Malcolm-Jamal Warner: Oh, brother, yeah! But I was focused on that when we were doing the show. I literally grew up with an almost maniacal obsession with having a life after Cosby. The first season, right out of the gate, the numbers were phenomenal, but even then, I was focused on what I would do when it was over. I was 14. My mom sat me down and said, “It’s great that the show is doing well, but this could all be over next year.” So all eight years, I lived like it was the last episode. I’d seen one of those Where Are They Now? things on VH1, and it scared the bejesus out of me. I did not want that to be my existence.
I expected to. When I was a kid, I used to hang out with Kim Fields. She was like a big sister to me, because her mother ran an acting school. The Facts of Life was on, but this was before The Cosby Show. People would ask Kim for her autograph or whatever, and she was just so incredibly nice, and I remember thinking, “When I get my TV show, I’m going to be as nice as Kim.” So I fully expected to have a TV show as a kid. [Laughs] That said, the reality of growing up on TV was a little different.
Even as a teenager, I understood that I wasn’t just a reflection of my parents. I understood I was a reflection of Mr. Cosby and everything the show stood for. So there were self-imposed boundaries that I had, but within those boundaries, man, I did everything I could possibly do that wasn’t tabloid-worthy. And the stuff that was tabloid-worthy, I kept it under the radar. But I wasn’t a knucklehead. I was able to enjoy the celebrity while keeping it in perspective. I was responsible with it, but I also understood that it was not the be-all end-all of my career. Most of my friends had nothing to do with the business and wanted nothing to do with it.
I was really lucky. Nothing that I remember. I think that’s partially because our attitude toward the media dictated that relationship. Mr. Cosby would give interviews to The Enquirer. He figured it was better than having them make shit up. Lisa got some grief from them, but what I always loved and admired about her was that she always marched to the beat of her own drum.
I grew up on the No. 1 television show in the world, but I was living in New York. We first shot in Brooklyn, and then Queens. And I think doing the show in New York had a significantly positive impact on us kids. In Brooklyn, we didn’t have a commissary. So for lunch, we had to go out into this Jewish neighborhood and find something to eat. When we moved to Queens, the commissary wasn’t that great, so we’d go out in this Italian neighborhood. Just growing up in New York, we were faced with reality. So that had a great influence on our perspective. Yeah, we were on this television show, but we saw real life all around us.
I would, but I’d make them stay in theater for a long time and be sure that he or she had a love and passion and dedication to the craft, as opposed to chasing stardom.
[Laughs] No, man! Mr. Cosby has five f—ing kids of his own. He was a colleague, and a friend and a mentor. I spent half my life under his wing. But he wasn’t really a father figure. I think the reason all of us from that show turned out OK was that we all had parents who were very hands on and involved.
Most of what I learned from him was by example. His work ethic was incredible. We would get the show done, and he’d spend his days off in Vegas, Tahoe or wherever, doing his stand-up. I learned that when you’re hot, that’s when you bust ass. I do remember one time, though, I was 15 and talking to him about some girl I was jonesing for. He said, “Malcolm, in your lifetime, you’re going to meet a million beautiful women. And you can’t f— ’em all.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] No, but people always ask me if my shirt is by Gordon Gartrell. It’s gotten so old. But people seem to really love that episode. Gordon Gartrell was a real person. He was a friend of Mr. Cosby’s, and he was a writer on the show for the last three years.
Probably the red high-top fade. [Laughs]
Probably The Cosby Show. I went into it and delivered my lines, and Mr. Cosby said, “Would you really talk to your father like that?” I was like, “No,” and I thought, “I totally f—ed that up.”
It’s probably a tie between Saul Williams and Taalam Acey. He’s the only poet who could get away with doing a piece dissing Saul Williams while Saul Williams was in the audience.
Poetry, hands down. I’ve been doing it longer. Music is a lifetime commitment, and I came to it kind of late, at 26. It takes so much energy and dedication and time and practice just to be an OK musician. My dad went to college with Gil Scott-Heron, and I came out of the womb listening to his music. That level of musicianship is something I could never hope to achieve.
My guilty pleasure is True Blood.
Reed Between the Lines
[Laughs] She came to Atlanta to visit, and we went to dinner after work. There’s this farm-to-table restaurant that Tracee goes to, and we got there. We didn’t have a reservation. The hostess was like, “Sorry. We don’t have anything for you.” To Diana Ross! [Laughs] Eventually, someone found us a table. I think someone might have built it in back. It was hilarious. No table for Diana Ross.
Oh, that’s good. Really good. I’m gonna go with Anna Paquin.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Yes, I do. Despite what some people say, I don’t think we live in a “post-racial” world. There’s still, on both sides, a sentiment of drawing a line. I think most white people are cool with black people. They’re fine with a black person living next door. They’re fine with a black person coming to dinner or playing golf. But they’d have a problem if their daughter married a black guy. And I think the same is true with black people. It’s a sort of universal examination of “otherness.”
It’s easier in the sense that I know the material. I’ve inhabited the character and understand him. But it’s a different approach. Because it’s different actors, and I’m in a different place than I was the last time I did it, my approach has to be different. That’s the exciting part.
Theater is my favorite platform. Television is my favorite paycheck. In the theater, you get to rehearse for several weeks with the actors you’re actually going to be on stage with. There’s stuff that you get on the stage that’s not on the page.
And if you’re not, you should be too.