Rockmond Dunbar is best known for his acting work in Sons of Anarchy, The Game and Soul Food, but now the actor is flexing his talents behind the camera. The man TV Guide named one of “Television’s 50 Sexiest Stars of All Time” makes his directorial debut with the family drama film Pastor Brown, which airs on Lifetime (check your local listings).
The church-themed but not preachy film tells a familiar story in a unique, original way. It centers around a wayward single mom, played by Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who must make peace with her pastor father (Keith David), her dutiful sister (Nicole Ari Parker), estranged son (Michael B. Jordan) and even herself when she returns to her hometown.
Tell us about your journey from actor to director. Why did you choose Pastor Brown as your directorial debut?
I read the script and was enthralled by the old concept of the prodigal son really being flipped upside down. I love the fact that our lead character, played by Salli Richardson-Whitfield, is a strong woman. So my producing partner and I found a funder at the Sundance Film Festival, and we got a little money to put it together. Then I got a role in The Family That Preys in Atlanta, Tyler Perry’s movie, which was an absolute blessing. Because if I was going to direct Pastor Brown, I knew I had to star in it — that was one of the contingencies. So the whole time I was filming The Family That Preys, I was watching Tyler and how he jumps back and forth in front of and behind the camera.
This film has an all-star cast. How did you assemble all these good actors in one movie?
I just called my friends Keith David, Michael Beach and I said, “Look man, I only have a burger and some fries, would you please come and help me?” [laughs] And of course everybody said, “Look Rock, you know you’re my dude but you’re going to have to give me a burger, fries and a shake!” I’m like, “Oh man, I don’t know if we can afford that shake, bro.” [laughs] Everyone at the end of the day said yes and it was just a perfect situation. We shot it in 18 days and it was an absolute miracle. Tyler Perry even came on the set and said, “This is great, and you’re doing a good job.” Getting that small stamp of approval from him really meant a lot to me.
So tell us how this Lifetime movie can turn into a cable TV series.
If everyone tunes in and our numbers are good, we have the opportunity to turn this into a television series. If you want an African-American drama back on the air, support Pastor Brown. The last time we had a Black TV drama that showed us in a positive light was Soul Food. I was 26 years old, I’m 40 years old now and we haven’t had a show like that in that long? Yes, Pastor Brown has some of the same actors you’ve seen before. Yes, it features a storyline that you’ve heard before, but I think we told it in a way where the quality and respect is there and it’s entertaining.
Back in 2000, you played a gay character in Punks and another gay character in 2006 in Dirty Laundry. Why were these characters necessary in your body of work?
Punks is the first film I did when I got to Los Angeles. A lot of cats turned it down because of the kissing scene. I took both the roles because I’m an artist, I’m an actor. I’m not going to be afraid of taking a gay role any more than I would be playing a detective. When you step onto the screen if you don’t look like whom you are portraying, nobody will believe you and your audience is gone. The question isn’t why did I take the roles; the real question is why did the other guys turn the roles down? If I would have failed in Punks miserably, I would have never, ever stepped into the genre again. I’ve done two films where I played a gay character, so you hear, “Oh, Rockmond Dunbar must be gay.” I'm a straight man, but if I were gay I would have come out a long time ago. I’m 40 and I don’t give a flying f--k what people think about me or my life.
Switching gears, you’ve become recently engaged. How will you and your fiancée Maya Gilbert celebrate Valentine’s Day?
For Maya and me every day is Valentine’s Day. But I will say this: when I first saw her, she took my breath away. Nine months after we met, I proposed to her. She’s smarter than me and I love that. She’s an incredible thinker, funny and she’s my best friend. I’m so happy to be on her team.
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(Photo: Jesse Grant/Getty Images)