For nearly 35 years, the name Leon has been synonymous with solid acting performances in films like Five Heartbeats, Get Rich or Die Tryin' and B*A*P*S. The New York native has also done the same exciting work on television in the series Oz, and TV movies like Temptations and Little Richard. Now, he brings his A-game to his latest film, I Really Hate My Ex, where he stars as Sean, a man cornered by his ex seeking closure.
When Leon spoke to BET.com, he chatted his new film, starring in the stage play, Je'Caryous Johnson's Things Your Man Won’t Do and his new passion project, Hosanna, a new movie he is using crowdfunding sources to complete.
Your I Really Hate My Ex co-star Chris Spencer shared why he wanted to be in the film. What personally attracted you to the script?
I liked the story. It was different, edgy and I thought it would be a fun ride. Also, I’m very much into relationships and conversations about them. This movie deals with women who are tired of men being very evasive and not telling the truth about why they left them. But, when a man’s back is against the wall and they have to tell these women everything, the women often don’t want to hear it. Sometimes men aren’t being evasive because they’re sneaky, they are being evasive because they don’t want to hurt the woman’s feelings.
Before the feature films Ray and Get on Up, you played three soul legends on the small screen: David Ruffin (Temptations), Little Richard (The Little Richard Story) and Jackie Wilson (Mr. Rock and Roll). What are some of the pressures actors face portraying icons?
You have an added responsibility because those people have relatives and friends that know them. So you want to get, at the very least, the spirit of the person. You want to make sure you get that right. I remember the first time I ever heard anything negative about me was when they announced they cast me to play Little Richard. And I heard rumblings like, “He’s not ready for Little Richard,” or “He can’t be Little Richard.” And I was like, “Wow. OK. This is gonna be interesting.” But once I read his book and I saw Little Richard from 1958 to 1963, when I portrayed him, I mean, he was a great looking guy. He was a stud and he was the King of Rock and Roll. All of a sudden I was like, “OK, I can see myself morphing into this guy.” I was blessed to have played all those roles.
You just finished the first run national tour of the play Things Your Man Won’t Do alongside Wendy Raquel Robinson and Tichina Arnold. What do you enjoy most about the stage? The audiences for those plays are very vocal.
It’s really crazy. Sometimes it’s off-putting and you have to deal with it. Sometimes when I come out in the play, especially in cities like Detroit and Washington D.C., there is so much screaming and hollering, people saying all kinds of things and yelling stuff, it’s really wild. I appreciate the love. But I’m not Leon when I’m on that stage, I’m a character. I want them to hear what the character has to say and I want them to get the story. I think they eventually get it. For us as a people, it’s very exciting to see our favorite actors and actresses live on stage and in person. So many times after a show, people — grownups and kids — come up to me and say, "This was my first play ever." The reason why they came was because they were such fans of my movies. I realize that in many aspects I’m helping to bring theater to an under-served market and I love it.
You and Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Cynthia Bailey could be poster people on being successful co-parents to your daughter, Noelle. Did you have any reservations about appearing on RHOA and revealing aspects of your father/daughter relationship on TV?
I couldn’t see any way around it; trust me I thought about not doing it. But it was very important for me that everyone knows that I’m raising my daughter. And if I hadn’t [appeared on the show], it would appear as though I wasn’t. I couldn’t have that. Noelle is my heart, she’s my one and only and it’s fine, it all works out. From what I gather people love that I’m on Housewives, they love the relationship, so that’s great. As long as it benefits Cynthia and my daughter, I’m all for it.
Tell us more about the new immigration drama feature film Hosanna, which you are currently crowd funding.
Hosanna is the story of a Black immigrant coming here seeking the American Dream and realizing it’s anything but. He does what he has to do by any means necessary to support his American-born son, but the immigration doors are shutting in his face, lawyers are taking his money and he just wants to be legal. This is something that affects over 11 million people in this country; it’s a hot topic right now. These are types of stories that I think we should be able to tell — that the other side gets to tell all the time, but the studios aren’t behind us telling them. That’s why we’re crowdfunding at Indiegogo. If you want to see these kinds of stories, with us starring in them, you have to show us actors, directors and producers that you want it.
I Really Hate My Ex arrives on DVD April 14.
(Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images)