Diversity has never been one of Hollywood’s stronger points. And for many African-American actors especially, narrow representations and typecasting have prevented many careers from blossoming. From the time he first started acting 30 years ago, Larenz Tate has refused to let the industry put him into a box.
From his infamous role as the overzealous gangbanger O-Dog in the 1993 Hughes Brothers film Menace II Society to the hopeless romantic Darius Lovehall in Love Jones, Tate is always switching things up and challenging himself to take on new characters.
In an exclusive chat with BET.com, the 39-year-old actor speaks on the importance of versatility as an actor, drawing from his own family experiences for his role as Malcolm Kaan in the Showtime series House of Lies and the one role that is still on his wish list.
BET.com: In House of Lies you play Marty’s brother Malcolm. How would you describe Malcolm and do you draw any of your influence for him from any of your own brothers or family members?
Larenz Tate: Malcolm Kaan, whom I play, is, in his own mind, a voice of the people. He is the voice of those who are voiceless. Anybody that has oppression bestowed upon them, Malcolm feels like he is their voice. Much like his brother, Marty (Don Cheadle), he has very strong points of view. Really he’s that family member who comes around and always likes to agitate family issues. I get a kick out of doing that, cause we all have that family member that just says the wrong thing at the wrong time and feels that it’s no big deal. I’ve got a combination of family members I drew influence from. I come from a big family and my mother comes from 13, my pops comes from 8, so I grew up with a lot of family and there’s always that competitive nature. And like I said, we’re some s**t talkers.
I know you and your brothers are close. Is that competitive dynamic even more prevalent when it comes to them?
My brothers Lahmard and Larron are my producing partners and we work together, so there’s always banter back and forth with me and my brothers. The one thing that we try to make sure we don’t do is banter in front of other people, especially when we’re conducting business, but behind closed doors we turn up and it comes from childhood. Mom would tell us, “Don’t [argue] like that,” but my father was like, “It’s okay to argue,” so we would just make sure there was no cussing, fighting or bickering in the house but we could do all of that on the basketball court. On the court, we’d get into it. I mean full-on get down like strangers. But once we leave the court, it’s all love again, so I’m able to pull those nuances from my own personal experiences and my relationship with Don Cheadle. He’s pretty much like my big brother anyway. I been knowing Don since I was about 14 and he’s always been there. He and my brother Larron, when Larron was an actor, they used to do stage plays here in Los Angeles, so I was always coming up behind those guys and Don became kind of that surrogate brother. So he and I have that battle of the wits all the time, which makes it easy when we’re on set and we hit the scene. It just sort of flows like water.
Talk about that relationship with Don Cheadle and what it’s been like to watch each other progress over the years?
Don has always remained humble. And he’s always been so underrated. He’s truly one of the best actors out there and he’s an incredible director and producer as well. I’m just happy to know that we can continue to do what we’re doing. We’re both sort of cut from the same cloth in that we’re looking to run the marathon, we’re not just in it for the sprint. Don has been around a long time. I remember the first time I saw him in a movie was in Colors, in which he played Rocket, and that movie was like some gangsta LA stuff and that was so memorable to me. Years later, I was able to play O-Dog in Menace II Society and we still talk about Rocket and O-Dog.
When you look at Cheadle’s character (Marty Kaan) in House of Lies, do you feel like that’s a sign of progress with regards to casting Black actors in leading roles?
When I look at the character Marty Kaan, it speaks well for the progress of Hollywood with regards to cultural diversity. This role even ten years ago probably wouldn’t have happened. Hollywood is always changing. As you can tell, there’s a lot of film actors going back to television. TV gives actors an opportunity to do a lot of things they probably wouldn’t in film. I have to say that this role for Don wasn’t necessarily written specifically for an African-American, but what they recognized was that we’re going to put in the best actor who can carry this show and [be] very dynamic. And I’m happy that they recognized that Don Cheadle is that guy and when we talk about diversity, that’s so important to Don and this show to reflect that diversity. There’s very few people in that space where Don is in terms of an African-American where you can see a person who is running a company who is the smartest guy in the room. And it goes a step further with Marty’s family. You have Glynn Turman, who plays the father, who’s brilliant on the show. You have [Donis Leonard Jr.], who plays Roscoe, and just seeing the generations of African-American men and where we are and the dynamic family shows progress.
You’ve played so many different roles. Was that something you planned from the beginning or did is just happen that way?
I never wanted to do the same thing twice. I’ve always looked for different challenges. When I started doing films, I went from Menace II Society to a small character in The Inkwell. I go from there to Dead Presidents to Love Jones to playing Frankie Lymon, so there has to be something I see as a challenge. I always wanted to avoid being caught in a box. I never wanted to play just a street thug or the corny guy who is this hopeless romantic or a poet. I feel like I don’t necessarily have a specialty. Kevin Hart has a specialty of what he does. My specialty is not having one.
If you could play anybody in a biopic who would it be?
I’m a huge fight fan and I love doing period pieces and Sugar Ray Robinson is someone who I’d love to play, and for years I’ve always wanted to do a fight film. I feel like it’s one thing to put a boxer in a film, but it’s another to have a story underneath it. And he has such an interesting story that people don’t realize and it would be great to really show people and tell that story of the great Sugar Ray Robinson.
Do you think he was better than Floyd Mayweather?
I’m going to say they were just in different times. I do believe that he was a better fighter because, first of all, they fought for 15 rounds. The training was rigorous. Even the gloves, they had four-ounce gloves. It was basically bare knuckle brawls for 15 rounds and still they trained for 20 rounds. It was so blue collar. The only true flash was in the ring. A guy like Sugar Ray Robinson, the battles he went through and the fighters he fought, and I’m not saying that Floyd fought slouches by any means, but out of the two, Sugar Ray Robinson, no doubt. Floyd is hands down the best of this generation, though.
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(Photo: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)