Welcome to “Director's Cut,” where the creative vision of a master storyteller comes to life in its purest form. In this special feature, we invite you to step behind the scenes and into the mind of legendary director Reggie Rock Bythewood. With a career spanning decades and a remarkable portfolio of films and television projects, Bythewood has consistently pushed the boundaries of storytelling with his unique perspective.
BET: You're from the Bronx. How did the Bronx shape your love for film?
Reggie Rock Bythewood: Coming from New York, I fell in love with theater at an early age -- and, by the way, everybody that grew up in the Bronx, when I did, we probably think of it as the birthplace of hip hop. So, hip-hop was a big part of my upbringing. Writing rhymes was some of the first writing I ever did. But my mother would also get these standing-room-only tickets for Broadway plays. I fell in love with theater and fell in love with just so many playwrights -- that was really my focus. So, I started writing and directing my plays, then people heard about me in Hollywood. It was the first year they started the Disney Fellowship Writers Program program. I submitted some of the plays that I wrote and directed. The next thing I knew, I got in, so I moved to California and chartered a career path as a writer.
BET: As a teenager in New York, you were landing acting roles in soap operas. You were offered a role on "One Life to Live," which was huge at the time, but you turned it down to move to Hollywood to become a writer. That feels like a big risk for a young guy; what made you decide?
Reggie Rock Bythewood: I was on a soap opera called "Another World" when I was 16. That was a big deal, and it was great, but it also came with some sacrifice for me because I was going to a performing arts high school and they didn't allow you to do outside work. I really loved going to that high school, but this opportunity came, and it was another way to learn. I second-guessed that quite a bit initially. The high school of performing arts felt like the Juilliard of high schools, and a soap opera did not feel like the same level. So, when I took that, it became an amazing experience because I learned so much just being on set. Soap operas were a big deal, but having a Black cast was also a really big deal. There was a Black cast on "All My Children" and a Black cast on "Another World." They weren't huge names then, but now they're legendary names. I'm rocking with Morgan Freeman and Joe Morton -- there were so many great artists I was working with, and I learned so much outside of acting. So when this offer from "One Life to Live" came, it just felt like -- here is some money, and I'm pretty much broke. However, the other thing is it also felt like a distraction because I was really clear what I wanted to do -- props to my mother, who was really supportive. I got offered the Disney Fellowship Program at the same time. I was pretty clear on what my career path was going to be. Also, I felt like I wanted to control my destiny more. As an actor, it was going from job to job and hustling. One of the things I liked about writing and directing my own material was that I could control it, l write it, see it, and put it up on stage and do it.
BET: Your first major writing gig was “A Different World.” The show has continued even further in pop culture, especially on social media. All these years later, are you surprised at the impact of “A Different World”?
Reggie Rock Bythewood: It was such a big phenomenon and it was also a show run by women. It was such an amazing atmosphere. We had to entertain, but ultimately, the secret sauce was when we were allowed to be dramatic, socially relevant, and challenge perspectives, which was so authentic to the space I was living in as a young playwright in New York. It was a perfect first professional gig in the TV industry. I don't know… it's not really clear to me how much it resonates with people now. Sometimes I talk to young up-and-coming filmmakers, and I'll say I was on a show called “A Different World.” They’re like, “I know ‘A Different World!'" [Laughs] But it was very clear to me back then, because we have the data that the admission rate into HBCUs went up when “A Different World” was on the air.
BET: You also wrote the 1996 film “Get on the Bus.” There were two gay characters in the movie, and, arguably, it’s one of the first times you saw Black gay characters on the big screen as fully fleshed-out characters. Can you talk about “Get on the Bus” and those characters who were ahead of their time?
Reggie Rock Bythewood: I went to the Million Man March. Months after going to the march, I heard Spike Lee wanted to do something representative of that – he met me, and I had all these things to say about the march. It was a perfect fit for me to write that. In writing it, we talked about these different men that we want to reflect from the community: Muslim, Christian, filmmaker, all these various things – and we said someone needs to be gay. It was such a long time ago, so I hope I'm remembering this correctly, but I do remember Spike challenging me not to be too careful. There’s one scene in particular where the characters talk about the things they like doing sexually. I remember Spike really pushing me to go there. It was ahead of his time, but we felt it was important. I also remember feeling that what was so great about the performances was the level of dignity that they brought to those roles and those characters. I also thought to myself, I didn't want, “Here's the gay character, and here’s another gay character.” They had their own lives and backstories independent of being gay. It was very important that they had their own specific journeys and interests. I really wanted them to come off as three-dimensional human beings.
BET: You're currently the showrunner on “Swagger,” a big hit series on Apple TV+ loosely based on Kevin Durant. For folks who don't know, tell us about swagger.
Reggie Rock Bythewood: “Swagger,” on its surface, it’s a young man navigating his way through manhood, aspiring to get into the NBA, but it's an ensemble piece as well. It's ultimately about growing up in America. What we're able to do with this show is to give insight and bring you into the space of someone who's really aspiring to be elite and but also giving insight into everything that we are being confronted with or challenged with -- our culture under attack in this day and age. Kevin Durant's life inspires it, but it was very important to me that we make this a contemporary series so that we can deal with the urgency of now.
BET: We are all the directors of our own life. What does the director's cut of your life and journey and Hollywood look like thus far?
Reggie Rock Bythewood: The director's cut resembles a young man who felt very idealistic. Through his journey in the industry, he could create work that could have an impact in big ways and small ways to help change people's lives and help change the world. With money, without money, being consistent and understanding that while as an artist, I have a job to entertain, My ultimate job is to make the world a better place. That is my role as an artist.
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