Laz Alonso's new A&E show Breakout Kings is about U.S. Marshals who recruit prison inmates to catch escaped convicts. But the show's title also applies to Alonso himself, a breakout star with two buzzworthy movies due out this year. The one-time host of A.M. @ BET, his first job in Hollywood, Alonso has played guest and recurring parts on TV shows like The Practice, NCIS, Soul Food, One on One and most recently Southland; he's also appeared in such movies as Jarhead, This Christmas, Miracle at St. Anna, Fast & Furious and Just Wright. Then a little movie called Avatar came along and did wonders for his stock in Hollywood.
“Even though I wasn’t the lead,” says Alonso, who played the doomed Tsu’tey, “having a big hit under your belt makes financiers confident and directors believe you have the ability to pull something off. Avatar really helped as far as pushing me as a leading man.”
Breakout Kings, he says, is the culmination of 10 years of paying his dues and honing his craft. “It’s been a long road, but I’m really happy that now I’m in contention for these leading roles.”
The action drama, from the creators of Prison Break, casts Alonso as Charlie DuChamp, “the guy in charge, Alonson says. "Although he doesn’t have the experience, he definitely has the intelligence and the wit and the command presence to get the job done.” Adding to the stress of the job, Alonso continues, his partner (Domenick Lombardozzi) “has been in the field for 10 years, but I’m his boss now and he’s got to listen to me. That’s going to cause some tension between two alpha males wanting to run the show.”
There's more: “My character has a heart condition. As strong and as committed as he may be to this job, he still has this Achilles’ heel that he can’t get away from,” Alonso says. “There’s a ticking time bomb in his chest.”
In May, Alonso stars opposite Paula Patton in Jumping the Broom, which takes its title from the wedding tradition that began during slavery. The movie shows what happens when two people from different social classes fall in love—and their mothers (Loretta Devine and Angela Bassett) fall in instant dislike. “It’s monster-in-law meets monster-in-law, a clash of the titans,” says Alonso with a laugh, calling the film “an instant classic.”
Then, in September, Alonso returns to the screen in a very different kind of movie, the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s notoriously violent Straw Dogs, playing a football star and war hero turned sheriff in a redneck Southern town on the brink of eruption. “He’s the mediator, the voice of reason.”
Born in Washington, D.C., to parents who emigrated from Cuba, Alonso grew up an only child with a single mom after his dad died when he was 12. He always wanted to act and studied films and TV voraciously, but he put education first, earning a business degree from Howard University. “My whole family pitched in and put their money together to send me to school,” says Alonso, who worked on Wall Street and founded a marketing company, giving him the freedom and financial cushion to provide for his mother and pursue acting in earnest. Early on, he was in several Budweiser “Wasssup!” commercials and videos for Toni Braxton and Aaliyah. “If there was something to audition for I’d be there. My mission was to go in and knock their socks off.”
After his move to L.A. in 2001, there was an adjustment period where it took him a while to regain his footing, but he got enough nibbles to pay the bills and avoid having to wait tables. Whenever he began to doubt himself, “a job would come around that would keep me afloat, " he says. "Ultimately it made me more appreciative. I don’t take it for granted. I don’t believe my hype. I know that if I were to die tomorrow, Hollywood would move on and nothing would change."
"I’m just very realistic about myself and my position in this business," he adds. "I don’t pretend I’m something I’m not. I’m just very appreciative of every opportunity and I just try to knock the ball out of the park every time I hit it.”
Image: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images