'It's Just a Different World': 'Aretha' Star Omar J. Dorsey Has Been Working Through the Pandemic
As we soldier through the quarantine, one year in (that’s dark to think about), it’s always interesting to me in seeing how different actors spent their quarantine. Lately, I’ve been seeing more workhorses, rolling with the punches and continuing to work on their series, like the talented Omar J. Dorsey, star of OWN’s Queen Sugar, National Geographic’s Aretha miniseries (starring Cynthia Erivo), as well as projects like the Halloween sequel Halloween Kills which hits theaters on Oct. 15 after being delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dorsey’s 2020 was a busy one. Not only was he working on Season 5 of Queen Sugar—which shifted focus as series creator/executive producer Ava DuVernay realized that you couldn’t tell their story, in 2020, without talking about what was going on in the world during 2020—but he was shooting Aretha at the same time. Television series finding ways to stay safe while in production isn’t normal, but to be shooting in two different cities in 2020? That’s hard work, and a lot of COVID tests.
Complex caught up with Dorsey on the day the world found out that DMX had passed away (RIP) to discuss working through 2020, what he’s learned from DuVernay, how he wanted to play James Cleveland before getting offered the role in Aretha, why we aren’t ready for Halloween Kills, and more.
I envisioned this conversation going a little differently, but I don’t think there’s any way we can speak on the day that DMX passed away and not talk about him. There was a time in our lives where DMX owned a real moment in time. Were you a fan of DMX’s?
How can I not be a fan of DMX? The thing about it, like you said, during that space, during that time, we were coming out of the gloss, the glitz, and glamor. Here’s a man who speaks to the soul. He talked about his own faults, and you can really put yourself in there. It wasn’t anything like, “Oh man, I got to be blinged out. I got to have all these dimes. I got to have these Rolexes.” This is a dude who was really…
At that age, I didn’t have anything. So here was somebody who really spoke to my soul, man. I seen DMX in concert so many times, man, and shed tears when he has the prayer at the end and all of that stuff, because you could see it. It was a tragic end to a very complicated life, but I love what he did and what he stood for. It was times that I prayed for that brother, and I hope that his soul is somewhere resting right now. The things that he had to deal with in life, man.
Now he’s got time to really let it rest and get some peace. It’s also amazing to look at his career, talking about the game of acting in Hollywood. He made an impact. He was still making movies. He was able to take that struggle and those talents and turn it into a career with that kind of longevity. Decades.
And tremendous art.
I’m a little rough on rappers sometimes when they act, but that dude? Man. He brought it every time. When you see it, you see the authenticity in it. And then the words that he was saying. I’ll be honest with you, man. He was the closest thing, acting-wise, to Tupac as a rapper that I’d ever seen. I was like, “OK, yeah. This is the one. This is the dude.” You see Belly, man? That was his movie. Always think of Nas and whoever else, man. That was Earl’s movie. Straight up.
Shifting gears, what was your 2020 like?
Man, 2020 was tough. I came into the year having to say goodbye to my brother, Oliver Dorsey. We lost him to cancer. That was in January, and then 2020 just hit like a brick off the top. I was working even in the midst of that. I was doing Aretha and I was doing Queen Sugar at the same time, going back and forth between Atlanta and New Orleans. March the 12th, I was doing both projects and Ava calls me and Anthony Hemingway calls like, “Hey, we got to shut it down for a couple of weeks.”
That was what they said.
That’s what it was, a couple of weeks. I was like, “All right, we’ll see how that goes.” It’s crazy because my daughter was supposed to be in India, teaching an acting class. She’s a senior now at Howard, but she’s supposed to be teaching acting and writing in India. So she was sad, she was down, so I told her to come out [to] New Orleans with me. She became my roommate, and that was not fun. A 40 something-year-old man, 21-year-old daughter. It was the odd couple of all odd couples, but we grew to love each other even more, but we’re like, “We can’t live together no more now.”
Talking about the impact that the pandemic had on Hollywood, I was reading an interview, where Ava said that Queen Sugar had so many episodes in the can and then there was a shift. The entire show shifts. Talk about that process and working through that.
So dig, we were two episodes in, man. It was regular Queen Sugar, the Bordelon family life. And then the world stopped. We were like, “We can’t tell that story, man. We’ve got to tell a real story.” So we told the story of 2020. The difficulties in actually filming is that we were in a bubble, and we were all quarantined. Well, we were quarantined, but we were shooting in pods, so it would be me, Tina Lifford, who plays my wife on the show, and Harry Saunders. We were in a pod together. We’re not reading the whole script; we’re reading our stuff for that week or for that next day or whatever. It made it sort of difficult because what we will be doing is shooting Episode 3 and Episode 9 on the same day. So it’s like, “OK, now is this before or after my mom dies on the show?” It was a real exercise in the craft a bit. It made it fun this season, because I didn’t read the scripts. I’m like, “This is a really good show.” It’s like I’m watching it for the first time, not being like, “Eh, look at this, I’m going to tell you what happened next.” I honestly don’t remember. But it was fulfilling, man. It was. We finished it off. We took a good three or four-month break, maybe even longer than that. Then we came back and we did what we had to do.
As soon as that was done, I had to go straight over to Aretha. And then soon as Aretha was done, I had to come straight back here to Queen Sugar Season 6. I really haven’t had a break.
You’re still in production on Season 6?
Yeah. We’re like one-quarter of the way done with it. We still got until [around] July.
Wow. I mean, you’re talking about working in pods. What’s the evolution of shooting Queen Sugar during the pandemic? I’m assuming it might be easier now?
There are fewer people there. They put that stick in your nose every day. Because the actors are the only ones who don’t wear masks, we have to be by ourselves a bit. Nobody can really come around us. The director can, but she’s wearing a mask. The main people get close to us are the hair, makeup and the sound people. But I mean, they look like a hazmat team when they come around us. It’s just a different world, but the show must go on.
I remember when we first heard the news of the coronavirus shutting things down and the quarantine coming our way. When you first heard about it, did you take a pause and be like, “Oh, how am I going to be able to even handle work during this type of environment?”
I’ll be honest with you: I sort of needed a break, man. Like for real. I been going hard for five years. I needed a break. And then after about two weeks, I didn’t want that break no more. I’m so used to being on a set or doing something, but it just gave me a lot of time. And like I said, with the loss of my brother, I didn’t even get a chance…
Dig, man. The day I lost my brother, the day that they told me my brother was passing was the day that Neema Barnette and Anthony Hemingway called me and asked me to do Aretha. And I’m like, huh?
So I did need the time. I needed time just for myself. Just a lot of things in life. I took that break for what it was. I probably could’ve worked out a little bit more. Probably didn’t have to eat so much Uber Eats and stuff.
I hear that. But I mean, I think it’s one of those things where the story of Aretha Franklin, this project, it’s a no brainer. You almost can’t say no. It’s too important. Talk about getting into that role. What was it about that project that spoke to you?
Dig this, man. You can believe it or you don’t have to believe it. I had a dream that night before when they called me that Neema Barnette calls me and say, “Hey king, I need you for something.” I’m like, “Neema, I’ll do anything for you. You know that.” It’s going to sound far-fetched. It’s going to sound crazy. But that was the dream that I had the night before. So then when my whole team, my agents and everybody called like, “Hey man, they want you for this project.” I was like, “Man, I ain’t doing nothing, man. I ain’t doing nothing.” And they were like, “Well, OK, cool. Ddon’t worry about it. Don’t worry about that.” I said, “I ain’t doing nothing. I just got some horrible news.”
So then they called back. Cause usually they call me like, “They want you to do something.” I’m in Atlanta, chilling in Atlanta. They’re like, “Well, it shoots in Atlanta.” I don’t care. I’m not in the space right now. And then Neema Barnette calls me like, “Hey brother.” I’m like, “Neema, this is weird. I just had a dream about you.” She was like, “Yeah, I need you.” So it just felt like deja vu. So I was like, “Neema, well, what is it?” She was like, “I want you to James Cleveland.” Now, listen. I’ve been wanting to play James Cleveland for like three years.
No lie, no lie.
Talk about that.
One of the guys on my show, Nick Ashe, plays Micah on the show, was like, “Omar, you know what? If they do a biopic on James Cleveland, you should play him.” I was like, “Man, whatever, man.” So then I saw Amazing Grace. My father’s a pastor. I’m a child of the church. I grew up in James Cleveland’s music. I’ve always loved it. So I watched it, I was like, “Oh, I could see myself doing this role. I really wouldn’t mind doing it.” I even hit up Cynthia [Erivo] in November. I’m like, “Cyn, who y’all got playing James Cleveland?” She was like, “Oh, they’re looking at dah, dah, dah. Why? Do you want to do it?” I was like, “Yeah.” I said, “I think I do.” We [were] just coming off of Harriet together, so she was like, “Well, I’ll put your name in the hat and see what happens.” That was in November. And I ain’t thinking nothing else about it. Matter of fact, I was going back at Queen Sugar. I’m like, “It is what it is.” When they hit me up, I was like, “Whoa, OK.” I’ve seen Amazing Grace so many times. I was like, “I can do this like nothing, man.” Especially the “Amazing Grace” episode? I said, “I can do it point for point, man.”Just knowing the spirit and Cynthia is very important to me. She’s like a sister to me. So the thing about being her protector, it was like, “OK, I can do that.” ‘Cause we went through a lot for Harriet.
When I hear Omar J, I’m like, “All right, let’s talk to Omar.” I’m thinking Aretha. I go to IMdB. I’m like, “Wait, this Bigger Long! I got issues. I got issues with Bigger Long.”
We all do.
It just speaks to the quality of your craft. It’s amazing to see you two really be able to reconnect in a different light completely.
We were talking like two days ago, saying, “Man, we need to do something fun together.” She’s like my sister. We were talking at like one o’clock in the morning the other day, just about rando, you know what I’m saying? We were just like, “Man, we just want to do something fun, something without so much responsibility. Let’s do a comedy together.”
I love her with all my heart. [One] main reason [for] me wanting to do [Aretha] was just to be able to work with her and play her best friend on the show instead of a person trying to kill her.
Speaking of trying to kill, you’re also in the new Halloween films. I can’t wait for Halloween Kills. How did you feel when they were like, “All right, not only are we doing a sequel, but we already announcing the sequel after that”?
I loved it. That crew—Danny McBride, Jody Hill and David Gordon Green—I been rocking with them dudes, man, since we did Eastbound and Down. They’ve always been like, “We’re going to find something for you.” So I just hit them up. I hit up David one day, he’s the director of Halloween. I was talking about his new show Righteous Gemstones. I said, “Man, I can’t wait to see this, man.” He was like, “Yo, Omar, you know what? I meant to call you. I got something for you.” I’m like, “All right, whatever. You know I’m rocking with you forever, man.” About a month later he hit my people. He wanted me to play the sheriff. I was like, “All right, cool. I guess I’m going to die.” Then I read the script. I’m like, “Oh, I don’t die?” And they kept talking to me about Part 2. “Man, Part 2, it’s going to be… You’re going to be the person. You’re going to be the guy,” this, that and the other. And I was like, “All right. That’s what’s up, man.” So then we did Part 2.
That’s one thing about 2020 that really sucked was, man, the world didn’t get to see that movie. That movie is a beast.
It is crazy. It is. Man, I’m telling you. It is crazy.
I can’t wait. I’ve said, in jest, that I’m hoping this is like the Empire Strikes Back of this Halloween trilogy. I want it to hit me. I want the gut punch-
You know what? That’s good… I like that, Empire. Cause Empire, to me, is [the] favorite of the trilogy, right?
And I think it’s the best. know 1 [2018’s Halloween - Ed.] was a classic in ours. That Part 2 [is] something special, man. I’m telling you. It’s not what you’re thinking. I don’t want to talk about it, but woo.
I can’t wait. Looking at what you’ve been doing over the last two decades, you’ve worked with the same people multiple times. Ava DuVernay alone, you’ve got three projects with her. She’s such a visionary. What are some of the things that she’s taught you? What are some things that immediately come to mind?
I used to be an athlete, right? I think of her as like the greatest head coach, on some Phil Jackson-type stuff, you know what I’m saying? On some Belichick-type thing, man. She knows how to put it together and execute her plan so flawlessly.
One thing about it, she is a cold writer. As great of a director as she is? Her writing might be better. She a mean director though. But to write When They See Us? And to have that heart in that thing, man? And the writing that she does. But I digress. It’s her work ethic, man. It really is. I mean, people like, “Omar, you’re everywhere.” Man, she’s everywhere. I was trying to hang out with her in Atlanta and she was like, “I’m in Alabama right now. I’m going to see you next week.” I said, “You and I going to be in New Orleans next week for your TV show.” She’s everywhere, man. She produces everything. You got to understand: This ain’t even been 10 years for her since she’s been directing. We did Selma, what, seven years ago?
It wasn’t that long ago.
It wasn’t that long ago. So for her to be a titan in the industry after honestly about seven or eight years since she won Sundance… That’s something. And to be a Black woman doing it. The thing about her that I appreciate more than anything is that she made the industry see women. I’m 20 years deep in this thing, man. Before Queen Sugar, outside of Ava, I was only directed by one woman in my life, outside of Ava. Now with Queen Sugar, I’ve been directed by 50 women, man. Done movies with Kasi Lemmons. I’ve worked with Neema Barnette and Julie Dash and all of these great people, working right now with Crystle Clea Roberson. Just working with these amazing women right now that the industry didn’t see, because all they saw was men, particularly white dudes. That’s her. If she leaves nothing else, she’s left a body of work over this decade that can go toe to toe with anybody [and] her lasting legacy is what she’s done with women directors, period. Point blank.
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