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Getting Serious with Leon

Leon has been a staple in the entertainment industry for more than 30 years. From Russell in “Waiting to Exhale” to portraying David Ruffin in “The Temptations,” the actor has continued to bring cult-classic characters to life. He sat down with JET for a one-on-one interview about the challenges of remaining in the entertainment industry and how he seeks to use the medium for activism. 

JET: For more than 30 years we’ve seen you on the big screen, the little screen and even the music scene. How’d you get your start in the entertainment business?

Leon: Wow. You know the entertainment business kind of found me to be honest with you. A fellow graduate student chased me down on campus. Loyola University, I was there on a basketball scholarship and he begged me to be in his movie. And I was like “me? Well, why me?” and he was like, “there’s just something about you, you know the way you carry yourself, the way you are. I think you should be in [my] movie. And I was like, “okay.” So I did it. You ever meet someone who you feel like you’ve known longer than the hour you’ve spent with them? That’s what I felt on the movie set. I felt like it was me. So I quickly changed my major and you know started studying drama.

JET: You’ve played so many characters. From J.T. in the “Five Heartbeats” to David Ruffin in “The Temptations” to Russell in “Waiting to Exhale”what’s your all-time favorite role?

Leon: I don’t have an all-time favorite role. You know, I don’t really watch my movies for one. I put it in..watch the initial screenings and stuff like that but I don’t really watch it again. I like to just leave it alone so whatever movie you like the most is my favorite. Cuz I make ’em for you. I don’t make them for me.

JET: I’ve heard that a lot actually. I believe Angelina Jolie said the same thing. That she doesn’t watch her own movies.

Leon: You’re just too critical of yourself. You know because you’re seeing yourself in it. You’re not really watching the story that much and you I’m not watching it the way you’re watching it.

JET: I’ve heard some people in the business say that certain roles changed them as a person. Can you say the same thing? If so, what was the role?

Leon: No. I don’t think so. I pretty much drop my roles after I finish playing them. I go on to the next. There’s some times that you can play a role that will change your outlook on life. Give you a new perspective on certain things that you didn’t really know about. I can say that when I was on “Oz” on HBO, learning about prison life and how people exist in prison was something very new to me, something I had no idea [about]. It’s something that is on my radar now. I can also say that when I played in this movie “Cover,” I played an R&B star that was on the down low. I had to do a lot of research and I learned a lot about why people are on the DL and I sympathized with them. So there are things that can change your perspective on life that can give you a new outlook on something, but as far as changing my whole life and my philosophy on life nah I can’t say it’s done that.

JET: What would you say was the most challenging obstacle in your career?

Leon: I’d say being able to do serious work on a consistent basis. I think that’s usually the obstacle that most performers have, You know anyone who’s a serious actor. Trying to find the material or be cast or offered the type of things that you really like to do on a consistent basis. Even more importantly I think what the public and my fans may want me to do. That’s something that never really goes away in the business. Always trying to achieve that at some point. It’s the part of the business that I like the least. I don’t like any of the business part.

JET: You have a reggae soul band where you’re the lead singer. Tell me about that.

Leon: Yeah Leon and the Peoples. We’ve been around for 10 years now. We got the International Reggae and World Music Award. Greatest Single “Love Is A Beautiful Thing,” which is the title of our forth-coming album coming out this summer. I look forward to finishing the album and touring. It’s not confirmed yet, but I think I’ll be performing in Chicago in May.

JET: How’d this come about? Have you always had a love for Reggae music?

Leon: Yeah. My whole life. Music that makes you wanna sing. So…I feel very blessed as an actor to have friends that are incredibly talented muscians in the business that encourage me, perform with me, introduce me…so it’s a blessing and I’m very happy that people like what we’ve done so far.

JET: No matter what role you play, you have a very smooth demeanor. I’m wondering if you’re the same guy off set as you are on set.

Leon: It’s really funny because I think that I’ve played a variety of emotions. When you say smooth guy are you referring to David Ruffin as being smooth? Little Richard as being smooth? Kynette in Cliffhanger as being smooth? You know a lot of different emotions I’m playing. Sometimes I’m frantic. Sometimes I’m excited. So, I would say in life, I’m smoother than I am on screen.

JET: What’s coming up next?

Leon: I’m starring in I Really Hate My Ex a film directed by Troy Byer. I play Sean in this movie. It’s a really fun romantic comedy. It’s about three women who are tired of men being evasive and not giving them the answer to why they’re not with them the way they want them to be with them. And so they kidnap, handcuff and take them to the middle of the wilderness and demand they give them the answers that they want. You know it’s funny when women put men’s backs up against the wall and they have to give them these answers of why they’re not with them, but women don’t want to hear it. You have to realize that men are not always evasive because they’re not telling the truth or being sneaky. They are evasive sometimes because they don’t want to hurt the woman that they love.

Also, I’m prepping for a movie called “Hosanna.” It’s about an immigrant who comes to America in search of the American Dream just to find out that it’s anything but. And he tries to do everything that he can to become a citizen of the U.S., but the immigration system takes his money and denies him constantly. We actually have an Indiegogo campaign because you know the studio always wants us to make silly movies. When it comes to artists of color trying to make something serious, all of a sudden the money is really low. So I’m enlisting the public. Leila Djansi, an award-winning director, will be directing and co-writer of the script. So I figure all of these fans who love me on my Instagram and everything else talking about how fine I am and how much they love my movies, I figure you can throw me a little bit of something. Since you pay to go see a movie, get a serious movie made. This is a topic that affects a lot of people in this country. To me personally, I don’t think anyone should be labeled “illegal” if they’re not doing anything illegal. A lot of people have friends, relatives that are in this situation. If this were a story of people who were not of color, it would be a hot topic. It’s just that we want to tell the story with a Black slant. So now we have to figure out how to get the money.

Want more Leon? Keep up with the entertainer at www.justleon.com.