Malik Yoba on Surviving and Thriving in Hollywood

malik yoba

For veteran actor Malik Yoba there was no need to create a back-story for his latest role as Jason Atwood, Deputy Director of the FBI, in the new ABC drama-thriller Designated Survivor. He also didn’t need to re-create the sense of urgency, anger and fear a terrorist attack sparks in an individual. His own life experiences, coupled with our country’s current events, provided enough context.

“There’s so much about this show that’s so plausible given the world that we’re living in,” the actor tells JET. “I was just in D.C. on Friday meeting with the FBI’s lead bomb tech that led the investigation on the Boston bombing. So I literally was still reeling from all the information that myself and [co-star] Maggie Q. were getting from our meeting and doing our little research down there, and then come home to…” He trails off, thinking about the recent terrorist attacks in New York and New Jersey.

Designated Survivor follows the aftermath of a terrorist bombing that nearly takes out the entire United States government, leaving a low level cabinet member (Kiefer Sutherland) next in command for the presidency. As the head of the FBI, Yoba’s character is tasked with investigating the bombing.

Designated Survivor’s underlying theme of what would you do when you’re thrust into a dangerous situation and must step up, was presented to Yoba when he was a young actor, starring in the role that some would say defined his career.

“I see a group of kids having a beef in the street but I’m walking and I didn’t realize that that’s what it was.” Yoba recalls the pivotal moment. At the time he was starring on Fox’s New York Undercover as Det. J.C. Williams. “And as I got to it, literally one kid was handing another kid a gun while I’m walking right up on him and I grabbed the gun and grabbed the kid! I was like, ‘What are you doing? Get outta here with that.’”

According to Yoba, this was one of many real life “step up or shut up” moments.

By the three-time NAACP Image Award winner’s count, this will be his 14th role as some form of law enforcement officer. Thirteen roles as detectives, police officers, a judge, a few sergeants later and he finds himself working in tandem with Sutherland to defuse the worst disaster the country has ever seen, in TV land that is. That, coupled with his real life anti-violence activism, serves him better than any character back-story he could dream up on his own.

The premiere of Designated Survivor couldn’t have been timelier. Unfortunately, like all Americans, especially those living in New Jersey and New York like Yoba does, the idea of a terrorist bombing is all too fresh.

“It’s crazy just being in New York on Saturday night, which actually was my birthday. I’m out and about and trying to coordinate with friends to meet up and then, yeah there’s an explosion … it’s just crazy the world we’re living in right now,” he says.

This real life scenario and the palpable reminder of 9/11 was the fretfully ironic and timely framing for the show, which premiered this week.

For Yoba, the debut of Designated Survivor is just another in a long list of many before it. He boasts a successful TV and film career that spans nearly 30 years—in other words, he stays booking jobs. Though he says that the landscape of Hollywood is changing to become more inclusive, he admits many of his peers haven’t had it as good. According to Yoba, Designated Survivor features the most diverse cast he’s ever been a part of—and it wasn’t by accident.

“My character wasn’t necessarily written as a Black man but show creator David [Guggenheim] was a fan and they offered me the role—the same thing with Maggie or Kal Penn. So there’s definitely a lot of diversity and that’s definitely deliberate.”

Yoba continues: “The irony is that coming up in my first film in ‘87, and coming up in the early 90’s with New York Undercover is that it wasn’t too long before I came along that we were only offered ‘the thugs.’ So very early on in my career I’d get called into audition as ‘the thug.’”

But with Designated Survivor, it’s clear that a shift in Hollywood is happening—especially for Yoba who’s gone from “the thug” to the head of the FBI.

And we’re here for ALL of it.