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Mo McRae: An Actor’s Ambition

Complexity and conflict are the root of Mo McRae’s attraction when it comes to taking on projects in television and film.

Known for his work in the rugged biker series, Sons Of Anarchy, as Tyler, the leader of the 9iners, McRae’s resumé extends to the award-winning Lee Daniel’s film, The Butler, Gridiron Gang and also the FOX Searchlight film, WILD, opposite of Reese Witherspoon.

The South Central, L.A. native also flexes his artistic being behind the camera as a producer. His film, The Fall which he starred in and produced, was a 2008 Cannes Film Festival competitor.

Up next? Mo takes on another multi-dimensional character as he joins the second season of TNT’s Murder in the First, an intense drama starring Taye Diggs that chronicles a very complex homicide investigation.

Mo’s role as Malcolm “Suger” Monroe is the big man on the streets with a secret desire to change his ways and exit the game.

JET caught up with Mo to discuss his artistic mission on and off camera, what draws him to certain storylines and the character dynamic between him and Taye Diggs on TNT’s Murder in the First.

JET: With experience in front and behind the camera as a content creator and actor, what stories are you interested in telling or seeing being told? What does your ideal project look and feel like?

Mo McRae: I am interested in stories about humanity and the different variations of it. I just like people in general and as a person and artist, I’m really fascinated by the human experience and the varying degrees of it. As a content creator, I’m always trying to find innovative stories of different people that we don’t always see. I’m most fascinated by love stories and I know my body of work, thus far, doesn’t really reflect that, but I think love is really the most interesting dynamic in the world.

JET: What spin would you put on the love story?

Mo McRae: I think the vulnerability of a male’s character is never really explored, so that’s something I would like to try and find a way to delve into – dealing with the sensitivity, vulnerability and maybe even a heartbreak, insecurities and things of that nature. Mostly, you’ve seen women carry the emotional burden in films and television, but I’ve seen my friends way more devastated a lot of times. I won’t say their names and embarrass them (laughs), but I’ve seen them like heartbroken in a way that I don’t see on film and television. I think people would be very receptive to it because it’s honest and it’s intimate and I think if you look at the success of Reality TV shows, you know they aren’t always honest and real, but they have the semblance of honesty and you can see it in a way that you normally don’t see. And I think this type of story would represent that.

JET: In a 2012 interview with Pop Matters, you mentioned the level of opportunity available at the time for young Black actors/men – those roles often being the gritty, street roles. How have you seen the storylines/opportunities shift throughout your experience for Brown faces?

Mo McRae: Yeah…there has been gradual improvement in terms of the types of roles they are considering men of color in, but it’s still a long way to go and a lot more ground that needs to be covered. We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s still a question in most read-throughs that I have. We still have to go a lot further until we get to a true point of equality. And let’s not just end it there. African Americans, Asian, Black women behind the scenes.

JET: What do you think it would take for more Black males to be seen in prominent, diverse roles?

Mo McRae: I think the success of the projects that we do now. Because a lot of it, is just driven by economics so when given the opportunity to have African American males in leading roles and those films do well financially, then inherently more will happen. But the problem is, you look at the careers of white male actors, they get multiple opportunities while they’re young to establish themselves. Channing Tatum did I don’t know how many movies before he had his big breakthrough. A guy like Taylor Kitsch, who did like a $200 million movie, and most people didn’t know who Taylor Kitsch was until they gave him Battleship. They kept on giving these guys opportunities. So I think a system just needs to be in place to give more opportunities to develop African American leading men.

JET: Is that something you also seek to do with your work behind the camera?

Mo McRae: Absolutely! I want to tell stories with people of color leading and not it being the fact that they’re a person of color. Because the Black experience is a human experience, the white experience is a human experience. When you get a guy like Michael B. Jordan, or any one of my actor friends, you have them exist in real life and it’s just that the human being happens to be Black.

JET: I’ve noticed in a lot of your work from The Butler, SOA, and now with Murder in The First, your roles often take on some form of leadership or the tone of the project is very layered and complex. Are these key draws for you in terms of what you take on? How does the script need to read in order to attract Mo McRae?

Mo McRae: Internal conflict and multi-dimensional. Anything that’s written and it’s very cliché is not really appealing to me. But if there’s a guy who loves his mom, but is also misogynistic, those kind of things are like “Oh, he’s extremely confident, but he’s also insecure and fearful.” If he has things that he needs to overcome internally, that draws me to characters.

JET: Nice. With Murder in The First, can you break down your character’s entrance into the upcoming season?

Mo McRae: Suger is a very interesting character and he’s a perfect example of someone that harbors and has a very dichotomous nature. On one side, he views himself as like the king of the environment he grew up in and he wants to be remembered as the king. But in doing so, sometimes heads have to roll and he has to make the call to make it happen and he’s loyal to a fault of being self-destruction. On the other hand, he has security, stability and an opportunity at a greater quality of life as a result of his sacrifices and the things he’s gone through. I really had a great time doing this because I learned something new about him every episode. He’s a guy with a lot of secrets. Soon as you think you’ve got him figured out and pegged as one thing, something else about him is revealed. He’s very all over the place. He has a clear goal, I think. There’s a method to the madness.

JET: He sounds interesting and torn between heart and expectations. What’s the character relationship between Suger and Taye Diggs?

Mo McRae: Our relationship is one of respect. But also, it’s adversarial. I feel like it’s one of those things where whenever our character’s have a scene together, there’s always like 50 things being said but the scene is not about the conversation we’re having. We’re always at the gray level of tension and it’s an unpredictability to it all.

JET: Aside from acting, I gathered from your Instagram that you recently wrapped a directorial short film with the organization Kids in the Spotlight. Can you talk a bit about the dynamics of the organization and your overall mission as a content creator and actor?

Mo McRae: I’m so happy you asked me about that. I feel like I’ve been incredibly blessed. I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country in the worst time and along my journey, from school teachers to the guy that worked at the grocery store to mentors, so many people along the way have provided encouragement. As a kid, [they] pulled me to the side and told me “there’s something special about you.” And I’ve always felt like it was my responsibility to use my art as a gift. Kids in the Spotlight is an organization that teaches filmmaking to kids in foster care. They host workshops and it teaches them about screenwriting, directing and acting and then they write and produce their own short films and the professionals come in and direct. Then they put on a big film festival at the WGN Theater in Beverly Hills. Another organization I work closely with is Hashtag Lunchbag. We utilize social media to feed people and provide positive messages while trying to make it cool in the process. So for me, being involved in those types of things is important because if I only use my art for personal gain, then my art is wasted. Whenever possible, I’ve always looked for ways to make contributions artistically that could hopefully add value to the lives of other people. Especially the youth. Life is good, I’m happy, humble, and appreciative.

Murder in the First season two premiere airs Monday, June 8, 10/9c on TNT.

(*Feature image credit: Kerry James)