On this season’s Being Mary Jane, the hope for a mature, adult relationship came in the form of Sheldon, a sexy and smart lawyer played by the tall and handsomely sun-kissed Gary Dourdan. Through Sheldon, professional women like Mary Jane rediscovered, albeit very briefly, the art of courtship: late-night phone conversations neither one of you wants to end; an introduction to his friends and inclusion in his social circle; proper dates; plus the acknowledgment and appreciation of your intelligence and beauty mixed in with sexual attraction and chemistry.
More than two decades ago, Dourdan also excited women as the dreadlocked Shazza Zulu on A Different World and as Janet Jackson’s love interest in her video for “Again” before also gaining a more diverse group of fans on television’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as Warrick Brown from 2000 until 2008, when his character was killed.
At the time his CSI run was ending, Dourdan went through some headline-generating downs just as the new TMZ reality was getting into full swing. Reuniting with Being Mary Jane Executive Producer Salim Akil, with whom he worked on the TV series Soul Food and the movie Jumping the Broom, for the meaty role of Sheldon has been a great reintroduction. The Root caught up with Dourdan for an exclusive conversation about the series, dreadlocks, television’s brave new world and more.
The Root: What attracted you to Sheldon?
Gary Dourdan: I appreciate the character being on the outside of what you think a man of color should be. He kind of thinks outside the box. I like the fact that they wrote a character with a lot of history, so that was easy to portray, someone who has been around in his field of work for a while and had a lot of opinions as to how he sees his life being.
TR: And to the show in general?
GD: A lot of people are really interested in the show, I think, because [Gabrielle Union] has been able to shed a lot of light on what being a young, professional woman is all about, and her trying to get through dating people and getting her life together. The way Gabrielle plays [Mary Jane] is just very, very honest. And I wanted to be a part of that, that kind of TV and film where we can tell an honest portrayal of what’s going on, instead of a TV-ized version or something that just takes some artistic license [to make] it entertaining but not necessarily genuine. I appreciate that [Being Mary Jane] feels really genuine because the writing is really tops and they manage to pull out issues, and a lot of them, in one show and portray that in as realistic a way as possible.
TR: You had locks on A Different World, which was uncommon. Did you know how influential that was?
GD: A lot of people didn’t have locks in general. I started growing locks in New York, and they used to give me a hard time with it because the only guys that had locks were Rastas from either Jamaica or Trinidad … and they would give me a hard time for being an American with locks. That’s how early on that was, and that was in New York.
I didn’t take the approach that it would be influential at all. At the time I think [Lenny] Kravitz was coming out with his first album, and him and I used to talk a lot. There wasn’t a lot of people on national TV with an Afrocentric outlook with dreadlocks. It took some time to get used to being in Hollywood because I was trying to get work. Before, it was how many parts I couldn’t get because I had locks, but then it became how many parts I was getting because I had locks, and then I cut them.
TR: Your CSI character was also unconventional at the time. Was this a challenge at a conservative network like CBS?
GD: It’s a very conservative network, and they probably cater to a certain part of America that is more conservative. Year by year, there were some challenges I had with trying to push the envelope with what I thought our programming should be. The writers also thought that, so they would write that accordingly. They once wrote my character as the lead for the show for one episode … and the network wasn’t too keen on shooting that show because they didn’t think anybody would be interested, and that actually turned out to be our first No. 1 show. It was a battle every day because you’re breaking stereotypes. Sometimes it’s like David and Goliath, and in some ways I think I got to the point where I kind of felt like I couldn’t fight anymore.
TR: Do you think network television is much better to actors of color now?
GD: I think that network TV has had to change because of the competition of HBO and Showtime shows being so powerful and so truthfully based when they are portraying people of color. Whether they be Asian, Hispanic or African American, I think this is now a time where people are finding their voices and finding an audience.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.