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For Anderson, The Art Of The Good — And The Bad


Our guest, actor Anthony Anderson, plays detective Kevin Bernard on the NBC series "Law & Order," where he lays down the law for perps and collars.

(Soundbite of TV show "Law & Order")

Mr. ANTHONY ANDERSON: (as Detective Kevin Bernard) Sit down. Sit down. Let me tell you how this is going to go down. We gonna lean on your crew until somebody give somebody up - anybody. We don't care. Just as long as we got a body to stand before the judge. You dig?

DAVIES: If he sounds tough as a cop, that won't surprise anyone who remembers Anderson from the FX series "The Shield," where he played Antwon Mitchell, a brutal gang banger and heroin dealer. He made the transition from criminal to cop when he joined the Fox series "K-Ville," where he played a police officer in New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina.

Anderson has played dramatic roles in the films "Hustle and Flow," "Transformers" and "The Departed." And he's appeared in the comedies "Me, Myself & Irene," "Barbershop" and "Malibu's Most Wanted." Terry Gross spoke to Anderson last year, and he described preparing for his role in K-Ville by tagging along with the New Orleans SWAT team on a drug raid.

Mr. ANDERSON (Actor): It was one a.m. We got a call that, you know, this was a narcotics house. And so, the SWAT rolls there. They secure the perimeter, and they moved in. And it actually just happened to be a crack den. So, they pull out 11 addicts. Handcuff them to one another round the Suburban. You know, they're all tweaking. And one guy looks over, and I know he's really tweaking now because he's looking at me. He's like, oh, oh, damn, that's Kangaroo Jack. That's Kangaroo Jack! Oh man! You done made my night. You made my night!!

And I was like brother, you are handcuffed to 10 other crackheads surrounded by SWAT with assault rifles about to go down. And you're telling me, you want my autograph, and I've made your night? He was like, oh yeah man, yeah. And I was like OK, OK. So that was, that was one of the lighter moments of rolling around with SWAT.


What was it like for you going from like a really cold, mean character on "The Shield"? You know, you're not only a heroin dealer - big heroin dealer, but you're the head of this really violent gang in LA.

Mr. ANDERSON: Uh huh.

GROSS: You were on "The Shield." So what was it like going from being a character like that who's always at odds with the police to being a cop on "K-Ville"?

Mr. ANDERSON: You know, I loved it. I love the dichotomy of it. Being on one extreme and taking it to the other. Both characters are similar in my opinion. I mean, you know, Antwon Mitchell felt this is the hand that he was dealt, and he played it as best he could. Yeah, he was a heroin dealer, and you know, the head of this gang, this cartel or whatever you want to call it, but he was also doing great things in the community. You know, building community centers and bringing computers into these community centers as for inner-city youth for them to, you know, better themselves. And not - he didn't really preach not necessarily follow him in his footsteps, but you know, this is was his way of giving back. This was his atonement for - I believe for what you know he was doing in the neighborhood.

GROSS: And your description of Antwon, I don't think you sufficiently gave a credit for how like, violent and just really cold he is when he feels that somebody is this enemy and to demonstrate that. I want to play a scene from "The Shield."


GROSS: So, here is Antwon Mitchell. You had a gang called the One Niners. And you've been dealing tar heroin. You've made a deal with a cop named Shane and his partner.

Mr. ANDERSON: Uh huh.

GROSS: These cops are getting a take of your money in return for protecting you. But a big stash that you were hiding in a church was busted and you think that Shane informed on you. And now you intend on letting him know that you're the one who has the power. So, Shane speaks first. He's played by Walton Goggins.

(Soundbite of TV Show "The Shield")

Mr. WALTON GOGGINS: (As Shane Vendrell) Look, they may have grabbed your (beep) but the investigation is sealed off. No roads lead back to you. Just say thank you, Antwon.

Mr. ANDERSON: (As Antwon Mitchell) Do you know how much you cost me today, huh? In product and in manpower, do you?

Mr. GOGGINS: (As Shane Vendrell) If you have you kept me in the loop on your tar castle then maybe I could have kept an eye out for you, homie?

(Soundbite of people fighting)

Mr. ANDERSON: (As Antwon Mitchell) Grab his piece! Grab his piece. Give me both their guns. I don't get played, and I ain't your homie.

Mr. GOGGINS: (As Shane Vendrell) Oh, man. You're going to get...

Mr. ANDERSON: (As Antwon Mitchell) Shut up (beep). You knew they were taking down my (beep). So how you try to tell me now there was nothing that you could do, huh? You think you was ever making rules around here?

Mr. GOGGINS: You're not stupid enough to bring that kind of heat down on your ass.

GROSS: That's my guest Anthony Anderson and Walton Goggins in a scene from "The Shield." And I should mention to our listeners that you're not actually meting out the blows in this. You're not the one beating up the two cops, your boys are doing that. But you're watching and directing them as they do it. What did you do to play somebody like this? What did you get in touch in yourself, or what did you remember from people who you might have known in the past?

Mr. ANDERSON: That's exactly what I did. You know, I'm from Compton, California, grew up in the intercity and knew characters like Antwon Mitchell who basically did what he did. They were running the streets, but yet they saw it in themselves to mentor to kids like me. And it was like, you know what, Anthony you shouldn't be out here doing this. And because I'm telling you that this is what I'm going to help the neighborhood do. You know, they setup programs in the city parks. They setup community centers. I knew Antwon Mitchells, you know.

So I pulled on that, you know, an actor who I've met, never had a chance to work with Idris Elba. I liked what he did with his character Stringer Bell on "The Wire," and I just looked at how he worked and how he maneuvered as that character and took bits and pieces from that and just married it with, you know, my own ideas. And you know, I tried to you know humanize him as much as I could, you know, given the situations and who he is and what he did. But you know, what he did it was just par for the course. But he was - he was a bad man. Antwon Mitchell was a bad man.

GROSS: So you said that you knew people like him, and who try to like mentor some of the young people in the community. So what was your relationship with one of the people who you would compare to Antwon?

Mr. ANDERSON: You know, these were - you know, these were just you know, older kids and older men in our neighborhood you know, that we grew up who may have been five 10 years our senior. And you know, you can decide to go left or decide to go right at an early age you know, for good or bad. You know, my mother and father instilled to me what right and wrong was, and I know what path I didn't want to go down, because ultimately I knew it could only end me up behind bars or six feet under. And that's not that route I wanted to take, because all of that would happen at a very early age.

And you know, guys like Antwon Mitchell knew who the weak or the strong in the neighborhood were. And they were like, OK, look you're not built for this. You know, this isn't the life for you. You know, they admired and respected me because I've always wanted to be an actor since I was nine years old. This was my dream. So around the neighborhood, I was the actor to them. So you know, they did everything that they possibly could to help pursue my dream.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. ANDERSON: You know, donating to the theaters that I was a part of. You know, making sure that I got to rehearsals or had a way to get home late night, you know, when I was rehearsing plays and things like that, coming out and supporting me at events. I went to the high school for the performing arts. They would come out to my performances. You know, because they wanted to be a part of something that was good and pure from where they came from. That's what I believed.

So you know, they would see that and when they'd go back to the hood doing what they did and had smile on their face. And they were like man, you should have seen the actor this weekend. You should have seen him in this scene. You should have seen him in that commercial. So now, when they see me on television or in films, you know, they feel a part of that regardless of where they are right now.

GROSS: So you're still in touch with them, and regardless of where there are sounds like of them are in prison.

Mr. ANDERSON: Oh, yeah they are. They are.

GROSS: But you're still in touch.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. That's where I am from. It's who I am. I can't disconnect myself from my life - from where I was born and raise and bred as a young man. It's part of my make-up. It's what makes me who I am. So, I can't just cut off my left arm, because you know, I don't use it as often as I use to.

GROSS: You did a lot of comedies before you played the heavy in The Shield and one of those comedies that you co-starred was called "Malibu's Most Wanted." And, I want to play a scene from that. Jamie Kennedy plays a white and very privileged son of a politician in Malibu whose running for the governor of California. And the son really wants to be like a black rapper. And he wants to help his father by doing raps to take the father's message to the streets, but he has become a real embarrassment to the campaign.

So just to discourage him from continuing to do this hip-hop stuff, the campaign decides to hire a couple of young black actors to pose as gangsters and then carjack and kidnap the son until the son gets, as they put it, "scared white," and kind of gets scared into realizing that he's this white privileged kid from Malibu. So you and Taye Diggs are the two young actors who take the job. And in this scene, you are sitting in your living room chair directing Taye Diggs in how to sound gangsta as he rehearses.

(Soundbite of movie "Malibu's Most Wanted")

Mr. TAYE DIGGS: (As Sean) Give me a ride, punk, or I will dust your ass.

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Nope. Not convincing.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Damn it!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Find your core character, Sean. You are an oppressed black man from the ghetto.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean): Yeah. I am having trouble finding this one, man.

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Hey. Think Tupac.

Mr .DIGGS: (As Sean) All right. Let me try it again. This is going to be...

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) I see it. Action!

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Give me your ride, punk, or I will dust you ass!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Add a bi-atch, and I think you got it.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Give me your ride, punk, or I will dust your ass, bi-atch!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Bi-atch!

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Bi-atch!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Click it. Turn around and do it again.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Bi-atch!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Yes!

GROSS: That's my guest Anthony Anderson with Taye Diggs in a scene from "Malibu's Most Wanted." You had a short-lived sitcom called "All About The Andersons" that was loosely based on your own life. What parts of your life did you draw on for that show?

Mr. ANDERSON: Every aspect of it. You know, I created that with my partner Adam Glass, and it was just, you know, a show about, you know, three generations of men living under one roof. You know, my father, myself, and my son. But you know, the character on the show was my character pre-Howard University and post-Howard University. And that's what it was, you know, just having a dream and having a father who, you know, worked with his hands in the steel mills, you know, his entire life and not really understanding the visionary of his child, of his son, you know who had a dream, is like, OK, yeah, it's good to have a dream, but what are you going to with that? How does your dream pay a mortgage? How does your dream put food on the table?

You know, my father was a man's man, and so he really couldn't grasp that concept of me wanting this. You know, to the point where we got into an argument when he ask me what I did, and I was like, I'm an actor. He grabbed the remote control and turned on the television and flipped through the channels and pointed out people who were really acting. He said, now, where are you? And I was like, wow. OK, pops. OK, you got me. But you know, so that's what it was about and you know, - and before he passed on he was able to see my career and to see my successes and enjoy that with me and you know, we sat and we'd talk about it, and he understood.

GROSS: In your sitcom "All About The Andersons," you're father was so tired of you freeloading in his home that he took the phone out and put a pay phone in the living room that allowed you make local calls only but for a fee. He padlocked the refrigerator so you couldn't eat his food. Did things like that really happen to you?

Mr. ANDERSON: No, that's true. That's true. You can ask anybody who grew up with me. My father put padlocks on the refrigerators and took all the phone jacks out of the house and put one jack in the family room and put a pay phone in there that you can only dial local numbers on. So I couldn't even dial outside of the area code. If I try to dial more than seven numbers the phone would automatically take my money because it thought I was trying to do something illegal mind you. And literally, I had to put a quarter in the phone every three minutes.

GROSS: Well, Anthony Anderson, I really appreciate your talking with us. Thank you so much.

Mr. ANDERSON: Oh, thank you very much. The pleasure was all mine.

DAVIES: Anthony Anderson plays detective Kevin Bernard on "Law & Order." Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "Frost/Nixon." This is Fresh Air. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.