Marque Richardson didn’t have to do a ton of research for his role as Reggie in Dear White People.

The 29-year-old actor, whose first name is pronounced marquee as in theater marquee, lived the part long before he got the job. As a University of Southern California student majoring in business as well as public policy and management, the Los Angeles native lived on the all-Black floor of Fluor Tower called Somerville Place. Described as an “African-American residential special interest floor,” Somerville Place is named after John Somerville, the first Black man to graduate from USC’s School of Dentistry.

In Dear White People, which is now showing in theaters nationwide, Reggie and most of the other Black students live in the Armstrong-Parker House at fictional Winchester University. Like USC, Winchester is tony, prestigious and predominately white – all things that fuel the film’s characters and make them who they are. Filmmaker Justin Simien who wrote the screenplay, meanwhile, attended Chapman University where the majority of the student body is also white.

“Reggie was militant and aggressive and it was something that I hadn’t been able to play before,” says Richardson, whose acting credits include True Blood, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NCIS. “I read a script and there’s something about the character that is just strong. What drew me to the movie was that it is smart, it is funny, it is fresh—something that we all knew was special. And we still don’t know what’s going to happen but we all know it is special.”

One of Richardson’s friends from USC, Brandon P. Bell, is also costarring in the movie. He plays Troy, the bright but egomaniacal son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert). “Brandon was born to play Troy and I was born to play Reggie,” Richardson says.

Where Reggie is ready to fight the power, Troy is ready to fit right in and dates the university president’s white daughter per his father’s urging to prove it. Troy used to date Samantha (Tessa Thompson), the movie’s militant leading lady, and Reggie attempts to court her.

Whether or not Sam will choose Reggie or Gabe – the white student she’s also attracted to – is one of the main storylines in Dear White People. Tyler James Williams and Teyonah Parris round out the cast. Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) stars as Lionel, a gay introvert who observes and writes about contentious race relations for the school paper and Parris plays a vlogger and wanna-be reality TV star.

But no one is a saint in this flick, and for moviegoers who might think Reggie’s pro-Black ways make him the one true warrior, Richardson urges audiences to dig deeper.

“The thing about Reggie is that he prefers to lob his responsibilities off onto other characters,” Richardson says. “He should be the one running for House president, but he’s the first person to put that on Sam to be the leader. At the end of the movie, he defers the responsibility of breaking up the Black face party to Lionel.”

In that regard, Reggie drives home another one of the movie’s themes – Black people need to advocate for themselves and not wait on a leader or even the government to do it for them.

“There have been times in my life where it was like, ‘OK, you’re doing it again. You know you should be responsible for this and that but you’re deferring it on somebody else,’” Richardson says. “I particularly relate to that.”

Like Reggie, Richardson also strives for greatness. After graduating from college, he had a chance to work for the CIA but chose acting, in part, because he got an encouraging word from the late Bernie Mac that made a lasting impression.

“I booked a role on The Bernie Mac Show and I was sitting with Bernie Mac and we were doing a scene. Afterwards, he looked over at the director and producers and said, ‘Where did you all find this kid? He’s phenomenal.’ And that was a moment for me where I was like, ‘Oh wow. Bernie Mac’s telling me that I’m good. I could see myself doing this for the long haul.’”

Dear White People is in theaters.

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