Hosea Chanchez, along with Wendy Raquel Robinson, has appeared in every episode of The Game, in every revival, and on all three different networks. He knows this character and this world. But never has it had the gravitas it does now in its third iteration on Paramount+. Then again, art imitates life and we’re all living in unprecedented times.

Recently ESSENCE spoke to Chanchez about the evolution of Malik, tackling more complex stories and the mental health crisis among Black men.

I read that you said this was the first time The Game is not racing uphill, in terms of exposure and getting the fair shot that it deserves. What’s different about this time?

HOSEA CHANCHEZ: I think The Game has been established as a success. We don’t have to prove that we’re bigger or funnier. We don’t have to prove anything. What we have to do now is show up and tell the story from a perspective that allows individuals to come into this world–fresh faces and old faces– and have something that is not only entertaining but grounded. Which is the turn the show has taken. It’s a more grounded show because the world we live in is more grounded considering everything we’ve experienced over the past two years. It’s a heaviness, a thickness, a girth and that reflects in the world that we’ve created on Paramount+.

The NFL is such an interesting vehicle to tell this story. How does the league lend itself to more weighty material in this version of the show?

CHANCHEZ: In this inclination of the series, we get to dive into this world post-Black Lives Matter, everything we’re experiencing with ball players being on the forefront of change. Getting the opportunity to play this character in his early twenties, thirties and now forties is such a huge blessing to me.

But this time I do it with the backdrop of where our athletes are today. In this time, their presence in the world means so much more than the sport they play. They are really on the precipice and forefront of change in our society. It’s a really important story to tell and it has more weight and responsibility than it ever had on The CW or BET. We get to express it now unapologetically on Paramount+.

How has playing this iteration of Malik allowed you to grow as an artist?

CHANCHEZ: Thankfully, coming into this world, I’ve been able to navigate it as a producer and as a director on the series. What that’s done for me as an artist is allowed me to build the framework of not just the character but the world from the ground up.

Malik was never really serviced fully, in my opinion. In part because we had so many characters to service. It wasn’t personal at all. But I did leave the series both times feeling like there was still more to tell. I knew that I had more stories with the guy. Now that I’m 42, I can inform my decision making in the role, a lot more grounded because I’m a man now. You do things differently when you’re in your early twenties versus forty.

The sensibilities allow me to experience him from a different standpoint. I didn’t feel like I needed to go back to learn how to play him. I felt like I needed to do research to learn more about him in the times when he didn’t have the light shone on him to tell his story.

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Now, we’re going back in time to discover a lot of things that made Malik who he is, the traumas that he’s been through before we met him at 24. Diving into that is what really makes me excited as a grown man to tell his story.

How did you know you were ready to take on the role of director this season?

CHANCHEZ: After The Game ended on BET, I went back to school. I went to UCLA’s film program because I knew I wanted to know more about my business. At that point in time, I had been a working actor for about a decade. I knew that I needed to extract more out of my experience in this industry and as a human being on this planet. I wanted to know more.

Going back to school taught me the building blocks and fundamentals of this industry. I wanted to know what everybody did. All of these hundreds of people on these sets, what’s everybody’s job? What’s everybody doing? What does it mean?

I’ve been learning about what humans do. Going back to school helped me open up some mental, emotional blocks that I had as an artist. I was ready, I was prepared.

And I’ve done every single episode of this show. Nobody knows this world better than I do. I mean that humbly but I also mean that respectfully in knowing who I am and what I bring here. I know this world like the back of my hand. That’s a privilege and an honor to be a part of in the producing and directing side.

More Black shows are starting to dive into the mental health conversation. Traditionally, that’s not something our community talked about publicly. How do you feel taking on these types of subjects?

CHANCHEZ: That’s why I’m so fortunate as an artist right now. It is very specific that we talk about the mental health of Black men. Obviously, all humans are going through things right now. But my personal fight and goal in telling this story is to focus on Black men. We’ve really dropped the ball on Black men and mental health. We’ve really abandoned our brothers.

It’s important to tell the stories of the trauma Black men are experiencing–not just athletes. It’s my duty to shine a light on this area, not only because I’m a Black man but all of our societal leaders are men. So we have to find a way to balance out uplifting everyone that needs it. We can’t forget about fathers, friends, brothers, partners etc.

I’m really excited to shine a light on this and I take it really seriously because mental health issues are something 8/10 Black men–and I’m one of them–deal with.

Getting to shine a light on this area not only services this character but it services Hosea in a way that I never thought I’d be doing through my art.