You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “Don’t let the baby face fool you,” but when it comes to Marlon Wayans, the sentiment is more than a funny saying. At 49, the youngest of the famous Wayans entertainment clan is playing the role of Ted White, the troubled lead man in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect. And with the beard he grew for the role, he finally looks every bit like a writer, a producer and an actor with 44-plus film and TV credits to his name.

“I’m at the point in my career where I want to do great work with great people on great projects,” Wayans says. “You’ve got to surround yourself with like minds, like-minded spirits, and challenge yourself against other people’s greatness.” This is the approach Wayans brings to his star turn alongside Academy Award–winning actors Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker in the Liesl Tommy–directed film, opening August 13. While fans of Franklin are likely aware of the tumultuous nature of her first marriage, Wayans was clear that he “didn’t want to play a villain.”

After reading the script, Wayans says he told the director, “I want to play a damaged man who loves a damaged woman and starts doing damaging things because he becomes insecure.”

Wayans is a self-proclaimed romantic. During quarantine he wrote and sold a buddy action rom-com to Netflix; he describes it as Bad Boys meets When Harry Met Sally. “I wanted to be the romantic lead in an action movie, so I wrote one,” he explains casually.

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Nothing about the creative’s career has been incidental. Wayans followed the guidance of the late director John Singleton, running with his advice that if he wanted to work as an actor, he needed to write. That insight led him to develop the franchises Scary Movie and A Haunted House, as well as two successful sitcoms, The Wayans Bros. and Marlon. “The beautiful thing about all that I’ve done is that it’s just the beginning,” he says. “My best years are ahead of me. My legend years are coming.”

Wayans’s self-assurance is the result of years of sharpening his skills as a multifaceted entertainer—but last year, the passing of his mother, with whom he shares a birthday, ignited what he calls “a desperation” for the world to see what he can do. “Now I have a pain in me that I never had before,” he reflects. “Losing my mother gave me a depth; it broke me. It forced me to reinvent myself as a human.” As he processed his loss, Wayans tapped into his artistry even more deeply. Creating has always been what saved him when coveted roles weren’t coming in or others fell through, like the opportunity to play Richard Pryor. “I just said, You know what, this is God. Stop worrying about playing a great. I want to be great.”

As his personal form of therapy, Wayans began doing stand-up again, not so much to prepare for a part but to tap into his own creative potential. Now, with this leading role under his belt, he’s already writing his next— and along with it, the second act of his career. “I just want the opportunity to be great. At some point in my career, to be ‘the guy,’” he says. “And ‘the guy’ is the guy who gets the best scripts first, with the best directors attached, with the biggest budgets, a big marketing plan and a huge audience that comes to see it. Everything I’ve done up until this point has all been practice for what’s coming. And I’m ready.”

This article appears in the July/August 2021 issue of ESSENCE currently on newsstands. Catch Marlon Wayans’ new standup comedy special,  Marlon Wayans: You Know What It Is, on HBO Max August 19th.