There’s no question that Michael Jai White has brain and brawn. The 6-foot-tall professional martial artist and former schoolteacher first won our hearts in his riveting portrayal as boxing champ Mike Tyson in HBO’s “Tyson.” Since then, White has costarred in blockbusters such as “The Dark Knight” and “Why Did I Get Married?” Nowadays, White keeps busy playing a trauma specialist on DirecTV’s 101 Network medical drama “Wonderland” (Wednesdays, 10 P.M. PT/EST). The good doctor made a house call to ESSENCE.com to discuss the relief of finally playing a role he can relate to, getting pointers from his doctor-wife, and why he’s trying to resurrect the Black alpha male on the silver screen.
ESSENCE.COM: Congrats on the revival of your show, “Wonderland.” Your portrayal as Dr. Derrick Hatcher is a departure from your tough-guy roles. Does it feel foreign to you?
MICHAEL JAI WHITE: I’m pretty comfortable playing this role because it’s closest to my own personality. Until this role, I’ve never played anything that was close to me than this character. I play a single dad who happens to be a doctor, which was interesting because I was bringing up my two boys on my own. Most people say I look mean, and because I play so many tough roles and because of my size and my martial arts background, they think I am, but I’m really not.
ESSENCE.COM: What is the biggest misconception about single dads?
WHITE: Well, I don’t’ know, but I’ll admit I’m a terrible cook. I’m always buying stuff that was already cooked and whipping up things that way. Surprisingly, my sons can cook. I was always on the go a lot; my guys ate out a lot. But I’m no longer single and have joined my two boys, 18 and 13, with my wife’s children, and we’re like one big happy family and we just had a baby girl. My wife’s a doctor.
ESSENCE.COM: Ya don’t say…So, has she given you any pointers for your role about the medical world?
WHITE: My wife gave me good marks on it. Whenever I do something, I submerge myself into it. I was spending easily 40 to 50 hours a week at the hospital before we started filming. The doctors were real receptive to me shadowing them. I always wanted to be a doctor, so this show gave me an excuse to learn anatomy and stuff I have always been fascinated by it. It’s so rare that I get to play such a strong, intelligent [character], and at times I was the comic relief. That’s something a lot of folks don’t know about me—I’m pretty darn funny.
ESSENCE.COM: I can believe it. I checked out a clip of your upcoming film, “Black Dynamite,” which is an ode to the Blaxploitation film era. What inspired the film?
WHITE: Black Dynamite is a bad mofo. He’s badder than Shaft , Superfly and The Mack put together. John Salley, Kym Whitley, Arsenio Hall and a few others are in the film. I cast that film from my cell phone, wrote and produced it. The Blaxploitation era was the only time when “brother” really meant “brother.” It’s also when the Black movement was at its height; even Black and White [people] were really about peace and love, and Black pride was at its height. I challenge you to think when we had an African-American lead that was truly an alpha male. Nowadays, any movie you see with White folks, there’s a leading male who’s handsome, masculine and a hero. We have to look all the way back to the seventies to find that. Denzel [Washington] and Sidney Poitier are clearly our leading men, but what happened to our Billy Dee Williams, Jim Browns? Even our Pam Griers and Tamala Johnsons—we had super women that were just as beautiful as they were strong leading ladies.
ESSENCE.COM: “Black Dynamite” is quite nostalgic, but some might argue why not create a modern version of that Black alpha male?
WHITE: First of all, you have to be very slick to even bring that kind of Black male character to the screen. There’s a reason why there is no modern version of that male for Black actors. I can count on my hands and feet the number of roles passed on that didn’t present that. It’s not for lack of trying. There are powers that be that consider [those kind of characters] threatening. They’d much rather go for an assimilated, nonthreatening type. In the 1970’s there were noncastrated men. I take advice that Denzel Washington gave to me a long time ago when he said a lot of time your career is formed by the stuff you don’t take more than the stuff you do take. I’m sure there were plenty of roles that he has been offered that would have brought his integrity down and he chose not to compromise his integrity by being selective in his choice of work. I want to continue to do some great work. I’m nowhere close to where I want to be. I’m a diverse person who’s trying to use his art to make the world better.