Leon on His 'The Chi' Fate


It’s been about 25 years since a one-name actor known as Leon generated some controversial chemistry with Madonna in her classic “Like a Prayer” video in 1989.

Now, while on a Zoom interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the 6-foot-3-inch actor whose full name is Leon Preston Robinson — and who walks with the same swagger throughout the interview — lets on to more of his persona, one that has boded well for him in film roles like Derice Bannock in the hit Disney movie Cool Runnings (about the first Jamaican U.S. Olympics bobsled team); suave lead singer David Ruffin for the NBC miniseries The Temptations; and J.T. Matthews in The Five Heartbeats, among others. It still blows his mind that whenever he encounters a fan or fellow celebrity, there’s a good chance one of his own movie lines will be quoted back to him.

“The leader of the pack is going be from The Temptations [‘Ain’t nobody coming to see you, Otis,’ which he ad-libbed]” Leon says. “A lot of Cool Runnings: ‘Sanka, ya dead?’ Not something I could have ever imagined would have happened like this.”

But having been in the business since the ‘80s, Leon’s new turn has been in quite a few streaming series as of late. From Showtime’s City on a Hill to Swarm on Amazon Prime and now to The Chi, the latter which ended for Leon this weekend on Paramount+ after his character, attorney Alonzo, made the fatal mistake of pulling his car next to the show’s top villain Douda (Curtiss Cook), leading to Alonzo’s death. Why would Alonzo do this? Well, the attorney is the ex-husband of Douda’s archenemy, Alicia (Lynn Whitfield), and the father of her son, Rob (Iman Shumpert). But some thoughts are better kept to oneself, as Alonzo learned the hard way by taking a bullet to the back of the head in his car from one of Douda’s henchmen.

THR spoke with Leon about his character’s fate on The Chi, what’s it like to navigate today’s Hollywood compared to 20 years ago and what it’s like being Leon, even when it may get on the nerves of a superstar like Stevie Wonder.

***

I remember seeing you a few years ago when Stevie Wonder did a concert in Grant Park in Chicago. Women in the VIP section started screaming and it turned out, it was for you.

(Laughs) The funny part about that whole story was I walked in and, like you said, a bunch of women just started screaming. And Stevie Wonder’s [assistant] must have whispered in his ear, because Stevie turned around and said, “Leon, stop interrupting my show! I see you!” I was like: You gotta be kidding me!

Lately you have been popping up in character roles from the political civil rights pastor in City on a Hill (Showtime) to the revengeful and potentially deadly stepfather in Swarm (Amazon Prime). And now, the smooth, street savvy attorney Alonzo in The Chi. What drew you to The Chi?

They offered me a role. I liked what Jackie Strause Lena Waithe has been doing in the industry as a whole. I have much love for Chicago. And it was the chance to do a show with some really good people, really good actors. They wanted someone to spar a little bit with Lynn Woodfield, who I have known for years. She is a fantastic actress! So, it was the chance to do some good work on a good show about us.

Getting into the character of Alonzo, not only is he the attorney for Alderman Victor (Luke James), who is falsely accused of murder, but he’s also the ex-husband of Alicia and Rob’s father. Clearly, Alonzo had to have known how dangerous Douda is. So, why would he pull up on Douda and challenge him in the manner that he did?

Well, one would say as soon as that happened, you knew he was going to be gone. (Laughs) But hey, you know, for the exact reasons that he said it. This is his family. And when it comes to family, you do things that’s over and beyond even what you might be afraid to do.

So, was he not thinking about the repercussions?

Nah! He’s a very smart, savvy lawyer. He’s been around a whole bunch of gangsters, because they love him. I think he pretty much knows his way around. But yeah, I think when it comes to his first instinct, it was family, protecting family. And he’s not going to sit by and just let something happen to his family.

Before appearing in The Chi, you were in Chicago quite a bit, but you are from New York.

I’m a city guy. I grew up in a city; so Chicago is one of my great cities without a doubt. But to be really honest with you, I just get a lot of love in Chicago! They’ve always given me a lot of love from one of the first movies I’ve done there, to even when my band comes there [reggae/soul band called Leon and the Peoples]. We sell out, it’s great! I’ve always been one of those people where I like people that like me.

As I mentioned earlier, in the last five to six years you have this reputation of popping up in a various character acting roles on streaming series. Is this a new niche for you?

There are a few other roles there like The Rhythm and the Blues, a movie that just premiered here at Lincoln Center where I play Eddie Taylor the [legendary Chicago] blues artist. I’ve always tried to play a wide variety of roles. For me, it is about the story and the part I play in the story. You said character actor. To me, that’s someone who plays a lot of different characters. But if you notice in the characters that I play, for the most part, they are usually ones of leading man qualities. And in every project, there’s not always a leading man’s role, but there are actors and parts in there that may require leading man qualities.

I have seen you on social media recently mentioning you’re on set for a new film. Can you talk about it?

It hasn’t been announced yet. It’s a Christmas movie that I did in London. It’s a quite an interesting story, which I’d love to tell you about personally; so, as soon as it’s announced, maybe we can revisit it.

And you were recently in a Hallmark Christmas movie that did very well for that network [Time for Us to Come Home for Christmas]?

Yeah, it was a movie executive produced by Blake Shelton, and I get to sing one of his songs — not quite the way he sings it. I put a little bit more soul in there. (Laughs)

Is there big difference going from these film roles to character roles?

The major difference is the amount of time you spend on the project and, for me, the amount of time that you have to prep for a project. Because for me, that’s where so much of the work is done. So, when I’ve done some biopics — and in the past, I had quite a bit of time to rehearse and do character study, and so it was a blessing. In the world of TV or streaming, a lot of these things happen with very little time to prepare.

Having been in the business since the ‘80s, how have you witnessed the process change in Hollywood as far as auditioning and landing roles? Do you still have to audition now, or do your people call you?

It happens in all different kind of ways. Mostly, people offer me roles. Of course, if there is something that my team or I want to go after, yeah, it can go all the way to several auditions or meetings or whatever, but it just depends.

As far as the difference in Hollywood, especially for people of color, I see tremendous strides. I think because of all the different outlets we have now — all the streaming services, all the different networks — there are so many more projects being done. And so, so many young actors and young actors of color have a lot more opportunities to be onscreen. When I came up, if there was a movie and there was a brother in it, it was between like three different actors — it’s going to be that “brother,” you know what I’m saying? Now, you look and there’s a plethora of young actors out there doing really good work and having a chance to show the work, whether it’s on conventional channels like ABC, NBC or the streaming services, or streaming services that are predominantly all black. It’s giving people of color tremendous opportunities, and directors and people behind cameras a chance to do work. So, I think that’s fantastic! I’m a very positive person; so, I’m always going to tell you about what’s changing in a positive direction because I believe when you talk about and give praise to what’s happening in a positive way, more of that gets done.

Has that spurred any interest in you producing, directing or working behind the scenes?

Yes, of course! I have a production company, Motion Mob Films. I’ve directed shorts, many videos, music videos and I’m in the process of developing a TV series, and eventually a movie. My hesitation has always been I haven’t wanted to direct myself. And the things that people are interested in that I wanted to do is usually because I’m in it. But I think I’ve gotten past that.

Why the hesitancy?

Coming up the way I did, being primarily a method actor, I could not imagine being anything other than my character. I mean I couldn’t imagine jumping out of being David Ruffin and directing The Temptations. This wasn’t the way I worked. But now having so much experience, and being behind the camera, I can see how, depending on the story, I could jump in and out and do some good work.

Are there any projects you can talk about right now since your work on The Chi is a wrap? I know you have your own band, Leon and the Peoples that tours a lot.

Right, now it’s a busy time for the band. We start playing a lot in the summertime, so I’m happy for that. And basically, hoping the phone keeps ringing, which it seems to be. I have a couple of offers on the table; let’s see if it’s something that I want to do, if it works out. If not, I’ll just keep singing for my supper and wait for the next movie or TV show to come out.

The Chi streams new episodes on Showtime Fridays and on Paramount+ With Showtime on Sundays.



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