Certain actors have a presence about them. It doesn’t matter how many lines they have or scenes they appear in; they bring something unique to the screen.
Omar J. Dorsey is such an actor. In fact, he’s an actor’s actor. With credits such as The Blind Side, Selma, Django: Unchained, Ray Donovan, When They See Us, and Harriet, Dorsey is one of the premier Black actors on the scene today. But his signature role in Ava Duvernay‘s critically acclaimed drama Queen Sugar on OWN, (now on hiatus until the fall) where he plays Hollywood Desonier, is a fan-favorite.
BET.com spoke with Dorsey about playing James Cleveland in Genius: Aretha, Black men’s mental health, speaking to up-and-coming actors, being a sneakerhead, and the pressure of playing revered characters.
BET.com: Omar, you did a masterful job of channeling the spirit of James Cleveland in the Genius: Aretha series. What was it like preparing for the role?
Omar J. Dorsey: You know, it’s crazy. I think I’ve been prepping for that role for like two or three years in my mind since I saw Amazing Grace. Being a child of a pastor, we listened to James Cleveland all the time. So I’m watching Amazing Grace, and Nick Ashe, who plays my nephew Micah on Queen Sugar, saw it and said to me, “I think you’d be a great James Cleveland.” That was like two or three years ago. I saw Cynthia Erivo was playing Aretha, and I asked her, “Who y’all got playing James Cleveland?” She said, “They got somebody, but I’m a tell them about you.” That was three or four months before Neema Barnette, my Fairy Godmother, who was directing one of the episodes, called me to play the role. At the time, I was going through a lot with my brother, who was really sick. But I took it as a sign that I needed to step into those shoes. I watched Amazing Grace so many times that I knew all of James Cleveland’s mannerisms. I would tell the director Anthony Hemingway how James Cleveland would stand and dab his sweat. I’m glad it came across in the right way.
BET.com: This season, Queen Sugar explores some of the major events of 2020, from the global pandemic to all the protests against racial injustice. Hollywood is grieving his mother’s loss and going through it with Vi (Tina Lifford plays Violet Bordelon). In one scene, Hollywood is seen setting up an online support group for the brothers to relaunch his business, The Spot. Why is it important for Black men to seek help for our issues?
Omar J. Dorsey: My father’s generation, so many of those Black men, held so much inside. They thought they had to be these strong leaders, where you never saw them sweat. But that stuff will break you down if you don’t have anyone to share your issues with. It’s a blessing now to see my father, who’s a Vietnam vet, have a support group with other vets on Skype to exchange ideas and say whatever is on their minds. I’m blessed to have friends to lean on because Black men go through so much trauma. I’m so glad that Ava and Anthony Sparks allowed Hollywood to be a conduit for that discussion to happen.
BET: How is working with so many brilliant Black women behind the camera?
OJM: Listen, I had only one woman as a director on an episode of Ray Donovan. My second was Ava. What she’s put together for Queen Sugar has changed the industry’s landscape by having a woman direct every episode of the show. I’ve worked with over 50 tremendous women. I got to work with Julie Dash and Neema Barnette, they hadn’t worked in television in years. Cierra Glaude, who was a 20-something-year-old production assistant, and Ava gave her a shot to direct an episode. She directed three or four plus the George Floyd episode. It’s mind-blowing, and the writers on Queen Sugar are some of the best writers on television.
BET: Besides all of your television and film work, you are a sought-after commencement speaker. As an HBCU graduate, what did it feel like to be a speaker at Southern University?
OJD: Wow. It was surreal. When they approached me to do commencement for Southern, all I could think about was all the years of working and just trying to build up. I always speak at universities. I have friends at my school, Georgia State, and the University of Georgia, and I address their theatre class. One of my best friends, Keith Bolden, is a professor at Spelman University, and I speak to his acting class all the time. My daughter is about to graduate from Howard’s theatre program. So, when they approached me to do the commencement at Southern, I was blown away. It was one of my proudest moments.
BET: I saw on your Instagram that you’re a serious sneakerhead. Tell me, what are some of your favorite Jordan’s?
OJD: The 6’s. I love that shoe with all my heart. I got a couple of hundred pairs of shoes, but I love the Cigar and the Champagne 6’s. I made them get Hollywood the Cigar 6’s for Queen Sugar. I got the new Navy 4’s. I love the 3’s, 4’s, and 11’s. I have friends in sneaker stores who call me whenever an exclusive drops.
BET: Lastly, during the latest episode of Queen Sugar, you and Tina Lifford did a PSA for the vaccine. Why was it important for you to spotlight the importance of everyone getting vaccinated?
OJD: I want to do anything I can to ease my people. Some of us have a lot of mistrust about the vaccine because of how Black folks have been treated historically by health professionals. I had to do it with my parents. I told them, “I’ll go down there with you and get it too.” We went to get it together because I don’t want us to be one of the ones left behind. From all the research that I’ve done on it, talking to medical professionals, talking to my doctor, you know, there’s nothing to fear. I thought it was a cause that I should stand for.