'A Soldier's Story:' Actor James McDaniel

Ed Gordon talks with TV and film actor James McDaniel, who stars in the new off-Broadway performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Soldier's Story.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Actor James McDaniel is a veteran of both the big and small screens. For eight years, he played Lieutenant Arthur Fancy on the hit show "NYPD Blue." He's also worked with directors Spike Lee, Woody Allen and John Sayles. His latest stage role is off-Broadway in Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "A Soldier's Story." McDaniel plays a self-hating black soldier murdered in Louisiana during World War II. He told Ed Gordon that his character's strongest trait gives the role a universal appeal.

Mr. JAMES McDANIEL (Actor): Self-loathing is not something that's just relegated to black people, you know. Self-loathing is a part of the human condition. So I definitely think that's a major element in the play. I think one of the things that makes people so interested about it is it's one of the first times that we've really encountered, you know, a black man that, to a certain degree, hates certain aspects of blackness.

ED GORDON, host:

How does someone who studied veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania find his way to acting?

Mr. McDANIEL: I just kind of hopped in my car after my final exams one year and moved to New York to become an actor with absolutely no experience whatsoever. I think what it was was a product of having a mother that kind of led me to believe that I could do anything that I wanted to do at any time. I think it was kind of this misguided kind of self-confident upbringing that I had.

GORDON: In that upbringing, I suspect there was a true sense of, opposite the character you're playing, pride and--pride in being black. And I say that simply by virtue of the characters you've taken on and, I would imagine, particularly the NYPD character, the input that you may have had in making that character who he was and what he stood for.

Mr. McDANIEL: Well, yeah. You know, I feel a great deal of obligation to uplift my race. I feel like it's my responsibility as a black man to portray some of the more positive elements. We need to see our trials and tribulations, as well as the great people that we actually are.

GORDON: You've been in movies, you've done television, you're on Broadway. Do you have a favorite?

Mr. McDANIEL: My favorite is whatever I'm doing at the moment. When you're on a stage, the thing that I'd kind of forgotten about, because I'd been away for 13 years, is that you've got an audience there, of course, and there's a palpable kind of feeling, the symbiosis, or some communal thing that's happening between you and the audience at all times. So if I say something, and there's a stillness, that's just as powerful as this kind of uproarious kind of laughter thing that happens. And it tells you how hard you have to work to make your point.

The beauty of being on film is that you're working in front of a machine, a black box. And the black box has the capability of virtually looking into your soul. So it lends you to a certain type of subtlety that you really can't achieve on a stage.

GORDON: You played Nat King Cole in a Showtime story, "The Natalie Cole Story." Is it more difficult to play someone who is--clearly, when you speak his name, you can see that person and, those old enough, see his mannerisms and the like?

Mr. McDANIEL: Well, the first thing that you got to get down is: Can you reasonably be assumed to look like the person at all? Then you have to get to the essence of the person. The thing that gave me a real green light with that was that I was in an All-Star game and I was sitting next to Natalie Cole, and I got a call a month, couple of months later, I can't remember, and she wanted me to play her father. And I said, `Why?' And she said, `Because you remind me of my father,' which, you know, was one of the nicest things that anyone had ever said to me. So after that, you can use your imagination. Of course you study, you look at the man's life, and you just go.

GORDON: All right. Before we let you go, we'll ask you this. You finish off the run of "A Soldier's Play," what's up for you after that?

Mr. McDANIEL: I have a wonderful African film that I'm going to be doing, I guess around March, which is kind of a New York, African, current-day story. So it's all those--you know, the cab drivers and the people that own restaurants and this whole other society that we never really get a peek into. I'm also moving back to New York, so I'm getting my house in order and, you know, getting my kid in order and my wife in order and my life in order.

GORDON: Well, good luck with that last one. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: James McDaniel. The play runs till November 27th, New York area, Second Stage Theatre. All right. Well, James McDaniel, as always, man, a pleasure to talk to you. And thanks so much.

Mr. McDANIEL: It's great talking to you, too.

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