A classically trained actor (he got his master’s at the Yale School of Drama), Charles Dutton has graced TV screens (remember Roc?), movie screens and theater stages for the past 30 years. There’s hardly an outlet that he hasn’t blessed. He admits thought that his latest project, Comeback Dad (also starring Tatyana Ali, Loretta Devine and Brad James), can be counted as one of his best performances. Read on and see why.
EBONY: How did Comeback Dad come to you?
Charles S. Dutton: A friend of mine, who works with a production company down in Atlanta, Swirl Productions. Swirl was the producing entity for the film Comeback Dad for the UP channel, and they said they had a script that they wanted me to see. I thought, [grumbles] oh they’re sending me a script, somebody wants me to see a script ahhh, who in the heck is Swirl Productions… But because a buddy of mine said they were cool, I said, “ok, send me the script.”
When I got the script, I was really blown away by the story, the writer. And then I said, “listen who else is in this?” And when they mentioned Loretta Devine, Tatyana Ali and Brad James—a young up-and-coming actor who is extremely talented—I said, you know what? There comes a point in your career when it’s not necessarily about the money all the time but the material. And so I said, “I want to do this,” and I came on from there. It started with a riveting script.
EBONY: Comeback Dad is about a family, and Tatyana Ali plays a woman whose father hasn’t been in her life.
CSD: It’s a very uplifting piece about a serious issue, but there are some actual hilarious moments in the piece. I play Tatyana’s dad, and my character has been going through a lot of struggles over the last 10 to 15 years of his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic, and he’s still struggling with that. He’s a frustrated jazz musician—
EBONY: He’s a musician as well, like the daughter…
CSD: Yes, as a matter of fact, he’s a jazz pianist. And Tatyana’s character is a classical pianist, and when he was in the family, he taught his daughter to play the piano. And so they have this great bond together but they haven’t seen each other or dealt with each other in 10 or 15 years. It’s a complicated story on what happened, but when he decides to get his life together, he sets out to mend the relationship with his daughter. And there’s all kinds of hurdles and obstacles in his way, including his own family.
He comes from a well-to-do-family of professionals—his father was a well-to-do person, his brothers, his sisters, his mom. He was the oldest of the family, and everyone expected him to be the star, and he turned out to be the artist. He could never get his life together as the others did. You know how family can be just as cruel as strangers.
EBONY: Is Othell a man you’ve known in your life in some way or another?
CSD: Yes and no. As a younger actor, I would have probably said he reminds me of this older uncle or this man. But once you get a body of work under your career, you don’t necessarily rely on recall or past influences or people that you know who may have undergone similar things. What you do is just simply play what’s on the page, and bring it as well as you can possibly bring it, emotionally and passionately. And hopefully that translates to what the writer was thinking.
Because if you start placing it on, “Oh, I had an uncle just like this,” then what happens is that you’re imitating something instead of being something. But I’ve known several people who have undergone struggles with substance abuse, so that’s always there in the back of your mind. But you go about the business of creating art.
EBONY: Talk about playing dad to Tatyana Ali.
CSD: I have two kids: a 20- and a 19-year-old, so I understand those dynamics. The playing the dad part was easy compared to playing the man undergoing all these problems. I’ve never been an alcoholic or a drug addict, and I’ve never been depressed—at least I don’t think I have; I might have and not even known about it—but you’ve got to discover those things for yourself. The beauty of it was working with people like Tatyana Ali and Loretta Devine, and Brad James.
EBONY: Loretta Devine plays your sister.
CSD: She’s a joy to behold and the funniest woman I know. We’ve known each other since our theaters days in the 1980s in New York and have worked together a lot. She’s plays my sister in Comeback Dad, and they are totally at odds about life and family and had some very good scenes together.
EBONY: What message do you think speaks loud and clear through this movie?
CSD: Every family can get something out of this film. The whole story happens as Tatyana’s character is about to get married. So it’s days away from your wedding and all this stuff starts coming down in the family with questions like, Will these things ruin the wedding? Will the wedding even happen?
Because of the daughter’s estrangement with her father, she’s been having a lot of issues herself about self-worth: Is she good enough? Can she trust a man to stay with her? She’s undergoing all of these things because of not having a male figure in her life.
I guess if there’s a message in the film, and there certainly is one, it would be that eventually as family and human beings you have to let stuff go. You have to let the anguish and bitterness go, and move on in life and forgive and accept. You don’t have to forget anything, but you can’t harbor those negative feelings because you’ll only put negative karma around yourself. And that’s what this family learns: that they have to let go.
But then we find that the estrangement was not necessarily all his fault. I’ve done a lot of films and TV, and I can say that this is a project that I’ve enjoyed doing probably just as much as anything I’ve ever done, and I think it’s one of my best performances. It’s also a very funny movie and it will make you laugh and cry.