Dexter Darden has been making big moves in 2023. Already he’s starred as Deandre, a gifted one-time professional basketball player charged with teaching the film’s lead how to conquer the rim, in the Disney+ film Chang Can Dunk. Next, he stars in Half Baked 2, the sequel to Dave Chappelle’s 1998 cult classic twenty-five years ago, due out this summer.

Both films, shares the star known for The Maze Runner trilogy and Saved By the Bell, are helping him transition into being an adult on screen. “I did season two of Saved By the Bell right before booking this movie,” he says of Chang Can Dunk, which is about an Asian American high school student who wants to respond to a dare that he can’t dunk. “So having the opportunity to step up and play 30 and be the mature adult on screen and show the world that I can transition from younger to older and to have the opportunity to do it in a character that I was really comfortable playing was truly life changing. I think it can be pivotal in terms of what I want to do next in my life personally and professionally.”

Chang Can Dunk, which Lena Waithe produced, was such a treat for the Philadelphia native whose love for the game runs deep. “I was a 76ers ball boy way back in the day, so I got the chance to see AI (Allen Iverson) up close,” he beams. Darden also has skills of his own, which he was happy to "showcase on screen,” and truly believes “you can’t coach anybody to dunk if you can’t throw one down yourself.”

Basketball aside, Darden digs the lesson Chang Can Dunk teaches. “I think this movie shows how real the journey can get. Sometimes you can want something so bad that you do anything in your power to get it and then that ends up backfiring,” he says. “I think that it showcases how you can be your own standard; you don't have to live up to other people's standards.”

His other big film may not be as pure or as teen-appropriate, but it is a challenge he embraces. “Half Baked 2 takes place right now,” he shares. “When Dave and them did it, it took place in the ‘90s where marijuana wasn't necessarily as legal [or] as culturally accepted as it is now. So stepping into this role and stepping into this realm, it was really important for me and Michael Tiddes, our director, to find a way to make it as normal as possible for marijuana to be existing and all these weed stores to be existing but still play homage to what made the movie so culturally significant as well as a cult classic. It's really been a blessing to dive into what Dave did and become a student of that movie and then find a way to make it my own.” 

As a longtime Dave Chappelle fan, Darden admits that the process of making the role his own was intimidating. “He’s so iconic and truly himself so I knew that stepping into this role, I couldn’t try to imitate, impersonate, or emulate Dave Chappelle. I had to bring what Dexter Darden can bring to Half Baked with the nuances of what Dave Chappelle is because I am his son [in the film].”

Going forward, Darden says he wants to continue to stretch as an actor. “I’m definitely exploring the action-comedy realm [but] also diving back into my drama bag. Before Saved [By the Bell], I was really doing more dramatic things. I was coming from Son of the South where I had the opportunity to play John Lewis or doing a movie like Burden where I played opposite Forest Whitaker with Garrett Hedlund about the KKK. So really getting the opportunity to showcase that. Now that I had the opportunity to show my comedy side, it would be really cool to figure out how to bring that back and try to incorporate both worlds.”

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.