Throughout the month, EBONY is celebrating the strength and beauty of Black Men. ‘Leading Men: A Portrait & Essay Series’ features nine Black actors who are leading the way in Hollywood. Here, in his own words, ‘Chris Chalk talks about playing James Baldwin and his mental health mantra.
Photographed by Keith Major for EBONY Media.
Every role that Chris Chalk has played has given him an insight into the breadth of the Black male experience. “All these characters I have played have different hearts and loves and attitudes,” he tells EBONY. “They are all reminders that we may look similar but we carry our own unique histories.”
From a role in an award-winning August Wilson play to embodying one of America’s literary greats, Chalk is always primed to dive into more meaty material. “Give me fullness. I like roles that are complicated and heavy and offer all sides of a character’s point of view.”
Here, the actor shares more about his love for the craft, and why he desperately seeks a role model.
Thinking back on my career, all my roles have been important in shaping me.Chris Chalk
Working with Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby in Fences was a masterclass every day, on and off the stage. It was about how to take up space and how to speak up. Being a part of 12 Years a Slave taught us the importance of telling our stories and being proud of even our darkest moments because we survive and persevere. Playing Lucius Fox in Gotham taught me about being powerful in white spaces. Playing Paul Drake on Perry Mason reminds me of the veils that we wear to navigate discomfort. I’m about to play James Baldwin in Feud, which is just limitless wisdom and reminders. And now, the current role I’m playing in the It prequel, Welcome to Derry, he has freedom and skepticism, a fear beyond what is natural in this world.
I come from poor people. I didn’t see myself on TV. Where I was educated, they had no idea how to take care or educate young Black talent. I wanted to be Arsenio and David Letterman. I studied Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. I adore David Chappelle. Comedy is the best. I love making folks laugh and getting to know people, though stand-up made me too nervous.
Professionally, I have been deemed too Black and not Black enough. I’ve had fewer opportunities and I audition less than you would believe. The scarcity created a desperation that made me dislike some really amazing Kings, but I have unlearned that. I love to see us shine. Speaking up was horrifying; it took time to articulate my needs without having a panic attack. Hair and makeup are notorious for neglecting Black folks. The first time I saw an all-Black HMU, I cried. Thanks, Ava [Duvernay]. It would be rad if we had more Black executives, show-runners, writers, designers and directors that are supported with the same fervor as other folk. Money, support and guidance at the top could really impact our voices.
Mental health is my drug of choice. Yoga, therapy, acupuncture, breathwork, meditation, walking, talking with friends, sex, creation—I have a few things that I am writing in honor of some good friends of mine that may be alright—somatic work, EMDR,it’s a long list. I will try pretty much anything to find peace and ease.
When I was younger, I believed that if anything good happened to me, I would die soon. I started with a mantra of “I am safe” Every time I heard that negative voice, I would counter it with “I am Safe” 25 times. Now, I have a morning and evening mantra that aligns me with the truth that I want to live. It keeps me from believing in a fearful future.
Shedding ideas that I have to perform “masculinity” for people let me declare that I am my sensitive side. I am sweet, delicate and gentle, and I am aggressive, direct and powerful. They all exist.Chris Chalk
I am lucky to never have been a cool cat. Being cool often comes with expected misogyny. I am too sensitive to hide my sweetness. I was raised by my mom and I have been raising my nephew since I was 11. I respect and love the matriarchs of my life. I love Black women. They allowed me to express my full self.
I am mostly guided and nurtured by the women of my life. But I am thirsty for Black male guidance. My father was absent. My stepfather was present but nurture wasn’t his thing. All of these men did their best. Calvin Hall, my high school English teacher was a light. Mykelti was good to me. I appreciate every man that has come into my life, and I have had some friends here and there. But there haven’t been any long-lasting folks for nurturing and guidance. Seriously, hit me up and mentor me. I love Black men, and I need you.