One of the most despicable characters on TV right now is played by actor Michael Ealy. He drugged his kids, leaving them stiff on the bed for dead. He tied up his wife, leaving her weeping for understanding. “Why are you doing this?” she asks, crying in one scene. Ealy blinks his trademark blue eyes before giving an understanding grin and answering, “Because they found me. And I can’t play house with you anymore.”
The irony comes in seeing this role performed by an actor many have never known to play deranged. Typically, eternally cast as the love interest, we’ve found Ealy gently kissing and caressing everyone from Halle Berry in Their Eyes Were Watching God to Joy Bryant in About Last Night. But television has allowed us to witness a glimpse of Ealy’s range.
Appearing in reoccurring roles on The Good Wife, Californication and Common Law, Michael Ealy’s memorable TV characters have been the most unlikely. As a terrorist on Showtime’s Sleeper Cell, his portrayal of Muslim Darwyn al-Sayeed gained critical acclaim. And as the robot Dorian on Fox’s short-lived sci-fi show Almost Human, Ealy showed that contrary to current statistics, Black men do exist in the far away future.
“I tend to look for roles that have impact. I’ve paid my dues early on, where I was just happy to be in the movie. And at this point in my career, I need to have impact in my story,” says Ealy, whose upcoming film The Perfect Guy has him playing an obsessed lover opposite Sanaa Lathan. “I need to be focused, because that’s the only way I can impact film. So to be able to come into this show and be the new big bad villain, that was impactful.”
Thanks to TV, the growing roles and opportunities for African-Americans have opened a door of diversity that reflects steps of progress, but not full victory. “I think we’re right on track,” says Ealy. “I don’t think we’ve arrived at the destination. But things are definitely getting better. There was a long time where the Asian character couldn’t be anything but a doctor. That has changed. You still have to deal with Middle Eastern characters not being terrorists all the time. And we’re trying to get away from that.
“So we’re starting to see that open up with different shows,” he continues. “And that, to me, is going to make Hollywood and this TV world a much more diverse place. It’ll be more of a reflection of the audience. I think Black people went through The Butler and The Help and all of that stuff. We went through that phase when we were just trying not to be the maid or the butler. And here we are playing presidents, doctors, lawyers, robots, FBI agents. That’s progress. Doesn’t mean we’re finished. It just means we made progress. We got to be thankful for that.
“Because it doesn’t have to be that way,” Ealy sums up. “A lot of people have worked hard getting things to this point. So we have to do what we can while we’re here, so that our kids can eventually grow up where it’s not even a big deal [and] there’s no issue whatsoever. We don’t even have to acknowledge the fact that there’s a Black man playing a lead role on a TV show. And that’s when everything is equal.”
Stepping into scenes on The Following, the world sees a new side of Michael Ealy as the computer genius antithesis to good-guy cop Kevin Bacon. Gone is the emotional romantic man we’ve known of Ealy on past Hollywood big screens. Replaced are the nuances and actions of cold, evil calculation. Yet still, amidst the twisted gore, glistening moments of Ealy’s humanity radiate through the darkness as a guiding light to helping him stay close to his motivations.
“It was a challenge,” he admits about his role as Theo. “And you should always challenge yourself to find a connection with the character. The challenge was to try to understand. The previous characters I played, I always tried to identify with some element of the character if not most. Not because they’re a good guy, but what they’re searching for in life. So what I found was wanting to stay under the radar. Theo not wanting the followers, not wanting the attention from the media. Ultimately that was my in for [connecting with] Theo. Ofttimes in my own career, I’ve wanted to stay under the radar to protect my family and work.”
Ealy was a 19-year-old English major in Silver Spring, Maryland, when he decided to become a thespian. Calling the realization a “moment of clarity,” his pursuit of acting (over a career in teaching) was based in not wanting to have regrets later in life. “After I got into acting, I said to myself, ‘Where does your real passion lie, and if you do the teaching route, will you say, “what if?” when you are 40 and regret that you didn’t act?’ ” he said. “I thought, ‘Hell yeah, I would regret it.’ ”
Now, at 41, married three years with a baby boy, Ealy’s work is all about preparation—whether it be researching the motivations of computer genius serial killers or figuring out how to let it all go at the end of the workday.
“It was actually one of my concerns when taking the role. How dark am I going to get with this? What is that going to mean to me as far as detoxing when the time is right? I think that’s one of the beautiful lessons in terms of having a family. They tend to yank you out of whatever you’re in and kind of force you to deal with real life. And it kind of wakes you up in realizing, ‘I’m playing pretend,’ ” he says. “And a dirty diaper is something that Theo would never ever deal with. So it almost instantly snaps you out of that. So that’s been very helpful in not staying too dark. You can’t stay too serious about it all day.”
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality, and activist. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in November.