Oh, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Michael Ealy’s eyes. They’re … mesmerizing.
He jokes that if he had a dollar for every time someone has made mention of them, he’d be, well, you know the rest. But once you get past his praise-worthy peepers, you discover that Ealy is a brilliant actor who brings his impressive background in live theater to feature films and television. Next month, a feel-good indie film he shot two years ago – Unconditional – finally hits theaters; and really good news came earlier this month: he inked his first leading man role ever. The 39-year-old will star in a remake of 1986 film About Last Night (the original starred Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, James Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins; the remake will star Ealy, Joy Bryant, Kevin Hart and Regina King). EBONY.com chats with Ealy about his films, his female fanbase and why he’s not interested in being the next Denzel Washington.
EBONY: Your picker’s pretty good. What’s your process like?
Michael Ealy: Me and my manager, we’ll debate nonstop about certain roles. I think you just have to have someone in your camp who you can bounce those kind of ideas off of, because I think if I had picked every movie that I wanted to do, I don’t know if you would say the same thing. So I can’t take all the credit. But at the same time, there’s times when you have to trust your instincts and just say no to a project, despite the fact that it’s looking good and it’s going to actually go and it’s going to actually shoot and you’re going to get a check. You still have to say no, because it’s not going to land the way you want it to land, it’s not going to push your career even further, it’s not going to add to your body of work.
EBONY: How difficult is it for you to say no?
ME: It’s easier now because you’ve learned to trust your instincts. You’d start to feel your integrity being compromised or something just felt like you were compromising just a tad bit, and that’s your gut telling you, ‘yea or nay,’ man. You have to either roll with it or not. Listen, you have to take some risks. For Colored Girls was definitely a risk. I’m aware that I have a strong female following and that was risky, and I, to this day, love my female following because they stood by me through that. They understood that that wasn’t the Ike in me. You know what I mean? I was sick … the character was sick, and they thought it was good. I’m not afraid to go dark again because I know my audience will understand that. So that’s how you learn to trust your instinct.
EBONY: If they haven’t forgiven you yet, I think they will for this role in Unconditional, because it’s so compelling and heartwarming and there are so many layers to it …
ME: It’s funny you say that, because this came after For Colored Girls and I think there was an element of, ‘OK, we need to atone for what happened.’ Like, in one movie you’re throwing kids out of the window because you’re sick, and in the next movie you’re trying to save children, because they don’t have fathers. So that to me was a great journey to go through as an actor. And they were only four months apart. I jumped into being Papa Joe, and it’s like, ‘Ah, perfect. Thank you God!’
EBONY: So doing this film was therapy for For Colored Girls?
ME: It was helpful. It just resonated in my spirit, in my soul.
EBONY: You’ve been acting for a while now, and you’re just now about to get your first leading man role at 39 for the About Last Night remake. What does that say to you?
ME: Sign of the times. You know, the way that it worked for Denzel won’t work now. It just won’t. It won’t work for anybody that way. The business is different. And if you look at it like, ‘OK, if I pattern my career in the way in which Denzel did his,’ you’re sculpting your career based on an antiquated system that doesn’t exist anymore. You know, it’s not the same. It’s rare to find an actor now who doesn’t have some sort of social media site. But, you know, he didn’t have to worry about that stuff. It’s a different time. I read an interview with Idris not too long ago where he said he doesn’t even consider himself a leading man, he considers himself a character actor who plays leading man roles from time to time. And I get what he’s saying, because as an artist, oftentimes the leading man roles aren’t that interesting! As an example, if you think about The Best Man, Taye Diggs, God bless him, he did a great job anchoring the film, but Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau, those were the guys who you were like, ‘Ah man, Quentin!’ You know what I mean? Those were the characters and the character guys tend to have more fun, and I like to be able to do both. I want to be the anchor sometimes and sometimes I don’t want to be the moral center of the piece. I never thought I would enjoy this, but I’ve learned to embrace and enjoy the ensemble movie, like a For Colored Girls, like Think Like a Man. It’s fun. I hate to say it, it’s … sometimes it’s more fun. So I look forward to it.
EBONY: Did the success of Think Like a Man turbo charge your career? Is that maybe even why this indie film, Unconditional, got picked up?
ME: I hope so. I’d like to think that this film got picked up on its own merits, but who knows? It’s a tricky business. I think the interest increased after Think Like a Man. I don’t think people had seen me in that way, in that light, in my entire career. I know for a fact that some of the actresses in the movie, they were a bit blown away because they hadn’t seen me do it. I have to give it up and say, it’s the role, though. I mean, I did what I had to do, but that was a great role. Like, when I read that script, I had the choice between Dominic and Michael, Michael being Terrence’s character, and I was like, ‘Eh, Dominic,’ right away. I just respond to him, I like his struggle, I’ve been Dominic before, let’s do that. And I think Dominic is someone a lot of people can relate to and so I think that’s why … there was a spark.
EBONY: Do you have any nervousness or trepidation kind of walking into this next role? You’re a leading man. It’s a remake of a great film. More eyes are on you …
ME: No, no, nah. I mean, the way we shot Think Like a Man, you would’ve thought I was the lead in that one, because Taraji and I shot our stuff together and then I went and shot a second movie — I like to call it Animal House — with all the guys! You know what I mean? But when Taraji and I were shooting all of our stuff it felt like we had our own movie, and I thought that was great preparation for what I’m about to do with Joy (Bryant). It was great preparation for that, because we just kept talking about, ‘Wow, we need our own movie.’ We forgot that we were in an ensemble film, because we had so much stuff together. We fell in love over two and a half weeks, then she was off and I had to go play with the boys after that, and it was weird, it was a weird transition playing with the boys. But yeah, I think I’m ready and I won’t approach it any different. I won’t put any more pressure on myself. That’s the joy of working with people you’re familiar with … Kevin (Hart) and Will (Packer) and all those people. So I’m looking forward to it.
EBONY: One thing that sets you apart from your contemporaries is your extensive stage background. How do you use that in your feature film projects?
ME: The key for me is to never do a take the exact same way every time. And when you do stage every night it’s a different audience. Certain nights they find something you did funny, other nights they don’t, so there’s no real consistency. The only thing consistent in stage is change, and so I try to bring that same flavor or that same rhythm to film projects, just, you got four of five takes use ‘em and explore.