The talented multi-hyphenate continues to remind us—through his work—of our own potential for greatness.
If you ever see Malcolm-Jamal Warner out in these reopened streets, don’t call him Theo. With an almost 40-year career, this actor, director, and Grammy Award-winning poet and musician has worn many hats and played on an array of shows from Malcolm & Eddie to Reed Between the Lines to his current role on the Fox drama, The Resident.
Starring along a talented cast, including Shaunette Renée Wilson, The Resident finds Warner as Dr. AJ Austin, a high-powered surgeon who is the best at what he does, but also can be arrogant about it. For many fans of the talented Jersey City native, The Resident is also known as “The Dr. AJ Austin Show” because of how well he commands the viewers attention and delivers big time on dynamic storylines.
More than just Cliff and Clair’s only son, Warner doesn’t allow any of the traits from the characters he portrays to impact his real life. In fact, the more you take a look at his progression, you realize this multi-talented man appreciates how different he is from them and the role he’s best known for. This sense of self has been apparent ever since Warner told his parents he planned to become a famous actor, poet, or basketball player at a young age.
And while he achieved two out of three of those dreams, the fourth season of The Resident served as a positive nod to the nightmare experienced by the hardworking, selfless medical professionals who put it all on the line for the people.
In this EBONY exclusive, Malcolm-Jamal Warner chops it up with us about the diversity of his roles, the impact of the show on educating audiences about Black maternal health, and shares why it's important to keep your soul intact as an artist.
The diversity of roles in your career is pretty impressive, Malcolm, but what excited you about playing Dr. AJ Austin in The Resident?
Malcolm Jamal-Warner: Most of the roles that I’ve played [in the past], I get cast as the good guy or the nice guy. With The Resident, I loved the opportunity to play someone who is still a good guy, but not necessarily a nice guy. I love his skillset and that he’s one of the top cardiothoracic surgeons in the country. I love that he is brash, arrogant, and that he really does not care what people think about him. I like to say that “The Raptor” is who I don’t allow myself to be in real life.
A brash truth that fans of your character would also co-sign is that it took too long for your character—spoiler alert—and Dr. Mina Okafor (Shaunette Renée Wilson) to finally get together. As an observer who loves to see strong, solid Black relationships on TV, what did it mean to you to be a part of that?
I loved it and I absolutely loved being a part of that storyline. These two very strong, very Black individuals are sharing this love and it is fantastic. The show producers had toyed with the relationship early on, so myself and Shaunette [Renée Wilson] knew that Austin and Mina were going to get together. It was just a matter of when. Teasing it, dragging it along, and knowing that it was what everybody wanted, but couldn’t have was just exciting. We knew from the onset of the fourth season that Shaunette was leaving the show—that’s why they fast-tracked [the storyline] the way they did. I think they [originally] wanted to hold it out as long as we could to really make it pay off; but we knew we only had 10 episodes to make this happen because she was exiting The Resident.
No spoilers, but how Dr. Austin and Dr. Okafor’s story concludes, it does leave room for a return, which I think the audience will appreciate in the future. And when it comes to your own career, it is consistently full of roles that find you portraying solid and strong Black men. What does it mean to you to make such conscious choices with the character you do and won’t do?
I have no interest in perpetuating negative stereotypes of people of color—Black people in particular—and there is a lot of work that I say no to. There are even more auditions that I just won’t go to. I may get an offer to do something I won’t because it perpetuates a negative stereotype. That also means that while I don’t necessarily work as much as I’d like to, I do characters that really resonate with people. It is reaffirming to know that I am on the right track, that I’m on the path that I’m supposed to be on. Because of The Cosby Show experience, I’ve always felt like I couldn’t go from that show and go do projects that showed us, Black people, in a stereotypical light. I also understand that I have the financial wherewithal to be able to make those kinds of decisions, so there’s a blessing in that too. I can be meticulous about the roles that I choose to do.
To tie that into being a father yourself, who is building up the next generation, what are some words of advice that you’d like to pass onto those upcoming artists and performers?
Keep your soul intact. There are so many trappings in this world when you’re a young person. Whether you’re an artist or a student, gaining any notoriety is important, but in all of those cases, it is very easy to sell your soul to become immensely successful. It is very easy to do that under those circumstances. It’s very easy to not give your soul the proper nourishment. So, no matter what is going on with your life, at the end of the day, your soul is all you have when it comes to peace—if that makes any sense.
Your hip-hop cred is something not to scoff at either, Malcolm. The community has lost a host of OG’s recently, including DMX, Black Rob, and Shock G. If you could change anything regarding our healthcare system that would benefit those in the hip-hop world, what would you like to see happen?
It’s multi-fold that the healthcare system in America is broken across the board. It is interesting because there is a saying that is widely known. “When America catches a cold, Black people catch pneumonia,” right? So, if the healthcare system is wrecked, we, as Black people, get the worst of it. But there’s also a level of self-education, self-nurturing, and self-sufficiency for ourselves that is needed. I don’t want that to be misinterpreted as a judgment call, as it is more of a wake-up call. For Shock G to be 57, it should be a wake-up call for all of us, in terms of how we deal with our health, what we put into our bodies, and that comes with a level of proactive self-education. Go back and read Dick Gregory or Dr. Sebi to start.
A special episode of The Resident was “pulled from the headlines,” as it was about the tragic events involving Kira Johnson, a Black woman who died as a result of poor care during childbirth. What did that moment mean to you to present such a message in a show where many feel they don't have advocates for them in real life?
We don’t know what goes on in the writer’s room, nor do we have table reads. A lot of stories on The Resident are culled from real stories [and] I was really pleased that our showrunners went directly to Charles Johnson, Kira Johnson’s husband, and worked with him on that episode. He came to set and we had a chance to rap and have since kept in touch. It was one of our most powerful episodes and I am extremely proud that the network allowed our show to really lean into exposing and educating the public on the disparity in Black maternal death.
It is a real problem that still needs addressing in the medical field. Kudos to the creative and executive team for the courage and bravery to tell the Johnson family’s story. But that is what I have loved about The Resident before I even came onboard—it’s willingness to tackle the less pleasant aspects of the healthcare industry and shed some light on it for others to benefit from.
Tapping into your poetry bag a bit, Malcolm, you won a Grammy alongside Robert Glasper for your work on “Jesus Children.” Miles Long, your jazz band, also gets busy. With that in mind, what are your thoughts on how technology and art have evolved? Recently, a spoken word film made history as the first of its kind to be minted as an NFT...
David Bianchi, a talented poet and filmmaker, is really the one getting You Can’t Hear Me into the NFT space. His series of spoken word cinematic pieces are impressive works of art that he has coined as “spinema.” I Can’t Breathe, his dedication to George Floyd, made so much positive noise in the NFT space that he donated the proceeds to New Earth, an organization that creates positive life choices for system-involved youth. The Charitas organization has agreed to match donations to New Earth as well.
What have been some major keys or tenets in your life that have helped you to maintain a successful career without any crazy controversies?
Keeping my focus on longevity. Also, remembering that it is a marathon, not a sprint. At 16, 17-years-old, I knew that being on the no. 1 television show in the world wouldn’t mean much if I wasn’t still working consistently in my 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. To be honest, “making it” is only half of it—maintaining and sustaining it is where the real work begins.
Last question, will there be a season five for The Raptor and The Resident crew?
[Laughs] Yes, yes! We just got the official pickup for a fifth season, which is awesome! We had a really strong showing with season four. Presently, I have no idea what is in store, but what I do love about our skillful cast is that every time I watch an episode I see our unspoken pact: “there will be no weak links.” I am extremely excited for what’s next to come with our next season.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.