… Finally, who you are and what you are is your calling card. It’s you that is going to be what people are looking for and what will get you cast. During my studies, I noticed that a lot of my teachers wanted me to transform into someone that I was not. Being your true authentic self is what is going to set you apart from others at the end of the day. Even character actors still have to be themselves in those roles to bring that character to life, no matter if the character is completely different from who you are in real life.
I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kamal Bolden. A native of Peoria, IL, Kamal graduated from Bradley University with a degree in Business Administration-Entrepreneurship. It was there, while winning national championships with the university’s storied forensics team, he fell in love with acting. After several years of working in corporate America, he switched gears to pursued acting full time, starring in dozens of regional theatre productions in Nashville and Chicago, including the lead role ‘Hero’ in the Goodman Theatre’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1,2, & 3 and the title role ‘Chad Deity’ in the world premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize finalist play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Victory Gardens Theatre. His love for the stage carried him to New York, where he garnering multiple AUDELCO Award nominations for his turns Off-Broadway. While he discovered a fondness for the camera in the Big Apple, making his debut on FX’s Lights Out and the popular Christmas movie The Night Before, still it was his connection to theatre that brought him to LA to be directed by Phylicia Rashad in Immediate Family at the Mark Taper Forum. In just a short time in LA, Kamal has gone on to create several memorable characters on television including the recurring roles of troubled hero firefighter ‘Jason Kannell’ on NBC’s Chicago Fire, ‘Joo Joo Beaman’ the fast talking sidekick to Morris Chestnut on FOX’s Rosewood, and Wade Davies in Fox’s The Resident’s tackling of racial bias in maternal mortality. On film, he spent a few months in Wales filming the action-packed horror flick Ravers before landing the leading role of ‘Russell Savage’ in the BET film Keys to the City. Most recently, Kamal was seen in the hit Hulu comedy Vacation Friends alongside Lil Rel Howery and John Cena. Other credits include Insecure as well as a recurring role on the upcoming AMC drama series, 61st Street.
Kamal, thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know your origin story. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I hail from Peoria, Illinois, which is right in the middle of the state and is also known for being the birthplace of Richard Prior. The town always gets confused for Chicago, but it’s a whole different sandwich. It’s a small town, and for a long time it was known for being a basketball city, but it has recently evolved to be more football-focused.
Growing up, I was always a bit shy and didn’t talk much in school or at home. Once I got to high school, I wanted to be more involved with activities and my dream was to play basketball, be the all-star of the team and have the crowd cheering me on. Unfortunately, I never got the growth spurt others had, and due to this, I ended up getting cut from the team and spent the rest of my high school years focusing on my studies instead.
I enjoyed academics though and jokingly called myself a nerd. A friend of mine at the time asked me if I had heard of the speech team. I told him, no, and I don’t want to hear about it either, all I want to do is play basketball. But slowly, he talked me into giving the speech team a try, and once I gave in, I was hooked. There was something about the beauty of storytelling, the poetry, short stories, all of it. Due to how well I excelled on the team, I actually ended up getting a college scholarship.
For college, I attended Bradley University, where I obtained my business degree. While there, I was a part of their speech team as well. At that time, I still didn’t believe in the idea of theater. Coming from a smaller town, nobody before me, besides Richard Prior, had become an actor. Richard was a comedian, yes, but that all felt like a fairytale to me.
Once I graduated college, I moved to Nashville and started working with some local community theater groups such as Dream Seven, Sister Style Productions, and Kenny Playhouse Theater. Before I knew it, I was doing professional theater in Nashville. I was a part of a production at the Nashville Children’s Theater, and after that, I quit my day job and never looked back. Theater became my focus and I ended up expanding to roles in Chicago, New York, and eventually Los Angeles. Once I got to L.A., things just started to take off for me.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I feel like there are so many people that I can give credit to, but if I had to pick just one, it would be my speech teacher in high school, Molly Burrows. One day in class, she hands me an excerpt of “Shame” by Dick Gregory. We worked together on it, and I will never forget her telling me that she saw something in me. She told me there was a gift in my talents and I was someone who could do well in terms of acting and being a storyteller. With those few words, she gave me the confidence that I needed to continue down this path, otherwise, I feel as though I would have likely just moved on to something else. Working with her allowed me to have parts in plays and musicals, even though I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket as they say. One of the plays I was a part of was Grease, where I played Sonny LaTierri and I had another part in Li’l Abner as well. After that exposure and just having someone tell me that I was good at it, it kept me going and made me realize, I can do this!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was working with Nashville Children’s Theater, the late Scot Copeland was teaching acting and he was also my employer for an equity job at the theater. In Nashville, working at an equity theater is a big deal since there are not a lot of those types of theaters in the South. During my time there, I ended up getting a part for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I believe this was 2007 or 2008 and at the time, all anybody was telling me was that I needed to watch the show “The Wire”. So I’m at the library one day looking at play scripts and I saw they had the season one DVD of The Wire so I decided to give it a shot. I started watching the series that night and ended up staying up until 5 AM, knowing that I had a performance at 9 AM that morning.
I woke up at 9:30 and realized what happened. I looked at my phone, and I had 45 missed calls from the stage manager and my heart was in my toes. I immediately jump up, get dressed, and start heading that way. At that time, I was living in Antioch, Tennessee which is 25 minutes outside of Nashville. I’m calling my Mom, speeding the whole way there, doing at least 80. I got there in record time and ran in the door at 9:55. I haven’t showered or even brushed my teeth, but I’m there. I ran through the backdoor, grabbed a puppet and a black shirt, and started listening to see where we were in the play. I just popped out onto the stage and it was instant murmurs of kids like where the heck did this person come from? So I go about the play as usual and finish my scenes as though nothing had happened.
Once the play was over, I was waiting backstage for Scot to come out who was both the artistic director and director of the show. As I’m standing there, shaking to my core just telling myself, this is it, I’m getting fired. While I’m waiting, my castmates are all consoling me, but at the same time I know they’re upset because they had to make the show work without an actor as there are no understudies at the Children’s Theater.
Fast forward a little bit and I ended up having a private conversation with Scot in the parking lot that I will never forget. Now mind you, Scot was a big guy. At least 350 pounds, always in overalls, and had the white Santa beard going on. So we’re talking and he leans up against his Oldsmobile and said “Kamal, you know I started this Children’s Theater, right? I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve had actors show up sick, perform their scenes, go backstage and literally throw up into a bucket and come back on stage for their next part, but never in my tenure have I had an actor miss a show.” I felt terrible. I simply looked at him and said “I’m sorry, I understand” and started to walk away when he stopped me. He said “you’re in a play next month with my wife, Renee, right? Glengarry, Glen Ross is it?” I replied and told him yes sir, I am. Scot responded with “and you’ll be there an hour early, won’t you? You’ll be the first person there?” To which I said, you better believe it! He looked at me and said, “Good. Now get something to eat. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He could have easily chewed me out, made me feel terrible, and fired me on the spot, but he didn’t. Of all the memories I have of him, that is fondest and a moment I will never forget. Not only does that memory stick with me, but ever since then I’ve never been late again, and most times I show up about an hour early just to make sure I’m there and ready to go.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Always rely on your imagination. It will take you further than people will. For those days when you are doubting yourself and you get bogged down with negative thoughts, you will still have your imagination. If you trust it, you will become a better actor and a better person. Imagination lets you continue to believe that you will succeed, and while nothing will compare to affirmations and putting in the work, falling back on your imagination will allow you to feel the way you want, and to envision the great things that are coming in your future, even if things are going well for you at that moment.
Can you share with our readers some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now, and where you see yourself going from here?
Right now, I’m working on Endgame which is on NBC, and this has been my first serious regular role. I feel so blessed to have this opportunity because it is not only a job, but such a great show to be a part of. I’m getting to craft my character that people can follow along with, but I also feel the plot of the show is fascinating because you never know who is good or bad. Outside of the main character, Val, who is played by Ryan Michelle Bathe, the other characters are very enigmatic and things can change at the drop of a dime. Due to this, the show keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even with my character, Owen, I feel like each week you never know what you’re going to get with him and it even keeps my wife, Val, guessing what my involvement is with the series. I love the feeling so much that I never know what my character is going to be into and I know that if I’m feeling that way, the viewers feel that way too.
Outside of that, I recently filmed 61st Street, which is a drama series that premieres next month on AMC. It follows young black males from the southside of Chicago, and they all have such a great level of potential. I won’t give away too much but will say something traumatic takes place and it draws in the viewer to the storyline. Courtney B. Vance is the lead and it was such an honor to be on set with him, working on this show which I feel is going to be amazing.
It’s not your normal procedural, but more like a hybrid of drama and procedural that I think people aren’t going to expect. For my role, I play a police officer who is a part of Chicago PD and part of a team of very few black people and he has to make some tough choices when it comes to honoring the badge and uniform versus his community. It’s not as black and white as other shows, and I believe it will allow the viewers to draw their own conclusions when it comes to the topic of whether all cops are bad or is it more community issues. I think it will make the viewers realize how much of a nuanced conversation needs to be had around it all.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
The first thing is, I wish everyone would have told me to simply enjoy every moment. Don’t always be looking forward to the next big thing. Realize that the big thing is happening right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a staged reading or auditioning for a new role, every moment that you get to act is a life-changing moment for both you and the audience. Don’t get bogged down with the idea of what you’ll be one day, otherwise, you will always be chasing the “next thing” and look back at your life 10 years later and not be able to remember what happened because you were always looking forward, instead of living in the moment.
Second, I would say make sure you understand money, how to manage it, and even the basics of taxes. Thankfully, I majored in business administration and entrepreneurship in college, so I understood what money management was and how important it was. But what people don’t realize is that just because you have a job today, doesn’t mean you’ll have one tomorrow. You need to learn how to manage your finances regardless of what industry you’re in.
Next, for me as an actor, I wish someone would have told me to start investing in my career early. Start looking into things like production and writing early on in your career. Don’t think you need to wait until you’ve built up your platform, start now. This way, if you are wanting something different, you’ve already started to create that path for yourself.
Fourth, I would say to do what it is that you believe in because you’re going to make it. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Like I mentioned earlier, trust your imagination. In the beginning, I didn’t trust that anything I wanted was going to happen and had to begin to lean on my faith that something would come through. Eventually, I was able to get back to my imagination and realize that if you keep learning, you will get better and your hard work will be recognized.
Finally, who you are and what you are is your calling card. It’s you that is going to be what people are looking for and what will get you cast. During my studies, I noticed that a lot of my teachers wanted me to transform into someone that I was not. Being your true authentic self is what is going to set you apart from others at the end of the day. Even character actors still have to be themselves in those roles to bring that character to life, no matter if the character is completely different from who you are in real life.
That was great, Kamal! Those are very profound. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire people, I would love to see them live healthier lifestyles. Due to the pandemic, we’ve learned that we’re more focused on the symptoms, not the problem. I’m currently on the path of working on my diet and I’ll admit, it’s hard! But I have learned that being very conscious about what you put in your body is so important. Especially when it comes to black and brown communities, we have a history of being offered the worst foods, usually at a marked-up price, which in turn causes a lot of health issues. Even within my own family, I’m trying to advocate that they change their diet to help them live a better life. And I know a big factor is price at this point, but when you think about it, you can pay more now, or you can pay more down the line when you end up with a lot of health issues because you kept eating the cheap stuff. What you eat and how you choose to move your body, does make a difference on so many levels including your physical and mental health. So for me, that would be what I would want to change and bring the most amount of good to the most people.
We are very blessed that prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person who you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I would have to say Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, and the Creed movie series as well. I would pick him because he’s from Oakland, and being from Peoria, I used to hear from my late father that there was a Peoria picnic in Oakland due to the two towns having a bit of a kindred spirit. Both places are known for people who are a part of the working class and bring friendly relationships to their community, almost similar to something you might see in the South. I feel like we would get along very well having that link and I would enjoy being able to talk to him about all of the things he’s been a part of. I would love to honestly just pick his brain and see what his process is, especially to bring out things in actors that I’ve seen come across on the screen. For example, I feel like Sylvester Stallone in the Creed series was at his absolute height, and I want to know what it was that Ryan did to help him bring that out.
Thank you for these fantastic insights, Kamal.
Rising Star Kamal Bolden On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Entertainment Industry was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.