I spoke with Rockmond Dunbar from Sons of Anarchy about his character Sheriff Eli Roosevelt, what it was like working with Peter Weller and more. Rockmond starred in my other favorite show, Terriers with Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James. It was a sad day when the news came that our beloved show Terriers was cancelled. Rockmond was fantastic in it and he is sensational in Sons of Anarchyas well. Not only is he a superb actor but he has the best name in the industry. It’s a strong name that demands respect, so I’m glad that he is getting some.
Lena Lamoray: As a huge Terriers fan I was so happy when you were cast on Sons of Anarchy. Now, ‘Eli’ could really use some help from ‘Hank’ and ‘Britt’ right about now.
Rockmond Dunbar: It’s kind of funny.
Lena Lamoray: How would you compare playing ‘Detective Mark’ to ‘Sheriff Eli’?
Rockmond Dunbar: Two totally different characters. Two totally different personalities and hopefully I’m portraying that and they don’t look exactly the same. I think FX gave me the opportunity to play a different character and knew that I could play it, and hopefully that’s shining through. But they’re both two totally different ways of policing, and I couldn’t even choose like a favorite to tell you the truth because I actually loved playing ‘Mark Gustafson’ and I love playing ‘Eli’ now.
Lena Lamoray: Peter Weller’s directing next week’s incredible episode so what was it like working with him again?
Rockmond Dunbar: Peter is great. I absolutely love working with Peter. I love working with actors that turn directors and really know the language and how to speak to an actor to get an actor to a certain point. I think actors make wonderful directors period so it’s really great working with Peter. I love his sensibility. I love his way of storytelling and his eye. He has a really great eye for pulling the story together and actually getting an actor to a space where playing the field is really comfortable, and he brings out the best work in you.
More Conference Call Interview Highlights:
Q: Do you think ‘Eli’s’ going along with ‘Linc’ now because he has no choice or do you think he believes it’s the right thing to do to take on the club?
Rockmond Dunbar: I think we just wrapped the full season so I kind of know where it’s going and where it ends and I can’t tell you, unfortunately, but, it’s going to be a really interesting twist. Everyone thinks that they know exactly what’s going on but Kurt is so genius with his writing and storytelling that you’ll never be able to figure it out. I mean even when we … read through for the scripts, for the next episode it’s always surprising. We have a great, great talented group of writers so … it’s going to be interesting.
Q: Is it more fun for you to play a cop or a bad guy?
Rockmond Dunbar: It’s fun to work … on most characters that are three dimensional. I love characters that basically have something to say and a lot to do. I love characters that are conflicted, characters that are not just surface presentational models basically, so this character’s definitely a job. I loved the last character that I played, ‘Mark Gustafson,’ with FX – another great character that Sean Ryan created. So yes, I don’t think it’s an either/or thing…it’s more the basis of the character and if the character’s three dimensional or not, and then I get to play and have fun.
Q: What do you think ‘Eli’s’ message is towards the club?
Rockmond Dunbar: I think he’s an honest straightforward police officer, no if and or buts. I don’t think he’s a negative sort of bending the rules type of guy. I think he’s a guy that is straightforward. He loves policing and he loves his job, and he can never be turned, flipped, or turned into something else that he’s not. He will always try to do the right thing and the right way of policing. Unfortunately and fortunately because of the great storytelling it always looks a certain way because the bad guys are actually the good guys in the series, so when you have someone who is the new sheriff in town and he’s trying to do his job some of the things that he might choose to do then look bad or look negative but it’s actually correct policing.
Q: Why do you think ‘Eli’ become a police officer?
Rockmond Dunbar: A little back story is he comes from a long line of police officers. He actually grew up within the neighborhood. Grew up within the area, loves the area, loves the Bay area, and went to school outside of the area, and then came back home, so he loves the area just as much as the bikers do. He’s probably at the end of the day I’m not sure how many generations down the line but he comes from a decent lineage of police officers.
Q: Are we going to see more of his wife and that side of the story as the season goes on?
Rockmond Dunbar: It’s really interesting and that’s probably a question for Kurt or the writers. I have no idea. When we were actually filming the show you didn’t know what was going to happen until you sat down in the read through and started to read the script. You had no idea what was going to happen.
Q: ‘Eli’s’ position on SAMCRO seems to have softened and he’s become more disapproving of ‘Potter’s’ antics. You know we see him stand up but his thoughts about how he sees the Sons are not really shared. Can you share with us what is going on in ‘Eli’s’ mind?
Rockmond Dunbar: I think it’s going to be very clear towards the end of the season. Those thoughts will actually be verbalized and played into action. But to give you where he is right now he doesn’t like to be manipulated or bend to do things that are unnecessary. He does like to be fair but at the same time his life of criminal activity is really harsh. So what’s going on in his mind right now is he’s being manipulated and he doesn’t like it, and he’s trying to figure out how to get out of this situation but also how to police his town. It’s very, very difficult when you are under the strong hold of another government official and can be put in the position where you might not be able to do the things that you love, and so he’s trying to figure that out. He’s very, very conflicted.
Q: Have his views on the Sons changed at all?
Rockmond Dunbar: I don’t think his views on the Sons have changed. It might look like his views on the Sons have changed because of where the line is being softened but if he wasn’t being manipulated it would still be the same thing. If the Sons … doing drugs, there’s no drugs in his town. The Sons are trafficking guns and he knows about it. He’ll police that way. But I don’t think his view of the Sons is changing. I think his view of the situation is changing because he’s being manipulated.
Q: ‘Eli’ is experienced with dealing with gangs and we all know what happened in the last year in Charming, so can you tell us what do you, in your opinion, think he’s trying to do differently not to fall into the same situation?
Rockmond Dunbar: I don’t think he’s doing anything differently. He’s being himself. He’s absolutely just doing what he does best and trying to put it into place in the situation where everyone is treated the same, but, again, that manipulation is being turned over. But outside of that I can tell you this; I started off when I came into the office to speak to Kurt about the character and what he wanted to do with the character. Initially our first conversation was, “Hey, look man, we’re going to bring you in for a ten episode arc. You’re going to die. It’s going to be great. I don’t know what your demise is going to be but of course it’s going to be brutal because you know our show.” And that was my contract. That’s what I knew my contract to be. I signed up for it at the very beginning. But once the tenth episode came then that changed so I don’t know what’s going to happen with the character. I have no idea if—well, the way it’s being set up now there will be some type of continuation but I don’t die so that’s one good thing. But we’ll see.
Q: It says that you’ve also written, produced, and directed numerous projects. I was wondering what attributes or what do you admire about the writers and the staff for Sons of Anarchy?
Rockmond Dunbar: The challenges that they put themselves in. I love writers that paint themselves into a corner and don’t know where they’re going to go next. It’s easy to do a procedural show and say, “Okay. Well, we’re going to tackle this criminal activity and we already know what the scenario’s going to be.” But when you paint yourself into a corner, and you don’t know where you’re going to go, you don’t know how you’re going to get out of it but you know you have to because you have to have another episode because you’ve been picked up for 13 or 22 or whatever the case may be, that’s the type of challenges that I love. And I think these writers do a really great job of that, of challenging themselves to take it to the next level and the dialog is crisp and the characters all speak differently, but the words are easy enough on the tongue. Because sometimes a writer … so much and try to get all the exposition out where it becomes boring and the actors feel like models but you never feel like that on this show. You’re telling a story but also you’re not just saying it with the words you’re actually showing people what’s going on and what’s happening. And I think that’s good writing when you can show and not tell. But that’s one of the attributes of the writer and the staff and Kurt that I absolutely love. They paint themselves into a corner, you don’t know how they’re going to get out of it, but you know they have to.
Q: Since portraying ‘Eli’ on the show, how have your perceptions changed or even possibly cultivated about motorcycle gangs?
Rockmond Dunbar: I have family members that were in the first Black Harley motorcycle gang, The East Bay Dragons, so I grew up with a healthy perception of motorcycle gangs. And I’m from Oakland, California so that says it all right there. It’s family. It’s strong hardcore family, so my perception has never changed. I have two huge dragons tattooed on my forearms for a reason and I’ve always had an affinity for the family aspect of motorcycle organizations and I always will.
Q: So we’ve kind of seen in recent episodes that ‘Eli’ seems to genuinely want to help this ‘Tara’ situation. He’s aware that there was a hit put out on her and next week we know that kind of comes to fruition so how does that kind of develop moving forward towards the end of the season? Does he become more involved in helping her? Is he involved in that kind of storyline at all?
Rockmond Dunbar: That’s hilarious. He becomes a little bit more involved just because it’s happening in his town and it’s a situation that shouldn’t be tolerated. You know any threat on anyone’s life is very serious and he’s taking it that way. So yes, you’ll definitely see more of that storyline developed and hopefully not come to a close by the end of the season because I think it’s really interesting.
Q: ‘Eli’ also seems to be feeling bad for the situation that ‘Juice’ is now in and it seems that maybe he’s going to try to help in a little bit as opposed to just sticking on the side of ‘Potter.’ So are we going to see more a pairing between those two moving forward?
Rockmond Dunbar: I don’t think you’ll ever see a pairing because there is a hard line between criminal and law enforcement and that line will never bleed over, I don’t think. It hasn’t so far. But I think my character definitely has sympathy towards ‘Juice’ because not only am I being manipulated but he’s being manipulated and that’s just not good policing to ‘Eli.’ It’s not one’s not fair or it’s interesting. It’s just not right, and he constantly wants to be on the right side of the law. So pairing up with him and becoming partners and doing something that is illegal, I doubt that will happen. I think we’ve seen that character already so I don’t think that we’re going to see that character again. It’s so much more interesting with my character actually working against the Sons but having a hard line of like how he’s going to do it.
Q: So when Terriers was unfortunately cancelled did you immediately start looking for another job, and when you do, do you look for a character that’s completely different from what you just did?
Rockmond Dunbar: You know it’s kind of hard. It’s always—I don’t think that there are so many jobs out there for actors, especially African American actors, where we can pick and choose what we want to do so you kind of have to be in a position where that next job—I’m always looking for that next job. I mean just from the Sons of Anarchy I’m rolling into another television series, The Game on BET. I’m doing like eight episodes of that show, and I wasn’t looking for the next job but now I’m starting to get in the position where I’m getting offers, like Sons of Anarchy was an offer. I didn’t—I always try to create—You know I have a small production company so I try to create my own type of characters that I want to do. So I don’t think I necessarily have had the choice to look for a specific character. It just depends on what the job market is like and what comes across the table.
Q: What’s your advice to actors?
Rockmond Dunbar: Tenacity. You just really, really stay ready, stay focused, and learn as much as you possibly can and do—if you want to be in this business do it for the right reasons. Don’t be in it because you want to be a celebrity. Be in it because you really love the work and the work keeps you up at night and it keeps you motivated and wakes you up early in the morning because you have ideas and things of that nature, and never get in to it because you want to do it for money. Have that passion in your heart where you would do it for free just because you absolutely love it, and if you just want to do it because you want to be famous then go do reality TV.
Q: Do you like motor biking when you’re not working?
Rockmond Dunbar: No. I’ve actually learned on Soul Food, the television series I did on Showtime. I learned how to ride a Harley on that show, and then every time I went to go take classes on how to learn, get my license and everything, I started working so I never really have the downtime to learn properly and go through the right channels. But now I’m at the age where kind of getting on a motorcycle is probably not the best idea. I’m 38 now so kind of hopping on a motorcycle is probably not to smart. I think I’m going to stick to four wheels or maybe three.
Q: Do you have any other projects coming up when Sons of Anarchy finishes?
Rockmond Dunbar: Yes. Sons of Anarchy just wrapped. I directed a PSA with KiKi Palmer and the YWCA for anti-bullying, so you’ll see that coming out fairly soon. I just directed a pilot presentation called … I have a pilot that’s circulating right now that my producer partner and I wrote for myself, a buddy cop show. I have two films that we just got distribution for that I’ll be directing at the top of the year, and I just got an offer to direct a …, which looks like the second quarter of next year are going to put that together, which is really, really interesting. I can’t wait until I can start talking about it. It’s such a game changer for me. I directed a film called Pastor Brown three years ago. We got 18 offers for distribution; three of those offers were international. We finally settled on ARC Entertainment. They’re going to do distribution for the movie, theatrical release, thank God. And it looks like that will come out somewhere around Easter of next year. We just had like a two year lawsuit on the film and we finally got it back so now that will come out and that’s my directorial. Great, great film. Very spiritually uplifting. Really good feeling film. Sallie Richardson and Nicole Ari Parker, Keith David, Ernie Hudson, Tisha Campbell, Tasha Smith, Michael B., Michael B. Jordon, Creflo Dollar, Angie Stone Monica to name a few, all in the film. And I just signed on yesterday to do six to eight episodes of The Game, which is on BET. I’m playing a character that actually—I did one episode. I was a character called ‘Pookie’ from Richmond, and a very … character and very fun. So I’m going back to Atlanta next week and I’ll start working on that while I’m prepping these other two independent films that I’ll start directing I’m sure.
Q: If you were to sit down with anyone past or present who would it by and what would you be talking about?
Rockmond Dunbar: Wow, definitely Jimi Hendrix and—well, let’s just start with Jimi Hendrix. That’s a lot. Creative process, opening up and just speaking on creative process and how to stay focused, true, and be within the moment, just wanting to speak on his process. That would just be top of the line for me. Who else? I would say—let’s stick with that. That’s a lot. That’s heavy. That’s a long conversation. That’s a six month conversation.
Q: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Rockmond Dunbar: Be patient. Always be kind. Stand in the middle of the river. Just be prepared. It will all come. Don’t be in such a rush and give yourself room to make mistakes because you’re human. We’ve got to make mistakes and allow yourself to make those mistakes because it only gives growth.
Q: If you had a chance to write the character of ‘Eli’ what characteristic would you give him that’s not there yet?
Rockmond Dunbar: That’s a really good question because I always go towards conflict and imbalance and what type of conflict or imbalance or internal demon that he has that needs to be suppressed in order for him to do his work. And I wouldn’t immediately lean towards drugs or some type of mental illness because it’s been done so many times and I don’t think it’s necessarily that interesting. But what type of conflict would I give him and I think is interesting to play and could get some mileage out of it? I think it definitely would have to be a passion geared towards maybe his career and the balance of trying to figure out how to really function within his career but also—I don’t know. I would have to think about that but it would definitely be a conflict. It would be some type of conflict and imbalance within his personality.
Q: What makes Rockmond laugh? I mean really laugh in your core.
Rockmond Dunbar: I love dark humor. I have a … sense of humor. I love things that are so grounded in life but just happen to be just a little bit twisted. My sense of humor is a little bit twisted. I love jokes that just don’t—that shouldn’t be funny but kind of are so those types of things just really makes me laugh. Anything that’s like really grounded in humanity and just are so real but happen to be faux pas or just really shouldn’t be funny I kind of like it.
Q: What a strong fan following Sons of Anarchy has and obviously most of the fans are going to be siding with the MC on the series. Have you had any specific feedback on your character from the fans or any encounters with the fans so far?
Rockmond Dunbar: Yeah. You know it’s really interesting because I already had a fan base from Prison Break and a small movie that I did called … and so my audience that I brought actually to the show is it’s really interesting and new. A lot of people from my Twitter and also from Facebook love the character. The people that love to hate him. There’s people that are like more fans of—a fan club from the very beginning and they were like, “You’ve got to die in the next episode. There’s no way.” But then you start to love to hate him and it’s really interesting how the character is starting to take new legs and the original fans of the show are—even though they love the MC they’re really kind of pulling for my character too at the same time. So it’s been really nice. I think that is just all in the hands of the writers. They created a really great character and I’m trying my best to keep up with them.
SONS OF ANARCHY
Rockmond Dunbar Interview, “Eli Roosevelt”
Sons of Anarchy Tuesday Nights at 10 EST on FX
November 3, 2011