Between senior citizens and digital-brained teens, tweens and tots are the befuddled middle-agers trying to make sense of it all—while texting at the same time. Anthony Anderson, 44, takes this bafflement to new heights in Black-ish as Andre “Dre” Johnson, caught between his old-school “Pops” (Laurence Fishburne) from hard-knocks Compton and his own four children—products of suburban affluence who can’t remember a time before the United States had a black president. Anderson taps his own experience as well as that of show creator Kenya Barris for the role.
Dre Johnson is typecasting in the best sense, right?
This is one of the few characters I’ve gotten to portray where it’s really me—it’s Anthony up there, just disguised as Andre Johnson. It’s my sensibilities, my wit, my humor, the way I interact with my children. That’s the closest to me that I’ve been able to portray on television and film and I’m really enjoying that ride.
How do the stories on Black-ish relate to your own life?
We’re telling honest stories. These are things that Kenya and I and our families have gone through being first-generation successful. Kenya is coming from Inglewood; I’m coming from Compton, both the only African-American families in our neighborhoods. All of our children are in private schools. My son is the only chocolate drop in his class. That’s what’s going on in real time, real life today, with everyone—not just an African-American family but with any family that’s immigrated to America, or anybody who’s trying to do better and get a leg up for themselves.
The title confused some critics. Have they changed their minds?
People who came and watched the show understand what the title is all about now. I felt that was borderline ignorant of (critics), because without context or content, how can you make a judgment about something just based on seven or eight letters? We’re not here to appease and please everyone. We’re just here to tell our story and to be authentic to ourselves. I respect your opinion to love the show or hate the show. But watch the show and give it a chance first before you make an uninformed decision about anything or anybody.
What made you decide to be an actor?
I wanted to be three things in life: I wanted to be an actor, play football for the Dallas Cowboys, and I wanted to be a lawyer. At the age of nine I realized that if I became an actor I could become all of those things and everything else I wanted to be in life.
Did either of your parents serve as your inspiration?
My mother is a horrible, horrible—let me say that once again—horrible actress. I happened to be in the back of the theater at Compton Community College, watching her rehearse A Raisin in the Sun. I was playing with my two brothers, and my sister hadn’t been born yet—I’m the oldest of four—and I happened to look up and see my mother onstage, and I said, “That’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.” My mom and I joke about her lack of talent and her response is always, “That’s because I gave it all to you.” “OK, mama, if that’s what you want to believe…”
How does a nine-year-old launch an acting career?
Any chance that I got to be in front of a live audience, being it singing “Amazing Grace” in church or a spelling bee, I put myself in that position. I went to the High School for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles and then applied to Howard University with a self-taped audition. I did a monologue, Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope, and then I did some Shakespeare just so they saw I could run the gamut. And it worked. (Laughs.) I fooled them.
What did your dad think?
My mother was always supportive because this was what she wanted to do. My father was a good ol’ boy from Little Rock, Arkansas. He grew up on a farm with 16 bothers and sisters. He migrated to Los Angeles and worked in the steel mills here. He knew what hard work was and he didn’t see the hard work in becoming an artist. Eventually he went on to open three clothing stores. He wasn’t going to kick me out but he made it difficult for me to stay home—he put padlocks on the refrigerator and put a pay phone in the house. He wanted me to manage one of his stores. I said, “That’s not what I do, I am an actor.” Then he turned on the television and flipped through the channels and said, “He’s an actor.” Flipped to another show. “He’s an actor.” Flipped to Lassie. “That dog’s an actor. Where are you acting?” (Laughs.) I ended up working for my dad for a little bit after that.
Is your dad around to enjoy your success?
He died 10 years ago, but he lived long enough to see my success. Yeah, he saw a lot.
You’ve done a wide range of roles, from movie comedies and dramas to series regular roles on TV dramas (The Shield, Law & Order). Are you happy that comedy is back in the mix?
It is a sweet spot for me. But my turn on The Shield to show the dramatic side of me that the public had never seen was one of the most liberating things that I’ve ever done. I still think my best work to date was as Antwon Mitchell on The Shield.