AUP EP. 22 Desean Terry: Black Faces in White Spaces

Cortney Wills: [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Acting Up, the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio. And this week we’re sitting down with actor and director Desean Terry. One of the stars of Apple TV’s The Morning Show. And we’re going to get into some of the things his character is dealing with as well as some fantastic projects he’s involved with. So on The Morning Show, Desean Terry plays a reporter named Daniel Henderson, and the show kind of starts at the very beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic this season. In case you missed it, last season featured Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a central role, and I don’t want to give too much away for people who haven’t seen it. But she’s not here this season, but her storyline is still very relevant. And so Desean and I are going to get into a little bit of what happened in the first season and what’s really going on this season. The reason I wanted to have to Desean Terry on aside from the fact that he’s just an extremely talented actor and someone who really gives a lot of himself off camera is that the storyline of his character this season highlights something that we don’t see a lot on screen, and that is the journey of Black journalists in mainstream newsrooms. There are so many microaggressions and macro aggressions that journalists are faced with, particularly journalists of color, and especially at a time where so many of the stories and issues that permeate the headlines do involve race. His character on the show is also a gay man, and his sexuality comes into play. Sometimes it was just really an interesting role, and no matter how you feel about the show, which I think really polarizes people, some people love it. Some people cannot stand it. I do think that this show does a good job of tackling issues that are often ignored. The other thing I love about Desean is that, gosh, he’s just such a skilled actor. He went to Juilliard. He directs. He’s actually the founder and artistic director of Collaborative Artists Block. That’s a theater company dedicated to bringing art focused on social impact into underserved communities in Los Angeles. Aside from The Morning Show, Desean is busy prepping to direct a production of the Central Park Five, the Pulitzer Prize winning opera at the Long Beach Opera. So we’ll talk a little bit about that and why it’s so important for him to give back and inspire others in the community to follow their dreams. The Morning Show stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell, but Desean Terry is my favorite actor on the series and my favorite character on the show, hands down. and what’s funny is I don’t even always like his character. It’s not because I think he’s like an amazing person. I just think that he’s really interesting and layered, and I love the way that Desean really brings some pertinent issues to the forefront with this role. There is the ongoing discussion and examination of rape and rape culture and what happens after and cancel culture. Steve Carell plays Mitch Kessler, who’s like a really famous Morning Show co-host. You know, like. It seems like they’re kind of based off of the kind of dynamic you’d say between Meredith and Matt Lauer on the Today Show in real life, whereas like Meredith, would have been Jennifer Aniston’s character and Steve Carell is, you know, Lauer anyway, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Hannah, and she is like a producer on the show. Long story short, a big part of the storyline involves a sexual encounter between Mitch Kessler and his producer, played by Gugu. The incident is basically like they’re in Vegas working on a story. Something dramatic happens. They’re both rattled. They kind of bond over that, you know, he invites her to his hotel room. She says, Yes, they’re hanging out. One thing leads to another and. I don’t know how much of this I want to get into, but basically there is a sex act in that sex act. Leaves Hannah forever changed and not OK. Don’t want to spoil everything, but that’s what I will give you. The repercussions for Mitch’s character range from, of course, like public bashing and canceling and being fired and lawsuits and, you know, public scorn, you know, rapist assaults of women, predator danger. #MeToo like Public Enemy number one. And that’s a very, very barely scratching the surface synopsis. So please, like, you know, just watch it or don’t. But we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about what this show is doing to elevate conversations around consent around rape, around appropriate subordinate, superior work, relationships, dynamics, all of that. So I just wanted to give you like a little bit so that if you haven’t seen it, you’re not totally lost. You made me stick with this show like I was done with The Morning Show. I was over it. Gugu’s gone like, you know, next. And then here you come, making it so relevant and so fresh and so real to me and my friends who are Black in news, right? And so I thought that was really cool. I’ve been wanting to talk to someone from The Morning Show about the whole premise, which is, of course, what happened between Steve Carell’s character and Guru’s character last season. Of course, she’s not in it, but that’s still very looming. Heavy, relevant plot point. And my reaction when I saw that last season, I didn’t think it was real. Like, I really struggled with understanding what wasn’t consensual, at least in terms of what I understood consensual to mean at the time. What about what I just watched was not consensual, problematic, like indicative of really messed up norms and, you know, gender roles and, you know, work roles? Yes. But like rape, like that man is a villain. He should be dead or in jail or, you know, tarred and feathered and a predator was a stretch. And I haven’t been able to say that. And I think it’s really worth talking about because it’s a conversation that’s always evolving. My understanding now, even a year and a half later, has changed. And of course, the show has progressed in a way that we have a lot more context and more things happened. But I think it’s worth talking about how much just representations of scenarios like that forced conversations even with ourselves that we wouldn’t be having otherwise. [00:07:11][428.0]

Desean Terry: [00:07:11] I agree with you in terms of the confusion, just sort of like what? Wait, wait. Because she said, yes, she’s a she’s a grown woman. He’s a grown man. And that’s one of the things I like about the show because I think that the show dares to go into the gray area. It dares to go into the gray area. And what I actually really, really love about Gugu, I get chills thinking about it. What I really loved about Gugu’s performance is that aside from, you know, reading it on the page while she did it, he says, if you want to come up to the hotel room, she goes up to the hotel room. You know, you guys will be going up to people’s hotel rooms. I just like that. And the way that Gugu portrayed it, like, I still have that image of her eyes before, and it just seems as if Gugu just realized right then in there what she has done or what she was consenting to. And if it wasn’t literally for the visualization of what Gugu did and sort of like, now she’s in trauma right now, she’s actually not making decisions from a, you know, grounded and clear space. If it wasn’t for that, you’d be like. But then when I see the human consequence on Gugu, I’m like, Oh, ooh, that’s not right. Like, he could have. He should have had more sensitivity in regards to that. But it is. It is gray areas and the show continues to do that. The show does because there is a part of this, you know? And I think ultimately, I reside over on cancel culture. I guess I’ve realized that during the press junket because people have asked me and I’ve realized I’m like, Yeah, I guess I’m a canceler. I will cancel some folks. But there is, you know, a side to cancel culture where it’s sort of like we’re calling people out and there is there’s others. There’s a second side to the story. There’s there’s nuances and canceling is a little bit on trend right now. So I do think the word predator, you know, may not feel right or suitable for some people. And the show delves further into that in the second season. And also, it talks about because the show talks about so much. But one of the dialogs that I love and I want us to spend even more time on is people of color in white spaces. Yep. You know, Daniel’s character leads that conversation in just sort of really bringing to clarity how different we’re portraying him or the opportunities that he’s limited and limited to, he get told that he no, he doesn’t have the it factor. You. What the f-ck is that like? That is the very notion that he’s told because they’ve done corporate studying or whatever. And they’re like, you don’t have the it factor, which is so many people in through the history of media, Black people have been told or other people have been told they, Oh, you can’t take the seat or you can’t take the spotlight because you don’t have the it factor, which is so connected to some sort of proximity to whiteness. Yeah. So it’s just so anyway. So stuff like that that they’re you know that we do start to talk about. I want us to go. I would hope that we go further into those conversations because I think majority, we really have to get to the point of, you know, really factually raising it. And when I say facts realizing it, meaning that people accept it as a fact that we have the world or people of color. Yeah, people of color are the global majority. So our experience is actually the experience that is happening in most people in this world. And it’s so interesting that the people of color feel outside and we’re being otherize. And Daniel is one of the people who was speaking up about this, this policy of, Oh, we just center whiteness. [00:10:52][220.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:10:53] Yup. Absolutely. And Daniel was speaking, gosh, four experiences that I’ve had, experiences that friends and colleagues of mine have had as journalists, as the only one or one of two or three in not the room, like the building, right? Like the block. Avenue Of the Americas in the early 2000s, there were not a lot of people that looked like me running up and through Time Inc. And contending with that and understanding that it’s not something that everyone talks about. It’s not something that everyone recognizes. When you see a Black face giving you your nightly news, you have no idea the battles that they fought to get there. And I was really struck by a point that Daniel made in the show where it’s the time that you’re talking about, you know, he’s told he doesn’t have the it factor, but he’s also, I think, treated in a way that made me feel like, you know, they think he should just be glad to be there. He should just be lucky and grateful to be there. And he got the you’re a big fish in a small pond and now you’re in a big pond, you know? So everyone here is great. Everyone here is brilliant. You know you’re the most brilliant Black person just gets a seat if they’re lucky, but they could never be considered as brilliant or more brilliant than the most brilliant white woman. Like, that’s never going to happen. And I thought that your character kind of grappling with that, recognizing that and then deciding that ain’t it. I don’t like this. This is not how it should be. This is not what I deserve is important because that’s another new thing. Again, for a long time, I felt like I should be grateful to be in the room. I felt like being the most fantastic Black one was enough. And you know, that was the ceiling. And that’s not in anymore. And part of that has to do with having conversations like this out in the open and recognizing that seeing these things play out on screen have real life repercussions in the sense of I’m going to speak up for myself to, you know, I’m not going to take that, [00:12:56][123.4]

Desean Terry: [00:12:57] you know, I’ve been watching because, you know, playing portraying Daniel and it’s always, it’s been my dream for so long. I come from theater and it’s been a dream for so long for me to play a character for several years on television, just because I wanted to have that experience of getting to know a character more intimately over time. Right? And so having this experience made me really key in a bit more into who are the Black journalists out there who actually have shows? And I love seeing some of what is happening in terms of, you know, more people getting platforms. And so it’s interesting for me to watch because I watch them. And like one thing that I was really struck by was Jonathan Capehart when he got his show on MSNBC. I mean, brother did this just heartfelt just moment where he talked about just being a Black man and being gay and never, ever thinking that this moment would come. And now finally, he has this opportunity, and it made me think about, you know what, what the show was going through with Daniel and this whole idea of the IT factor, et cetera, et cetera. And and I imagine from Jonathan’s perspective, because now go look at his show, and I’m seeing that the show is really developing its voice in its own unique way. And it makes me see it as like, Well, you know, how are you? How are you going to measure someone’s it factor based off of paradigms of what you saw anglo-male journalists do, so you’re literally expecting them to connect to the audience in these statistics that you created from a white. Perspective from a white gaze, so it’s like you haven’t seen yet what this person’s realness or whatever it is that they bring. How that connects to the audience and how that can move and shape your shape, your audience because and how important just authenticity is. So it’s like it’s just so, you know, it’s just so crazy to me how they really try to fit us into these boxes in this system. And it’s really complicated. So so we do need to talk about it because what it does and what you talking about to me is when you get there and you’re the only one, then oftentimes it creates a new imposter syndrome. [00:15:12][135.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:15:12] Yes. So real imposter syndrome is some real shit, man. [00:15:16][3.6]

Desean Terry: [00:15:16] You don’t beat all of these people to get here. White folks, brown folks, all these people to get here and then you get there and they’re still treating you like, Oh, you should just be grateful to be here. It makes you think like you haven’t really done the work. And I think we see Daniel go [00:15:33][16.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:15:33] through that and I think Daniel being not only Black but also being gay and at a time where we’ve got a whole storyline of someone else who, you know, was in the same profession and was gay years earlier, decades earlier, and it was detrimental. You know, next to a time when that might be a factor that suddenly makes you more appealing to your bosses or to the demographic that you’re serving in this day and age. And it made me think of the Black card, but it was like a gay card, you know, like everyone was pulling out their cards of like what makes them diverse, what makes them more suited, better suited to represent, you know, the audience and connect with the audience. And that was wild to right because we’ve been doing that. You’ve seen that it’s all the time with blackness. It’s like, Oh, we’ll give you the hip hop stories, the culture stories. Hey, there’s a new dance on TikTok. Let’s give it to Daniel, right? But like, you’re like, you’re not going to cover the election. That would be preposterous. But wait, he’s Black and now Black people vote, Oh, wait, he’s gay. And there’s a whole ton of LGBTQ issues oh wait. You know, she’s bi or she’s a single mother, or she believes in invitro or she had an abortion like all of these things that you would never want your bosses or your audience to know. Two decades ago are now, you know, like capital, like they can choose what your, you know, what your obstacle to overcome was, what your otherness is like. Let’s let’s use the thing that used to keep you out and make it the the only reason that you get to stay in anymore. And I thought that was wild, too. [00:17:10][97.0]

Desean Terry: [00:17:11] Yeah, they they we see him get tokenized. He gets tokenized. Is the Black guy, the gay guy? He’s at the intersection of sexuality, so Black and gay. So he fit and and sometimes he uses that card. He’s like, OK, OK, this is the card i got, right? Is this card going to get me in? But what Daniel also says, and I hope we get back to this is that he says, I just want to do the news like, I just want to do good news. I just want, can I just do my job? Can that be enough? And so it’s I think it’s really interesting. I think it’s a really, you know, complex dialog that I hope people are able to relate to. Just how do you maneuver this system with the resources and tools that you do have? And, you know, from a workplace? And I’m just going to say that is for me personally relating to it because, you know, we grew up in the life of I grew up in the life of post-racial America. Right? Yeah. And so this whole moment that we’re coming out of 2020 is really exciting to me because we finally pull down the curtain and say, OK, this shit ain’t, post-racial Barack came in and we’re like, what are you talking about. But Barack, Oprah, right? And so there was this myth again, a sense in just living in your skin that what you’re seeing as a Black person or you were seeing or experiencing marginalization that, oh no, you’re just seeing that right? And so finally, in 2020, we we kind of we kind of fully pull it down and we’re able to really see behind the lens of what is really going on. [00:18:50][98.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:18:50] That was profound because yes, this you know, what you touched on is something that I, you know, when I can’t sleep at night and random thoughts start going through my head, I’m like, [00:19:00][10.2]

Desean Terry: [00:19:01] Oh, [00:19:01][0.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:19:02] I’ve been gaslit since the day I was born. The word and the concept of gaslighting didn’t exist as I was going through it. But oh, that’s what the f-ck. This is. Exactly. In a nutshell. Like, America has been gaslighting Black folks and particularly, you know, you get past like you get into the 80s, 90s like, you know, people who were coming of age in that era absolutely like, work hard, be good. You have all the opportunities now we. Everything, if you want it, you can get it. And, you know, if you feel discriminated against, that’s you. That’s that’s like not a thing anymore, guys. And then we blew the lid off of it now, and it’s so out of character to be able to call things out. And that’s now the order of the day. We’re calling things out, right and left. Little things are like, No, we’re not taking any of it anymore. And it’s such a juxtaposition. [00:20:00][58.1]

Desean Terry: [00:20:02] Yeah. And just now that we are getting smarter and the dialog is getting more complex in terms of naming it, you know, I think about it in terms of, you know, when I was growing up, the hot topic was affirmative action and how did they get rid of affirmative action? They said there’s not a problem. That was the thing. Just deny. And now we see that happen more and more where they’re saying, Oh no, it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem. But we have to keep showing them the statistics we have to show. We have to show them. The lack of representation from this is what is in the community. This is how many people you have on air one. [00:20:34][32.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:20:34] Yeah, tokenism 100 percent. And you know, representation is something that is such a focus of mine. And one thing that at The Morning Show does, I think again really well, and I’m seeing a lot of projects. Touch on either directly or indirectly, is the diversity of approach for Black people now? Right? Oh, like my parents and the way that they thought about think about approach and examine racial issues is quite different than the way my grandparents do and quite different than the way I do. And we see your character with me who was amazing. My matt man is amazing. I hope I have her on two and you guys have, you know, a different approach and who’s not grappling with that now in the wake of everything we just talked about in the wake of all the change? Aren’t you sometimes like? How do I want to play this, like, you know, do I? Is this the time that I speak up or sometimes do I use the fact that you know what? Yeah, it is still messed up, but I am in the room and here’s the change I can affect now. Or no, I’m not playing by your rules at all. You know, like throw the whole game board away and, you know, revolt and rise up like sometimes it’s a different strategy and you think they’re bumping heads, but they are really kind of leaning on each other, I think, and recognizing the struggle, if you will, in each other, even though they sometimes navigate it and look at it kind of differently. And I think that’s important to represent the diversity in how we navigate. And I wondered for you what it was like to kind of flesh out that dynamic between Daniel and Mia. [00:22:12][97.9]

Desean Terry: [00:22:13] Well, one of the thing that’s really cool is, first of all, I got really lucky with Carrie Aaron, the showrunner, because she talks to us. She and she she talked to us even more this season to really talk about fleshing out their experiences in the workplace. So I really felt like I got to collaborate with Karen and Carrie with this because there was a lot of complex nuances and lines that we’re trying to thread. And so Carrie really allowed us to give our feedback in terms of what we felt were authentic, what was authentic about being in the workspace. And that’s one of the things that I’m glad that you picked up on, because Daniel and the Mia character have completely different approaches, even though they have a good relationship, but their their relationship because we wanted to avoid having the Black characters on the show, having less complexity than the and the white characters. So we want them to have flaws. We want them to have disagreements. There should be things that you know, you don’t like about Daniel, things that you don’t like about Mia. Just like, there’s things that you like and don’t like about all the other characters on the show, we shouldn’t just carry, Oh, we are the Black folks, so we carry the moral integrity of it. And so it was cool to get into that messiness in that Carrie started to allow that to happen, and I want to see more of it. [00:23:27][74.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:23:27] You know, I want to see more of it, too. I thought that was a real strong point of the show. I could talk to you about this season of The Morning Show forever, but I won’t, because there’s a lot of other really amazing things to talk to you about, including your work in the theater and what you have coming up in Long Beach, which is not too far from me. Tell me about that. [00:23:46][19.0]

Desean Terry: [00:23:47] Yeah. So I’m a I’m a theater boy, grew up in Los Angeles and I have a theater company called Collaborative Artist Block. And what we’re doing is we’re basically trying to create stories like we’re talking about where, you know, Black folks are the center of the narrative. I know for myself specifically, if I didn’t have that experience where I could go into a world where I was working with Black art as a kid who created stories and told stories where I existed, where we existed in the center, I wouldn’t have been able to find my power. And so the point of CAB is to bring that back to folks. And then just so happen. You know, coming up, someone contacted me from the Long Beach Opera House and they want me to direct an opera. Yes, which is which is really exciting, scary, but exciting. And I also that’s just one of my motifs in life as an artist is like, if it’s not scary, then you really shouldn’t be doing it. And so I’ll be directing this Pulitzer Prize winning opera. It’s written by Anthony Davis, who’s the composer about the Central Park five. And I’m really, really a knee deep in it right now, and I’m so fascinated by it. I’m so fascinated about taking this iconic story and told from the perspective of the opera, and it’s already an opera that’s, you know, groundbreaking. You know, it’s what won the Pulitzer. And, you know, for us to get another production of it and to really communicate the Black experience through another medium that because I want to dismantle all of this, all the white spaces like let’s see what the Black folks can do. And what’s cool about this production is that we are really focusing on bringing more Black people as the custodians of our stories, you know, even though we get more representation in front of the camera. But Black folks, we need to also be the custodians of our stories. We need to be the designers, we need to be the directors. Right now was in ninety five percent of directors on Broadway are white men or something like that. So what’s exciting is that the production is really working towards that. So I’m really excited about what we’re going to be able to bring. [00:25:49][122.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:50] I’m excited about it, too. There are a lot of there’s a lot of content like coming to theater and coming to Broadway that I think will pull Black eyeballs to it. But I think even taking it a step further and making it opera, I mean, gosh, I’ve been covering entertainment for a super long time and I’ve never seen an opera. I’ve seen a million musicals, I’ve seen a million plays on Broadway, but I have never actually sat through an opera and have had zero desire ever to do so until right now. I’m dying to see this show. Are you from Long Beach? [00:26:23][33.1]

Desean Terry: [00:26:24] No, I’m from originally from Belize that’s where I was born. But I’ve lived in I grew up in South Central, so my mom is in Inglewood, so I’m an L.A. boy, so. But not Long Beach specifically. [00:26:35][11.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:26:36] I love that. Talk to me a little bit about, you know, you said that these programs that you do now and your initiatives for the youth were rooted in the fact that, like you knew that you needed some kind of support and something to relate to coming up. But like, what was that journey like? Like, how did you how did you have the audacity to shoot for being this Broadway star and this amazing actor? Like what made you think that you could do that growing up here? [00:27:03][26.9]

Desean Terry: [00:27:04] I had people pour into me. I had older artist Deidre West and Wendy Raquel Robinson. If you’re familiar with that name on the game, those are some of my first acting teachers. Wendy was the first person that I saw or I met who was like on TV. I could see her in her episode of Martin, and on Saturday she would be there with me, touching me, holding me, letting me know that I am important, investing in me, saying, You have talent, you can do this. And that was such an immense in terms of shaping me because then they gave me the agency to say, I say this with no lie. When someone told me, you should apply to Juilliard, my mind was I was going to juilliard me. I could do that. I could be there. I don’t. That place exists. I thought it was insane to let it, but someone literally had to pour that into me, as is, you know, because the road had not been built. It’s not like I’m meeting a lot of people who saying, Hey, I just got no, it was like, Whoa. And then I, you know, had the audacity to apply. I got such great advice from people. I remember someone said, Don’t try to be something other than than yourself, right? If they don’t want you, they don’t want you, but just do what you do and let them see if that is way. And I went in that room and, you know, real quick, like the Juilliard story. Is it when you auditioned for Juilliard? Oftentimes you are auditioning with like 200 whatever people. And that day at Juilliard, I was the one person that got called back, and that happens to a lot of people. And so it’s just sort of like, what if I did not have someone pour into me and say to me, You can do this, you have the you have a gift. It never would have happened. And so, yeah, so that’s what CAB hopefully is doing is pouring back into people and, you know, helping to to build because you can’t just be. Ava DuVernay has the quote where she says that if your dream only involves you, it’s not big enough. [00:29:11][127.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:29:12] Mm hmm. [00:29:12][0.3]

Desean Terry: [00:29:13] Yeah. So that’s the goal. That’s what the theater work to keep connected to community and helping others. [00:29:18][5.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:29:19] Well, I love to hear that I cannot wait to see your production. I will be there for sure. Yes, it was such a pleasure to talk to you today. I am such a fan of the work that you were doing on screen and off, and I really hope that everyone listening takes the time to check out this season of The Morning Show. [00:29:36][17.1]

Desean Terry: [00:29:36] Courtney was so good to meet you. We meet again soon. [00:29:39][2.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:29:39] OK? Absolutely. OK, take care. Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments and suggestions to Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Courtney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and acting up, check us out on Instagram @ActingUp.Pod. [00:29:39][0.0]