You might not recognize Marlon Wayans when he first appears in Respect, the new Aretha Franklin biopic. As Ted White, Aretha's manager and first husband, Wayans quietly captivates in a dapper suit and brown fedora, barely hiding a mischievous grin as he gazes at Aretha, played by Jennifer Hudson. He's smug yet charming, a handsome hustler with an abusive streak.
"I thought it was a chance to play someone sexy, dangerous, damaged, insecure," he says on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. "It's a different look for me."
For many of his fans, Wayans is known for his "balls-out" comedy, as he describes it. He's parodied dancehall icon Shabba Ranks on In Living Color as "Mr. Ugly Man" and wore a blonde wig and blue eye contacts inspired by the Hilton sisters in White Chicks. He's also played a little person criminal pretending to be a baby in Little Man.
"When I first started, it was about being cutting edge; crazy, offensive comedy," the actor reflects. "Not trying to pull punches, not trying to make friends. I was trying to make people laugh in their gut in a way that they haven't laughed since they were 14 years old."
Cutting-edge comedy was Wayans' calling card, and he's still good at it; he's premiering a new stand-up special, Marlon Wayans: You Know What It Is, on HBO Max in August. But anyone who's been following his career over the last few decades knows Wayans' talent extends far beyond comedy. From his portrayal of a drug addict in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, to a workaholic husband and father in Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks, and now a brutal lover in Respect, there's a hunger in him to avoid being stereotyped by Hollywood.
"I think over time, you mature," Wayans explains. "I'm 48, not a 19-year-old kid writing movies anymore. You find that story, the thing that you're more attracted to. Not the jokes. What's the emotion behind all this?"
Many Black comedic actors have considered this turning point recently, with an uptick in entertainers like Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Tyler Perry, Mike Epps, and Eddie Murphy cutting their teeth in so-called "against type" roles. In 2018, Perry stepped into Colin Powell's shoes in Vice. This year alone, Rock starred as both a gangster in 1950s Kansas City on Fargo and a police officer hunting a serial killer in Spiral, and Hart played a straight-laced dad in Fatherhood. Epps is also set to portray Richard Pryor in an upcoming biopic.
Many of these projects were met with polarizing reviews. (The Guardian, called Spiral "torturously bad.") But actor-comedians like Will Smith and Eddie Murphy, who earned Oscar nominations for their dramatic turns in Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Dreamgirls, have broken the mold and garnered the respect of the industry for crossover success.
The ways both men and others who have finessed their transitions and achieved acclaim in multiple genres have been critical motivators for Wayans. "I want to be like the greats—the Robin Williams, Jim Carreys, Eddie Murphys of the world—who are very strong comedic talents," Wayans says excitedly. "But, man, when they act, they act. I played everything from seven people in a movie, to a white woman, a little person, a junkie, and a gangster. I've done it all."
When I first started, it was about being cutting edge. I was trying to make people laugh in their gut in a way that they haven't laughed since they were 14 years old.
That's because he's also studied the craft. His education at the acclaimed LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in his native New York helped equip him with the ability to morph into various characters on the big and small screens. Still, dramatic roles have rarely come easy.
"I auditioned for that damn movie seven times," Wayans says of his experience landing the role of Tyrone C. Love in Requiem. "I remember Darren was like, 'I don't want nobody from the WB, the frog network, in my movie,'" referring to his sitcom, The Wayans Bros., which ran on the channel in the 1990s.
Wayans still feels the urge to prove himself, or "keep convincing," as he says. "Over time, they're going to trust that I'm going to do good work," he continues. "Eventually, it's not going to be a big thing. Like, Oh my god, I can't believe Marlon Wayans is doing a drama. That's why I don't want to go another ten years before I do one."
He considers the opportunities he had in the years following Requiem, including dramatic roles he turned away. "It wasn't that I would say no," he says. "I just got wrapped up doing projects that were going to make me money and working on my comedic career. Like, White Chicks and Little Man and creating Haunted House and Scary Movie. I'm glad I did everything I did for the comedic side of me, and for the Wayans' legacy. Now I'm looking forward to working with great directors, a lot more drama."
Wayans is dedicated to making every dramatic role count. As Ted, an increasingly daunting man who strongarms his wife, as well as her producers and band members. He wanted to make sure that he wasn't just playing a flat, one-dimensional person.
"I explained to [Respect director Liesl Tommy] that I didn't want just to play an abusive man," he says. "I wanted to play a man that had good intentions but can't get out of his own way. He intended to make Aretha Franklin great. But then he became insecure, jealous. I wanted to play a complex character."
It wasn't an easy task, considering there isn't much footage of the real-life Ted for Wayans to draw upon. Ted is also a supporting character in a film that is unequivocally about the storied life and career of the Queen of Soul, including her complicated relationships with the church, alcohol, and her pastor father, played by Forest Whitaker. But Wayans immersed himself into the role, working with an acting coach on Ted's 1960s Detroit accent and affecting a swagger.
He also turned to a surprising source to get inside the character's head. "To prepare every day, I read about five pages of Iceberg Slim's Pimp on set," Wayans says. "You find that the reason he became a pimp is that he had mommy issues. His mother was dating this guy who she left. He was the only man in Slim's life who was like a father to him. He hated his mother for that. That's part of what leads him to become this pimp, this cold-hearted dude."
This is the kind of thoughtful analysis any actor worth his salt would offer about a role. But few who get their start in comedy, especially Black actors who already face multiple challenges in Hollywood on account of their race, are taken seriously enough despite their talent.
"There ain't no roles for us in the first place," Wayans says. "Not many brothers have made the transition from dramatic actor to a great comedic guy, but some have transitioned from a comedic lead to a dramatic lead." He credits Eddie Murphy and Will Smith for successfully crossing over, though he draws more inspiration from the former. "Will has always walked the tightrope of a leading man with some comedic skills. But Will's not like Eddie when he hits the high note of comedy."
Even though Murphy hasn't exactly reached the heights of his white counterparts like Bill Murray (with whom Wayans starred in On the Rocks), Tom Hanks, and Jim Carrey (a fellow In Living Color alum), his accomplishments in both comedy and drama are unprecedented for a Black man.
"When you're doing Coming to America and The Nutty Professor, then Dreamgirls—this is a guy that could do it all. Figuring out how much of you to give or not give in each performance takes some time to master and convince the industry not that you have the skillset, but that the audience will find you believable enough that they're going to buy tickets." He pauses slightly before adding, "And I'm working towards that every day."