InterviewThe Mayor’s Marcel Spears Shares His Experience Inside the Recording Studio With Tony Winner Daveed DiggsThe breakout star of the new ABC comedy series proves his theatre credentials.
October 31, 2017
Just like his on-screen character, actor Marcel Spears has landed his big breakout with The Mayor, the new comedy series from executive producer Daveed Diggs, who is also writing original music for the series. Spears plays T.K. Clifton, the titular mayor’s best friend. “When he’s elected, [the mayor] gives us jobs, through nepotism—I dunno if it’s completely legal, but he gives us jobs and hires us as staffers,” says Spears. “T.K.’s position in the mayor’s office at City Hall is to be the Director of Constituent Services. He’s good at that job because T.K. is a person with a huge heart. He loves people, he loves taking care of his friends. It’s a perfect fit for him. But he does often get in trouble.”
Before booking the role on the new series, Spears spent his time on the stage. He graduated Prairie View A&M University with a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts and then graduated with his MFA in Acting from Columbia University in 2015. He recently starred in Rachel Bonds’ play At the Old Place at La Jolla Playhouse in California. He starred alongside Justin Long and Donald Faison in the Old Globe’s production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile. He worked with Tony-winning director Ruben Santiago-Hudson on Two River Theater’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the Guthrie’s mounting of Trouble in Mind. Spears is thrilled to be able to bring his stage craft to the masses through The Mayor. Here, he proves his theatre roots and shares what it’s like to get to work with Diggs on the original comedy.
What was your first professional job? Marcel Spears: It’s kind of a toss up because there was one job that I auditioned for and I earned the traditional way, and there was another job I was born into around the same time. I did Antigone with [director] Greg Moser; we took a tour to Africa—to Kenya; we went to Johannesburg and we went to Cape Town, South Africa, the summer right after I graduated grad school. It was a group of graduate students, and we just went out there, down and dirty. We raised the funds, and I got paid a lot of money to basically go on a vacation to Africa and do theatre and hang out with cool, inspiring people. Right after I got off a plane coming back from Cape Town, I got my first Off-Broadway credit, which is Judy by Max Posner. [We] threw it up at the New Ohio Theatre in collaboration with Page 73 Production, and they specialize in introducing us to new work and developing plays. That was my first “I auditioned and I got this gig,” right out of grad school.
What is the stage show that has most influenced you as an actor? I grew up in New Orleans, so I was seeing local theatre productions, and I was always in theatre productions. But the show that really shook me to my core and I felt like I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I was like, “That, I want to be able to affect people like that,” [was when] I saw The Piano Lesson at Signature Theatre directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. I saw that cast, I saw what they did, and that was the moment I was like, “I need to be able to do that.”
How cool you ended up working with Ruben on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It was nothing but God. I was so lucky and grateful for the chance. I feel like I willed it into being.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you? It was watching Brandon Dirden play Boy Willie [in that Piano Lesson]. Watching him tackle that character was electrifying. I’ve seen him in everything. Brandon Dirden is [now] my mentor. I’ve seen him in everything he’s done since I’ve been in the city.
How did you two first connect? He randomly came and gave a lecture to my grad class. We met afterwards, and he was very humble and open to talk, so we exchanged numbers and we hooked up and hung out ever since.
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you? When we took that production to Nairobi, when we went to Kenya, we performed at a bunch of different schools. And it seems cliche to be like “kid and theatre,” but to take a play like a Greek tragedy, an old play, to Kenya, where English is not their first language, and just to act—to get a chance to do that for them...that was dope, and I’ve never forgotten that. I always try to remember that whenever I step onstage—that this is powerful.
Is there a collaborator from theatre who has made you better at your craft? Ruben. Definitely Ruben. The way he works and the gravity that he holds and the way he heightens everyone in the room. The way that he puts the focus on the work and pulls the best out of you by making you find it within yourself, the process that he works through really changed how I approached anything. It changed how I approached text, it changed how I approached scenes, it changed how I thought about my own self and my instrument and my own life experiences. Working with Ruben Santiago-Hudson was a big shift for me.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre? For me and for our show, it’s a new text. It’s a fresh show, and they want it to be as authentic as it can. So the script is a little looser than if you were doing something like Shakespeare where you’ve gotta do what he wrote. For the most part, we get to play with the text here. I can ad-lib, I can run around, I can make it up as it goes, fast and loose in a half-hour sitcom. That has been a lot of fun, especially as a theatre kid. It gives me an opportunity to be a lot bigger on camera than I thought I could be.
I know you did Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Old Globe with Justin Long and Donald Faison. Did you learn any lessons from them, since they’re known for screen? I was doing that play as I was auditioning for this show. In the process of auditioning and screen-testing and going back and forth to do chem reads, I was in the middle of doing Picasso with Justin and Donald. Donald would literally help me read sometimes, and Justin was always giving me tips. They were always talking about the business and what things to worry about, what things to look out for, what things are just noise and distractions. They shepherded me through that process.
Is there one lesson in particular? For me, Donald, in his cavalier way, was like, “If they want you, they want you. Trust yourself, trust your instincts, trust your talent. Do what you know to do, and if they like what you’re doing, then that’s what it is.” Even now when I’m on set sometimes and I doubt myself and I’m like, “Man, is this funny? Is this good,” I sometimes think about them. If [the studio] trusted me enough to cast me, then they trust me with this role, so I can just do what I know to do.
On the October 24 episode, you debuted your first single on the show. What’s it been like to be part of the show musically and to work with Daveed Diggs? Daveed is a genius—and I don’t use that word loosely. The way he works and the pace at which he works and how confident he is in that room is not like anything I’ve ever seen. There’s a reason he’s taken such a large role and interest in making sure that he is the one guiding us through the musical portion of the show: because he’s good at it. And, it’s just been a lot of fun. Honestly, me and the other guys got into the recording studio, and it’s a super-casual environment. We just have fun and by the time we’re done, we have a real song. The first time I heard the song that was coming out, I was like, “Is that me?” It’s a bit surreal but super cool.