Actor Romany Malco’s been a Marine, a repo man, a rapper, and an entrepreneur in both craft services and holistic remedies for men (to help ease symptoms of everything from arthritis to infertility)—all in real life. On screens large and small, he’s best known for roles as Conrad in Weeds, Jay in 40 Year-Old Virgin, and Zeke in Think Like a Man. (The latter, still in theaters, has the distinction of pushing The Hunger Games out of its top spot at the box office when its debut earnings topped $39 million.)
Though it’s an actor’s job to be an artistic chameleon, Malco’s smooth delivery of slyly witty dialogue belies how hard he’s worked to reinvent himself professionally. Giving up his first love—rapping as part of hip-hop quartet College Boyz—Malco likens to ripping out his spleen, but in retrospect turned out to be one of the smartest decisions he ever made. On the other hand, he admits the business selling enhancement remedies online didn’t get as big as it could (ahem), because he had yet to learn how to shoot for the right market.
Now riding the tailwinds of the success of Think Like A Man from L.A. to a new base in his hometown of Brooklyn, Malco took a moment with Fast Company to discuss his serious approach to reinvention, how to recognize the right opportunities by tapping your authentic self, and where he’s setting his sights next (hint: look for Tijuana Jackson, ex-con-turned-life coach, to break out).
FAST COMPANY: You’ve tried (and succeeded) at a lot of different ventures. Is there anything you wouldn’t consider?
ROMANY MALCO: Politics. I’m not a schmoozer or a socialite. I do have respect for those kids working on the ground level, but I tend to only want to do things on my terms. Integrity is a major thing for me. In acting I haven’t done a whole lot but it’s one thing I have that I’d love to keep pure.
You’ve said you left the music business because you didn’t respect the process. How would you advise someone to recognize when its time to get out?
It ran its course for me. I was afraid to be some dude who at 40 years old was still pursuing a record deal. What I do believe is that if you leading from a place of passion there is no failure. Reinvention may be the way in which you keep pursuing that passion. It depends on your standards. If you want to compete on a global level, like Kanye or Young Money, then you are saying you want to be the best and it’s very easy to make an assessment of how you will fit into that world. But in music [like any industry] there are so many tiers, and specificity really helps you find your place. Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Reinvention has a lot to do with understanding yourself and where in the market you fit. A lot of people don’t get out of things when they should. They undermine the value of marketability. The harsh reality is [not knowing] you could potentially be obsolete. But the bottom line is authenticity. You have to be true to yourself.
How do you get your head into making a big switch?
Detachment. You have to be willing to take a step back and change your environment. In the disconnect, allow yourself to get clarity. Objectivity is heightened. I do this every three months when I go fishing in Michigan. We tend to develop our identities through our work, so when you are able to detach you enable yourself to realign with the authentic version of you.
Let’s talk about feedback, which you get a lot of as an actor. When do you close your ears to what’s being said and when do you let it influence your next move?
I don’t really work well off external gratification. You can compliment the hell out of me—a lot of people in L.A. use words like "love" or "friend" or "forever"—it just rolls off my back. I don’t really give compliments unless I mean them, either. I am introspective and have an internal compass that guides me to what’s next. I’ve become more specific about what I want and how I want to do it, so I can decide what I am pioneering and what I can borrow.
There’s hype everywhere, from Silicon Valley to Hollywood. How would you advise entrepreneurs to follow their dreams?
The best thing to listen to is yourself. If I ever had children they would never set foot on a red carpet or a stage I was on. They would have to become artists out of a sheer passion. If you are passionate about a business or service or idea, hopefully that initiated from a place of serving a greater good rather than supplementing a need you had as a child or void within yourself. When you are in it for the attention, you confuse effort with achievement. So you have to systematically map out what is achievement and what isn’t. Results don’t have to be hard. Maybe you learned a lot that impacts the way in which you execute your plan, maybe you created a market. Ask yourself what in your experience do you have as an accomplishment?
Back in the late '90s when you were working on New Remedies male enhancement supplements, you decided to advertise first and manufacture based on demand. Do you think that’s still good advice for startups?
It is important to develop an understanding of the needs of market. Fab, Zappos, and Google built a culture and community to find a sense of purpose within [the venture]. One thing we’ll never replace by computers or outsourcing is empathy and no one can empathize with your community better than you. Your job [as a founder or CEO] is to serve.
What is the biggest business lesson you’ve learned from an acting role?
I learned the importance of creating a culture that lets everyone have a voice that is heard and appreciated from working on Think Like a Man. Will Packer, the producer, communicated really well with the team and everyone was transparent and inclusive. [That made us all] motivators who took initiative.
How will you reinvent yourself next?
Leaving L.A.—where people guilt trip you into having lunch or going to a birthday party for a "friend" and half your day is gone—I removed myself from the pull of desperation and all that trying out, going to offices to see what the person had to say. I’m tired of them saying "you’ll be the funny black sidekick." I decided I did not have to be in L.A. to pursue my career. I am going to bet on myself. It was a big move, but it was actually quite effortless.
I have a project with Kevin Hart and Will Packer that will go into production this year and I am developing a TV show and a movie that I am very passionate about. I also want to develop Tijuana Jackson's career as a standup comedian. Not Romany Malco as a comic but Tijuana Jackson on his own. I’m reading offers, but rather than strike when the iron’s hot I’m being still to determine what true inspiration is. My formula at the end of the day is that I am a life merchant. I collect experience and interpret it and bring it back to Hollywood with excitement. I just want to live life in the process.