Early in Michael Jai White’s acting career, a powerful executive gave him a frank assessment.
“‘Wow, with your acting ability and your action ability and your looks and your body, man, you could be as big as Tom Cruise—too bad you’re Black,'” White recalls in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation. “He said it like he had no concern that there was anything wrong.”
Rather than bristle at the executive’s misguided comment, White internalized it as valuable insight into Hollywood’s top brass.
“He’s showing me how people think,” White says. “I’m grateful for any kind of truth coming from someone, even if I disagree with it.”
Throughout his 30-plus year career that includes Spawn, Black Dynamite, and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, White has learned how to navigate being both overlooked and underestimated. It’s been either a racial roadblock to more mainstream audiences or being pigeonholed as that ripped guy in action movies and Tyler Perry projects.
“A comedian friend of mine called me Denzel Van SchwarzenHart,” says White of the portmanteau of Denzel Washington, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Kevin Hart. “It’s not strange that people don’t know how to categorize you. I accept that.”
“Feel free to categorize me until I break from that category,” he adds.
White has done just that by stepping into more directing and producing roles for projects that will now be housed under his Connecticut-based production company, Jaigantic Studios, which launched earlier this year.
“I always tell people it’s show business for a reason. It’s business,” White says. “Fortunately, I could never [turn] off my director and producer brain. I’ve always looked at things big-picture wise. I’ve also written for several years, even under pseudonyms.”
“I’ve worked for what I’ve accomplished,” White adds. “It’s a wonderful time for me right now, because I’m finally getting up to bat to do the things I really want to do.”
“For me to still keep standing, I had to go about it very strategically. I didn’t do martial-arts movies at first, even though I was offered and I still was winning championships. I was like, ‘No, I got to establish myself as a legitimate actor first.’ Here I am doing off-Broadway in New York, but as soon as you start doing action, people want to categorize you. They just want to keep you on this one shelf. That’s something I had to understand from the beginning and know how to navigate around it.”
Looking for honesty in creativity
“For me, [creativity is] searching for ultimate truth and honesty. That has to start with yourself. Sometimes, someone may not know what their motivations truly are and that’s going to reflect in your art. Yeah, somebody goes, ‘This is honest from [my] perspective. But how learned is that perspective?'”
Focusing on the bigger picture and bigger purpose
“I look at my growth as an entity in this industry. Honestly, if it was just about acting, I wouldn’t be in it. No, definitely not. If it was just acting, it would not have held my interest because it’s not a business that rewards talent. It rewards heat.
“I’d love to be that guy behind the scenes and making stuff happen that I think really matters. That’s what excites me. And putting people to work, especially people who can use it, and especially people who are from neighborhoods like mine and communities like mine who are amazingly talented and have no idea. I know without a doubt that this is my purpose. This is why I’ve been saved to do this—and that supersedes anything Hollywood.”