When people meet you, how do you introduce yourself? Do you introduce yourself as an actor or an artist?
It’s sort of a toss-up, and I think I kind of alternate between the two. If I’m meeting someone within the industry, as far as Hollywood goes, I’m an actor because that’s what I’m known for. I personally call myself a ‘creative’, because I’m a sponge. Anything that I don’t know how to do, I’m going to learn how to do it and that’s just how I am.
I call myself a creative of all different backgrounds. I have my own camera and I dabble in photography. I also do video editing from running the Ambitious Commanders for two years with my brother Jordan. A lot of people don’t know that I know how to play the guitar. Anything I can get my hands on and I take interest in, I push myself to learn how to do it. I call myself a creative but I’m an actor first.
I followed your career originally from your blog the ‘Ambitious Commanders’ with your brother Jordan, and so your acting I really didn’t know about at first. When was your first introduction to acting? Did you take classes in high school on top of doing the blog?
I did it all. I first got bitten by the acting bug when I was just growing up singing in the choir and from early on I was a character, like, I was always a character. I was the kid that would take the microphone and walk down the aisle, singing and pointing at all of the members of the congregation. You know, pointing at myself singing “I Know I Been Changed” — simply just going off.
At what point one of my mom’s friends told her that they were holding auditions for Lion King on Broadway. And like I said, I’ve always been a character, so my mom said: “Hey, do you want to do this audition on Broadway?” So I said “Yes. I would love to.” Days later, we were in this line of thousands of kids, and I got my first call back for Young Simba. At that point, I was like “Oh, okay! This is kind of cool! I can really do this.” After that, there were about five other callbacks and now I’m like “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
I went to the Disney Club school and I trained with the cast and I got down to the final round and sadly I didn’t receive the part. Shortly after auditions had ended, one of the other kid’s moms was like “Oh my God, your son is so good. You need to send him to John’s manager!” She gave me their manager’s information and I met with that manager and I signed with her. I was with her for about nine years until she passed away last year. That was kinda how I got started. I kinda fell into it, after Lion King.
“… one thing about myself with being a creative I am more so hands on. I’m the kind of talent that likes to collaborate instead of just act. If I’m on set and talking to producers and directors about a project, it’s a collaborative energy in the room.”
Did you think there’s a “formula” for acting success?
The biggest misconception that a lot of people start thinking is that the key to being successful is to have an agent or manager. You miss one of the most crucial steps and that is to work on your craft.
Starting out I was at every workshop, I was in every class that I could be in, and I had five acting coaches throughout the span of my early years. I was literally that person that would train every year. I would train with one person for one year then transition to the next person to learn something even better. Certain coaches specialized in different things. One coach, I learned script analysis and another I did theatre training. There are so many techniques to help craft yourself.
From all the experiences you’ve had on set, have you learned anything about yourself from working with different producers, actors, directors, etc.?
Absolutely. One thing about myself being a creative I am more so hands on. I’m the kind of talent that likes to collaborate instead of just act. If I’m on set it’s a collaborative energy in the room. That’s why I loved Luke Cage so much, my director, Andy Goddard, and the writer, Akela Cooper, they gave me so much creative freedom to be myself, to go with my gut feeling, and go with my take on the character and not shove the expectations down my throat. That’s also why I loved working with Terry and Kenny on City. They’re open to feedback or opinions. Definitely learning the possibilities of creative freedom is something I’ve learned on set. It helps break me out of my comfort zone. Being on set is therapy for me. Creating on the spot, and recreating again is amazing.
Do you ever experience creative block or get discouraged when you’re trying to tap into the psyche of a character? If so, how do you push past that?
Sometimes I come across some characters who are more layered than others and layered in a sense where if I’m playing a character who is a high school jock and he has one or two lines. Then you have young Cottonmouth who is a complex character and he’s being bullied and depressed by his own family. Growing up around guns, violence, sex, and drugs being distributed and there are layers as to how that makes you feel. Trying to understand why he is going through this and if there is anything he wishes he could change.
So if I do come across a character block I look at references in other films and other tv shows.
What are your favorite films or tv shows to reference?
I’m a sucker for How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, and anything like that. Sometimes I look at American Horror Story. Ryan Murphy is one producer who I would love to work with. If you look at AHS that’s a show that has so many layers.
“…you’re not going to always have a drive behind you and everyone is not going to be able to understand where you’re coming from or your feelings. Everything kind of has to be self-driven.”
At this point in your career, considering the opportunities you’ve had and your experiences, do you feel creatively satisfied?
Oh no, [laughs] not at all. I’ve been acting for 10 years and I’m grateful for where I am currently, but definitely not where I want to be. I see myself winning awards and nominations. My main goal is to leave a legacy behind. I want to have that type of legacy where people are still referencing and influenced by my body of work that I’ve left behind. However, at this moment, I’m not done yet. I’m humbled by the growth and the journey. You have actors like Morgan Freeman who didn’t really hit their prime until later on. I really feel like I’m almost there. My upcoming project ‘City’ is going to be beautiful.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
On my Instagram page, I tend to do Monday Motivational videos to put out some form of positivity. People tend to think sometimes it’s to motivate them but it’s also to motivate myself at the same time. Sometimes you have to encourage yourself. You’re not going to always have a drive behind you and everyone is not going to be able to understand where you’re coming from or your feelings. Everything kind of has to be self-driven.
In terms of motivating I have to keep encouraging myself. I look at my past taped auditions to look at how far I’ve come and to remind myself. I reference a ton of my old work to see how far I’ve grown. It motivates me to show how far left I have to go.
Also, the people and fans who look up to me, who are inspired, I have to keep pushing myself to push them. I’m constantly being watched. We have a generation and community who understands if they see me giving up they’ll believe it’s okay to give up also.
From the outside looking in, it can seem as though, “Wow. Elijah has it together.” but internally you may be dealing with so many issues and personal battles. How does it feel being so visible and still having to work, land jobs and juggle opportunities?
In all things, I try to be myself. A lot of talent in young Hollywood tend to overcomplicate things and sometimes that’s contingent upon your team. Take for example all the sexual harassment cases that are being uncovered now. I try to be me and I try to be real. There’s a need to be as transparent as possible but there are also things that need to be guarded. To protect my heart and my mental well being. People don’t realize how traumatizing it can be. Sometimes I get inspiring DM’s and other times they’re not so kind.
It goes both ways. If you’re not strong-willed it will break you.
I want to pivot to highlight ‘Flint 6’. I see this project is your first producing role. How did you come across the project and what inspired you to take it on?
My friend JJ Green actually penned the script and he reached out to me by us being good friends. He told me he has this amazing script based on the Flint water crisis and I would like for you to read it. After I read the script I cried because, JJ is actually from Flint, Michigan. The script was so detailed. To read how he would have to poke holes in a water bottle to sprinkle on his toothbrushes to conserve water was eye-opening. The script had so much detail and there was so much personal experience in it that I’m like there’s no way for me not to be apart of this. I began thinking about who I could impact the film. It’s great to do a documentary, it’s great to do a comedy but it’s something about a drama, thriller or personal narrative that pulls at someone’s heart.
The focus of this project is something that’s very relevant to today. I look at my gift as a ministry, and ‘Flint 6’ is my ministry. I have to tell this story. If we don’t tell it then no one else is going to tell it. My main purpose and decision to join this cast and crew was a mission to bring about change to this topic. This movie is about 6 activists that come together and come together for a specific change for a city battling a crisis. I now feel like an activist myself, as though I’m paying homage or ode to the people of Flint.
In one sentence could you give a piece of advice for someone looking to start or break into the industry?
Trust the process, take it slow and don’t compare yourself.
We grow at our own rate. In terms of specific training is very key. They say you start at the bottom for a reason. You have to work and understand that groundwork before you take the next step. After you train that’s when you can focus on getting your headshots, building your resume, etc. If you train and understand that craft, everything else will fall into place and come naturally.
And research is key and invest in yourself!
In 10, 15 or 30 years, whenever someone looks at your body of work, what do you want them to take away from it?
I want them to be inspired, but the main word that’s popping into my mind is persistence. This never happened overnight. Every obstacle along my path told me to quit, but I️ was always taught to remember that diamonds require pressure. Whenever someone sees my body of work I want them to be inspired to be themselves, trust their own journey and never compare themselves to anyone else. The secret weapon is individuality.
If you keep working hard and you’re patient anything can happen.