Actor-director LeVar Burton

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Tavis chats with actor-director LeVar Burton, former Roots and Star Trek star, now co-starring in NBC’s The Jensen Project.

LeVar Burton was an acting student at the University of Southern California when he won the role of Kunta Kinte in the landmark miniseries, Roots. He went on to star in and direct numerous episodes of the Star Trek series—more than any other regular cast member—and used his directorial skills in several TV shows and films. A strong supporter of children's literacy, he also hosted PBS' Reading Rainbow series. Burton is author of the futuristic novel Aftermathand involved in a unique audiobook commemorating the Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome LeVar Burton back to this program. The former “Roots” star and “Star Trek” star is back this week with a new film called “The Jensen Project.” The movie premiers Friday night on NBC and will be available on DVD starting Saturday at Wal-Mart stores. Y’all ain’t wasting no time, huh?

LeVar Burton: Mm-mmm.

Tavis: At Wal-Mart stores around the country. Wal-Mart can do that, though, the next day.

Burton: They can.

Tavis: They got it like that. Here now, a scene from “The Jensen Project.”


Tavis: I rarely have questions about —

Burton: Trailers that you see?

Tavis: — trailers, yeah, but I’ve got to ask this — why a brother got to be — did she say “de facto head of security?”

Burton: De facto chief, yeah.

Tavis: Why you got to be de facto?

Burton: Well, because Kendrick James spent 10 years in the NSA, and the Jensen Project is really a think tank. It’s brainiacs. They don’t have any idea about the finer aspects of protecting this very valuable intellectual property that they create there.

Tavis: All right. All right, so tell me — you’ve got me interested now. Tell me more about “The Jensen Project.”

Burton: “The Jensen Project” itself is a think tank in upper New York state, and they come up with, like I said, solutions — intellectual property solutions to the world’s problems and then they leak them altruistically into the world, taking no credit.

So they have unlimited funding and the best tech, most of which was invented there on the property. Every week, if this should go to series, there’s some nefarious group trying to co-op the IP and use it to their own ends.

Tavis: Yeah, and the brother, played by you, it is his job to protect.

Burton: Not only that, he is the head of acoustical and photonic engineering. I mean, he is one of these geniuses himself.

Tavis: Oh, you’re one of the geniuses?

Burton: Yes, indeed.

Tavis: Oh, okay.

Burton: He’s not just the chief of security.

Tavis: Brother man is a genius, too.

Burton: Brother man has got two job up in here. (Laughter)

Tavis: You working like a Jamaican.

Burton: Yes, man. Yes, man. (Laughter)

Tavis: Oh, now I get it. “De facto” of — oh, okay.

Burton: Yes, man, okay?

Tavis: I thought she was trying to diss you.

Burton: No, not at all. She was just telling it like it is, yeah.

Tavis: All right, so de facto head of security and one of the geniuses — yeah. To your point now that he’s one of the geniuses, how important for you over the course of your career to make choices in terms of roles that are empowering? It’s a beautiful thing — there are all kinds of series where a brother is playing a security guard. This is different.

You’re head of security, de facto, and one of the geniuses in the Jensen project. How important for you as a Black man to pick these kinds of roles?

Burton: Of paramount importance, paramount importance. I’ve been — let me be frank, Tavis. I’ve been very, very blessed throughout the course of my career in being given opportunities to be that selective, but it has become more than a habit, it’s my point of view.

This is how I want to represent humanity in the roles that I play as an actor, as a director, as a writer, whatever it is I’m doing after 30 years in this business. I want to bring that humanity to the work.

Tavis: To your point about being selective, I was actually shocked when I saw that you were acting in this because you, I assume, by choice, decided to not act for a while. You’ve been directing, you’ve been producing, but it’s been a while since we actually have seen you on the screen, acting.

Burton: Since “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” really. Outside of a couple of “Star Trek” movies and I did a movie of the week for a friend of mind who is now my business partner, and then I did a very small cameo role in a picture that I directed, a small independent feature called “Reach for Me” three years ago. But this is really my return to television.

Tavis: Why not act for that period of time?

Burton: Well, when I was on the television series, when I was on “Star Trek” and there was such a great support system for an actor, first Jonathan Frakes and then Patrick Stewart and then I stepped over, and Rick Berman, the producer, was always really generous and supporting you if you wanted to take that step, whether you got a second slot was up to you.

So that incubator was really, really valuable for me, but when the series ended, in order to convince people that directing is what I took seriously, I stopped acting and only directed and produced. Because it’s a business that’s based on perception, and if they perceive that you’re just being a dilettante about it then they — and rightly so — have no reason to take you seriously.

Tavis: We’re about to go on a hiatus here just for a couple-few weeks, as we do every summer, to try to rest up and get our mojo back after being here every night, five nights a week. So we’re taking a few weeks off and I was just literally going through the rundown of the recommendations that our producer, Neil, gave me for things we wanted to re-run.

If I had not seen this on the list, I would have asked him to add it to the list. Fortunately, it was already on the list. But to your point about “Star Trek,” Patrick Stewart was here some months ago. I had the most delightful — he is a bright guy.

Burton: Oh, no, he’s — Patrick —

Tavis: And he’s such a humanist.

Burton: He is, he is.

Tavis: I enjoyed talking to him.

Burton: Yeah, yeah, I love that man. When I first met Patrick, I said, “Man, you’re as cool as cucumber soup.”

Tavis: Wow. (Laughter) Not a bad compliment, coming from LeVar Burton. When you said a moment ago that — I’ve known you for a lot of years, obviously, but it struck me when you said you’ve been in this business now for 30 years and your hardcore fans know this, but it is always worth repeating for me because it’s so fascinating and I want to lead to a question here.

But the point I love restating is that LeVar Burton was a student at USC in film school, basically —

Burton: Drama school.

Tavis: Drama school, I’m sorry.

Burton: Drama school, studying theater, yeah.

Tavis: Who was in drama school, studying theater, and he had an opportunity for an audition.

Burton: Right.

Tavis: The very first time in his life that he ever auditioned for anything, he got the starring role of Kunta Kinte in the classic “Roots” drama, courtesy of the late, great Alex Haley.

The guy does an audition and his first role ends up being a life-changing, life-altering, life-defining role for many of us, who we still love LeVar for playing that role so wonderfully well, the role of Kunta Kinte in “Roots.”

I raise that to ask when it starts out that way, how has this three-decade journey been? What you thought it was going to be? More? Less?

Burton: Better than I ever anticipated it turning out.

Tavis: Wow.

Burton: Better than I ever anticipated it turning out.

Tavis: Wow. Because to play devil’s advocate, I could have argued in my mind —

Burton: That that was the peak.

Tavis: Exactly.

Burton: That that was the peak.

Tavis: That you started out and it’s all downhill from Kunta Kinte.

Burton: Well, that would have been a way to look at it. But my choice, and I was really young at the time — “Roots” happened when I was 19 — but I had great guidance and a great family foundation. Dolores Robinson, who you know well, my second mom, stepped in and really helped keep me grounded. I recognized then that if I never did anything else, I would have done something significant.

So that sort of really freed me. In the course of the last 30 years I’ve had “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” one of the most successful series in the history of television, known for its storytelling, right? People forget the last episode of “Star Trek,” the last year we were on the air, we were nominated for the prime time Emmy for outstanding drama series.

This was all before — all this sci-fi is on the screen now; we were a syndicated science fiction series. Then to have had 26 years on “Reading Rainbow?” That’s the trifecta, man.

Tavis: What’s up with “Reading Rainbow,” man? I’m hearing rumors. I ain’t going to put you on the spot too much, but I’m hearing rumors, after not being around for a couple years, that — can you say anything about that yet?

Burton: I can say that I love the “Reading Rainbow” brand and it’s very close to my heart. Being apart and away from it these past couple of years has been painful, and we are now engaged in an effort to repair that, and that will give us then the freedom to really re-launch the brand, and that’s what I’m looking to do.

Tavis: I love this Hollywood speak. (Laughter) “Working at repairing the brand.” Or my favorite phrase in Hollywood, “We’re in development.”

Burton: Yes, man.

Tavis: So we’re in development, trying to bring this thing back.

Burton: Yes, man, we are, we actively are. We actively are.

Tavis: I assume you must hear from parents all the time, though, even now, who miss “Reading Rainbow.”

Burton: Yeah, mm-hmm. Parents, parents who were kids watching “Reading Rainbow” for the first time —

Tavis: Twenty-six years, yeah.

Burton: Right? When they were young, and now they’re having their own children and I hear from them all the time. I’m pretty active on Twitter, and —

Tavis: I saw this. You have, like, a million and a half followers?

Burton: About 1.6 million, yeah.

Tavis: Wow.

Burton: In the top 100 worldwide.

Tavis: How do you grow that? I mean, I got a little Twitter thing, but how do you grow that so big?

Burton: I have a conversation. I have a conversation with people.

Tavis: What do you say? You tell all your business?

Burton: Not all of my business, I don’t put my family on (unintelligible). Why would I do that? Well, no, that’s not true — sometimes I do. (Laughter)

Tavis: But what kind of stuff are you talking about normally, though? Are you going to tweet that you were on my show?

Burton: Absolutely.

Tavis: Wow.

Burton: Yeah.

Tavis: I appreciate that.

Burton: We’ll see if you don’t get a bump.

Tavis: Yeah, I’m sure we will. (Laughter) One point six million followers. As a matter of fact, I’m going to start emailing you stuff I want you to tweet.

Burton: Please, man, please, please.

Tavis: To get the word out.

Burton: Man, it’s become a great tool for immediate feedback from people who have many things in common, not the least of which is LeVar Burton, right? And I just have a conversation with people. I tell them what I think, I tell them how I feel, I react to world events. It’s a dialogue, it’s a conversation.

Tavis: Have you always been a technology fan?

Burton: Yeah, I’m a geek. Yeah, man.

Tavis: And a sci-fi fan.

Burton: Absolutely.

Tavis: So this stuff for you isn’t — actually, this stuff happens to kind of fit into who you really are anyway.

Burton: I believe it does, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I love technology, I love advanced technology. I love technology as a potential part of the solution to what we’re dealing with here. A journalist asked me earlier today, “Isn’t technology evil?” Well, technology isn’t evil, it’s the application thereof that can get us into trouble.

So I think that we are on a journey where we’re trying to balance our ideas and our execution, our relationship with technology, and have it serve the best and highest good as opposed to serve the narrow means of a few.

Tavis: Let me circle back and close by asking about this “The Jensen Project” again. Since you have by choice decided not to do much acting over the last number of years, if this were to go to series, you know what that’s like, having to go to work every day again.

Burton: Yes, I do, yeah.

Tavis: So you’re open to that if it goes to series?

Burton: Ready, ready. Actually welcoming it. I made a conscious decision at the beginning of this year, it’s been a long time and my wife keeps after me. “These are prime time years, you are wasting them.”

So part of my new year’s direction intention was to get back on television, and here we are.

Tavis: Here we are. I should mention, we were joking about this earlier, but for the purist out there, I don’t want to get in trouble, we were joking about Wal-Mart and the DVD being available the next day, it is the next day.

Burton: It is available the next day, and I can’t fail to mention that this is an effort between Wal-Mart and Proctor & Gamble. They actually got together, decided that they really wanted to advertise on programming that they considered consistent with the values of their companies.

So they developed this movie and if people watch it, NBC will consider putting it on as a series, maybe as a midseason replacement.

Tavis: I’m glad you said it, and that’s why you said it. I said it for full disclosure. Wal-Mart’s a sponsor, and I said it. Okay.

Burton: Okay, cool.

Tavis: (Laughter) We’ve both done our jobs now.

Burton: We have, we have.

Tavis: The project, starring LeVar Burton, is called “The Jensen Project” on NBC. LeVar, always glad to have you on the program.

Burton: Always. Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Love you, man.

Burton: I love you, too.

[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance — working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
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Last modified: April 10, 2014 at 1:45 pm