The four-time Image Award nominee and West Wing co-star previews the new season of his series, Psych on the USA Network.
Actor Dulé Hill
Tavis: Dulé Hill is enjoying something of a charmed life on television. For the last 13 years he’s starred in two back-to-back hit series: The critically acclaimed “West Wing,” and now, of course, “Psych,” the USA Networks’ longest-running current series.
One if its many pleasures is the on-screen camaraderie between Hill and his co-star, James Roday. Let’s take a look.
Tavis: (Laughter) What do you make of how well this show is running now, headed to its eighth season?
Dulé Hill: I’m humbled.
Hill: Pretty much I’m humbled. I’m just in awe of the journey. Going into it, I never thought it would last so long, and I’m just amazed that the psychos have stayed engaged for this amount of time to keep us afloat.
Tavis: Yeah. When you say “the psychos,” you are referring, of course, to -
Hill: Oh, yeah, the “Psych” fans.
Tavis: – the “Psych” fans.
Hill: Not crazy folks out there.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Well, they may be both. They could be both.
Hill: They crazy for “Psych,” that’s it.
Tavis: Yeah, crazy for “Psych.” But you guys call them the psychos, which is – let’s talk about this. It is fascinating to me how well this show has engaged social media. You would think that because it’s such a part of our lives now that every show would have a plan developed for how to do this with their fans, and I think everybody’s trying to some degree to engage, again, social media.
But talk about these psychos and how you guys have really – you guys have written a new blueprint, as it were, for how to engage fans. You have a loyal following in social media.
Hill: Yeah, man, I really have to take my hat off to USA Network and Jesse Redniss and the whole digital team over there. They’ve really done a great job of staying at the forefront of social media, and they’ve just been creative in ways beyond just like Twitter and Facebook, but creating content that we film up on Vancouver strictly to engage the psychos, whether it’s the hashtag series that we did last year leading up to the show, or the social sector that we’re doing now leading up to the show.
Tavis: Or the pineapple.
Hill: Or the pineapple, you say?
Tavis: What’s the – it was a pineapple, the piece – you got something that was on every show, that if you saw -
Hill: Oh, our pineapple (unintelligible).
Tavis: The pineapple.
Hill: Yeah, yeah, you have to find, like, in the show -
Tavis: Yeah, (unintelligible) stupid like I said -
Hill: (Laughter) It’s like Where’s Waldo.
Tavis: You’re looking at me like what is Tavis talking about?
Hill: I was like, “Pineapple? I’d take some pineapple if you got some, sure.” It’s a delicious flavor, why not? (Laughter)
Tavis: I watch the show; I know what I’m talking about. Maybe Dulé is lost on (unintelligible). But I’ll let you explain the pineapple, now that you know what I’m talking about.
Hill: Yeah. Well, the pineapple just came out of the pilot.
Hill: Roday, he just improvs. There’s a pineapple on top of the refrigerator in the pilot, and he said, “You want me to slice this up?” Then it was in the pilot and then it was taken out and it was put back in. Now it’s taken on a life of its own.
Tavis: Because it was a contest. If you see -
Hill: It became a contest.
Tavis: It became a contest, exactly.
Hill: It’s added in to each episode, where’s the pineapple.
Tavis: Right. If you watch the show, you find the pineapple.
Hill: I have to call myself out. I would say probably 90 percent of the time I have no idea where the pineapple is.
Hill: Yeah. (Laughter) I have no idea where it is.
Tavis: Well, the fans are looking for it, though.
Hill: Yeah, and it’s there.
Tavis: Yeah, but it’s just a creative thing, though, to keep people coming back every week.
Hill: It makes it fun.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Hill: Beyond just what the show is itself. It’s a way to make it fun, and then you can find out on Twitter where was it. Most times I find out from the fans where -
Tavis: From the fans where the pineapple was. (Laughter) So how did this happen? You go from a critically acclaimed show like “The West Wing,” which runs for multiple seasons itself, and you transition literally right from that to “Psych.” That, like, just doesn’t happen for brothers every day in this business.
Hill: It doesn’t happen to people in general.
Hill: I give God thanks for the wonderful blessings. I first have to give it to him. He’s definitely put his hands on me in that area and said, “This is yours now.” I guess at the age of 15 was the first time I made a goal of wanting to be on television, and I didn’t get a series until I was 23, which was “The West Wing.”
So I guess patience -
Tavis: Ooh, old man.
Hill: No, but -
Tavis: Fifteen to 23. (Laughter)
Hill: No, but eight years, though, so patience is a virtue, I guess.
Hill: And good things come to those who wait, so I was thankful that God said, “Not yet,” but when he did, he really opened up the door. Then it’s about connecting the dots, because from “The West Wing,” Allison Janney’s manager is Chris Henze.
So Christopher Henze, he knew me from “The West Wing,” and when “West Wing” was ending, he also was the executive producer of “Psych.” So then that’s how that connection, I guess the dots connected. Then Bonnie Hammer, who at the time was the president of USA, and is now – I don’t know where she is.
She’s so high up I can’t even see her now. (Laughter) But she knew me from “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk,” and doing “Erase the Hate.” So he puts people in positions to connect the dots to bring it back full circle years later.
Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of God doing what he does when he does it in his own time. I was fascinated when I read – fascinated and humbled by the way you handled this – that just before you got “The West Wing,” because you couldn’t get any TV gigs – so you decided at 15 you want to do television.
Tavis: You don’t get a series until you’re 23, and during that time -
Hill: Mind you, I was an old man at that point.
Tavis: Yeah, old man, yeah. (Laughter) But during that time frame, even your agent gave up on you.
Tavis: Your agent dropped you, and no sooner had your agent dropped you than “The West Wing” came a’calling.
Hill: Well, I would say my agency.
Tavis: Yeah, agency.
Hill: Yeah, my agent really fought for me, so I definitely have love for my agent at the time.
Hill: Yeah, the agency dropped me.
Tavis: Dropped you, yeah.
Hill: I want to say maybe two months later a casting director who I tested for a year before in Los Angeles, Kevin Scott, he remembered me, and when this role came up for “West Wing,” he searched me out. He said, “I know this is yours, so come on in,” and he was right.
Tavis: I’ve always wanted to ask you – does that mean you got out of paying the agency fee?
Hill: No, because I had a new agent at the time. (Laughter) So they just lost out on that. The new agent got the dough.
Tavis: My point, though – they lost out on that, though.
Hill: Yeah, they lost out on it. The new agency got the dough. But I think they’re quite all right, though.
Tavis: I’m sure they’re fine. But how did you process in that two-month window before this phone call from “The West Wing” comes, for two months, how do you process the fact that my agency dropped me?
Hill: Well, it was a crossroads moment. There’s a lot of times in life where you come to a crossroads where you really have to decide who are you and what are you made of.
I sat back and I said – and my money was low too, because I remember I was telling Freddie Prinze, who’s a good friend of mine, I said, “Freddie, I have about a month and a half left of dough. So either I’m going to come to stay with you or I’m going back to New Jersey, because I have no more money. I’m about to be broke.”
Then I remember sitting in my apartment. I didn’t have any couches; I had a TV. I sat there with my blinds closed, because that’s all I had, (laughter) and I just said to myself, “Dulé, what are you trying to do?” I said, “Either I’m going to be an actor or I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying.”
I do believe there’s power in commitment. I really don’t believe in a fallback plan. That’s my personal take on it. I think if you make a fallback plan, you’re going to fall back. But if you set your sights, you say, “This is where I have to go,” I’m going to keep going there, one way or the other. So I was determined to be an actor or spend the rest of my life trying. I committed that to myself. After that, God just opened up the door.
I can’t really take any major credit for it. It’s like it worked out. I went in, I read for Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, I came back and read a second time, and the next thing I knew I was acting across from Martin Sheen. It was very surreal.
Tavis: I always like that name, Tommy Schlamme.
Hill: Yeah, Tommy Schlamme? (Laughter) Yeah, (unintelligible) a cool guy.
Tavis: I love the name.
Hill: “I’m Tommy Schlamme.” (Laughter)
Tavis: I have always loved his name, man. But I want to go back to this powerful phrase you use, because that thing just hit me and resonated with my spirit, and I’ve always believed that, but I like the way you phrase it.
“There is power in commitment.” That there’s power in commitment. How did you come to believe that notion, that there’s power in commitment?
Hill: I guess it’s just life. I don’t really know how I came to believe it. I know years later it was reaffirmed by Noah Jones. I heard him actually preach a message on it years later.
Hill: But I think you have to set – I guess it came just within me. It was like you have to set your mind on something. I guess it goes back to the scriptures anyway, “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” So you have to set your mind to go in a certain direction.
Set your gaze, and say, “This is where I’m going.” And keep moving, and no matter what comes my way, I’m going to keep pressing towards the mark. If you look just seeing back at history, whether it’s the civil rights movement, it’s the same thing.
Hill: It’s the same thing. In the midst of it they set their gaze. They may not have reached there, but the movement kept going, and we’re still reaping the benefits of those who came before us.
I guess then as I personalize it more, I think about my grandparents’ journey. They come from Jamaica, and I know some of the journey of my grandmothers and my grandfather and seen what they went through to get to New Jersey.
Then to see what my parents went through for me and my brother to get here. You see, wow, they committed. They had faith and they stayed committed along the way, which in turn has allowed me to even have a chance to say okay, I’m going to be an actor.
Tavis: I thought of a bad joke that I would not use, but that’s a lot to go through to get to New Jersey.
Hill: It is a lot to go through.
Tavis: Ba-dum-bump. Anyway. (Laughter)
Hill: But Jersey’s great.
Tavis: I said it’s a bad joke. I’m not -
Hill: It’s the Garden State.
Tavis: It’s a bad joke. I’m not going to use it. (Laughter) So as you look back on those “West Wing” years, and I’ll come back to “Psych” in a second, what did you learn from Aaron Sorkin? He clearly has now distinguished himself. He was then, but clearly, he’s one of the great writers.
As an actor, what did you learn from getting a chance to work with not the other actors, but with Aaron Sorkin?
Hill: It’s all about the words.
Hill: Simply if you’re working with good material, then it’s right there and you don’t have to try so hard as an actor, you don’t have to do so much. Just let the material sit inside you and let it come out. Just say the words. That was the main thing that I learned from doing Aaron Sorkin’s work – say the words, and everything else will happen.
As long as I stay right here and keep going back and forth with it, then the words will take me on the journey that I’m supposed to go on. It’s like theater.
Tavis: I want to come back to theater in a second. One of my favorite plays of all time, “‘Da Noise, ‘Da Funk.” We’ve got to talk about that. Obviously, I love that.
So I’m thinking about the fact that on your first gig after your agency drops you, two months later you get a gig called “The West Wing.” You don’t just get a chance to work with a great writer like Aaron Sorkin, but you get a chance to work with an all-star cast. Dude, you’re hanging out with Martin Sheen.
Hill: Right. Yeah.
Tavis: Martin Sheen. (Laughter) It doesn’t get much better than Martin Sheen.
Hill: Well, I know. I was coming to work like, “Wow, this is crazy.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Hill: I think within the first month, we’d filmed in D.C., and I was playing basketball with Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe and Juwan Howard right on Pennsylvania Avenue, with the White House, like, a stone throw away. I was completely blown away. Like, is this real?
Tavis: Did you ever feel – even though God had done for you what your power of commitment brought to you, did you feel intimidated in that process?
Hill: A little bit.
Hill: Yeah. You’re working with high-caliber actors; I just didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, that was my main thing. Dulé, just don’t stick out. Don’t stick out as the guy who shouldn’t be there. I knew at the time that I was the only person of color who was a series regular, so I really wanted to just hold my own. Being a young actor also, just take what was given to me and maximize it.
Tavis: Since you acknowledge that, was a level of pressure or expectation that came with that from others, or that you put on yourself?
Hill: I don’t know about from others. I think just for myself in general, any job that I get, it’s very important for me to handle my business. I remember Sammy Davis said a quote years ago that I read that said he never goes through a door unless he’s positively certain – I’m paraphrasing it – positively certain that the door will stay open for others who come behind him.
So whenever I have a job, it’s very important for me to handle myself in a way so that when there’s another person, a young person of color, or even someone who’s my age now, that they’ll say, “Oh, Dulé was cool. Yeah, he handled his business. Yeah, he really added to what we did here,” so maybe we’ll do it again.
If I go there and I really act like a wild man, it could possibly affect the choice next time around.
Tavis: But I’ve heard you really are a wild man.
Hill: Only in Trinidad. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s where I heard it. (Laughter)
Hill: Only in Trinidad.
Tavis: That’s where I heard it, in Trinidad.
Hill: (Unintelligible) the music.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. So let me go back to – speaking of Trinidad and the music – when I look now, I’m getting older, and I can tell I’m getting older because the time just flies by so fast. But when I think about you and Savion Glover, and “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk,” it just – that’s the kind of thing that I could see, like, every week, because there’s some things that – one of the reasons I really like certain movies or like certain songs is that they cause something in us to come up, to rise up.
In my case, there’s something about the power of that play that just resonated with me, and it just made me feel good. I must have seen it 25 times. But every time I see it, I levitate out of the theater. (Laughter) What was that experience like for you, being a part of that play?
Hill: Again, I guess I take my hat off a lot of times to a lot of people, but I take my hat off to Savion Glover and George Wolfe. They really collaborated great in that dynamic to create that piece. It was, again, another surreal, amazing experience. To be 19, 20, 21, on Broadway with nine other young brothers and just hitting it, and being received so well and people loving it, it was a magnificent experience.
Tavis: You still tapping?
Hill: I do still tap.
Tavis: I see you don’t have your tap shoes. You don’t have your tap shoes -
Hill: I don’t need tap shoes. I don’t need tap shoes. (Laughter) I just need my feet. As long as I have my feet, I can dance, you know what I’m saying? (Laughter) (Tap dances while seated)
Tavis: That’s why I love you, man – and that’s sitting down. That’s sitting down, without tap shoes, and no wood.
Hill: You see what I’m saying?
Tavis: That’s on carpet, man. (Laughter) For those who don’t know this part of your story, how did you develop a love for tap?
Hill: I started when I was three years old. My mom was a teacher a ballet school in East Orange, New Jersey, Marie Wildey School of Dance. My brother was going there, my cousins.
I was really following the crowd. I wanted to be around my cousins and my brother. The next thing I know, at the age of 10, “The Tap Dance Kid” called asking for kids who could sing and dance.
I auditioned. I got it. The next thing I know, I was understudying Savion Glover in New York. So it was around that time, because I went on tour about two months later, and I toured around the country in a national tour with Harold Nicholas.
Tavis: Oh, Lord.
Hill: That’s what really -
Tavis: The famous Nicholas Brothers.
Hill: Yes. That’s what really started to get me hooked in at that point. I saw Harold’s old films, and I danced with Harold every day and saw what he was doing, and I said, “Wait, what I’m doing and what you’re doing is two different things.” (Laughter)
So it inspired me to dig deeper, and then I was blessed years later to do “Black and Blue,” with Jimmy Slyde and Bunny Briggs, Lon Cheney, Chuck Green, Ralph Brown, Buster Brown, all these legends of the dance, Diane Walker.
Tavis: How did you process having that kind of access and developing, as a result of the access, a relationship with these legends?
Hill: At the time, I think I realized it more as time has gone on, especially “Black and Blue.” “Black and Blue” had Ruth Brown -
Tavis: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Hill: – LaVern Baker, Linda Hopkins.
I think I was not – I appreciated it, I took it all in, but I don’t think I really realized the level of talent and just magnificence that I was surrounded by at the time. I was 15 years old. I think other dancers maybe took it in more, but I would love to have, like even now, if I had the chance to go back now and do that over, I would love to just take it in more.
Hill: A lot of them have left us now.
Tavis: Absolutely. That’s probably what makes it so special, that for many of them, it was the last piece of work like that.
Hill: It was a great time.
Hill: You couldn’t ask for anything better as a dancer. I was talking before about connecting the dots, again, like with “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk,” Savion called me. I was at school at Seton Hall, and he needed one more dancer.
But because me and Savion started together in “The Tap Dance Kid” and we’d been friends ever since, he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m at school, man, trying to get my degree.” “I’m doing a show on Broadway at the Public called “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk.”
I was like, “What?” “‘Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk.’ We need one more dancer. What you doing?” I said, “I’ll come see what’s up,” and next thing I know, I’m dancing on Broadway.
Tavis: How do you explain – we talked earlier about the power of commitment, and again, we’re on the same page about that. But how do you explain being this – I want to get this right – being this wonderful repository of opportunity? So much of what you’ve explained tonight has been about one, preparing yourself.
You’ve been ready when the call came, because they can call you all day, all week; if you ain’t ready when the call comes -
Hill: Then it’s irrelevant.
Tavis: Exactly, it’s irrelevant. So what do you make of, how do you explain the fact that you have been, again, so blessed by this opportunity which has, by your own admission, oftentimes just knocked on your door?
Hill: How do I explain it?
Tavis: Yeah, how do you explain that? What do you make of that?
Hill: What I really try to do is just maximize. I don’t really know. I don’t believe that anyone in this world does everything all by themselves. I don’t believe in “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” There’s too many things that have to happen for you to sit here and for me to sit here.
No matter how committed you are, how talented you are, how focused you are, millions of things have happened just for you to sit right here.
Tavis: That’s right.
Hill: So for myself, I look to maximize it. Any opportunity I get, any blessing I get, any door that is opened for me, that’s my thing – Dulé, maximize it. Handle your business, maximize it. Don’t play games with it, because there are many other people who would love to have this opportunity.
So I don’t really try to explain it. I’m just – I receive it and I’m thankful for it. I’m humbled by it, and I try to do my best with it. Like I always say, life is not a race, a sprint, and it’s not a marathon. It’s a relay. So run your leg the best way you can.
Hill: That’s really what it’s about. It’s about this was given to me, so I’m going to do what I can do, so when I hand it off, the next person can use it also.
Tavis: That’s a perfect metaphor and a perfect segue, because part of what I’ve noticed about your career is that so much of it has been collaborative.
Now again, all actors have to work in ensembles of some sort, but the work that you’ve done, “West Wing,” James Roday on “Psych,” Savion in “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk,” “Black and Blue,” all of these projects have really been so collaborative in nature, which I think is a beautiful thing.
Hill: Life is collaborative.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Hill: You know what I mean? So it’s fun to – I enjoy working with people, and I enjoy – I always say if you can get a group of talented people in a room who all have mutual respect for each other, something brilliant is bound to happen.
Hill: I get off on just being included.
Tavis: Speaking of collaboratively working, tell me about this project. It was in February, the USA United?
Hill: Oh, Characters Unite.
Tavis: Characters Unite, yeah, yeah, tell me about that.
Hill: Again, that goes back to USA. They’ve really done a great job of taking their position in the market. They’ve been the number one cable network for the last seven years, and not being satisfied with the ratings. Just saying we have the ratings, dollars and cents, let’s do it.
They’re saying, “Okay, well, we have this platform now. What are we going to do with it?” Chris McCumber, Jeff (unintelligible) and Bonnie Hammer, they’ve done a great job of trying to I guess inspire some kind of awareness and change within our society.
So they have Characters Unite, which is really just about tearing down the walls of prejudice, intolerance, racism, bullying, homophobia, all those things, and getting us to realize that even though we are all unique, we’re also very much the same, and trying to understand, peer over the fence a little bit and seeing what’s going on over there and try to understand it, instead of judging it.
The last thing they did this last month was I Won’t Stand For It, which was about getting people to really say what they won’t stand for, which was the same thing as what I was talking about. If you can create a dialogue within a group of people, you can create a lot of change. A little effort, a little change of someone’s mind, can make a world of difference over a period of time.
Tavis: So I’ll circle back before my time runs out, speaking of collaborative working, back to you and Mr. Roday on “Psych.” So where is season seven going to take us?
Hill: Season seven? Well, first we find out whether Henry died or not, Corbin Bernsen, so I think a lot of people will be thrilled to see what the answer is there. Then we have our hundredth episode, which we have the cast of “Clue,” and we get a “Clue”-esque episode.
We have Christopher Lloyd, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Mull, and then we have the great Garrett Morris -
Tavis: Oh, Lord.
Hill: – joining us. (Laughter) He is so funny in the episode. So funny. We have Jeffrey Tambour coming, we have WWE superstar Big Show coming, and we did a found footage episode about Bigfoot, and he comes in and plays a Bigfoot character.
Then we do a musical. We have a musical coming, where we finally get to sing our hearts out.
Tavis: I say this respectfully – this is so silly.
Hill: It is silly. (Laughter) “Psych” is a silly, silly show.
Tavis: But it’s funny.
Hill: It’s a silly show.
Tavis: It’s silly but funny, and it works. It works.
Hill: It’s a lot of fun.
Tavis: So how much longer do you think this is going to last?
Hill: Oh, sorry – and Gus gets a girl.
Hill: Finally, Gus gets a girl. (Laughter) Not just one, he gets two.
Tavis: Seven years later.
Hill: You know what I mean?
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Hill: Good things come to those who wait; you see what I’m saying? Parminder Nagra and Garcelle Beauvais. You know what I’m saying?
Hill: Oh, see? You heard me that time, see? Garcelle. (Laughter) Oh, Lord. He’s like, “Who?”
Tavis: Yeah. I ain’t mad at you. Y’all can’t write me in an episode somewhere?
Hill: You know what I’m saying? That’s why Gus has two playa phones. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, you’re doing the thing, man.
Hill: Giving thanks, man.
Tavis: You are doing it.
Hill: Thanks. Giving thanks.
Tavis: Seven seasons now, just upped again for their eighth, it’s “Psych” on the USA Network. Dulé, as I said earlier, has lived a wonderful and charmed TV life, and I’m just proud of you and happy for you, man. I don’t believe in knocking hustle, and you’re doing it, as I said.
Hill: Thanks, brother, I really appreciate it.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you on. See you next time.
Hill: Most definitely.
Tavis: All right, brother.
Hill: All right.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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