Actor-writer-director Damon Wayans

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Actor-comedian describes how he pulled himself out of his midlife crisis and talks about the 20th anniversary of In Living Color, turning 50, being a grandparent and writing female characters—which he does in his debut novel.


Tavis: Please welcome Damon Wayans back to this program. The former star of In Living Color and My Wife and Kids is out now with his first ever novel. It’s called Red Hats. Damon Wayans, it’s good to see you, man.
Damon Wayans: It’s good to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: You doing all right?
Wayans: I’m doing wonderful.
Tavis: I mentioned at the top of the show, this year the 20th anniversary of In Living Color. Twenty years.
Wayans: Make me feel old (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) When you look back in the 20-year rear view mirror on that show, you think what?
Wayans: That was the best time in my career.
Tavis: Wow.
Wayans: That was the most fun I think we all had. I mean, you know, you go do movies and stuff like that, but until you work with a group of people that talented and when you see, you know, it’s a testament to Keenan’s ability to pick talent, when you see all the stuff that people after that show.
You know, Jamie won an Oscar. Who thought “Heeey” would win an Oscar. You know, J-Lo is an icon, Jim Carrey –
Tavis: – Jim Carrey ain’t done bad.
Wayans: Yeah.
Tavis: Damon Wayans ain’t done bad.
Wayans: David’s on Broadway, I’m doing all right, family’s doing good.
Tavis: And Marlon is playing Richard Pryor.
Wayans: Yeah (laughter).
Tavis: Marlon Wayans.
Wayans: Yeah (laughter). You know what’s funny? I was supposed to play Richard Pryor back in the 90s when I was hot (laughter). When I had some heat under me, I was supposed to do it. Martin Scorsese was producing and Spike was supposed to direct.
I’m not gonna say who messed it up because I don’t want that person to mess it up again, but there was a nut associated with it, so the movie never would have happened.
Tavis: So how do you process – I mean, obviously it’s keeping it in the family, but how do you process that you were supposed to play Richard and there’d been so much talk about Richard Pryor bio pick in this town and your brother ends up being the first out the gate, so to speak?
Wayans: At first, I go “I hate Marlon” (laughter), but then I’m in such a beautiful place in my life. The truth is, I don’t want to go there. I wouldn’t have to want to process Richard Pryor right now at this – I’m too happy and I’d have to live that. You know, you can’t fake Richard. You know what I mean?
Marlon, I think, could do it. He’s started doing stand-up now and, you know, he did this movie with me called Behind the Smile and I basically gave him a crash course in stand-up. But he’s out there now. Him and Shawn are doing [unintelligible], Caroline’s in June. You know, he’s really good.
Tavis: Why did you and why does Marlon, why does anybody, want to play Pryor?
Wayans: You know, that’s like Ray Charles. You know, it’s something that you know and you love. Jamie knew and loved music and, you know, Ray Charles was somebody he really looked up to. Richard Pryor to us in the comedy world is, you know, that’s the guy. If you can steal a little something from Richard, then you’re all right. Richard was just on another level.
Tavis: You said something else a moment ago that really got my attention because we live in a town where insecurity is rampant and people in this town too often define themselves by whether or not they’re working, put another way, by whether or not they’re hot.
You literally joked and laughed and moved right past it and said, “When I was on fire, when I had some heat under me, I was supposed to do Pryor,” and you laughed at that. You seem so well adjusted to not being as hot, to use your own term, as you once were.
Wayans: I’m trying to get on God’s radar. You know what I mean? If He think I’m hot, then I’ll always be hot in His eyes. You know, men, they change. You know what I mean? It’s like they’re not consistent. You know, they forget about people like Mickey Rourke. Mickey Rourke is a brilliant actor. Just because he hasn’t been working doesn’t mean he’s not a great actor.
This town is out of sight, out of mind, and it basically comes down to how can we do our job the easiest? Let’s find the person that’s the hottest. Then I don’t have to worry about losing my job because I took a chance with somebody who’s not hot. It’s his fault. He just wasn’t hot in the movie (laughter).
Tavis: The joke notwithstanding, you’ve done so well. As I mentioned, 20 years ago In Living Color, five seasons of network television with My Wife and Kids. It ain’t like you’re broke.
Wayans: No, I’m doing all right. That’s why I can sit back and enjoy my life and write a book. It’s because it’s like – it really came out of boredom and out of the fact that, you know, at a certain point when you have all the toys, either you’re going to break all the toys or you’re gonna hurt yourself trying to play with all those toys.
So for me, I wanted to do something constructive with my time and energy and challenge myself to do something that I go, “Wow, you did that. That’s pretty cool.”
Tavis: When you say “challenge yourself,” for those of us who really know your work, that is to say, for those of us who know what you really did on In Living Color, I don’t mean just the great skits, Homie, the clown and the wino. I mean, we know the skits.
You played some great characters in the show, but for those who really know your work, you wrote a whole lot of the stuff on that show, so this isn’t that much of a stretch.
Wayans: Well, it’s a stretch in terms of I was able to put punch lines in the In Living Color stuff (laughter). I had to fight the whole way because I created this character, Alma, that’s got a real strong point of view. She’s an angry woman, you know, and she’s full of like resentment and that’s a great setup for a character with some great punch lines.
Only a clown has basically the same setup, but this is a woman who’s going through things. So it’s like for me to, you know, I had to go, “Nah, you got to go back and delete that.” That’s too funny because then you’re gonna start wanting her to tell jokes the whole time. So that was a battle.
Tavis: To your point about the stretch, what does sketch writing offer you by way of expertise, by way of counsel, by way of experience, that helped in the process? I know you don’t want to take the joke too far, but how did that help in the process?
Wayans: Character.
Tavis: Character.
Wayans: It’s like really understanding a three-dimensional character that jumps out at you when you read it, like Homie the clown and Blain and Anton. When you read, even if I didn’t put their name above the dialog, you could figure out which one of those characters it was.
“Let me show you something” (laughter), you know, you’ll hear that and then that character’s voice will be in your head and that’s what I did with Alma’s. Like her voice, I kind of wrote it thinking like a play. When you read a play, it’s the same thing. If it’s really well written, the characters, then you don’t need to know who said what.
Tavis: I’ll come back to the book in a second. Just a quick aside, I literally saw Mr. Farrakhan the other day and, with all due respect, I can’t see him now without subconsciously thinking of (laughter) – in my subconscious, thinking of Damon Wayans impersonating him, but that’s another conversation for another time.
Back to the book, though. I was on the plane last night coming home from New Orleans. We’re working on a PBS prime time special about the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. By the way, they’re waiting on you down there.
Wayans: I’m ready.
Tavis: You got a big show you’re doing down there.
Wayans: I’m ready.
Tavis: Yeah. They talk about it already. I started working through your project on the plane last night. It’s amazing to me how well – this might sound weird, but you’re a guy. You got sisters, but you hang out with a bunch of guys.
You got so many brothers. We all know this Wayans clan. You’re a guy that writes so well, to my eye at least, to my ear, about and for women. How is that possible?
Wayans: I have a feminine side (laughter). You ought to know that. See, I was born with a club foot, so my mom and all my aunts were so protective of me. My sister Kim used to fistfight for me and my other sisters used to braid my hair.
So women have always been, you know, important to me and I spent a lot of time with them because I couldn’t play basketball, so I’m hanging out with all the girls. You know, I didn’t turn into a girl, but I hung out with them and understood, you know, their femininity.
The other thing is, I went through a midlife crisis, so I wrote that book on the tail end of my midlife crisis which I was very emotional. You know, men don’t know what it is; some men don’t cop to it, but your midlife crisis is the day you look in the mirror and you see death.
You start going, “Oh, man, I’m gonna die” and you start having regrets about all the things you didn’t do in your life and you start planning on what am I gonna do? How can I make this last chapter the best chapter?
So I was going through all these feelings. You know, my family tension, my ex-wife, my kids and, you know, trying to put it all together. Then I came onto the other side. The other side is beautiful.
Tavis: I had that experience – and I’m only raising this because I want to ask a follow-up here. I had that experience at 39, so I’m not sure that I can call it a midlife crisis. But I literally thought that at 39 I was dead.
I literally remember being in a hotel and almost asphyxiating because I thought that I was going to die that night. I didn’t think I was going to get to the age of 40. There’s a whole story behind that and that’s neither here nor there.
Wayans: You had your own Y2K (laughter).
Tavis: Yeah, I had my own Y2K exactly. I didn’t think I was gonna make it from 39 to 40 on literally the night of my 40th birthday. I’m turning 40 that night and, for some reason, I think I’m not gonna make it. So I’ve had experience, but I wouldn’t call it a midlife crisis.
But I’m curious, though, when you say that you did have a midlife crisis. You looked in the mirror and you saw death. Tell me more about that, if you can.
Wayans: You start really focusing on the gray hair. You know what I mean. I started seeing gray hair in my nose. I had to put some Just For Men in there (laughter). You’re like what is going on with me?
These are turning into boobs. You know, I got to do pushups every day, you know. I guess God say, “You know what? You been chasing breasts your whole life. Now here, you got yourself a pair.” (laughter)
So it’s fighting the physical. I’m not as loose as I was when I was 21. You know, stuff hurts on me, and that was like the beginning. You know, they say that events in your life, divorce, death, you know, and moving will trigger a midlife crisis. Think one or the other.
I did all three. My brother died, a got a divorce and I moved with half my stuff (laughter). Things just started spinning out of control and you start doing, you know, self-destructive things to try to compensate and I’m just pulling out of it like the past couple of years.
Tavis: How did you, to the extent you can explain it, start the process of navigating your way through it?
Wayans: I read this book called The Artist Way and The Artist Way says that every artist is afraid of the blank page. They’re afraid of the blank canvas. What are you gonna do with it?
So what they do is, they find things to prevent them subconsciously from having to conquer that blank page, you know, drugs, women, all the things that will destroy you so that you can wake up at, you know, 2:00 in the afternoon and go, “I couldn’t write, man. I had a ménage (laughter).” So the trick is to keep a journal and keep yourself accountable.
So what I do is, every day I write a journal and I go, “Well, I didn’t write today because…” I’m really hard on myself so that, when I read it, I don’t like what I read. So I’d rather just write something so that I don’t have to, you know, read that I didn’t write.
Tavis: When you say you write a journal, not to get into the details, but you’re writing what kind of stuff in your journal? It’s a personal journal?
Wayans: Yeah. I woke up today, what time I woke up. Did I work out? Did I have a dream? I write down my dreams. I have some really amazing dreams. I write down did I read the Bible? I write down did I do the things that I said I was gonna do and any events that happened, you know, through the course of the day, things that make me upset?
What I found about like writing, okay, so if someone did me wrong and I write down that I want to just punch him in the face or take a bat. I just write it all in there and I read it back and go, “You can’t do that because you’ll be in jail (laughter), so you need to come up with something better to do,” but I get it out.
I get it off my head. It’s kind of like wiping stuff off the hard drive. You know what I mean? I don’t walk around with stuff in my head all day long.
Tavis: So that’s been therapeutic for you?
Wayans: Yeah. It’s been amazing. And I’ve done all the things like I kept saying, “I want to go to Paris.” I never went to Paris. I went once with an ex-girlfriend and we argued underneath the Eiffel Tower (laughter).
Tavis: That’s not a good look (laughter).
Wayans: Not a good look. So I went back by myself. I spent like six weeks there and I had the most amazing time. But if I didn’t write down that this is something I wanted to do, then it would have been in my mind to do at some point in my life.
Tavis: I know relatively well – I’ve spent some good time with you and other members of your family. I get the sense that – this might not be the right word – but that you are a bit of a loner. Is that a fair assessment?
Wayans: Yes. Like I said, I was born with a club foot, so I spent a lot of time in the hospital by myself. I’m the first successful club foot correction in the United States and we didn’t even have health insurance. I don’t know how my momma did that, but it’s amazing.
I had specialists. I would have people come in and they would have me like in a room and have me walking across the room and all these doctors there from around the world. So being in that hospital at a young age, I was by myself and I had to make up my fun.
So after my divorce, I kind of sold my big house and I got me a little condo and I just spent time by myself. There’s things I don’t want to do. I don’t socialize because the first thing people want to do is, come on, let’s go get drunk, man, and get some girls. I’d rather not do that. You know what I mean? The things people want to do with you is self-destructive. I enjoy being by myself.
Tavis: If you and I were hanging out, all I’d want to do is run In Living Color lines (laughter). I’d want to recreate scripts (laughter). That’s all I want to do.
I’ve heard – everybody in your family has something to say about this, but given again the story that you just told, I get the sense that you have a special relationship with your mother.
Wayans: Oh, yeah. That’s my girlfriend. I adore her, you know. It’s like at a certain age, you don’t really want to – you know, my mother got a cure for everything. You got a little sniffle, put some saltwater up your nose. Do you know how much that hurts (laughter)? And she’s got all these little remedies.
You know, it could be annoying because I’m gonna be 50. It’s like I’m not gonna put salt in my nose. But I love being around her and because when I was a little boy with my club foot, I spent so much time with my mom, it’s an honor for me to spend time with her, to be on the giving end now. I just love her to death.
Tavis: You mentioned that you’re just about 50. That means what? That’s a good thing?
Wayans: That’s a beautiful thing because I know exactly what I don’t want in my life. To me, it’s like in your 20s, it’s all about what you could do and then, when you get to my age, it’s about what you would have done. You know what I mean? Then when you get, you know, down the line, you start thinking about what you should have done. My thing is, I don’t want to have regrets. I should-have list should be really short.
Tavis: Yeah. I know it’s hard to believe –
Wayans: – I should have stayed alive forever (laughter).
Tavis: I know it’s hard to imagine because you’re still so handsome, but you’re not only almost 50, but you have how many grandkids?
Wayans: Four.
Tavis: Damon Wayans has four grandkids and that does what for your life?
Wayans: It tickles me. It makes me wish I would have had grandkids before I had kids (laughter). The love that you have for your grandkids, it’s like I never have to yell at them. That’s not my job. My job is to spoil them, to kiss them, to love them and give them candy and wrap them up and then leave them for their daddy. You need to start giving them that sugar (laughter).
That’s what I did this weekend. I just go to just watch them and they just love me. I created that relationship. That’s the relationship I had with my grandparents, you know. When you can have a different relationship where, no matter what happens in that life, they can come to papa. You know what I mean? They’ll tell me stuff that they won’t tell their parents and that’s, you know, important.
Tavis: Does that mean that grandkids give you – how do I put this? Grandkids give you a way to do things right, to do things better, to do things different than you did with your own kids?
Wayans: No. You co-parent. You know what I mean? You’re still like the senior parent because my son doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. But it’s like I can just love them the way you want to love a kid.
When you see a good kid down the street, you say, “He’s so cute” and you pick him up and you play and you put him down and you don’t have to give that parent advice. No, that’s their headache or whatever. That kid turn out to be a crack kid, that ain’t on you. You know what I mean? You had nothing to do with that. So all you can do is love them.
Like my granddaughter – I’m gonna go see her after this. I’m gonna go to her school and just drop her a little bit of candy and I know that, when she sees me, her eyes go like this and “Papa!” and she just goes crazy and that feeling is amazing.
Tavis: It’s hard to shift back to the book when you talk about family like this, but you got some amazing characters in the book without giving too much of it away. You mentioned Alma. Tell me more about her and some of the other characters in the text.
Wayans: Well, Alma, like me, is a loner and just very kind of, you know, stuck in her way.
Tavis: By the way – I hate to cut in. The first couple of pages got my attention because she’s sitting there dreaming about her husband. I’ll let you tell the story, but I’m like, okay, this is gonna be a roller coaster ride. I’ll leave that alone, though.
Wayans: Well, this woman’s so angry at her husband because they both have done wrong, you know. The theme of this book is, if you want to be loved, be lovable because being angry and bitter, you don’t do anything in terms of moving the relationship forward. All that stuff you got to let go.
So this book, this character is forced to have to let things go and it’s almost like God is, you know, moving before her going, “All right, here’s a test. Let’s see what you do with it.” She’s a woman who made up her mind I’m never gonna hold back my tongue. She tells her husband one day, “I hope you die in your sleep” and he does, so she’s left with all this guilt.
Also, it’s about words are powerful. You know, be careful what you wish for because it may come true and then what you gonna do? But the truth is, she loved her husband. They just had a dysfunctional relationship. You know, it’s like trying to find that character and then redeem her and it’s through the friendship with the Red Hats that, you know, she finds love again.
Tavis: You should define Red Hats.
Wayans: The Red Hats is a global organization, social organization. It’s 800,000 strong and it’s just women who, after 50, kind of dedicate their lives now to having fun and to, you know, getting in shape and friendship, you know, fellowship with other women who have, you know, raised children or who may be widowed or some of them are married and some of them, you know, just want to have something else to do in their life.
Like my mom joined the Red Hats, right? I think about her raising ten children, one with a handicap, and then she gave up all her friendships. You know what I mean? Because she had ten other people waiting on her at home that she took care of. Then we all left home. Now what do you do with your time? All your skills as a mother is out the window. Nobody want to hear it.
So she joined the Red Hats and I just see such a breath of life in her now. She’s just very outgoing. She’s always been outgoing, but now she’s got friends and, you know, she’s going out to Atlantic City and dances and stuff like that. So cute (laughter).
Tavis: I hear the point you’re making about, if you want to be loved, be lovable. That sounds like social commentary. How do you write a novel that is entertaining, that’s inspiring, that’s good, and weave the social commentary in without prosethelytizing, without preaching?
Wayans: Well, I think it comes down to understanding your character and knowing where you want to take that. You know, what’s the journey you want to take? Basically, in a novel, you have to know your beginning and know your end and then fun is the middle, trying to find it and taking the audience and then bringing them that way.
It’s just these different obstacles that are put in her life that force her to rethink her belief system. Everything that she thinks and believes is challenged in this journal from, you know, her racist thoughts and views, having been a child of the 60’s, you know, growing up in that era. Her son is married to a white woman.
You know, having to deal with that and dealing with the fact that she doesn’t really want to be with other people because other people make you have to talk about yourself and that’s what she’s really hiding, the truth of who she is and what she did in life.
Tavis: His earlier comment notwithstanding, Damon Wayans still brings the heat (laughter) and he brings it in this new book, his very first ever novel. The picture tells the whole story, but it’s called Red Hats. Damon, I am always happy to be in your company. Thanks for coming to see me. I appreciate it.
Wayans: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Tavis: It’s a great book.

Wayans: Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm