In most television series an actor portrays a single character, but in a skits-and-bits show such as "In Living Color" the cast gets to play any number of personas. So what does Tony nominee and Yale School of Drama graduate David Alan Grier prefer--shaping one character or juggling multiple personalities?
"In a lot of ways 'In Living Color' is closer to what I was trained to do, i.e. repertory theater," said Grier, noted for the series characters of blues singer Calhoun Tubbs and gay film critic Antoine Merriweather, among others.
"One week you're doing this, another week you're doing that--a leading role, a supporting role. I'm really starting to feel like I'm in a company because when I walk into work every day the great thing is the security. I know I can try anything."
That confidence undoubtedly extends throughout "In Living Color's" talented ensemble cast that includes Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and Kelly Coffield. But with so many cooks tinkering in the kitchen, creator Kennen Ivory Wayans is clearly the person producing the main course.
"Keenen is definitely the artistic center," said Grier. "With us it's all flailing arms and 'Me me me--I don't want more lines, I just need more things to say!' You really do need a person to say, "Stop." Keenen is brilliant at that. I think a great director is one who makes the actor think it was his idea."
Grier was initially a reluctant cast member. He'd turned down offers several times before his wife Maritza persuaded him to do the series, a fortuitous decision that Grier still hears about on occasion. "Only in key moments of negotiation does she throw that on the table," he admitted with a smile, explaining that his initial resistance stemmed from a belief that his theatrical acting should drive his career.
"I always felt like you should never try to buy an invitation to the dinner," he said. "You should wait, and when it's your time you will be invited. But that's really not the way Hollywood works. You have to hustle and work on building a career. Not everyone's career is based on, 'I saw you in this wonderful play at the South Coast Repertory--here's a three-picture deal.' "
Grier had worked extensively on stage and in film before "In Living Color." In 1982 he earned a Tony nomination for his Broadway portrayal of baseball great Jackie Robinson in "The First." He later teamed with Denzel Washington and Adolph Caesar in an off-Broadway production of "A Soldier's Play," roles that all three reprised for Norman Jewison's film version, "A Soldier's Story."
His first movie since joining the series is Eddie Murphy's current hit "Boomerang." Grier hopes that his next film, currently in development at Murphy's company at Paramount, will catapult him beyond supporting role status.
"It's the first project being written for me," he said, "and that represents the next level I'd love to be in, because usually I'm the guy who's told, 'It's for an albino midget but make it work' or, 'It was written for a blonde woman but we know you can bring something to it.' "
Lately Grier has been bringing something to his stand-up comedy, headlining at clubs across the country during breaks in his series shooting. But comedy remains secondary to his theatrical and television careers.
"For me, it's a great release, but it would be different if I were trying to make it as a comic, like this was my (one) shot," he said. "It's not, it's like recreation. But it is a little daunting. I'm still at that stage where I'm a little perplexed that people get so excited about seeing me. But it's cool. It's a great feeling being on stage. It's different from doing a play or doing TV. I don't really feel any pressure."
Except, perhaps, pressure from audiences who invariably cry out for him to do their favorites form "In Living Color." Even though these characters could generate easy laughs, Grier resisted the call for a long time. "I never wanted to do an evening of 'In Living Color,' " he said, "but now I do one or two characters that I feel work within the context of my stand-up."
But when television deals you a hand, you play it. And while more film and stage roles appear destined to follow, being a regular on a weekly hit series has its advantages.
"There's something intimate about television," Grier said. "When people see you on there, they just feel like they can come up to you and start talking."
"It was like levels of recognition; first it was, 'Oh, you're that guy on that show.' Then they would call me by the character's name--Tubbs, Antoine. Now they call me David Alan Grier. It's truly a progression."
"In Living Color" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Fox.