The career dance

DULE HILL describes his career plans in educational terms.

“For me, if my acting class was high school, then ‘The West Wing’ was college,” says the 31-year-old New Jersey native. “Now I am just getting to that place where I am going for my masters. That’s my next step.”

After spending seven seasons as personal aide Charlie Young to Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet on “The West Wing,” Hill is starring in USA’s lighthearted detective series “Psych” as Gus, the straight-and-narrow sidekick and friend of the quirky Shawn (James Roday), a young man who solves crimes through keen observation.

Though “West Wing” brought him to national attention -- and an Emmy nomination -- Hill had been acting since he was 10, when he did the national tour of the Broadway musical “The Tap Dance Kid.” He also appeared on Broadway opposite Savion Glover in “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk.”

You must have literally jumped from “The West Wing” to “Psych.”

I think I wrapped “West Wing” sometime in March, and about a week later I was up here in Vancouver. I knew going into the final season of “West Wing” that I wasn’t going to be there every episode, and even if the show did go on, I wouldn’t be going on because the Bartlet administration was going to end. So I was given the opportunity to put feelers out there. Once they knew I was available, I had a meeting with the producers of this show, Steve Franks, Kelly Kulchak and Chris Henze. I did the pilot in October, and it was picked up. I was definitely thankful.


I wanted to continue to work, but I wanted to do something that was going to be different. I didn’t want to go and do another character that is similar to Charlie. I didn’t think either of these characters are like me. When I had a chance to really explore Gus, I thought this would be a nice flip and fun. And it’s a comedy. It’s about taking it easy and having a good time.


I had no idea you had been a musical comedy star as a child. How did you begin tap dancing as a kid?

I was going to dance class because my cousins and my brother were going. My mom was a ballerina, so she was teaching at the school. I started going because I wanted to be around them. I did tap, jazz and ballet, and at the age of 9, “The Tap Dance Kid” called my school and asked for kids who could sing and dance. At the time my brother and my cousin were better, but I was the younger one, so they took me instead. I understudied Savion Glover for a month on Broadway, and then I did the lead in the national tour.”


What was that like then at 10 to be dancing with Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers and Tony Award-winning Hinton Battle?

I didn’t really know who these people were because I was a 10-year-old kid. Hinton was like an uncle to me. I had seen Harold on TV dancing before. I was in awe. I was on the tour for a year and a month or two. After a year, I started to get a little tired, and my dad always told me if I got tired to call him and he’d bring me home. So one day in Chicago, I got home from the show and called Dad and said, ‘I want to come home.’ Two weeks later, I was back in New Jersey going to school.


Did you retire from acting?

I was doing commercials, I did a Disney Channel movie and I did [the feature] “Sugar Hill.” I was in college at Seton Hall University. Savion called me and said, “I’m putting a show up.” They needed one more dancer. [“Bring in ‘Da Noise”] was supposed to be, like, a month and half at the Public Theatre and then it started to do very well and we went to Broadway. Before that, I had done “Black and Blue” on Broadway. At that point, I had to decide what I wanted to do because I was in college -- business finance was my major and I was going to go on and do corporate law. Once I got to college and I realized how hard it was, I said, “I have to do how many more years of school?”


Do you still pursue tap?

I am still dancing. Even up here on Vancouver on the weekends, I go work out in a studio space. I do eventually want to get back into performing, but right now it’s more fun for me to dance for myself -- just seeing what comes up.


I have to confess I didn’t recognize you in the recent film “Edmond” as the streetwise three-card Monty card shark.

A lot of people don’t realize it’s me when they see it. It was fun for me to do something completely different. There was no, like, talking proper -- it was just a straight cat from the streets. It was fun to have a chance to do it because sometimes I think people get confused when they see the characters I play. They think that’s me. When people hang out with me they say, “You are much more urban that I thought.” I can hang with the cats or hang with the president!

-- Susan King