Their character on ‘Hacks’ is ‘a bit repressed.’ Carl Clemons-Hopkins is anything but

Actor Carl Clemons-Hopkins sits for portraits
Actor Carl Clemons-Hopkins stars in “Hacks” as Jean Smart’s put-upon, sassy but quietly wicked-funny manager.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Carl Clemons-Hopkins is hard to miss.

Despite a measured, amiable demeanor, the stage veteran who just received their first Emmy nomination for their supporting work in the comedy “Hacks” somehow seems even bigger than their frame, which the actor says is “6-foot-4 and change.” Clemons-Hopkins, who uses the pronouns they/them, was born and raised in Lithonia (“Lie-tho-nee-yuh,” they helpfully offer, putting on the appropriate drawl), Ga. — population: less than 2,000.

“Maybe, maybe. I mean, my world was well under 2,000. These are all really small, little towns about an hour and a half outside of Atlanta. I call it ‘rural-adjacent.’”

Clemons-Hopkins kicked around stages for more than a decade before landing the role of Marcus, the ultra-driven business manager of Jean Smart‘s aging comedian, on HBO’s “Hacks” during the pandemic.

So how does a queer, nonbinary Black kid from tiny, rural-adjacent Georgia wind up on big stages in big cities, and now with a hit show and an Emmy nomination?

A man talking on a cellphone backstage.
Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus in the HBO Max series “Hacks.”
(HBO Max)

“My parents would take me and my cousin to see [Alvin] Ailey. My dad would take me to the opera. I was into theater since I was 6,” they says. “I majored in musical theater. In my mind it was like, ‘There’ll be so much opportunity. I’ll come north, the land of opportunity.’ ”

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After college in Philadelphia, they did the struggling-actor thing in New York, bartending and managing restaurants. Then Clemons-Hopkins was cast as “Man 6” in the ensemble of the Chicago production of “Hamilton” while understudying George Washington, Hercules Mulligan/James Madison and colead Aaron Burr.

“There was a time I had to go on midsong; there was an emergency. The person who was playing Burr pulled a muscle. One of the actresses was like” — here Clemons-Hopkins waves frantically, conjuring the actress trying to get them to look in the wings. “I see the stage manager, like —” the actor makes crazy gestures indicating “YOU ARE ON!!” They laugh: “We had just finished ‘Schuyler Sisters’ and I’m trying to find a way to exit the stage with my big ass [to come back out as Burr].”

“I’m offstage, change-change-change, and by the time we get to ‘Here comes the general,’ I’m running up, tucking my shirt in: ‘Ladies and gentlemen / The moment you’ve been waiting for!’

“And you hear 2,000 Playbills, wshhh wshhh wshhh. Someone on Twitter was like, ‘I think the actor playing Burr drank a s—-ton of milk because he just grew, like, whoa.’ ”

That production sharpened the actor’s professional mettle. But the play that helped them blossom creatively was a world premiere by R. Eric Thomas, “Time Is on Your Side.”

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“It was my first time getting to play a Black, queer character. It was written by a Black, queer playwright, and he said something to me that blew my entire mind: ‘You know, queer history is your history too.’

“I had separated in my mind my Black identity from my queer identity. He introduced me to the fact that ‘They are all in you, so they’re one,’ and it could actually be part of the storytelling of your career. Don’t limit yourself, you can include this in your artistic journey.

“It was, you know, tens of people a night [in the audience], I was sleeping on the floor of my friend’s house, but it was one of my absolute favorite theatrical experiences because I didn’t have to deny a part of myself. I got to invest the fullness of my experiences into a character, similar with Marcus,” who is also queer. “I can relate to this person, and I don’t have to feel like I’m having to limit myself to the agreed, acceptable existence for my body and my personage.”

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While Clemons-Hopkins uses they/them, “I ascertained very quickly that Marcus is a ‘him’ because my personal exploration of my identity has come from a lot of time that I devote to that, a lot of research and a lot of unearthing whatever. That’s time that Marcus doesn’t allow himself,” they say with a gentle laugh.

Beyond the sheer joy of the series, Clemons-Hopkins says, they’ve also learned to be more comfortable in the work, with help from veteran actor Jean Smart. “She has made me a more compassionate person — to others but also to myself. She has a wonderful grace, and a wonderful humor and a wonderful ease. That makes me beat myself up less.”

Actor Carl Clemons-Hopkins puts their hands together.
Actor Carl Clemons-Hopkins is a stage veteran who just received their first Emmy nomination for “Hacks.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

That kindness to self hasn’t translated to Marcus, though. “We’re very different people. I think one thing we share is a respect for work ethic. Our execution of it is very different. His execution is complete immersion, whereas mine is ‘Respect and honor this as part of your schedule, and you are also part of your schedule.’ I put him in the category of a bit repressed, nonpracticing homosexual with a full-time job.

“We share an experience of the world, we share a body type. I think with Wilson [Marcus’ love interest], he gets to just shut it all off and be his soft, squishy self.

“We both have soft, squishy selves.”

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