Sunday conversation with veteran TV and film actor (and Allstate man) Dennis Haysbert
Dennis Haysbert has made a career playing commanding authority figures — most memorably “24” President David Palmer — and he explores that territory again in “Incorporated.” Set in a dystopian 2074, the new Syfy series cast Haysbert as the head of s
Dennis Haysbert has made a career playing commanding authority figures — most memorably “24” President David Palmer — and he explores that territory again in “Incorporated.” Set in a dystopian 2074, the new Syfy series cast Haysbert as the head of security at the largest corporation in a world where multinational corporations have unlimited power in the void caused by bankrupt governments.
The “Incorporated” debut comes after last month’s U.S. premiere of the BBC miniseries “Undercover,” where the California-born actor plays a role strikingly different from his characters in positions of power: an inmate on death row.
During a visit to the Los Angeles Times, Haysbert, 62, talked about his current projects and how he rebooted his career about a decade ago when he was recognizable for many as the unmistakable voice of “the Allstate guy.”
What interested you in joining the cast of “Incorporated”?
There’s a few things. I love sci-fi. I always like looking into the future and being a part of that discussion. If it turns out to be a utopian world, I want to explore what that would be like to be a part of that. And a dystopian world, if that’s the world we’re headed toward, it would be nice to know how to survive it. Also, I love playing detectives. But this one’s different. This one’s in the future, and it’s in a dystopian world. How does a lawman — basically a corporation lawman — operate? Does he do it just at the behest of the company, or does he have a strong sense of law?
What films or TV shows are among your favorite sci-fi?
One of my favorites is the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” I really kind of connected and identified with the Michael Rennie character, who was the alien. That would be an incredible role to have. And to have your own robot.
You have two current projects that are dealing with topics that continue to be hot-button issues — climate change in “Incorporated” and the death penalty in “Undercover.” Are those issues you’re passionate about in any way?
I would say first I like the exploration of the human condition [in “Undercover”]. That said, yes, I’m very passionate about the death penalty. ’Cause I used to be for it. And to a certain extent I still am, depending on the crime and the criminal. Children and the elderly, women — I don’t like seeing women murdered and abused. That is the height of cowardice, to hurt a woman, to destroy a child.
But the thing that holds me back from fully wanting a death penalty is our legal system’s not absolute. We make big mistakes. A lot of people have been put in jail and on death row who didn’t commit the crime. We incarcerate more people in this country than China, and they’ve got over a billion people. It’s a business. That’s profoundly sad to me. Then the people that they’re putting in these prisons are people that look like you.
Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary just dealt with that.
Yeah, “13th.” It was hard to get through.
Your organization, the Haysbert Humanitarian Foundation, focuses on some efforts related to the climate change depicted in “Incorporated,” like sustainable energy and clean water.
That has been at the forefront of what I wanted for my foundation, but now I’m changing it a bit because I must do something to preserve children’s education. Instilling hope, keeping them off the streets, keeping kids busy.
When did you start work on the Foundation?
It’s been a work in progress for the last nine years. I just haven’t solidified what it is that I want it to do. And I’ve been busy. I’ve been trying to rebuild my career so I have some money to put in it.
Why do you say you’ve been rebuilding your career?
Nine years ago I fired everyone.
From your team — publicist, agent, manager?
Yeah, and I rebooted my career, and now it’s going better than it ever has. And more to come, which I thank God for and thank a lot of people in this industry that have not forsaken me. I still think I have a lot of storytelling within me.
Before that career reboot, did you feel like you were known more as “the Allstate guy”?
That’s what was happening. I wasn’t being pushed for those other roles, and I was sitting back on the laurels of Allstate. Which is a great company that’s been really good to me. I love the ads because they’re all based in a foundation of truth, and that’s very important to me. I can’t sell something that’s a lie. I wouldn’t be able to do that. It fed me in a number of ways, but it didn’t really feed me creatively, and I felt my identity slipping away.
How do you protect and preserve your voice, this great tool you have as an actor?
Diet has a lot to do with it. Teas, spices, cayenne pepper is very important in my life — helps get rid of mucus and things of that sort.
Aside from your manager and other members of your team, who do you turn to for advice on your career?
I have a number of angels. I have people that are in the business and people that are outside of it. The people that are outside of it — they know what they like, they know what they watch, and they’re more connected to the people that watch what we do as actors.
What do you still hope to accomplish in your career?
I still have to tell those stories that haven’t been told. I just love to act. I love drawing people in. I love taking people out of their everyday lives. If they’re having a bad day, I like to be in that one show that brings them out of it. I like to either have you walk out the theater or after you’ve turned off the television set to have learned something. Or to just be thoroughly entertained. I like to send you off to bed with a smile on your face or send you off contemplating about what you’ve just seen.
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.