Have you ever wanted something so bad that when you finally got it, you were pinching yourself to make sure it was really happening? Actor David Ramsey may not be actually pinching himself, but there is no doubt that his current success after nearly four decades in the entertainment business is a dream come true. As a young actor, Ramsey made appearances in several sitcoms and films, and even had a regular series in the late ’90s. But it was HBO’s hit series Dexter that gave Ramsey his biggest break ever in 2008, as he landed a recurring role in seasons 3 and 4.
Fast forward a few years and several shows later, and Ramsey is now celebrating a successful Season 3 of The CW’s Arrow as iconic DC Comics character John Diggle (with Season 4 announced to begin in October 2015, and spinoff DC’s Legends of Tomorrow coming in 2016), as well as five seasons with a recurring role in CBS’s hit cop series Blue Bloods. Quite an accomplishment, indeed.
Meanwhile, the Detroit native is also a family man and father who maintains that strong family ties keep him grounded no matter what is going on around him. We talked with David Ramsey about his incredible run in Hollywood, and the ways he stays focused, positive and thankful throughout his career growth. Read on…
What has it been like for you to be a part of such huge projects like Dexter, West Wing, Blue Bloods and Arrow?
David Ramsey: I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I’ve spent years staring at the phone, waiting for it to ring. Now doing two hit shows like Arrow and Blue Bloods, I’m just pacing myself. It’s really very, very fortunate. I’m happy about it. It’s just, how long can I keep it up? In the back of every actor’s brain is: “It has to end at some point..” That’s what we’re always thinking, so I’m really happy to do it and will do it as long as I’m able to.
What are some things that kept your head in the game while you waited for this break?
DR: I had a good support system, and can’t underestimate the support and importance of being able to call back her to Detroit. This is my hometown with some of the best people in the world. My parents, when I called, they were there. When I was discouraged, they talked to me, and there was a lot of discouragement. Getting told ‘no’ all the time does something to your psyche, and you second-, third-, fourth-guess yourself no matter how talented you are.
There was good amount of just having to be encouraged, and they never let me get too low. That taught me a good lesson. If you believe good they are telling you in the press, to some degree you’re gonna believe the bad. So what I do is, I don’t believe any of it, and that’s what the struggle taught me. The struggle taught me to know that “Hey, this is a gig, and it’s a good gig, but like all gigs, it eventually will end.” And for you to be ready to do just as good work as you’re doing now to do it again.
You’re only as good as your last role. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad it was, you’re only as good as that. It just taught me to not just to take a job with a grain of salt, but to take it in a healthy way. To have that support here kept a firm ground underneath my feet that who I was, where I come from, and the family I have… that eventually if you keep knocking the doors will open.
During that time, I had my support, my family, I continued going to class, strengthening my skills, stayed in shape, and kept my head in the right place. So I did the things I should be doing, and I was working. It wasn’t like I wasn’t working – you can see that in my resume – but nothing really super consistent.
I had a great gig back in the ’90s. Here’s the thing about this, I was 25 or 26 when I had my own show on UPN called Good News. It was a comedy, I was a preacher, and it was a hit show for that network. This was during the time that Moesha was on and LL Cool J had a show and it got cancelled after a season. But that experience taught me that you can have a hit show and it’s gone like that. That ended in 98.
After that I kind of became a dreaming actor. I consistently worked, but nothing steady really until Dexter. And Dexter came and I got another show with Jimmy Smits that didn’t last long but was still consistent… then Blue Bloods came, then after that Arrow came. It’s just been this roll of work the past several years, but I always have that in the back of my head that “Hey, if it ends, then that’s okay.” This is what I do, and I’m okay with doing that. I think the struggle really helped me with having a very balanced sense of what this business is and what my place in it is.
Do you ever get worried about people only seeing you as John Diggle and not appreciating your other work, or does that even matter to you?
DR: That’s part of the other side of the coin right? That people see you as one way. I think also that’s part of the business. You might meet a producer that your representatives might say, “Hey listen, you’re really right for this role but the producers are balking and saying well you’re that guy.” So it’s their job to get me in the room and once I get in the room it’s my job to prove that I’m more than the guy they see on television. It’s about having a good foundation of family, friends, and people that believe in you but also your team believing in you in terms of your agent, manager or whoever you’re working with.
People look past that, but have to understand that this is a business. This business is very important, and agents and managers play a big role in that business. It’s their job to work with you and help you get your tools together to get you in that room and for you to deliver when you get in there. So that problem of being typecast exists, but you continue to keep your skills sharp, your agent believes in you so when that opportunity comes to get you in the room, and once you’re in the room, you’re not worried about what they saw on television, you’re there to prove them wrong. And you’re confident that you can, because you do have the skills because you’ve been working on it.
It’s what they say about luck: opportunity meets preparation. If you’re prepared, then opportunity is going to come, whether people are trying to typecast you or not. If you’re prepared, you’ll be able to triumph over that breath of being typecast.
If you could go back in time and remake any movie or TV show, what would it be, and what role would you play?
DR: Two iconic shows that changed everything for me were The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince. Those things were important to me because The Cosby Show made a different view of what I’d see on television with Black folks. I was completely and totally jealous of Theo Huxtable because I thought, “I can do that!” so I have to go back and play Theo because he’s a part of my childhood. I thought I was [him]! When he was singing “Justine, Justine” I was singing that at the television myself, and saying, “I can do this ma!”
The other thing is Will [Smith]’s show because I just felt like Will was this performing arts kid that had a lot of charm who can rap and act and he was learning the ropes. You can see him on Fresh Prince mouthing other people’s lines, but he had so much charm, and he still does and so music wit about him that the charm overcame whatever deficiencies he had just in terms of learning the art of acting at the time.
I didn’t look at it like other people did, which was “he’s just a kid who got a break”. I saw it as he had this light inside of him that people were attracted to. What I really was seeing was star quality. He was my peer, and I was seeing a star being born and what that quality was. Other people had that who were older. Denzel had that, Sydney Poitier, the people I studied had that but they weren’t necessarily my peer, Will was and is my peer. We’re very close to the same age. So I was watching that star quality being born in a peer of mine on television. It was raw, star talent.
Of course other people had that like Tupac, but Will was doing what I wanted. He was handling a sitcom, and he was on television at the time that I wanted to be in. He was saying to me: “Whatever you think is a deficiency, there’s something about YOU and that’s what people are gonna tune into.” He helped me kind of recognize individuality.
People watched that show for Will, not so much that’s he’s a great actor or rapper, they watched it because he had so much personality. Unlike Martin, who I also love, but Martin was great stand-up, there’s was something specific about his talent or skill set. Will, I didn’t see the same thing. I just saw this complete burst of charm and energy that attracted people and that was something that was different from other people like Cosby, who was a great stand-up comedian or Denzel, who was a great technician as an actor; Sidney [Poitier], who was a great technician as an actor, just other people who were perhaps older.
Will just had that charm that just made you attracted to him. He has since become a better actor. Now he’s more of technician. Now it’s a great mixture of being a good actor and still being charming as he ever was, but at the time he wasn’t necessarily a good actor. He just had this charm, and that was something very attractive to me about star quality. So I learned a lot from those two shows.
What do you see yourself doing in the next 20 years of your life in and outside of acting?
DR: I’m back here in Detroit. I’m with my mom; I come from a big patriarchal family. My father passed way last year at 83, and part of his legacy was that he came from that generation where you’re with a company for 30 or 40 years, retired and got a paycheck. He died disappointed. He was working with Montgomery Ward as an electronic technician. The analog age turned into the digital age, Montgomery Ward went under, and he had to take early retirement. His life was, to a certain degree, turned upside down.
Now this man’s in his 50’s or 60’s or whatever, and he has to learn something else and take care of his children at the same time. He was that generation, that heart was broken by what his parents went through which was “hey you work for a corporation, you get a paycheck, you retire…” and that changed. Our generation [Gen-X] grew up understanding that we can’t place faith in that.
I love the idea of putting things together, producing and directing. Fortunately I’m on a show that’s very open to people coming in and directing. We have a new director every episode. What I see in the next 20 years obviously is continuing to hone my skills as an actor, and hopefully find an audience that appreciates that skill set but also begin to walk into directing and producing. Hopefully this show can help and be maybe a springboard in that. I don’t know if now is the right time, were just finishing our third season. Perhaps shadowing a director next season or the season after that God willing we get one.
I’m continuing to find my feet and find more of an audience as John Diggle, because he’s getting broader and broader. Hopefully this is an opportunity for me to broaden my horizons and get into directing and maybe producing at some point.
What do you do to stay positive every day?
DR: For me, that “quit” is never a part of the equation. Something my father had spoke in to me. That, “If this is what you do, then this is what you do.” Because of that strong stance, everyone’s not going to be able to hang out with you. You’re not gonna be able to be friends with everybody, because everybody can’t have that, and that’s ok. You have to allow yourself with be okay with some people not liking you, and some people not agreeing with you, and that has to be okay with you. Most people aren’t going to have a problem with your success, but their lack of success, so you have to recognize that.
I just have to keep plugging myself into understanding that this is what I do, I’m an artist, and I have something to contribute with my art. And what I have to say is, “okay, what people want to know is what I have to say.” They want to know who I am, [that I’m]not a carbon copy of somebody else, they want to know what I say because I’m going to have something to contribute to what someone else is going through. If I’m helping and contributing to one person’s life, then that’s more than enough. So I just have to recognize that art has a place in the culture. I’m part of that culture, so what I have to contribute that’s positive is okay. Everyone is not gonna agree with it, everyone is not gonna like it, so don’t ever think of yourself as too high or low.
The things I kind of tell myself every day, for me, this is just what I do and there are going to be absent flows, there’s gonna be dark and light, there’s gonna be a whole lot of stuff with it, but this is what I do. I accept the good and the bad – and it’s all good. I just keep myself in an even-keel place and tell myself “It’s alright what you’re going through. It’s okay. This is part of the human process. This is the process of being an artist and it’s all right.” That helps me.
If any of your kids wanted to take up acting, what the best piece of advice you would give them?
DR: I’ve heard a lot of artist say that if their son or daughter wanted to become an actor, they would say ‘no’, and I know why they’d say that. There’s so much disappointment, and there’s so much psychological stuff you have to keep yourself ready, prepared and alert as an artist, because there are so many distraction due to disappointments. Once you get into the film business, there are a lot of agendas and there’s a lot of people saying things that aren’t true. There are so many different energies to deal with that a lot of parents are just scared and I understand why.
My son is only four-years-old, but I think my response to him would be the same thing I tell other children right now when I speak to them. It is: “If there’s something else you can do just as good as this, then do that. Because this is gonna require everything that you got.” It’s gonna take everything you have to continually grow as an artist in this
If there’s something you really really love, and you really love acting, my advice would be try that, do that. Now if you look around in your life and say “I can’t sleep when I’m doing this. This is all I wanna eat, drink, and do and love or die, I’m an artist.” If that’s where you are, then I would put every resource I have into helping you become a better artist. That’s what I would tell my son.
What do you want people to know most about you as a man and artist at this stage of your life?
DR: As an artist, I want people to be entertained by what I do as an artist. I do what I do as entertainment, and it has a place. It provides a lot of things. I want people to be entertained by a gambit of emotions that hopefully I can stir in them to experience.
As a person, I hope in interviews like this, they get a glimpse of who I am and that rings a bell or they have some “Amen” moments in that and say, “yeah I feel the same way” and that helps them in any process they may be going through. Hopefully my purpose here is to give as an artist and as a person. Your life is to love, but also to service other people.
Hopefully people are receiving some sort of service by the things that I say. It’s ringing a bell or helping them be encouraged in some way or another, because I do feel that [need]as an artist as well to help. I hope people are being entertained and serviced in their own individual lives.