The talented actor Michael Ealy is a thoughtful and eloquent speaker on a range of different subjects. When we spoke for this week’s episode of “The Renaissance Man,” we covered his journey in Hollywood, books, theater, fatherhood and the current situation in America.
But there was one basic piece of advice that stuck with me, which dates back to when he was working in restaurants and still looking for his big break as an actor.
“First and foremost, never mess with a waiter,” he said. “I’m not going to say what I saw, but … people f–k with your food. You don’t like it, you don’t like your service, get out of there clean, don’t eat. But don’t f–k with your waiter.”
So true. You’re not my friend if we go out to eat and you’re rude to the servers. It’s about respect. Tip well, people, and remember how essential the restaurant industry is to our daily lives. And if you feel like complaining, you have to understand: You’re at the mercy of the person bringing your food or drink. Usually I cook meals at home, but that’s why I never get delivery. When I order carryout, I’m standing there to pick it up as soon as it’s done. If they say it will be ready in 20 minutes, I’m there waiting in five or 10.
Ealy said all the time he spent waiting on those tables for two taught him how to read people and influenced his craft as an actor.
“The other thing I learned was I was able to study people’s body movements and behavior patterns,” he said. “So you would see a guy come in with a girl, and I could tell if it was the first date.”
We first crossed paths on the set of “Barbershop” back in 2002. I had just been traded from Indiana to Chicago, where the movie took place. I’d stayed in contact with Ice Cube after we met on a music video shoot — we’re still friends to this day — and he and Cedric the Entertainer thought it was a natural fit after I joined the Bulls. Now that I’ve become more synonymous with fashion and haircuts, it feels like that part makes even more sense. It was a proud moment when I watched “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” and there was a character named Jalen.
I could tell right away that Ealy had star quality. He was disciplined and sharp and on point. He definitely had the heartthrob look. I always say: Black guys with hazel eyes and black guys with English accents (looking at you, Idris Elba), you have no chance to compete against them.
I’ve been following Ealy’s career ever since, and we run into each other at premieres and events. We’re about the same age. He’s from the DMV, I’m from Detroit, both black melting pots — so similar and so different. And, fun fact, we both graduated from the University of Maryland, where I finished my degree after leaving Michigan to enter the NBA, because unlike Michigan, they were offering correspondence courses — that was one of the biggest sacrifices and best decisions I ever made.
I like the opportunity Ealy has now to expand his horizons and make audiences appreciate his versatility. As an athlete, you don’t get to choose where you get drafted and you don’t have a long shelf life (unless you’re Tom Brady). As an actor, it’s more than just your talent that allows you to have staying power. There’s an entrepreneurial aspect to picking roles that is paramount to an actor’s longevity. That’s the stage of his career that Ealy is in now.
“There’s a strategy in terms of: Is this role going to speak to you as an artist; or, 2, is this role going to be something you can be proud of? And I learned that from Mr. [Sidney] Poitier,” Ealy said. “I read his autobiography before I even got started in all this, and it was abundantly clear that he only wanted to take roles that would make his parents proud and push the imagery of the black man forward. That’s a concern of mine. Now, it doesn’t mean I won’t take a challenging role that may adhere to a stereotype, but if I do, I’m going to be selective about which role that is and why.
“And then, there’s some jobs you got to take because it’s like, I got kids, man, and I can make some money. I got to keep this going,” he said. “And then there’s other things that you’re more passionate about that are like dream projects that you try to put together.”
Speaking of projects, Ealy gave me a push on two things to get to in 2021. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but I’ve never seen any of the “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” movies. Growing up, it was almost embedded in me not to be interested in things happening in outer space. I was focused on my community and my survival. It’s a level of growth that I’ve attained that I now want to explore that galaxy far, far away.
The other thing is reading books. My mother reads every night before she goes to bed. My reading habits are more magazines, newspapers, articles. As I discussed with Ealy, who’s a big reader, I’m going to work on sitting still and indulging in a book for an hour or more.
And remember to be kind to your waiter, you never know who could be the next Michael Ealy.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.