When gang members gunned down high school football star Ricky Baker in John Singleton’s groundbreaking 1991 film Boyz N Da Hood, most figured it would be the last we saw of Morris Chestnut. Considering that the then 22-year-old’s first feature film role was seen more as a plot device as the film belonged to Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube, nobody expected Chestnut to be around 23 years later. Not even Chestnut himself.
But here he is at the age of 45 with a portfolio stuffed with leading roles in feature films (The Best Man), stellar jobs in television (Nurse Jackie, American Horror Story) and has covered his fair share of magazines as a heartthrob. On this day, Chestnut is attending San Diego Comic Con and discussing his latest role in the upcoming television crime drama on TNT Legends. “I had no idea where my career was heading after Boyz N Da Hood,” Chestnut reveals to Life+Times as his eyes traverse the crowded room at the Hilton Bayfront hotel where fellow cast mates Ali Larter and Tina Majorino talk to reporters about the show. “I didn’t even look this far. I’m blessed to even still be here in an industry such as this where it is difficult to last a couple of years.” His career didn’t take off directly after Boyz.
He drifted around Hollywood through the early portion of the 1990’s with smaller roles in films such as Higher Learning and The Inkwell while starring in the short lived TV sitcom Out All Night alongside Duane Martin and Vivica A Fox. It wasn’t until he landed in the Malcolm D. Lee romantic comedy The Best Man as the soon-to-be married football star Lance Sullivan that mainstream America really took notice.
Although he was typecast as the “handsome black man” in the early 2000’s with films such as The Brothers and Two Can Play That Game, Chestnut was able to diversify his resume with roles in Ladder 49, Like Mike and The Cave. He would soon break free of the good-looking leading man part and branch out. By 2011 he could be seen in recurring roles on American Horror Story, V, and Nurse Jackie. Suffice to say that Chestnut’s acting career has run the gamut but he’s far from finished. “I’m still typecast but I have a chance to play different roles,” Chestnut explains while demonstrating a self-awareness of the African Americans in film. “But I guess being around long enough has helped me get into some of these different roles.”
One thing that draws a chuckle out of the Californian is the notion that many of his roles find him displaying a particular personality: the angry asshole. From The Best Man to Nurse Jackie, Chestnut’s energy works well when he’s demonstrating his snarky side. “I actually liked my Nurse Jackie role because I like being an asshole on camera and it’s a departure of who I really am,” Chestnut reveals. “I don’t think I was as angry as I was emotional in The Best Man because my character was going thru so much. However, this role in Legends is much more lighthearted, fun and witty.”
Chestnut co-stars alongside Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) in the drama about an undercover crime force as the quick-witted deep cover operative Tony Rice. His character’s sarcasm bounces well off of Bean’s Martin Odum and gives the show a necessary element that it didn’t have going into the pilot. Which is why you’ll notice that Chestnut wasn’t part of the pilot and was brought in later. TNT realized that they needed more diverse personalities and reached out to Chestnut in hopes that he would join the show. The network was pleased when Chestnut decided that the show would be a good fit for him and he has been happy with the show’s first season. “Rice is a fun character who beats to his own drum,” the actor says about his character who starts the show in pursuit of Odum as he appears to be involved in a homicide. But things aren’t always what they appear to be on Legends and Rice soon finds out how integral Odum is to the team. “My character feels that he’s the best agent in every division and he gets info regardless of what his supervisor says. His findings eventually lead to us realizing that there is a much larger conspiracy going on.”
As with all new shows, the cast and crew will have their fingers crossed when the series premieres in hopes that a strong rating will eventually lead to a second season. If, for some reason, it does not, Chestnut would be disappointed but would certainly not be in anybody’s unemployment line. He recently wrapped shooting the psychological thriller The Perfect Guy alongside Sanaa Lathan and Michael Ealy and will begin shooting the third installment of The Best Man later this year after the sequel performed surprisingly well at the box office after a 15 year hiatus between films. “I was very surprised at how well The Best Man Holiday was received,” he says regarding the film’s box office earnings of just over $70 million with a production budget of $17 million. Why did it perform so well with a new audience from another generation? You’d have to thank cable television and its numerous airings of the film for that. “The one thing about cable is that they rerun things all of the time and throughout the course of 15 years we found a new audience and they came along for the ride. Hopefully we get those people back and some more with the next film.”
For over two decades, Morris Chestnut has managed to remain relevant. Through a litany of roles, the actor is pleased with his career but says that there is one role, which remains elusive. “I’d love to play a superhero,” Chestnut reveals with his pearly whites flashing. With comic books and graphic novels being Hollywood’s go-to formula for box office success, it wouldn’t hurt Chestnut to perhaps find himself playing Black Panther, Power Man or Goliath. But it’s something that he’s still waiting to see come to fruition. “I haven’t really looked at any superhero roles because the Marvel family is so hard to break into. You don’t come to them; they come to you. I wish they would come to me but they haven’t. I would love to do something.”