Donis Leonard Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan, and moved to Los Angeles as an infant. By the time he was four, he knew he could do what he saw other kids doing on television. Members of his family have been involved with dance and theatre, so he grew up around the arts.
Donis has enjoyed major guest roles on Tyler Perry’s FOR BETTER OR WORSE and Nickelodeon’s BIG TIME RUSH, along with maintaining his basketball skills, dancing skills, and love of cooking during his first year in high school. Recently, he was thrilled to participate in the Habitat for Humanity project HabitatLA and is excited to be a presenter at the NAACP Theatre Awards.
When he’s not in school or working on one of his extracurriculars, Donis can be found on Showtime’s House of Lies playing Roscoe Kaan, son of Don Cheadle’s character, Marty Kaan. On the show, Roscoe is a complicated kid who has a unique sense of style, enjoys cross-dressing, and has recently shown a similar business accumen to his father.
Earlier this week, Donis took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us. Keep reading to see what he had to say.
Did you have a good weekend?
“I did. I was in the gym (chuckles).”
Awesome! Well, I’ve actually been catching up on House of Lies because I wasn’t able to watch it for quite a while, but one thing I’m seeing is…Roscoe’s been busy!
“He has! Roscoe has been doing a LOT.”
Yeeaah. Are you anything like Roscoe in any way or is that all just him?
“Uh, that is probably 99% Roscoe. I’m not as crazy as he’s been acting at all. Um, I don’t dress how Roscoe dresses. But I think that’s the cool thing about acting. I can play a whole different person, you know? And that’s something I want in my personal life, to play somebody different. One thing Roscoe and I have in common, though, is that we’re comfortable with who we are.”
That is awesome. That’s probably the best thing to have in common.
“Right. Right. Exactly. And I also think that the character, Roscoe, is really, really well written. We have great writers.”
He is! He’s probably my favorite character.
No problem. You really play a good range of emotions. How exactly did you get the role? Was it something that you really kind of went for specifically or –
“I auditioned for the role when I was 11-years-old. And I had just a regular audition. I got coached for it. I was really excited. It was the biggest thing that I had ever had an opportunity to go out for. So I went in there and I did my thing and I got a call back and then after the call back, I got a (producers introduction) and after that, I had a final cast audition with Don Cheadle; Matthew Carnahan, the creator of the show; Stephen Hopkins, who’s the main director on the show; and a lot of Showtime executives. After that, I had a chemistry read with Don and Glynn Turman to see if all of us meshed well. And that went great, too. It was a lot, multiple auditions, but I did my thing.”
Yeah, you rocked it!
Going into it, did you have any idea about all of the stuff they had planned for Roscoe?
“I actually knew none of it. I was just really excited to try something so different. A lot of kids, I mean I don’t know for sure, but I’m assuming that a lot of kids, from what I’ve heard, when they got the audition, they declined it or they turned away because of the kind of character Roscoe is, but I knew who I was as a person, so I was just glad to play something so different. Because with so many roles nowadays, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I could do this or I could do that,’ but they don’t have that many levels and none of the depth. So being able to play a role like that is awesome, especially at such a young age.”
You’ve definitely been set up for success going forward, as you get older and are able to get even more grown up roles. What are your goals for the future, as far as where you’d like to see yourself?
“My goals for myself. I have different goals in different areas. I want to continue to pick roles and play roles that are different, and that I really think I can express something with, you know? Everybody asks me what I want to do and when I say I want to change the world, I really mean that, and a lot of people take that lightly, but what I mean by that is that when I’m on-screen, I want you to feel a certain way. If I’m really upset because there’s something going on that’s raw on-screen, I want you to feel that emotion with me. Like I wanna – actually, that’s exactly how Don Cheadle is when you see him act. It’s incredible. As far as myself, that’s what I want to do. I want to continue with the craft, get to a certain level. I want to go to film school for college. USC or UCLA. Learn to work the back of the camera, because I’m pretty good at being in front of it, but I have so many things to learn. And one of the reasons that I’m interested in it is because Don Cheadle directed a couple of the episodes and I was just kinda watching and shadowing him and directing is super cool. It’s intricate but still really fun. Don actually directed the last episode that I was in, that we just shot, like, a couple days ago. So, yeah, as far as acting, those are my plans for the future. USC film school and develop myself as an actor.”
So do you want to end up behind AND in front of the camera?
“Yeah, I wanna be able to do both. I want to be able to do as much as I can. I want to be able to write. I want to be able to direct, produce, to act, to do everything at once. I want to do all of it. The more versatile you are, the more outlets you’re going to have.”
“Dancer, singer, actor…do as much as you can, because the more you do, the more opportunities you’re gonna get.”
Right. And that’s actually something I was going to ask about. Because I know you play basketball, you dance, and you’ve gotten to use both of those on-screen with Roscoe, and I saw that you write as well. Have you gotten the chance to work with Don or the writers on that, to work some of your own stuff in, or are you trying to get to that?
“Yeah, that’s what I was – with basketball and dance, that was…whenever I would go in to the writers room, they’d ask me how I am, what I’m up to, and they’ve always been really good at taking my personal skills and putting them on-screen. As far as actually writing, though, that’s not something that’s happening right now, but that would be awesome. I more just tell them how I’m doing and what I’m up to and let them work their magic because they’re so brilliant at it. I’m just trying to spend a lot of time around the writers and just trying to be a sponge. Being around greats like Don and Matthew Carnahan is incredible, Jessika Borsiczky – who’s an executive producer on our show, David Walpert, a bunch of ’em. They’re all brilliant. And I don’t say that lightly. They really are. So being around them and hearing the kinds of conversations they’ve had, and the kind of ideas that get thrown around, and seeing how they keep track of all the things happening with all the characters and how they nail down what they want to do and whenever I get to see that, it’s awesome.”
Yeah. You’ve got a ton of awesome role models around you all the time.
“Oh, my gosh, yeah! We’ve got three generations of black men on-screen. Me, Don, and Glynn, and I think I couldn’t have been blessed with better role models…I don’t know if you know anything about basketball, but I always relate our show to the Spurs. Don and Glynn are super, super humble but extremely talented. And that’s kind of the path that I want to go down, too. And I’ve also gotten to be on-screen with Morgan Freeman and a couple other big time actors. All of them say to focus on the work, trying to build on your dream. So, I’m gonna continue to do the same thing.”
Is there anything that you haven’t liked? Any storyline or any part of being on set or being a part of this show or has it pretty much all been amazing?
“There’s nothing that I have been upset about. Everything’s been great. Starting with off-screen, everyone is just really like a family. Everybody’s close. We all eat lunch together. It’s not like you feel like you need to get away from the crew. All of us have fun together. It’s a great combination. One of my mentors is actually one of the crewmen. He’s a grip, and that’s who I spend a lot of time talking with. And we all – Don Cheadle doesn’t have to talk to me. He doesn’t have to. He’s not paid to talk to me and have conversations with me. He’s not. He’s paid to do a job on-screen. But that’s not what he’s like at all. He’s always helping me figure things out and helping me develop my mind and showing a great interest in my life. And that’s the same with all the actors. Kristen Bell’s incredible, too. We’ll hang out and have awesome conversation. Everybody is really like a family. And not every set is like that. I’ve been given a huge gift to have House of Lies be my first show. Now, going forward, I’ll have House of Lies as a great base. It’s an incredible thing. That’s off-screen. On-screen, there’s always a lot of energy. There hasn’t been anything that I’m uncomfortable with, but if there ever was something I’d be uncomfortable with, I know they’d take it into consideration. Everybody is really, really, really cool.”
That’s awesome. As far as the storyline goes, it looks like Roscoe is turning a corner and now he’s got a new baby sister. Is there anything that you can tell us as far as where we should expect to see Roscoe heading in the new season?
“I can’t give too much away, but what I can say is that the baby, played by twins – that’s how they always do it – their names are Lyric and Kaya, they are the most beautiful girls in the world. Like, it was my first time seeing my little brother holding a baby – my little brother’s 12 now, I’m 16 – so obviously I’m not holding him anymore, but him holding the two babies that were so precious, and they’re gorgeous and…as far as Roscoe in the next season, there isn’t too much I can give away because I want it to be a big surprise, but there are definitely some things that you wouldn’t expect.”
Usually it seems to be that something good happens and then something worse than ever before happens and then something good happens and the next thing is even worse than before. Is that kind of the way we should expect it to go, more or less, or are there some really big surprises?
“It depends…I guess it depends on what your definition of something really good and something really bad happening. There are some pretty big changes that are coming to our show, a lot of great new people who are gonna be guest starring, and showing us different things on-screen. We’re just having a lot of fun filming this season, a lot of fun.”
How far into the new season are you guys with shooting?
“We’re past the fourth episode. I’m on a little break. I’ll be back on set in another week. And then I’ll be workin’, workin’, workin’. “
This is gonna be a shorter season than usual. Does that mean it’s the last season?
“No. I mean, I don’t know why the business division made the decisions that were made. That’s not really a question I can answer. It doesn’t mean it’s the last, it doesn’t mean there’s gonna be a bunch more. I’m not exactly sure. I just know that you guys are in for a treat when you see season five.”
I’m looking forward to it.
Yeah. Seeing you with the baby, seeing Marty with the baby, seeing Jeannie with the baby – Marty and Jeannie just don’t see like baby types so that’ll be an interesting dynamic.
“Yeah. It will be. There are just so many things that I want to tell you but I can’t, but I’m so excited for it, to see your reactions, everybody’s reactions. I know a lot of people who are like, ‘Oh god, what’s happening?’ “
When does the new season premiere?
“It should be in January. That’s what I believe. That’ll be season five.”
What are you doing on your break to keep busy?
“I’m actually, I’m still in high school. I’m sixteen. And I’m studying right now for the PSATs. I’m doing that and I have a solid group of friends that are in the industry and a solid group of friends that aren’t. I have a group of friends that play basketball. Obviously, I play basketball, so I’m playing some basketball, I’m in the gym a lot, with Sean [his manager] who is kicking my butt, but it’s all good. And, I don’t know. Just being…trying to stay sixteen. Because this industry has a habit of growing up actors really really fast and I want to enjoy my childhood as well as do great work on-screen. So I’m finding that balance.”
You are so smart to be doing that.
No problem. How do your parents feel about your career? Have they been really supportive?
“Well, I get this question a lot. Everybody in my family are teachers and actors. My dad is a professor and a teacher. Professor and actor, excuse me. My mom has acted in theater and entertainment. My grandma is an actress currently. My dad is actually a theater director also. Everybody acts. So it’s kind of in my blood. My dad was that guy. That guy that would get up at 2am and leave the house and go to the stage and perform monologues in front of nobody. Just to be performing, because he loved the feeling of being on stage. My dad is incredible. And, um, yeah. I guess that’s where I get it from. Everybody is super, super, super supportive. I don’t know where I’d be without my mom, my grandma, my dad, and even my little brother.”
Do you have anything else in the works right now?
“There are always things that I’m working on. I’ve gotten auditions that I’ve had and I’m taking everything that I get really seriously. There are a couple of things that I’m going to be working on soon. Things that I know I’m already going to be working on. Right now I’m just focusing on House of Lies. Because Roscoe is a character that I have to dive into. He’s not who I am. So there are a lot of questions that I have to ask and answer for myself that nobody can answer for me. So I have to spend a lot of time figuring that out. I’m pretty good at it now.”
Would I be guessing right to say that there’s nothing from Roscoe’s wardrobe that you’d ever want to take home with you?
“That’s not true, actually. Yeah, I mean, I’m not gonna take a kilt home with me, but some of his shirts are really, really, really cool, some of his jackets…I really like his clothes. A lot of them are neutral, not just feminine. A lot of his stuff is super awesome.”
Yeah! He’s probably got the most and the best accessories of anyone on the show.
“Yeah, Roscoe (chuckles) has the coolest clothes, I think. I think Roscoe’s gonna have some of the coolest clothes of any character that I’m going to play. I don’t know, it’s really hard to top off his wardrobe.”
Yeah. I keep thinking that Roscoe probably needs to have his own clothing line.
“Oh yeah. That would be awesome. I hadn’t even thought about that. I really hadn’t thought about that. That’s interesting.”
Do you get any input into his wardrobe at all?
“They get everything. So once it’s there, I can really pick and choose what I like or tell them if there’s something I don’t like. They put it together because obviously it’s not just my opinion. Donis doesn’t have the same style as Roscoe so there are things that I wouldn’t pick that Roscoe would. There’s usually some kind of compromise that we’ll come to. But it’s not hard at all. It’s awesome. Everything is awesome. It’s really been the best thing I could experience. The costumers are really cool. All the actors are really cool. Don is really down to earth. I just got my first car and I got a Chevy Cruz. Don just got a Tesla and before that he had just a little Audi and Don could drive whatever car he wants. Kristen could drive whatever car she wants. But she had a Volt. Everybody’s really down to earth. Just happy to be working. And enjoying the fun that we have.”
You said everybody is like a family. Does everyone bring their own family to set once in a while?
“Not a lot. I mean, Don’s wife, Bridget, comes a lot. Dax has come a couple times. My mom and my grandma come around all the time. So I guess a little bit, but there’s always so much going on so a lot of times our set is closed. Like there’s nudity and there’s this and there’s that, so, not a lot. But we have made our own family out of our cast, which is awesome.”
Keep an eye out for this amazing young actor. He’s definitely going places! And stay tuned for season five of House of Lies, premiering in January on Showtime.