Exclusive Interview with If Beale Street Could Talk’s Michael Beach

It’s a fluke that veteran actor Michael Beach even ended up in the entertainment industry in the first place. He started acting after someone approached him at a school assembly and ended up with a role in The Diary of Anne Frank. That role led Michael to a 30-plus year career that most recently saw him tackle the role Frank Hunt in the Oscar-nominated film, If Beale Street Could Talk. I got the chance to talk with him about how being in that production of The Diary of Anne Frank made him fall in love with the rehearsal process, his audition process for If Beale Street Could Talk, working with Barry Jenkins, his upcoming projects and so much more! Keep reading to see what he had to say!

Tell me a little bit about how you got into acting originally.

Originally, I started acting on a fluke. I was a football player in high school that got severely injured playing lacrosse. I got  hurt so bad that I couldn’t play anymore. I went to a prep school and we had morning assembly every morning; in those assemblies, we had announcements about what was coming up at school or going on with particular groups at school. Somehow, I started making those announcements. I would do one and then somebody would ask me if I would do one for them because they didn’t want to get up and talk in front of a lot of people. But because of that, someone asked me if I would be in a play. I thought, “That’s ridiculous. I’m not an actor. I’m an athlete.” So I turned it down a couple of times. But eventually, I said, “Yeah, why not?” I couldn’t play football so I thought it could be fun.

I ended up auditioning for The Diary of Anne Frank, a very deep play and a very moving experience for me. I fell in love with the whole rehearsal process. From that point on, I auditioned for everything and I got everything I auditioned for. I then decided, based on advice from other people, that I should go to theater school. So I auditioned for three places, got in to all three and decided to go to Julliard.

So is doing The Diary of Anne Frank the moment you would credit with helping you decide that acting is what you wanted to do for a living?

It was definitely the time when I fell in love with it, no doubt about it; I loved rehearsing and trying to figure out why people do things and how people do things. I was obviously very, very new, but it was definitely the thing that made me think that this was something I might want to do. But it was always theatre; I always thought I would be in theatre. I never thought about TV or film.

Over the years, you’ve played a lot of different roles on many different mediums. Do you have a personal acting “bucket list” of roles you’d like to play or genres of projects you’d like to try?

When I was younger, I think I probably did have a bucket list. But in my mid-50s now, I just look forward to the next thing. After 30 plus years, you come to find that you never know where you’re going to be or who you’re going to be working with. Half the time, that’s exciting, like, “Oh, I never expected I’d be working with so-and-so or working in South Africa or Australia or wherever.” It still has that kind of excitement and new-ness with many new jobs that pop up. I’m just happy that I’m still around and to have some value to some people [laughs]. That’s exciting in and of itself.

Let’s talk about If Beale Street Could Talk. How did you get involved in the project? What was your audition process like?

I was in Atlanta when I first heard about it; I was working on some show there. My agent called me and told me they were interested in me. I wasn’t able to go meet anyone [in person] so I put one scene down on my iPhone in my hotel room and sent it to my agent. I didn’t hear anything for a while and then we heard they were interested if we could work it out. I actually had an offer for another film that was going to pay a lot more money [laughs]. But when it turned out they were very serious about Beale Street, we dropped the other project and just went for Beale Street. The truth is my audition process was my entire half an hour in front of my iPhone in the hotel room, cause I never met Barry until my first day on set of the movie a few months later.

Wow. That’s crazy. Had you ever read If Beale Street Could Talk or at least one of James Baldwin’s works prior to reading the role? If not, did you go back and read it?

I had never read Beale Street prior to getting the job, but I had read Go Tell It On The Mountain, which is obviously fantastic. I had known of James Baldwin and had watched some of his interviews on YouTube over the years. I was very impressed by him because the guy was so charismatic and so matter of fact. You can’t not watch him and go, “Wow. This dude is on top of it.” So yes, I ended up reading the novel after I was cast. But prior to that, I hadn’t read that particular novel.

Earlier you mentioned Barry Jenkins, who is a fantastic director and has such an incredible vision, especially for this film. What was it like working with him, especially because you hadn’t worked with him and didn’t even meet him until your first day on set?

It was easy. Barry is a very affable guy and a very collaborative director. He casts well, so he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about moments, or at least he didn’t with me. I think really good directors have short-hand. They come in, they are able to say something in a sentence or two, or even sometimes a word or two, and then walk away, give you the opportunity to see if you can marry what you are doing with what he just said to you, and then that’s it. He’ll give you a thumbs up if that’s it and then move on to one of the other 5,000 things he has to do. So I loved him. We got along great. I would love the opportunity to do something with him again.

In the movie, you play Frank Hunt and Frank is a really great example of someone who is breaking down stereotypes of an African-American father, because he’s a good dad and a present dad. What was it like to play this role?

He doesn’t see himself as a good dad. He sees himself as a failure, which is why it became so important to him to now step up and do whatever he could because he felt like he wasn’t there prior to this whole incident, knowing that his son his clearly innocent of the charges that are being brought against him now. I think, for me, it was exciting because I love the fact that you have 2 fathers, in the 70s, who are fighting for their children, who want to start their own families. Part of the thing that has really put black families behind is the fact that we have been so decimated as families and as family units, having a mother, a father and children living in the same household. Frank’s relationship with his wife is not good, but he’s been fighting to keep the family together and to do that for his children. That’s what I really love about this character. Being a father of 8 children myself, it’s valuable to me that the family unit is elevated because I think we’ve been self-destructive in that way.

As heartbreaking as this film is, it also tells an important story. Why do you feel it is important for people to watch this movie?

I think we need a well-rounded view of American society. American society is very diverse, and more and more, we need films like this to show a side that has obviously been lacking. There are a lot of indie films out there that depict black life and black families. It’s just very hard in this marketplace to see them, because it is about the dollar. The films that you hear about are the ones with big stars, big directors or the studios have decided to get behind. So there are tons of indie films out there that never see the light of day because there is no champion behind them. It’s fantastic when you are able to find a director, producer, writer, studio that decides that they are going to put their might behind a film like this that normally would have a very difficult time finding an audience.

I know 2019 is slated to be a big year for you. What of your upcoming projects would you like to share with our readers?

I’m doing a bunch of TV this year, a show called The Rookie, a show called For The People, etc. The one I’m most excited to see is a film called Superintelligence and the reason is that it’s a comedy starring Melissa McCarthy. It also stars Brian Tyree Henry, who was also in Beale Street and I had nothing to do with then, but have a lot to do with in this movie. It was fun for me because I’ve done a couple of comedies over the years, but my bread and butter is drama. So I had a lot of fun doing it and I’m excited to see what it turned out to be. I have no idea when it’s coming out; I just know it’s coming out this year.

The other thing I’m most excited about is a series for Apple’s streaming service, that I don’t know much about yet either. The show is called Are You Sleeping? and it stars Aaron Paul, Lizzy Caplan, Ron Cephas Jones, Elizabeth Perkins, and Mekhi Phifer. I get to play the husband of Octavia Spencer, who is also executive producing it. We had a ball. It’s a new type of show about a podcaster who explores old murder cases and whether or not the actual criminal is behind bars or someone else committed it. We just don’t know what the platform is that Apple is going to present.

But you’ve already shot it?

Yeah. We’ve shot it. It’s all done. And I’m sure they are making the moves now. Apple is about to launch this streaming service and I’m sure there will be a lot of fanfare behind it.

Last question — we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd so what is something that you’re currently nerding out about?

I’m kind of starting to nerd out a little bit about the DC Universe, [especially] having been in Aquaman. There are a couple of things that might be happening for me that I can’t really talk about that are involved in the DC world, so I’ve devoured a few of the shows on their streaming service and some of their comic books. It’s a world that has been around for a long time but it’s new to me.

Make sure you follow Michael on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo Credit: JSquared Photography

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