Interview: Jaleel WhiteAugust 5, 2019
Recently we had the chance to talk with Jaleel about his many years in the acting business, including his famous character Steve Urkel and his part on the new show 50 Ways to Kill Your Mum.
So you’ve been doing this acting gig for quite some time now…
Jaleel: Too damn long. (Laughs)
Are you ready to throw in the towel? I guess every actor has that moment, or moments, where they think about doing something else.
Jaleel: I’ve definitely had that moment. I actually love acting, I’ll love acting until I die, when it’s pure, but the business of the business is becoming so layered. The things they consider before they consider a good performance, it’s like, are you serious? Then they wonder why they get such garbage and don’t hit those numbers they want. Me and my manager Chris, we’re just very old school, and even this project ’50 Ways’, it took forever to decide what we’re going to do but once we agreed we did it, and I got a feeling, what the week was like with my mom. I’ve been in front of the camera for 39 years, so when I get that feeling, their data say yeah, that’s nice. I don’t get that feeling all the time and I think you might have a special episode here. It’s not an entire series but I did something with my mother that I’ve never done before, never been on camera with her, she’s never been on camera and Chris and I were nervous about that, you just don’t know what you’re going to get, but she turned out to have a great personality. When I get that feeling, I enjoy the time spent with the crew, the director, Graham did such a wonderful job directing. I don’t like reality directors, I find them to be quite manipulative, to be honest, but I enjoyed working with him. We kept in touch and when those kinds of things start to happen organically, then somebody around us is probably going to make some money! (Laughs)
You started in this business at a really young age, three years old, I believe. Is that part of why you feel burnt out, from starting so young, or do you have good memories from those early years?
Jaleel: No, I actually have a ton of great memories from those early years. The only burn out I might feel is this arms race that is going on right now. Development was always tough, it’s always been tough, Steve Urkel was not even born in development and that’s part of the problem with the character, he was not born of development. It was a band-aid on top of failed development, so because of it you’ve got no execs that want to take credit for it, but they’ll take the money. As I said, the arms race is what makes it so tough, there’s so much content out there right now, that the joy you used to get when you completed something and it was special and it was like oh, I can’t wait for people to see it. Now you have to hope that people see it, based on what your distribution ends up being.
You had such a huge character in Steve Urkel on Family Matters. Have you found the success of that character to be more of a good or bad thing for you, in terms of your career?
Jaleel: That’s such a tough question because first, I was compensated very well, much higher than other African-American kids were being paid back then. But then life changed, I mean, we made that show before cell phones, before social media, these huge things that have changed life as we know it. Obviously with those things around certain decisions would have been made differently. It’s a double-edged sword…it’s the very reason you’re still talking to me now, it paid me well, I’m not going to cry about the reasons that it jumped the shark, starting about season seven, they were out of my hands, out of my control. I was a young man, I wasn’t Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David, I didn’t have the autonomy to say, I don’t think we should so that. But I have nothing but fond memories of what it was. I n this business it’s a journey, you have to accept it for that and really, it’s a pretty cool thing to be associated with.
You were 21 when Family Matters ended. Did you think you were just going to step into the next adventure, that it would be that easy?
Jaleel: Well, I did a short-lived show on UPN called Grown Ups and that taught me a lot of what you shouldn’t do in television. I felt confined, all of a sudden I was this ABC kid but the oh, the black shows are being done over here now, so I went and that. That’s why I say, you’ve got to respect the journey because there is always going to be a change or shift. I like how people pretend that between 2000 and 2010 that blacks were on network television. There were none, except Kerry Washington on Scandal. Then a lovely little show called Empire came along and even that show is never going to get credit for what it did because it got campy, jumped the shark. Empire literally had a Cosby like effect for African Americans in this business. Our business is double dutch, that’s the best way to describe it, really. Hopefully, when you jump in there you won’t get tripped up by the ropes and get a nice, long journey.
So how did you get into voice acting?
Jaleel: Voice acting was super cool, man. That was a job I didn’t necessarily want, only because it was time-consuming but they always need a name to sell something, not understanding that’s the way it goes. When I was a kid, in order to sell Sonic on ABC Saturday morning, they used me to create a flow from Friday night. I didn’t understand that at the time but that’s how the deal got done, and I became the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog. The creativity is the fun part and the easy part, I can wrap my head around a lot of creativity, I think I did over 100 episodes of Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic fans are crazy but so awesome because again, they’re appreciative and I’m really thankful for that.
When you do voice acting do you physically get into the role or are you more of a stationary kind of guy?
Jaleel: I physically get I into it, yeah. I actually prefer to do it by myself. Some people like doing it in the round, together, I haven’t enjoyed those as much. For me, you don’t know the actors that well, I suppose if you were on The Simpsons or something you really get to know each other. I like to do things over as well, typically the second take is my best, the first just gets it out. You can’t do that necessarily if you are in a group setting of any kind, so when they accommodated me doing Sonic I just got used to doing it that way. I love voice acting, I just did Steve Urkel again for Scooby-Doo, to let the studio know I enjoy voice acting. I think people will enjoy it, it’s a fun episode.
Now how did you get involved with 50 Ways to Kill Your Mum?
Jaleel: Once it was ready to come to me, I just told them, I’m not messing with any whales with my mom. That kept appearing in the emails and finally we settled on what we were going to do. I’m very happy I did it, it was a very memorable and fun week last year in New Mexico with my mom. I felt good shooting this, the only thing that could screw this up was a bad editor.
You mentioned in the episode about taking your Mom out of her comfort zone. Did you get taken out of your comfort zone during any part of the episode?
Jaleel: Oh yeah, with the bees. I’d done the other things, those were right up my alley so I was having a blast, but the bees I was legit nervous with. I’m telling you, your mind just convinces yourself there’s a hole in the suit and the bees are going to find it eventually. (Laughs) The spicy challenge, I love spicy foods, my mom’s not nearly the fan I am so no, I made it a three to one ratio, her to me.
You two had great chemistry, great interactions together.
Jaleel: She had never been on camera before. She didn’t even visit me on Dancing with the Stars because of it, that was a big dumb family issue. Weeks six rolls around and she’s like, ok, your father and I have decided we’re going to come down and I’m well, that’s great, I think I’m going to be eliminated, so you can keep your butt home! (Laughs)
I want to thank Jaleel for taking the time to speak with us.
You can catch his episode of 50 Ways to Kill Your Mum on Vision TV Monday, August 5th at 9 pm