Popular Guy: Dexter Darden
Sep 29, 2020
Despite everything happening on the outside, Jersey native Dexter Darden is having one of the best years of his career. Having made his way into the spotlight through fan favorites like Joyful Noise, Cadillac Records, and the Maze Runner franchise as Frypan, Darden is flexing his range once again with some of this year’s most anticipated releases.
In Sons of the South, executively produced by Spike Lee, Darden dawn on screen as a young version of the late Georgia Congressman, John Lewis. Based on Bob Zellner’s autobiography The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, The film takes place between the spring and summer of 1961 during the Montgomery Freedom Riders riot of May of that year.
The actor is also dominating streaming platforms with the release of the Hulu feature film ‘The Binge’ alongside Vince Vaughn and Skyler Gisondo that released late last month and the highly anticipated release of the Saved By The Bell reboot. In 2020’s ‘Saved by the Bell’ Darden plays Devante Young – a Douglas High transplant and new Bayside student.
In talking with Popular TV, Darden opened about his new roles, the Black Lives Matter movement, and what throwback series he’d love to recast.
What can you tell me about your character Devante Young in the ‘Saved by the Bell’ reboot?
Devante Young is a kid who goes to Douglas, which is another school in the Saved by the Bell world. He really just wants to be able to start off fresh and new with a new beginning at this new high school that he’s attending called Bayside because Zack Morris decided to trim some of the funding from the inner city schools and public schools and put it towards a higher education fund in return letting some of those kids who go to the more inner city or less affluent schools have an opportunity to go to Bayside.
I played Devante Young, who was one of those kids who just wants to come to Bayside to be able to just start over new and really incorporate himself and integrate himself in a school where he has a new opportunity to finally showcase a side of himself that he really wants to. So playing Devante, for me, is such a blessing because I feel like I’m playing, honestly, the closest character to myself I’ve ever played in my life. Devante is multifaceted. He’s got a lot of layers to him. And just starting off, being able to play Devante Young and having the ability to showcase a nice young black male on television who’s not out in the streets or who’s not a member of this gang or a member of that gang. And really looking just to integrate in and showcase himself in this school for the first time. It’s pretty special.
He has this idea in his head to come and reinvent himself in high school. Did you ever have that feeling or want to move and reinvent yourself? If so, what did that ideal persona look like for you?
I did have the opportunity to reinvent myself. When I was young, my mom moved me to a private school outside of Camden where I grew up. When I went to that private school, I had the opportunity to start the musical and I was playing in basketball, but I really was interested to try acting out in school, so I did that as well which was nice. I did have the opportunity to reinvent myself and also just to try new opportunities that might not have necessarily been offered at the public school that I probably would have went to.
Relating to this character, what specifically did you bring to this role?
Devante, comes to Bayside and everybody has this one view of him because he’s one of the only African-American males who’s coming to this new school that is predominantly conquered by people who are well off and Devante is not. So, he comes there and just has the opportunity to prove everybody wrong about what they think of what people from the inner city are and, also show what people from the inner city can be. And I think it’s great to get the opportunity to bring that on to film and showcase it on camera.
Your new role in Sons of the South is based in the civil rights era which is pretty ironic to say to today. What was the reality of filming something like that for you?
Well, for me, my grandmother lived in Atlanta, my aunts and uncles, I have so many cousins who live in East Atlanta and having them have the opportunity and having myself have the opportunity to be able to play John Lewis was really, really inspiring because of what John Lewis meant for Atlanta and being a Congressman and being one of the most influential figures in the south and in the civil rights movement, it really meant a lot for me. I won’t say that I didn’t feel pressure because I did. Anytime you play somebody who actually lived and existed, who walked this earth, and who meant a lot to people who are still alive today, there is definitely a sense of pressure that surrounds that. And I was just super happy and blessed and honored to be able to bring John Lewis to screen and accurately portray him.
Did you get a chance to meet him?
I did not get a chance to meet him, but he did co-sign on me playing him. And I did get to speak with him on the phone, briefly.
What did you learn or take away from that experience of being able to play him?
I didn’t realize how much he had accomplished before he met with King. He really accomplished a lot being a part of SNCC, being a part of the youngest organization and being the youngest civil rights leader or a part of that camp. And I think it’s really important. This movie, Son of the South is not about John Lewis in any way, shape or form. It’s about the whole entire movement. So, it covers Reverend Ralph Abernathy. It covers Rosa Parks. And it covers a lot of these people who were really ingrained in the civil rights movement that tend to be overlooked for the grander scheme of things, which is not bad. It’s not a bad thing at all, but it just shows a point in John Lewis’ life before he met King, where he was really on the front lines fighting and really on the front lines trying to be heard. And I think that’s important.
You skyrocketed as Frypan from The Maze Runner series. What initially drew you to that role?
Just having the opportunity to be in a young adult franchise. Growing up when you see the Harry Potters of the world and then transitioning to young adulthood, you’re watching The Hunger Games. Everybody really hopes to have that opportunity to just be able to be in a movie where kids read a book, had a vision of that character, what they look like, and then you being the person who brings that character to life. And so when that audition and opportunity presented itself, it was something that I really was excited to be a part of and just audition for the job in general. And, I actually originally auditioned for Alby in the first movie, and then that’s how they brought the roll back around. And were like, “This guy, he’s not necessarily Alby, even though he’s close.”
As an actor, do you ever feel yourself taking pieces of those characters home with you?
It’s so funny that you ask that question because the one character that has specifically inspired me, outside of playing John Lewis obviously, but the one that has specifically inspired me was I did this musical in Seattle, Washington for this festival. And I think only 200 people saw it, so it really has nothing to do with the movie industry, per se, but playing this character, I really learned a lot about myself. Because I was playing a guy who had all the answers, he was this cool, “I sing songs. I’m a struggling musician, but I don’t care,” kind of thing. And he’d kind of just gotten to a point in his life where he’d figured it out and transitioning into manhood, I was going on stage three nights a week and responding to my castmates as a character, but also giving myself some life advice that I really need to carry on with me for the rest of my life.
So that was one of those characters that I really played. And I was like, “Oh, this dude, I’m taking a lot of his stuff home. I’m taking him back to the crib,” but, honestly true, Devante too. I learn a lot from Devante because I think he’s so close to myself. I learn a lot about him and how he navigates situations and how he navigates problems and deals with systemic racism at Bayside and all of those kinds of things. Just knowing what it’s to be a young adult male in 2020. I think I could take a lot away from him.
And as always present that to other kids who may be going through the same thing as well.
That’s the beauty of my industry. It’s like I’m very fortunate to be able to be a part of an industry where what I can do on film will sustain longevity for a very, very long time. And so it’s important that the roles I play and the characters that I play and the things that I bring to life on screen are impacting people in the right way. Whether it’s that they need a little laughter from Hags in The Binge or they really need some life advice from John Lewis in Son of the South, or even early on playing Walter Hill, a kid with special needs in Joyful Noise -which is the main reason I’m here in LA. I did that movie with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton and Keke Palmer in 2012. I don’t know when the last time a kid with special needs was really shown on television like that in film before/after ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’. So having the opportunity to do those kinds of things, it really, I don’t want to say pressure, but I understand that it is a responsibility to be able to show people a side of themselves that they may not know or be in touch with.
In the industry, there’s a huge shift gearing back to including and telling more stories of BIPOC in the industry right now. What are the storylines that you’d like to see come back?
Well, you know what’s so funny? In the early ‘90s in movies like Wood and Poetic Justice, you saw black friendships, true black on black friendships. And I think we were only doing it because we were making our own movies. We were making movies like Brothers and shows like Girlfriends and Moesha. I think that we need to get back into just showing black on black friendships. I think we’re getting to a part where it’s really cool where we have the black best friend or the black adopted sibling of two white siblings. And these are all great roles for us because it’s putting us in the position where it’s who can do the best job and not looks the best for the part, which is great. I love it.
But I think we need to get back into mainstream television and mainstream film, just showing what it’s like for black people to move as friends and as family because I think that was such a specific thing that we grew up with in the ‘90s and my uncles and my brothers grew up with in the ‘80s and early 2000’s. But I think it’s gotten lost in current film and TV making. And I think we could do a great job of bringing that back. Let’s keep doing stuff like Black Panther, so we have the opportunity just to show how we can all just unify as one or even just stuff that takes place in a household showing that, “This is how black people operate every day. And this is a true look and glimpse inside of the home of an African-American family in the United States in 2020.”
What characters did you see from those shows in yourself growing up?
Wow. That’s a great, great, great question. I remember watching Smart Guy years ago and Jason Weaver’s character in Smart Guy, the charming, but goofy, kind of Rico Suave, but kind of like, “You’re the nerd who can be put in the locker if you do the wrong thing,” bigger brother, I’ve always watched that role and been like, “Dang, that’s something that I really want to do. And that’s something I can really relate to because he sang, he hooped, he played basketball. I did the same thing.” And also, of course, growing up in the Philadelphia area, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, watching Will Smith do his thing on television when he was young was definitely an inspiration to me that I saw myself in.
And then, in film, transitioning into film, the movie that made me want to make movies, still to this day, my favorite movie of all time is Rush Hour. And I think that that was so revolutionary in terms of you had an Asian male from China with a black man from the South in Georgia who was quick at the tongue and they were your one-two combination. You didn’t need Tom cruise and Brad Pitt. You needed these two people to be able to do their thing. And so they did that and that inspired me to be able to do film.
What is your favorite throw back?
I would have to go with, I watched a lot of Fresh Prince growing up. I did. I think Fresh Prince immediately impacted me the most. Also, Living Single. I used to love Living Single growing up.
Would that be the show that you’d want to be brought back?
Yeah. I would love a new age Living Single. I’m going to pitch this now, New Age Living Single, starring me, we’re going to go with Keith Powers, we’re going to go with Rhyon Nicole Brown, even though Ryan Destiny is a superstar, but she’s already got Grown-ish. I’m going to think about it.
Is there a role you’re currently chasing right now?
I would love to do a movie like my brother, LaKeith Stanfield data in The Photograph, man, and just have the opportunity just to show black romance on TV and film in the right way. So maybe that’s the next role for me coming up.
As an actor, I feel like you guys are always building a skill or a craft through your characters. Is there any specific training that you’d like to do for a role?
We went through a very brief military training, just survival training, for the first Maze Runner, which was really, really interesting. This is going to sound polar opposite of everything that I stand for, but I really want to go through police training for a cop film, and that’s only because I really want to get into the psychology and the mental dichotomy that presents itself when it comes to how quickly you feel the need to grab your gun. It’s so quick to just react in the split decision and say something or do something you don’t necessarily mean. You can even do it in arguments. A lot of times, you’ll be like, “I hate you,” when you’re in an argument with somebody and you don’t necessarily mean it.
I want to talk about your poem ‘Silence’. Was there anything in particular that sparked it?
It was smack dab in the middle of the quarantine, and I was watching the riots take place in Minnesota. And there was an African-American reporter who was doing an interview about how they finally had gotten it under control in Minnesota, and he was doing this interview for CNN and you can hear the chief of police calling in just saying, “Arrest them all, arrest them all.” They arrested him on camera while live on CNN and I just so happened to be watching it when that happened.
That’s what really prompted me to write, Silence. I just refuse to associate myself with people or friends who remain silent on these kinds of situations now because it’s not going to better me as a person. And so I was writing it to myself by simultaneously wanting to share with the world.
What was your favorite line from it?
Wow. Honestly, I love the first line of the poem because it’s so true. It’s just very quaint. Like, “I hate how it’s cool to have a black friend until sh*t hits the fan.” Or I’m really into fashion too, “You’ll adopt our fashion, our music and our kicks, but then say things like, ‘I don’t like to get involved in politics.'” So, there’s a lot of cultural appropriation that goes around and comes around with being black or culturally appropriating the African-American community. And people are so excited to go by the latest Off-Whites, which is designed by a black designer, but then still not be able to say, “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” And that just makes me so sick to my stomach.
Final Question: What are you most looking forward to in your career?
I think just hopefully getting to the place where I can create with all of my friends. And have the opportunity to do a live action Living Single remake and be able to pick the cast or do the movie that I’m writing and be able to work with my cast mates, who I completely agree with and who I love and who I’ll fight for as much as they’ll fight for me like the Jacob Latimore’s of the world and the Jordan Fisher’s, Luke Benward’s, the Olivia Holts, Dove Cameron’s, the Algee Smith’s and the Keith Powers’ like I said earlier.
I’ve been blessed with a lot of friends and in LA it’s all about your community. Having a community of people who I can just reach out to and put my hand on, and I was actually having a dinner with Amber Riley this weekend, and we were just talking about how blessed we are to be able to hopefully be in a position one day where we can create with others, for others. And that’s what I’m really looking forward to in my career.
Keep up with our new Bayside hero when Saved by the Bell releases on November 25th and keep up with Darden on Instagram and Twitter!
*this interview has been condensed for length and clarity