Photography by: Sam Hanson
By: Zeke Hanson
The downside to creativity is a constant state of unrest.
If you only wear one hat as an artist, there is a good amount of time spent waiting for someone else to call you and say, “it’s time”…”you’re up”.
Whether you juggle a real job while you wait, or try to wear as many creative hats as you can, there’s always that nagging question of how much longer you can hold on before you go from driven to an inability to let go. You’ve got to breathe a determination, every breath, not to convince those around you of what you’re doing…it’s not for them, it’s to remind yourself that, no matter what, this is what you’re on that long haul for.
Ronnel Taylor is one of those guys that lives the phrase “no matter what”. “I definitely am not doing it for the fame;” Ronnel said,“I’m doing it for the love of the art. Coincidentally, people begin to know who you are because you are so good at it.” The attention and accolades are superficial to the drive it takes to get there. The money seems great, when you don’t have it, but different problems come with different stations. If what you feel as that first passion isn’t enough to keep you going, the success you perceive fame and fortune to provide won’t fill that void. “I honestly love it.” Taylor said, “I love it so much, for no reason. There’s not a dollar you could pay me to make me love it more. I would just about do it for free, but why not earn a living off it, because other people have and can.”
Taylor grew up in Chicago, the oldest of 11 kids. “They are important in every way of my acting.” Taylor continued, “If I didn’t have 10 brothers and sisters I wouldn’t have got to use my imagination as much as I did. We played all kinds of games around the house. We turned the kitchen into an ice skating ring, using all the dishwashing liquid…my mom was very fucking upset. We were skating all around barefoot, turning it to ice in our imaginations. I attribute a lot of my craft to being able to just play at home. I didn’t get enough alone time though, which is important, to be able to have some solitude, be able to focus and clear your own thoughts unless I was away. But, it definitely catapulted me into acting because there were so many interesting characters.”
Before the call of the stage, before drama classes, as a child Ronnel’s imagination would run wild on the page. “I was always a writer.” Ronnel said, “I was a writer before I was an actor. When I learned to use a pencil, pen, and piece of paper…the first thing I did was write stories. I wrote and wrote and wrote as a kid. When my mom would give me my allowance, I’m the oldest out of 11 and I’m a twin, being from a big family…my twin would buy action figures and video games and I would buy notebook paper. It got so bad that my mom, if I didn’t do my chores, she would hide my notebook paper. WHO HIDES NOTEBOOK PAPER FROM A LITTLE BLACK BOY! Let him write! I wrote and wrote and wrote and then I got into acting in my teen years.”
When the theater bug bit Ronnel, it sunk its fangs in deep. Under good instruction, and thorough preparation, Taylor was able to get the experience under him that would sustain a career. “I contribute all of my foundation and ground work to Thornwood and Eisenhower High School,” Taylor Explains, “that’s where I got the bulk of my dirt.” Even as he honed his craft, he had people take note of his talents, “I was with the Chicago Theater Company, that was my home theater,” Ronnel said, “my mentor was Douglas Alan-Mann, I met him when I was 18 and he was astounded by the fact that I could sound like a 35 year old, believably, he could not understand, he would close his eyes and open his eyes and see I was only 18. So he would cast me in things as an older man and wouldn’t cast an older person. I was so believable, it just came from my theater training in high school. I had some strong drama clubs I was involved in.”
Ronnel has been in a lot of shows (background work on Early Edition), commercials (a national spot for US bank called “Home Sweet Home”), countless theater performances as well as Second City…he’s done work. At one point he auditioned for an Oprah film, and after getting a callback cut his own hair…terribly, then had to wear a hat to the callback. He didn’t get the part. When he you still a kid, he was in the Keanu Reeves film Hardball, where he played a gang member. “Unfortunately, a lot of my on camera work, I’ve had to play a bad guy,” said Ronnel. He’s got two shows he’s booked roles on now: Chicago Fire and Empire (airing May 9th). “Both roles are bad guys and I’m a guy who walks with his dimples strong in his face. I’m very fun and if I had to pick a character I’d be the quirky nerd dude who’s always heartbroken and falls down the stairs.” Going up for smaller roles in the Chicago market puts you in a tough spot as far as roles and character names go. If you aren’t the lead you’re a thug, or you’re a gang member #2. “I don’t mind playing the villain;” Ronnel reflects, “I’ve just been playing street thugs. That’s been the nature of my on camera roles. Not my theater roles, I’ve been able to play a vast amount of characters, from a guy in prison with one arm, that was one of my favorite characters. I made him a boxer, that was a choice, which was funny for the audience to see me swinging with one arm. Another character, I really enjoyed playing the transvestite, just because that was a challenge for me, I like to go outside my comfort zone so I can always be digging and be discovering new facets of what I’ve got underneath the skin. I just want to play characters that challenge me. I don’t want to stick to close to home because then it’s not acting, it’s just Ronnel being Ronnel.”
It isn’t so much type cast, it’s role opportunity. In an attempt to break that mold, Ronnel moved to LA. “I didn’t get as much exposure as I needed while I was in LA in the first place,” Taylor reflects, “so I can’t judge it fairly. I didn’t have the chance to go as hard as I wanted to in Los Angeles, I was a little pre occupied with my persona l life, to hit the ground running like I thought I would.” While he was there though, he did a play at the Lilian Theatre. He didn’t get paid much, but was able to work with a production company called Little Birdies and a team of writers who wrote their own One-Acts in a show called I Heart Mixed Tapes. In one of those shows, Ronnel played a rapper and a transsexual prostitute. It was good to stretch the range and work the chops, but the exposure that Ronnel got from that was unexpected. “I got to meet Alec Baldwin!” Ronnel said, “he came to the show, , unbeknownst to me, and I was getting dressed after the show and they were hurrying me, and I came out to meet Alec Baldwin and he told me I was brilliant. That’s one of the best compliments I’ve gotten as an actor, because it came from Alec Baldwin. He waited ‘til after the show just to meet me and let me know how amazing I was and how great a time he had. That says a lot. If I ever am in doubt, I close my eyes and think about that moment and remember my gift.”
It’s often the little moments that drive us to our biggest achievements. For Ronnel, one hand helps the other. His writing feeds his acting. His music feeds his writing. His acting feeds his music. It’s a Don’t Ever Stop mentality. Just as Giles Corey asks for more weight in the Crucible, Ronnel tries to take on and carry as much as he possibly can. It isn’t one or the other. “I have so many ideas!” Ronnel continues, “I just need to focus on one at a time. As much of both as I can possibly do. I can’t stop preforming because that’s where I am. More of my spare time, I have been dedicating to writing than I have in a very long time. And persistently writing. I started writing a television show that’s an hour long dramedy and I am on my third episode. The first episode was 59 pages the second episode I couldn’t stop writing, I got to 67 pages, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do but try the credits in a weird way, but I let it go, so today I’m working on a third episode in hopes to write 12 - 60 pages episodes before the Fall comes and start shooting over the Summer so I can put my career more in my hands than I do the other people I have to wait to get a call from. I want to put myself to work and work with who I want to work with. I have a lot of talented friends and we haven’t had the chance to share our craft together. I have so many ideas for this year.”
Inspired by growing up in a home full of characters, with a mother who keeps taking others in under her protection, Taylor has started two new scripts. One a half hour set that he’s writing in collaboration called Brownstone, and another that’s a full hour comedy drama that he’s doing on his own with a very John Buchan 39 Steps origin, all while drawing from some very familiar characters to Ronnel called The Porch. “The porch is the eye of the television show and it sees everything that happens on it.” Taylor expands on his idea, “there are some strange people that come across the porch, but just your neighborhood regulars like the old lady who’s tiny dogs walk themselves right across the street. She’s part of the neighborhood. You never go into anyone’s house, you just see what’s going in or what’s coming out of the place, it’s set outside, everything happens outside. It's very fun. I’d like to put a song in every show somehow. There might be a day when I’m on The Porch and have my solo. It's very fun for me to explore the ways I want this story to be told, I’m not pigeon holed to one specific way, but I do know that every episode will be about a specific character just so the audience gets to understand every character and love or hate a character, to know their rights and their wrongs. There’s a lot of humor, and there’s a lot of drama. I’m glad I just finished two episodes, because it just gets you that much more to do another one. Sometimes if it’s just not coming that day, I can’t force myself, it’s not happening, I’ll just sit on the porch and let the people come and someone will say something that inspires me to go write a scene. I’m really involved in my writing, but the only way my acting takes a back seat is if I’m not going on any auditions. I’m using this time purposefully to spend more time developing my own work and work for others that I really would enjoy acting with again. I’m working every avenue I can. Music on the side. If I’m not writing or acting, let me try to record a song into my phone and compose a new melody. I’m always trying to remain creative at all times.”
The more work we create for ourselves the more times we can have those chances and opportunities.
For Ronnel, 2017 was a year full of distraction through the seemingly constant loss of loved ones around him; none more devastating than his best friend and fellow actor Nelsan Ellis. “That was, and still is a struggle for me,” Taylor said. They had a shared dream, and hopes of collaborations. Through Taylor, he hopes that Ellis’ story may continue. “Trying to continue the legacy that we shared together. I’m going to live that, and embrace that, and let it make me smile.”
IF THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE HAPPENED TONIGHT and you could take three weapons, what would they be…and how would the characters you’ve played have prepared you for it?
R.T.: Not a movie, a real zombie apocalypse…well, 3 weapons against the zombies. 1 would be Silence. Silence is the best actor, if you can communicate without words…then when given words you are invincible.
That’s a good question; one answer could go a bunch of different ways. Can we use that answer for all three. This combats silence, when you’re quiet, you listen. Listening is very important, is that a skill? Can I take listening with me? That can be an answer, silence and listening.
Ray Charles would survive the zombie apocalypse. If you just close your eyes and listen you’re less afraid. You hear more. To take the appropriate steps, to get to where I need to go, so that I can live, I’d Listen very hard to where the zombies might be coming from. To make sure I am as far away from the sound of terror as I can be.
Those are two skills that I learned from the stage that I could use in the zombie apocalypse.
Disguise. The gift of disguise, to be able to blend in and be a chameleon in anything. I would disguise myself as one of them. I think that’s good.
Listen. Silence. Disguise.
When I mean silence, I mean specifically if I were mute…using my skills, my body or my eyes, gestures to make contact with somebody as opposed to using my voice, because that would give me away if I were hiding. Just using your body more than being audible.
The Listening skill is very important on stage, not just behind the stage, on camera, whatever…that line might be delivered a different way that night, you’re supposed to react a to the delivery of the line and if you get into a autopilot then you’re not really there. You’re conditioned already. You become a robot. Always be open to experiment and try a new way of saying something. I did a play years ago and I read the line today and have a completely different read on it. Wow this would have been such a different scene if I’d said it “like this”. Not that how I said it was wrong, but I got into a complacent way of saying it that I’d never explored.
A lot of life happens between the lines.
There you have it: A Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse by Ronnel Taylor.
Support your multiple hat wearers.
Don’t keep Ronnel a stranger. Catch his next performance on Empire May 9th.
He’s on Facebook and on Instagram @reon79