Catching Up With Brandon Smith of You're the Worst

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At this year’s Emmy Awards, host Seth Meyers joked that the HBO network “is like the kid you grew up with who ended up doing way better than you expected.” Well, FX has always been the cool, slightly-off kid, originally broadcasting classic shows from back in the day like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Eight is Enough, before venturing into original programming with The Shield and Nip Tuck. This year the network is making it even more difficult to watch traditional sitcoms. With the series premiere of You’re The Worst (along with Married), it’s clear that FX is seeking to redefine the experiences of love and commitment, which have long since had a very particular look on television. You’re the Worst centers on a young quasi-couple (played by Chris Geere and Aya Cash), but many of us got hooked on the show as a result of supporting cast members like Brandon Mychal Smith, who plays Sam Dresden.

It’s true that there are no small roles, and it’s incredibly important that Smith is playing Sam—a young, black, skater-type, foul-mouthed rapper, whose sexual ambiguity is unique and refreshing. In short, he’s a little weird—and, unfortunately, something as simple as “weird” can be hard to come by for actors of color. The FX network and showrunner Stephen Falk are unafraid to play around with racial stereotypes (their black movie theater bit was brilliant), and Smith is right there with them. Paste caught up with the actor to talk You’re the Worst, diversity, and his critically-acclaimed performance in Get on Up.

Paste Magazine: So, I watched that old Nike commercial you were in with Tiger Woods.
Brandon Smith: Oh, wow! That’s amazing. That was my first audition, my first job ever. That’s amazing that you saw it.

Paste: Can you remember when you had those first inclinations to perform?
Smith: Definitely. I was five years-old, and my mother saw this spark in my personality. We would read poetry from Langston Hughes, and Shel Silverstein. And the interest from there came out of wanting to make my peers laugh in class. I was entertaining, and trying to get the girls to like me, of course. And then I’d be trying to win the guys over on the basketball court. I was an avid basketball player—I still am. So, it was really just about trying to impress people, and trying to make them laugh.

Paste: I can’t believe you mentioned Shel Silverstein! A Light in the Attic!
Smith: (laughs) A Light in the Attic started my career.

Paste: Sam Dresden is kind of an odd character. I was just weirded out—in all of the right ways—when I first watched You’re the Worst. What was your first reaction to the script?
Smith: My initial reaction—I was flabbergasted, amazed, and I was ready to work. I trust Stephen Falk greatly. He was one of those creators I’d sought to work with for years. I’ve watched him since Weeds. He’s a true visionary, and that’s not an overstatement. I tell him, to this day, “You write better for black people than I could.” It’s funny, but it’s true. He’s genuine, and he’s a man of the people. And the cool thing about being a man of the people is that you understand everyone’s plight. He doesn’t hold back, and he’s in your face.

This particular character doesn’t give a fuck how he expresses himself (laughs). That’s what makes his energy so raw, and in-your-face, and pulsating. Sam Dresden beats to his own drum.

Paste: Yes, like in the episode where you end up hooking up with the other guy. That one sold me.
Smith: That was epic. That was my favorite scene, because of the surprise factor. And it’s not that he’s gay, or not gay—it’s that he doesn’t give a fuck! He does what he wants to do.

Paste: It’s a funny bit, but when you start breaking it down it’s very powerful. The n-word is getting thrown around in the episode, but in this really funny way. It’s a small moment, but the fact that you and the writers were unafraid to play around with race issues and sexuality issues was really exciting. I also imagine it could make some people uncomfortable. Do you ever find yourself struggling with the question of responsibility as a black actor?
Smith: Definitely. And I find myself exercising my opinion when appropriate. When we read a script as actors—prior to signing on to the show—we make an investment. So I think it starts there. It’s about trusting in the visionary, like I said earlier. Trusting that whatever creative outlook they have, it’s not to offend, but to empower and to give light—to give hope by giving laughter. Robin Williams did it best. I’m gonna try to do it—try to make you laugh and cry in the same scene. That’s an ability that this series has, and an ability that I saw in Stephen Falk, and in the entire corporation of FX as well.

So, yes, the responsibility is there. And that’s why I try to choose diverse roles like Little Richard in Get on Up, or something totally off the mark like Nico Harris in my ten-year run on Disney. I want to give my fans the opportunity to take me in different lights, and I think the responsibility shifts directly to me. This is something we have to do in every field—to provide diversity.

Paste: Now, I haven’t seen Get on Up yet.
Smith: Ooh. Ooh, girl! Ooh, Shannon!
Paste: I know.
Smith: I’m mad at you.
Paste: I’ve had my black card revoked before—you can revoke it, temporarily.
Smith: (laughs) I’m definitely not giving you the stamp just yet. I’m Dominican, Native American, black, and white—I’ll give you the Dominican stamp. Hopefully that’ll motivate you to go see it.
Paste: (laughs) I appreciate that. Now of course, I’ve heard great things. And I’m a big Chadwick Boseman fan. Can you talk about your experience on the project?
Smith: It was a life-changing experience. That was a role that I could have waited fifty years for. It’s literally what made me the actor I am, and it’s all thanks to Tate Taylor. It takes one person, one corporation, or one collective group to believe in you. And that’s what I needed to transition out, to be looked at as a grown-up actor. So, to be so well-reviewed—because that is something that is so out of my hands—I’m just thanking them.

It took my mother and father, and the people in my community to make me feel good so that I could have the confidence to do the impossible, which is this career. This career is impossible. But I live for the mission impossible (laughs). And I think that’s what we all should strive for. That way, greatness becomes the trend.

Paste: This week [tonight], the flashback episode that airs is awesome. I love how you become the voice of reason with Gretchen. It’s a great scene, and you’ve got that great line— “Bitch, I’m 21!” Can you talk about working with Aya Cash, and the rest of the cast?
Smith: Aya Cash, Desmin Borges, these guys—I continue to be blessed to work with these actors who you haven’t heard of, but who you’re going to see everywhere. And I love it. Chad Boseman, Chris Geere, even back in the day when I was on Sonny with a Chance with Demi Lovato. These actors are the future, no question.

Paste: I saw that you were teasing about a superhero movie on Instagram, so you know I have to ask what that was all about.
Smith: No comment. (laughs) I got no comment.
Paste: (laughs) I’m actually excited, because this is the first interview where someone has actually said that. Aside from that top secret project, what else do you have coming up?
Smith: I have a TV show on NBC that’s really exciting, called One Big Happy, produced by Ellen DeGeneres. Liz Feldman is the writer. That’ll come out next fall.

Paste: Awesome. Well, obviously, I’m enjoying your work on You’re the Worst, and I’m looking forward to more.
Smith: Thanks so much.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.