While you might not know Malcolm Barrett‘s name, you definitely know his face. He’s currently one of the stars of NBC’s new show Timeless, a thriller in which he will be the first Black man to go into the past on a weekly basis.
Timeless starts off when a mysterious criminal steals a secret state-of-the-art time machine, planning to use it to change past events to destroy America in the present. The only hope of saving the world is a team of unexpected heroes composed of a scientist, a soldier, and a history professor. The trio must use the stolen machine’s prototype to journey back in time to critical events, being careful not to affect history themselves, while working to stay one step ahead of the villain and understand the mystery driving his mission before it’s too late.
Malcolm plays a scientist named Rufus, a man who knows no matter where he goes in history, society won’t be too kind to him because of the color of his skin. Our interview started with a rap cypher as Malcolm proudly informed me, “I rhyme too!” We shared some bars and got to the questions.
NBC is setting the show up in a great time slot: Monday nights at 10pm. When you get a role that can possibly change your life, you ask the truly important question:
Xilla: Are you ready for this?
Malcolm Barrett: I’m not ready for the fame aspect of it, but I’m ready to have people see me be great. This show is great, it combines some of the favorite aspects of some of the characters I’ve ever played, in that he’s super intelligent, sensitive, cares, he recognizes what it’s like to be a Black man in a White space. He’s from the west side of Chicago and he’s dealing with all these different things, so I get my comedic elements and I get to take the piss out of people and I get to have heart, be emotional, care about things and be hurt, sensitive, and dramatic. So for me, it’s the epitome of a lot of hard work.
The creators of this show said it will tackle race, but also show a Black person as a human being and how race issues affect them.
I told people I’ve watched the sci-fi genre my whole life, from Quantum Leap to Bill and Ted to Back to the Future, to Terminator, it’s few and far between where we (Black people) can be a part of the conversation. The closest we got is Martha Jones in Dr. Who. Very rarely – even on American television – I don’t think you get to see Black people go into the past except for Dave Chappelle doing a sketch on slavery or something like that. We very rarely are smart about it where we bring the future into the past. So for me to be the first Black character to go into the past weekly is monumental to me. We’ll deal with different aspects of that along with other aspects of who he is as a person and character.
One scene they showed is where your character is telling Whites in the past about Michael Jackson, Jordan, Tyson, and anyone named Michael. It seems like it’s filled with so much frustration. As an actor when you’re able to pull that off, what goes through your mind after?
I would tell you that day was the day I knew I would be keeping my job. In all seriousness, they wrote a version of that, it didn’t have all the Michaels and this and that, in the script. It was hinting on, ‘Wait until you see this thing,’ which was a little stiff and fortunately after them meeting me and my test, they made a point of saying we’re going to leave some time for you to riff. So when you see the finished product, it is that. I thought they would mix and match some of what I said with the script, but they didn’t. They left my whole diatribe on there, so that’s what the show is and that’s why I feel very good about the show and collaborating. Because I’ve been a part of shows where I had to fight about minutia. I used to tutor in Harlem, then I literally did a show that took place in Harlem, and they would write certain slang to use and I would be like, we don’t say this in Harlem anymore and they would be like ‘no! no!’
So to be able to do this and be so present and them, go ‘yes, yes,’ is so completely different and it reflects. Not for nothing, it’s one of the most memorable parts of the pilot that they put it in the fucking trailer. They put it in there because it was real and it’s one of the things I get asked about the most. These guys aren’t afraid to use the reality and perspective that I’m bringing to the show. That’s why all the other shit is stagnant. It’s why I don’t like a multitude of slave narratives and things that happen or like The Help. Because they are bullshit versions.
So what’s refreshing for me for this narrative is that it is a fantasy, but it’s dealing with a historical reality and they take in the perspective that I have, and I’m not afraid to deal with conflicts that one would have being a person of color and being a minority. That’s what beautiful about it. They took that step and that let me know that this was a show I wanted to be a part of. The minute I auditioned I gave them my angle on it and they said yes, we want that angle. So now we are creating the show that you’re seeing.
I find that Hollywood and TV are starting to introduce the world to different types of Black people. Slowly but surely by mixing them into mainstream television shows. We still have far to go. What do you say to actors who are still waving the ‘We need to make our movies’ flag.
No fight is fought on one front. I do this and I also have a nonprofit multi-ethnic theater company, I also tutor, volunteer, and teach acting and I do that. I’m not at every Freddie Gray march, I’m not at every Alton Sterling march, and I’m not at every Trayvon Martin march or every march that there is. You have to fight the fight that you think is worthwhile on the front that you can do it. Then hopefully we are collaborating and building together to a greater purpose. So yeah, you need to make your own shit. That’s easy to say and I believe that if you believe that you’re an individual who is expressive and unique, you’re probably going to have to create your own work because no one is going to catch up to where you are as soon as you do. No one is going to see how great you are as quickly as you do.
With that being said, there is also a thing of the funding is going to a certain place. Yeah, you gotta create your own thing, but FUNDING is happening here. So it’s very easy for people to say ‘Just make your own movie, just make your own work and put that work in.’ Yes, I can make a $5,000 dollar movie, but what is Universal buying? What is Lionsgate buying? What is being distributed? So for people who make movies that didn’t go to Sundance, which of those auteurs are being picked? Is it the Ryan Cooglers? Is it the Ava DuVernays? Or is it some White guy who created one movie that suddenly does this? I was talking to a friend of mine named Matthew Cherry on Twitter I was joking and I said, Rick Famuyima, who directed Dope, some article called him a newcomer. That motherfucker has been working for 20 years. He did The Wood and a bunch of other movies and has been working for a while and they called him a newcomer. Now they talking about him maybe having a moment. Cut to the motherfucker who made Godzilla or cut to Marc Webb that made Spider-man. The motherfucker did one movie. He did that Joseph Gordon Levitt 500 Days of Summer. That motherfucker did one indie and they gave him a franchise. Rick Famuyima is called a newcomer after 20 or 30 years of movies that we watched. Now maybe he’s in the talks to be in a Marvel movie. I always say that one indie White movie is worth six Black movies. Now they are finally going to give him the keys to something. It’s very easy to say ‘Make your own shit,’ but we don’t get the same respect when we make our own shit. We don’t get the same audience or the same publicity. We don’t get coverage the same way. We get coverage when they want to put us in a certain box.
So as much as talking about certain sociopolitical aspects, I also love talking about who I am as a character, a person, and an individual and all those things that we don’t necessarily get because we don’t get the same coverage. We don’t get to make one movie and then be on a cover of a magazine.
How do you feel about your body of work and the character you’re putting out to the public?
I feel great. I’m proud of every character I’ve ever played. I’ve had hesitations with certain things. Unfortunately, it’s that Susan Laurie Parks quote, “Does it have to be a political statement every time a Black man stands on stage?” Unfortunately it is, because it’s few and far between where you’re doing a highly budgeted work with multiple Black people. So every time I do a show where I’m going to get my paycheck on time, I ask, ‘Are there other Black people around?’
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty