by Charles J. March III
The Chi is a Showtime drama series created by Primetime Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Lena Waithe, and produced by the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist, Common, among others. It premiered on January 7, 2018, and so far has run for three seasons. It is about life on the South Side of Chicago.
Warning—spoiler alerts ahead.
Mickey and I were friends throughout middle school and high school, and this is the first time we’ve spoken since then (almost 15 years) . . .
(The following conversation was edited for length.)
Charles J. March III (CJ3): You had a really unique opportunity as one of a small number of white actors on a show about the black experience. How did your recurring role as Chef Dan on The Chi come to be?
Mickey O’Sullivan (MOS): Yeah, so, this is kind of a fun story, and is something I haven’t talked about too much. I was doing a creative consulting side-job up in Minnesota, as I was in-between acting gigs, and I got an email from my agent saying that the casting directors of The Chi wanted me to audition when I got back to Chicago for a role that they thought I’d be perfect for. I had recently read about Lena Waithe, and I had heard of the actor who plays Brandon on the show, Jason Mitchell, and a lot of other talented people that were going to be a part of the project, so I was really excited.
I went in, had the audition, felt like it went alright, and the next day they put me on hold, which usually means they are seriously considering you and maybe one or two others for the role. But then all of a sudden, they released me, and I was like, ok, whatever. Bummer. But then later they called me back for another audition. So I went in, and this time the casting directors were really working with me to make sure the tape was good, and they put me back on hold, so I was like, ok, cool.
The on hold/off hold back and forth proceeded to happen several more times, which usually never happens, and then one day they called and asked if I was willing to shave my head. I was like, yep, whatever it takes. Then they released me again, and I was like, I don’t know what the right answer is for y’all! Hahaha. Then they asked if I was willing to shave my arms, and I was like, I don’t know why I would, but again, yes, I’m willing to do WHATEVER it takes.
They wound up letting me go, and gave the part to someone else. I was pretty beat up about it, especially since I had something similar happen right before that with a big movie.
Time went on, they started shooting the show, and I got an unexpected call for yet another audition because they were recasting the role. I was like, alright, let’s go! It was a super odd situation. I guess it didn’t work out with the other guy for whatever reason, and one of the producers was really pulling for me, so I wound up booking it.
But then it looked like the screen actors guild was going to strike due to contract discrepancies, which would have affected the show moving forward, so I was like, come on! This was the biggest gig of my life up until that point, so I was really praying that everything would work out.
I guess around midnight that night everything got figured out with the contracts, and I was on-set the next day. Luckily, a buddy of mine also had a role in the show. He introduced me to everyone, assured me I was a perfect fit, and told me that we’d have a lot of fun. I was so relieved.
CJ3: Man, what a roller coaster! Speaking of, there are some pretty emotional moments in the show, a couple of which literally hit home (Chicago) for me and caused a classic, cinematic single tear to stream down my face. Were there any heavy scenes like that for you?
MOS: The first 10 minutes. I give a lot of props to Lena for using the “save the cat” plot device with Coogie (Jahking Guillory), the show’s initial protagonist, and then kind of flipping the device on its head by killing him off almost immediately. It’s a pretty ballsy move, and usually doesn’t work out too well, e.g., the original idea [that never happened] to have Michael Keaton play Jack Shephard in Lost, and kill him off in the closing minutes of the first episode.
In The Chi, we’re introduced to this loveable teenager (Coogie) who winds up getting killed in a wrong place, wrong time kind of way. I thought that was brilliant, and it had me in tears because the headline of that in a newspaper would probably read something like, “One Man Shot and Killed on the South Side”—but really what we have is this beautiful, complex young black man who has friends, who has family, who has a name, and who goes out of his way on his bike into dangerous areas to feed a dog that’s not even his. So when he was killed, it was really emotional, and it really resonated with me. And as someone who’s familiar with screenwriting and with life on the South Side, for him to be killed within the first 10 minutes and have the ensemble go on to deal with that tragedy, I was blown away by that, that we and the audience were gonna have to go through that with the characters.
CJ3: Yeah, it definitely sent some shock waves early on, leaving storyline ripples for everything that followed in the show.
Regarding characters, I was particularly partial towards Papa (Shamon Brown Jr.). I loved everything about his preacher’s son character, from him being the spiritual conscience for his coming-of-age friends, to his philosophical/intellectual ramblings, to his charismatic comedic relief, and just everything regarding his old yet innocent soul nature. Did you have a favorite character on the show?
MOS: Papa. Hahaha. The character is great, but the kid in real life is awesome. I don’t remember being that confident as a kid, ever. I think there’s something super special about him as both the actor, and the person. He was one of the only kids on the show to introduce himself to me. One day we were back at our trailers having lunch, and he randomly came up to me and was like, “Yo, Chef Dan, what’s good?!” I love how he’s ok with his friends not really accepting his spiritual approach. And I think it’s cool how he’s had more mature conversations with his friends than maybe you or I have had with ours.
Another character I love on the show and in real life is Miss Ethel (LaDonna Tittle). She’s so cool, wise, and is such a sweetheart. Plus, I don’t know if you know this, but she’s got her own Chicago-based cooking show called “Cookin’ Wit’ Tittle”.
CJ3: Nice! I’ll have to check that out.
That actually brings me to another topic—food. Chicago has always been known for it, and it plays a central role throughout the show, almost like a character in its own right, encompassing many themes and layers of symbolism. What does the term “soul food” mean to you?
MOS: Good question. I don’t know if this will answer it, but in Season 2, I wind up stealing Brandon’s recipe and winning a rigged cooking competition against him with it, and that really got me thinking about cultural appropriation. I mean, someone can steal someone else’s recipe, but the missing ingredient is the love behind the food that makes it that much better, and that much more meaningful than the food itself. Like comfort food cooked by your grandma when you’ve had a tough day. Food is such a basic necessity, but can sometimes be more soothing than anything else. Recipes, much like trauma, get passed down through generations, and people come together to heal and find community through these shared things that ultimately enrich them and make them stronger.
When you mentioned trauma, it got me thinking about Common, and his character on the show, Rafiq, who very fittingly serves as a common sense (my pun intended apologies) Islamic guide to Ronnie after he loses his way, so to speak. I don’t know about you, but I have often seen Common (along with Chance the Rapper, Lupe Fiasco, and others) as a sort of uplifting poet laureate of the South Side. Almost like a representative saint of Chicago. Did you have any opportunities to talk with him? And does he have this positive aura about him that one would imagine he has?
MOS: I had seen him on-set a few times, but we never had any scenes together or anything. I officially met him on the red carpet during the Season 1 premiere. I was super nervous, because I had never been to one of those things before, and at the time I thought that he could probably tell I was uncomfortable, because when I went out onto the carpet, he brought me in for a big hug and said, “Hey man, it’s good to see you. I’m so glad you’re here.” But then I realized that it probably didn’t have anything to do with the way I felt, because that’s just how he treats everybody. And it was interesting, because I had recently started following him: listening to his records, learning about his Foundation, seeing these worlds that he had built through Chicago, etc., and while I was doing this, I was like, my God, what an inspirational dude. I mean, here is a guy who has done so much for so many people. He really does have a kind of divine quality to him. And yeah, I really did get that warm vibe you alluded to. You can tell a lot by how someone hugs you.
And honestly, I got that same feeling as much, if not more so from Lena Waithe. She’s such a visionary.
Following the premiere, she came up to nearly everyone associated with the project (a lot of people) and asked ‘em by name how they were doing, and if they were gonna go to the after party. By name. Just an absolutely rock solid human.
CJ3: I hear you. I really liked how once she got more creative control in Season 3 she shifted the narrative to more women’s issues. And I really liked the addition of the show’s first trans character, Imani (Jasmine Davis). In a time where trans’ voices are thankfully being amplified, I feel like the insertion of such characters can sometimes, unfortunately, feel a little forced. But I felt that her entry was perfect. She has a really great presence, and blends dualities on multiple levels really well. What are your thoughts on Season 3’s focus on these issues and identities?
MOS: Yeah, props to the writers for taking on those issues, because a lot of shows aren’t. It’s great that the focus in the first two seasons was on humanizing black men on the South Side, which is very important, because that’s a demographic that is often systemically dehumanized, and it’s even more awesome that the storylines shifted to women in Season 3, because I don’t think we talk enough about women of color, who are so often the ones organizing and supporting communities, and single-handedly raising families. To have a captive audience and then introduce them to other things may be risky for ratings or approval, but is an inherently responsible thing to do.
For example, they’re starting to introduce more LGBTQ+ characters, which is a great opportunity for some of the audience to ask themselves, “How do we feel about people that are gay, trans, or non-binary? Why do we feel that way? Why are we uncomfortable with these characters? Why do we tend to tune out when they come on-screen? And what does this say about us as a society?”
They knew their audience approved of the humanization of black men, so they figured they’d double down by helping them to see other identities as being human, too. I dig that.
The more we can start to see these characters, the more things will start to normalize, and the less prone some people will be to having these knee-jerk negative reactions, not just in daily life on the street and what not, but when kids come out to their parents and friends and such. We need to keep exposing the fact that these are people, you know. These are people.
Open yourself up to new experiences. Don’t be so sheltered.
CJ3: For sure.
It’s great that Lena really made a point of inclusivity in Season 3, and I thought it was even more interesting that she took it a step further by referencing identify politics while the boys were discussing her mayoral candidate character on the show, Camille Hallaway, during Episode 4, with Kevin saying something to the effect of, “Just because she’s black and gay, doesn’t mean she’s progressive.” As a white, cisgender male (a term that has become associated with a certain negative connotation) who’s a very vocal social justice activist, what do you think it means to be progressive?
MOS: I’m not perfect, and that’s the point. When I start working on a new project, I try to educate myself by researching and following my coworkers on social media to see what they’re interested in, to see what they’ve done with their platform, and to see what they’re talking about. I try to be a supportive listener by not only paying attention to the words, but the emotion behind them. I try to learn about what they’ve been through, and I ask myself if I’ve ever, perhaps unknowingly at the time, been complicit in certain traumatic systems of oppression that they’ve had to endure. I do this especially for roles similar to Chef Dan that I’m being trusted with, where I play the oppressor, such as my racist police officer character (Tom Doyle) on Chicago P.D. I do my best to make sure my performance serves a purpose, and isn’t just a re-traumatizing event for my coworkers.
I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and I try my best to be of use to them. If I can’t support them financially, maybe I can offer my expertise, or be of service in some other way. I try to look for the similarities between us.
One thing I’ve done over the years, maybe unintentionally, is flood my echo chamber with people from different backgrounds than myself, to get input from an array of cultures. It’s a blessing to be called out when something you do or support can lead to hurting other people, and it’s a blessing to call someone else out. The shame is being polite and silent to shitiness.
Somehow there is a negative connotation around the term “progressive,” as if you should be satisfied with who you are and refrain from growth. I think people who resist progress refuse to look at their past and grow from it. To give up a part of yourself is hard. It’s painful. To have uncomfortable conversations is tough, but necessary. And I think that’s what’s currently happening in our society. Change is grief. That’s growing up. If you’re bettering yourself, you’re bettering the world.
I think it all comes down to teamwork. It’s high time we start getting more involved in marginalized communities, to echo the things they’re speaking up about.
As a white, cis-gendered male, I think being progressive means recognizing that the life you’ve lead is not an experience other people get to have. It means listening to people when they speak up, and fighting systems of oppression.
Along the lines of change, Chicago has always been known as a city riddled with a myriad of issues. What do you think it will take to save Chicago, so to speak?
MOS: Well, I’m not a city planner or socioeconomics guy, but in short, I think a lot of it comes down to innovative ways of investment. The city has a lot to offer, but I don’t think people put enough value on it—i.e., it’s underfunded. When half of the budget is going towards policing, of course education and other areas are going to go down the tubes. We need to spread the wealth.
Chicago is one of most segregated cities. One neighborhood may be thriving, while the one next to it is dying. And what works in one neighborhood may not work in another. I think a lot of it comes down to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation, where people would probably be investing more by proxy if the issues came knocking on their neighborhood’s doors. We have people who are making decisions for certain communities who are living and working in a totally different area of town, and on the flip side, we have this white savior complex where we want to rush in and help someone without ever sitting down with them to see what they need. If you ask someone how you can help them, they’ll tell you. We pretend we know people better than they know themselves.
As previously mentioned, one of the things The Chi does really well is humanize its characters. We need to stop dehumanizing people and demonizing communities, while glorifying certain professions like politicians or police officers. We’re more complex than we give each other credit for. We’re not just one-dimensionally good or bad. That’s something acting has really taught me.
Regarding the drug trade, I think it should be looked at more as a health crisis. We need to value people more by considering them for rehabilitation, instead of imprisonment.
And we need to stop treating victims like statistics. We need to give them names. We need to give them voices. And we need to do more to better our communities. That’s where Common, Jahmal Cole, and other locals like them who have Chicago-based Foundations come in. So if you’re not doing something, the least you can do is listen and learn.
We all know about the violence that plagues the city, but I don’t think that should be the sole focus. Surely that’s a big part of the problems we face, but I think it’s more of a symptom of larger issues we should be concentrating on.
CJ3: No doubt.
Since you mentioned larger issues, I felt like The Chi might have tried to tackle too much, per some of the plots that weren’t fully realized. Do you think they bit off more than they could chew?
MOS: I don’t know. I don’t know any of the writers that well, and I don’t know what the writers’ room was like, but I think they tried to tackle what they did because God knows there’s a lot to tackle. If you have a lot of ingredients, make a big meal, you know.