Dulé Hill is trying something new. In Sleight, J.D. Dillard’s new sci-fi thriller, his voice drops a few octaves, and he wears chains and leather jackets. The 41-year-old actor has played a lot of affably goofy nice guys — Charlie Young on West Wing, Gus on Psych — but in the coming-of-age indie, he’s deploying his charm in a whole new way. As Angelo, a villainous drug dealer who attempts to mold the movie’s young hero, Hill tries out being menacing. “Onstage I’ve been able to play characters who are a little more unsavory, but never on film. When this came along, I jumped at it,“ Hill told Vulture. “Angelo isn’t the godfather, but in his world he knows how to handle his business.” He described the character as a Joe Pesci type: “He’s a bad guy, but he’s accessible, he’s cool, he’s fun,” he said.
Angelo’s drug operation is intentionally lean, which causes problems for Bo (Jacob Latimore), Sleight’s lead. He’s a teenage street magician raising his kid sister, making money on the side collecting intel for the dealer. When a competitor moves in on Angelo’s market, the dealer goes on the defensive. His relationship with Bo — more big brother than father — becomes pressured. It’s time, Angelo decides, for the crew’s gofer to get his hands dirty.
“Depending on which room he’s in, Angelo knows how to act.” Hill says. He embraces that versatility in the movie, swinging back and forth between charisma and rage. Just when it seems unbelievable that Dulé Hill — Dulé Hill! — is really a gangster pointing a gun in someone’s face, he adjusts his jacket. His posture changes. He grins. Then you get it. “Angelo always comes from a place of charm first. That other side could come out, but only within lines he’s set for himself. For example, when he’s dealing with Bo’s sister, a loving little child, he’s cool. But when people continue to cross certain lines for him, he’ll quickly turn off the charm.”
In one scene, the neighborhood’s new dealer shrugs off Angelo’s threats, and his verbal warning turns to physical blows. “It’s only as they continue to keep disrespecting me that the other side comes out. It only comes out for a little bit, and then by the end I’m back to myself,” Hill says. “He gives a sense of ‘I came to you as a gentleman, but that’s not what you responded to.’ There’s an old Jamiacan saying: If you can’t listen, then you’re going to feel. That’s Angelo’s philosophy: If you’re not going to honor my word, then maybe you’ll honor my force.” That forcefulness evaporates in a scene just a few minutes later, when Angelo crashes Bo’s family dinner. Suddenly, he’s charming again.
Angelo is a twist for Hill, but the actor says he’s not concerned about being typecast as a charming ensemble player. “The one thing that I have noticed about [all the characters I’ve played] is that they’re overall good guys,” Hill says. “Besides Larry Siefert [Hill’s character in Ballers, the GM for the Miami Dolphins] though — he’s just an ass.”
It’s been almost 18 years since Hill first appeared on the West Wing, and Hill says he misses the show’s perspective. “Back then there weren’t as many outlets, weren’t so many voices on air. That show was a reasonable voice for current issues,” he says. But there’s a through line between his West Wing character and the bad guy he plays in Sleight. “[Angelo] goes back to the first episode I ever did of The West Wing. It was called ‘A Proportional Response.’ I don’t think that Angelo knows what that is.”