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Akili McDowell on Playing the Highs and Lows of David Makes Man

Photo: Rachel Luna/Getty Images

There’s a mesmerizing quality to David Makes Man, OWN’s new drama about a gifted black teenage boy toggling between his hard Miami inner-city life and the elite magnet school he attends. Created by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won an Oscar for co-writing Moonlight, the series uses magical realism to highlight the contrast between David’s inner potential and the world of drugs and crime that threatens to bring him down.

Akili McDowell, a 16-year-old high-school junior from Houston, takes a refreshing and often devastating approach to portraying David’s fantasy world while staying grounded in the boy’s reality. Ahead of tonight’s “Love or Poetize These Hoes,” a lovely episode in which David goes to his first high-school dance, McDowell spoke with Vulture about the pressures of leading a TV show, dancing in tonight’s episode, and how Oprah smelled when he first met her.

When you auditioned for the role, who was David to you, and what were you thinking then in terms of how to play him?
Honestly, David related so much to me. That’s why it was so important to me that I get this audition because, honestly, with David being raised by a single mother and him feeling like he had to be the man of the house at such an early age and make all these grown folks’ decisions and things like that, I’ve also felt like that in my life. He just wants to be there for his mom. She doesn’t gotta worry about David. That’s what he wants. David’s gonna do his job; David gonna get things done. And I felt that way in my life as well.

Now that you’ve filmed an entire season and spent a lot of time in David’s shoes, what does it mean to you to play him?
There’s no other story like this on television right now. It’s very dear to me, it’s very kind to me, because I feel like it’s bigger than just doing a TV show. I feel like I’m the voice of the kids that don’t get to speak out, and they go through these hard things, and they’re forced to make these grown folks’ decisions day in and day out. And they feel like they can’t tell nobody, or it’s not okay to cry, but I want them to know it’s okay to cry. That’s what’s important to me — that somebody else out there has looked up to me. This isn’t the first time I’ve related to a character, because there are many characters I’ve seen parts of me in, but this is the closest a character has resembled me.

In tonight’s episode, David says, “I’m mad I can’t be normal.” What do you think he meant by that?
The things that he goes through every day aren’t normal. And it’s not healthy either. The show that he has to do — it’s like different characters that he has to play and the emotional roller coaster that he goes on every day. He can barely sleep. He barely has time to recoup or get to his self. Everything is just on ten and fresh with him. You barely see David eat.

In tonight’s episode, we got to see yet another side of David — a regular high -school kid who’s sweating over asking a girl to a dance and what to wear. You also did a dance number with Isaiah Johnson and backup dancers. What did you think when you saw in the script you were going to get to do that?
I was wondering how it would go. I guess you could say I went viral for dancing to Michael Jackson when I was a little kid. I got a lot of views on YouTube, and I was on the news for it. But that was years ago. So I was kinda nervous, but I had fun doing it so it kinda took the nerves off.

Did you have a lot of time rehearsing in the water? Dancing in water is different.
Yes, ma’am, it is. We actually didn’t rehearse with water. Right before we shot it, we danced in the water. We just rehearsed a lot to make sure we got all the moves down. It was really a lot of fun. That was dope.

One of the things that is so special about the show is how it incorporates magical realism. Your scenes with Isaiah Johnson, who plays Sky, must be tricky, because you have an actor to play with, but at the same time the audience knows this is in David’s imagination. And then you do part of those scenes over without him. What kind of process do you go through when you work on those scenes?
Well, you have to have great writers. And just a great cast in general to keep you mindful of what’s going on. But as the actor, you have to be mindful of what the true intention is. It was really interesting to do it with Isaiah and then come back and see it all put together and see that he was never really there. I have to just keep that in mind—he’s not really there, but for David he is. I felt that was really powerful in that first episode.

We see it in tonight’s episode, too, when David arrives at the dance and he begins to panic a little bit. He sees light fixtures bursting and decorations falling down, but none of that is really happening. Where do you go in your head to perform that, since nothing is happening around you that you can react to?
I’ve always had a wild imagination. I used to always think, What if this happened? Or what if that happened? I can visualize things happening even though they’re not happening. In normal life, you visualize something in your head but you don’t let your face show it. When you’re acting, you have to let your face show it, and let the camera pick up every little thing, whether it’s just a twitch of an eye or a raise of an eyebrow.

How did you enjoy playing this side of David, a more carefree teenager?This is the lighter side of David. He’s DJ at school. He’s goofy. He hangs, he’s fun, he makes jokes, which is also me at school, and so that was cool, and I loved getting into new things like that.

Have you been through the drama of your first high-school dance yet?
No, ma’am, I haven’t been through that yet.

Did you learn anything from David’s experience?
David is very different when it comes to things like that. [Laughs.]

Maybe not listen to Mom so much?
Definitely not listen to Mom so much!

What do you think of that suit she picked out for him?
Shoot, when I first got it, when I first put it on, it was barely past my shins! I really didn’t enjoy it, you know? [Laughs.] Cayden K. Wiliams, who plays my little brother JG, really let me have it on set that day. I feel like once Travis [Cole, who plays Miss Elijah] fixed it for him, it wasn’t that bad. It was actually a pretty cool suit.

It was, and it matched what Sky was wearing as well.
Yes, ma’am! I’m glad that you picked that up.

You mentioned Cayden. The home scenes are so good. It feels like a real family.
Cayden does act like my little brother. We play fight, we joke on set. When I say we’re literally a family together in this thing, I mean it.
And, of course, you saw Miss Alana [Arenas] in the last episode, how amazing she is. You can see where David gets his imagination from and how he wants to make the best of a situation. He gets it from his mother.

David returns from the dance to find the rent-past-due notice on the door. What did you think of that ending, after a pretty light episode, for him?
It was just another day in David’s life. Everything could be going great, he just got back from the dance, everything’s on the up, and then you come home and it’s like he’s grabbed back right into reality. You have to do what you gotta do for your family. Things are starting to get real now. That’s what that is.

On top of landing your first leading role, you got to work with people like Oprah and Michael B. Jordan. How much interaction did you have with them? Did you learn anything from them?
Yes, of course, because they are obviously very wise and very influential people. Just being a part of the OWN family and the OWN network is really amazing, because at the OWN network, all of the shows mean something. We’re all unapologetically black and it’s just so real, all the shows on OWN. One of my first interviews was with Oprah, and she came to set, and everybody’s like, “Oh my God, oh my God! Ms. Winfrey is here.” And everybody was running around, and I’m super-nervous, but on the outside I looked cool, you know? [Laughs.] On the outside, I was calm, but inside I’m shaking. I meet Ms. Winfrey, and I do as I generally do: “Hey, how ya doing,” and I reach my hand out and go for a handshake and she just embraces me. She gives me a huge hug! And she meets my mom and things like that. And she smelled great, by the way. Just to throw that in there. [Laughs.]

I actually didn’t meet MBJ until after we finishing filming and I went to Sundance for the very first time. He gave me some wise, wise words and words of encouragement, to stay myself. He said, “Don’t let this industry change who you are as a person. Still be the kind-hearted, passionate, hard-working young man I’ve seen from the first time I watched your audition tape.” So that was a wonderful experience, too.

We are halfway through the season now. Can you give us a little tease of what’s to come?
Whatever you see David do, whether you think this is the best decision or not, whether he should’ve did it or not, he did it for survival. Not only for himself, but for his family and to survive at school.

Now you’re scaring me.
Yes, ma’am. It might get rough, but, hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. You gotta stay ready.

Akili McDowell on the Highs and Lows of David Makes Man