Actors Studio Drama School MFA Acting alumnus Gerrard James is in the United Kingdom to further hone his craft at LAMDA (the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art). James is a recipient of The John Wood Fulbright Award, which provides international students with the opportunity to pursue a Masters in Classical Acting at LAMDA.
What was your experience like growing up?
I am originally from Trumbull, Connecticut, and I truly have the best family I could’ve asked for. Although my nuclear familial life was very supportive and I was able to make friends, my overall social connection to kids—and teachers—around me was sometimes challenging. My parents ensured that my twin brother and I were proud to be African American and felt connected to our cultural heritage; however, I never felt like I could express that pride in school or around my mostly white classmates.
How did you get into acting?
My dream of wanting to act always felt like a secret growing up. It started when I saw Mission Impossible on my eleventh birthday and grew after seeing Denzel Washington in Glory. However, I didn’t start taking acting seriously as something that I could pursue until I met a friend at Morehouse College. He convinced me to take an introductory course in acting and I fell in love with the class. I acted in a play and felt the call to change my major from finance to acting, but I ignored it. It wasn’t until I was working in the hedge fund department of JP Morgan Chase that I finally took the leap to pursue acting as a career.
Fulbright winner Gerrard James '17 (R) with President Krislov (L).
Do you have a particularly important mentor or role model?
I actually have three really important mentors that I will be thanking for the rest of my life. Crystal Dickinson, who taught my introductory class in acting at Morehouse College, showed me that I could authentically bring aspects of myself to my work. After leaving JP Morgan Chase, I studied at The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts where I met Quinn Cassavale. She taught my Meisner [acting] technique class and really encouraged me to be vulnerable. I loved every acting teacher I had at The Actors Studio Drama School, but I would say that Susan Aston had the most profound impact on me.
Describe your experience at the Actors Studio Drama School.
Going to The Actors Studio Drama School, I felt like I was learning magic. Prior to entering the program, I had never worked as intensely and imaginatively while acting. I know that may seem like an embellishment, but I truly loved my acting teachers and felt like I walked away from the program a stronger actor and a more developed artist. I learned that my entire body—and imagination—is an instrument, and my training finely tuned that instrument while giving me the confidence to play any role that comes my way. I usually worked on very dramatic material, but I had an incredible experience performing a comedic piece my second year titled Road to Nirvana. I bonded with the entire cast (we are all still friends to this day) and I honestly think that is the most fun I’ve ever had in rehearsal and on stage.
Let’s talk about your Fulbright award.
I am extremely grateful and blessed to have received the John Wood Fulbright Award. It turned what I thought was a farfetched dream into a reality. I’m training at one of the greatest acting schools in the world and doing research on a subject that I am very passionate about: diversity in theater and film. The award has also given me a platform to change the world when it comes to diversity in theater and film, and hopefully, to leave a lasting mark that inspires others to do the same.
What do you most hope to gain from your experience in London?
I hope to learn as much about the culture in London and the rest of the UK that I can. I also hope to see as many stage performances here as possible, because I am constantly inspired by British theater.
How would you describe yourself as an actor?
That’s tough! I would definitely say that I work hard, but I hope that I am a very giving, caring, and present actor. I am most proud of my work in Detroit ’67, which I did earlier this year at the Clarence Brown Theatre. I honestly had one of the best experiences in my career working with Lisa Dixon, our director, and the rest of the cast.
What kinds of roles do you hope to pursue in the future?
I pray that I am able to continue to grow as an actor. I would love to play Hamlet and/or Macbeth. I would love to work on any Dominique Morisseau play because I am such a huge fan of her writing. I feel the same way about August Wilson. I played the antagonist once while I was at The Actors Studio Drama School in a play called One for the Road, and I would love to tackle a villainous role again on stage or screen.