PASADENA, Calif. — You don’t have to be a good guy to make it in Hollywood. In fact, it often works against you. But one actor who’s not willing to dump his standards is Michael Ealy.
The star of “Sleeper Cell,” two “Barbershop” movies, “Underworld: Awakening” and now USA’s new TV series, “Common Law” (10 p.m. Fridays), says he’s learned his lesson.
“In this business you get rewarded for being stupid, for being lazy, for being an (expletive),” he says.
“People who hate their (TV) jobs and they get season after season after season ... we saw it all during the Charlie Sheen debacle. ... The highest-paid actor in television gets rewarded. Not a good guy.”
Ealy copes by getting back to basics. “What I often have to do is take myself out of Hollywood because Hollywood is not representative of the rest of the country or the rest of the world. It’s just not. Life isn’t fair for a lot of people,” says Ealy.
“I tell the cast members instead of going to Jamaica or St. Barts for my vacation, I went to four different states to visit family. In my family, there’s a lot of health problems. And what do you see when you see people who are struggling with breathing, with cancer, real issues? You see how blessed you are. So my problems with this business and this industry and all its unfairness are irrelevant because at the end of the day — whether I’m where I’m supposed to be, or I’m supposed to be bigger or whatever — I’m right where I need to be. And I’m blessed to be able to do what I do because I love it.”
Loving it almost tumbled him into trouble. In fact, he earned a degree in English and already had moved from his native Maryland to New York before he ever told his parents he wanted to be an actor.
The idea was foreign to them. His dad worked in a grocery store for 35 years, and his mom was a programmer for IBM for 28 years.
“I was trying to find an apartment with my best friend and brother, and he was about to go to NYU film school. ... We needed someone to co-sign because my credit was bad and his was immaculate. It has since switched,” he chuckles.
“I had to call my parents and say, ‘Listen, Mom, Dad, I’ve got this dream. And in order for it to happen, I’m really going to need you to co-sign as a partner.’ So it was a bit of a shock to them. But because they are my parents and because I did what they asked me to — which was get that degree, something that neither one of them could do — I don’t know what it was, they were just so supportive of that decision.”
But there is another version of that story, he adds quickly.
“I didn’t find this out for 10 years. After they said, ‘Yeah, sure, no problem, we’ll co-sign. We love you. We’ll pray for you,’ they were all taking bets on how long I would last in New York City. ... Nobody gave me a year in New York City.”
An African-American with stunning blue eyes, Ealy lasted more than a year. His first job was busing dishes.
“I got to the point where I started waiting tables and there were nights when you made $15 and you’re like, ‘This isn’t going to work. I have rent to pay. I have no health insurance.’ ... As an actor you’re already insecure. There were nights where I’d feel like, ‘I’m a waiter. I’m not an actor. I’m a waiter. I don’t have to struggle like this. I have a degree. I can get a job and get health insurance.’ ... There were nights when you had a couple drinks because of that, to swallow your sorrow.”
But Ealy, 38, had worked in a liquor store in college and observed the effects of alcoholism.
“I saw myself every night having a drink while I counted out my money, and every night going out to try and have fun to make myself feel better.
“And it just came down to: You know what? You just wake up one time and say, ‘OK, I’m about to go down the wrong path that I saw many, many people do when I was working at that liquor store, and I don’t want to be that guy. So pull your pants up and go and be an actor.’ And it really changed my life.”