“Danny Glover came and made his gumbo that’s he been perfecting for years that he’s always been bragging about and it was wonderful,” says Kendrick Sampson, speaking in a slightly Southern drawl. The Texas native and current Los Angeles resident was in New York following a quick trip to Baltimore for the opening of Ida B’s Table, a restaurant honoring Ida B. Wells.
“We get a paragraph of her in Black History Month in class — or whatever — but you could teach an entire year on her life, and her being a slave and being a woman in the 1800s. A freed slave who was educated — she co-owned three newspapers by the end of her life, she cofounded the NAACP, she was an investigative journalist, she was an antilynching activist, she created movements, she changed culture.”
Sampson could go on, and he does. In between acting and auditions, and all of the requisite appearances that the industry commands, Sampson, who stars in new Showtime series “White Famous,” packs in plenty of time for activism. The hazel-eyed actor certainly doesn’t shy away from discussing the humanitarian issues he throws his weight behind, and why they’re important.
“Yvette Nicole Brown, I was talking to her at one of the Emmy parties [in September] and I was saying, ‘You know, it’s kind of draining — all this activism and work,'” recalls the chatty and low-key actor. “And she said something pretty profound. She was talking about the Muhammad Ali interview where he said, ‘I can go and make millions of dollars and then go home and live this lavish life’ — paraphrasing, obviously — but what am I accomplishing if I’m not helping anyone?'”
While still relatively under the radar in the industry, Sampson carries this attitude into his choice of projects. He costars in the recently premiered Showtime comedy series “White Famous,” which also stars Jay Pharoah. The show is loosely based on Jamie Foxx’s experiences in the entertainment industry, through the lens of Pharoah’s character Floyd Mooney, a rising comedian.
“I do my best to choose projects that I believe highlight different things or at least provide some sort of progression for people of color, and ‘White Famous’ actually tackles a challenging topic of being ‘white famous,'” explains Sampson.
“There’s a funny scene in the pilot episode where [Floyd Mooney’s] smarmy agent, played by Utkarsh [Ambudkar]…presents this idea of ‘You’re only famous in black communities, we need to make you white famous.’ And it launches into this struggle of ‘Do I want to be white famous? What is that and why is that important? I’m doing well, so is it OK just to be known?’ You think about people back in ‘In Living Color’ days and ‘The Jamie Foxx Show,’ he was not able to walk through black communities without being tackled for pictures, but mainstream America as a whole did not really know who he was.”
In the show, Sampson plays a British actor who is somewhat of a foil for Mooney. While he notes that his character isn’t comedic, “White Famous” is Sampson’s first comedy, which brought with it a new acting environment. Namely, the show wasn’t concerned about plot secrecy.
“I’ve been in very protective shows: ‘How to Get Away With Murder’, ‘Vampire Diaries’, and even ‘Gracepoint’ and ‘Supernatural’. They really protect their stories because they don’t want any leaks,” says Sampson. “This one was a lot more relaxed, and open and fun…they were like, ‘Do whatever you want, this is comedy world.'”
Speaking of privacy and in the vein of activism, Sampson hopes that the show prods conversation.
“Privacy, and the weight of the industry, and the expectations people hold, and racism all the way up to the executive level and how people see you — I think that [the show] addresses that in a funny way and it makes you laugh for a second, like laugh really hard and then be contemplative within that laugh. And by the end of that laugh be like, ‘Oh, that’s real,'” Sampson says. “It’s stuff that we laugh about privately, and this show talks about it publicly. We laugh and we commiserate and we’re angry and everything, but we usually do that very privately. This brings it in a public space.”