Two, Two, Two Characters in One
by Ronald Sklar
His 30 Rock character gave us two-for-one; now he’s going for the whole nine yards.
“Deep inside of me somewhere there is a Toofer,” 30 Rock actor Keith Powell admits. He’s talking about his TV alter ego, nicknamed Toofer by the 30 Rock on-camera writing staff. The reason: with him you get two for one; a Harvard graduate and a black man. The ground-breaking comedy series pulls no punches when dealing with issues of race and sex. Apologies are not made; soft gloves are not worn. For instance, Alec Baldwin’s character attended parochial school in Boston during the Seventies: Our Lady of Reluctant Integration. The Toofer character — an Affirmative Action dream if there ever was one — takes his ribbing with thick skin, never mind the color; the actor, conversely, is grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a historic TV series. Yet in this post-racial nation, where does one go from here?
“The role was really important to me when I auditioned for the show,” he says. “In my mind, the reason I got the part is I looked at Toofer and realized that he had nothing to apologize for. He is an insanely smart person. And black. There were a lot of people who auditioned for Toofer who kind of made the joke that Toofer was smart and black. The way that I created it was that there was no joke about it. He just is smart.”
Powell was born in Philadelphia and attended NYU. He was a regional theater actor who found his way to California when he was plucked from obscurity for the key series role. Along the way, no silver spoon passed his lips and no career simply dropped into his lap.
“I grew up very poor,” he says. “But everybody I was surrounded by — my entire family — was smart and black. And all of my friends were smart and black. It had nothing to do with class. It had everything to do with that these were educated people. That was the world that I knew. That was the only world. There is nothing to apologize for or be ashamed of.”
His hookup with 30 Rock not only changed his life, it gave him new goals to shoot for — and pitfalls to avoid.
“It really was akin to hitting the lottery,” he says of winning the coveted role. “And now it’s seven years later and I have a career and a momentum and I have a new house. So there is that fear that I am going to go back to being that scared regional theater actor when I walk into an audition. The worry is that I will never find another Tina Fey again.”
The worry may be premature; upon the series finale, Powell is immediately off to other projects, including a guest stint on NCIS: Los Angeles, which speaks to the dramatic actor in him.
“It was a chance to do drama which, frankly, was all I was ever hired for before 30 Rock,” he says. “It was a chance to do a dramatic series, which was really exciting. I got to hang out with [series star] LL Cool J. My fiancé is a visual artist. She sold a painting to LL about a year ago. So he was telling me that it was hanging up in his office and that he really liked it. So it was a thrill.”
The thrill won’t be gone any time soon as Powell gears up for his career 2.0. Still, it’s hard to come down from the Rock.
“It does feel like it’s an incredibly hard act to follow,” he admits. “When we started the show, no one expected it to even get on the air. None of our cast expected it to last half of the first season. And it kind of steamrolled.”
The steamroller keeps rolling, as Powell has yet to explore every opportunity that awaits. He explains it this way:
“On the first day of college, we were asked, ‘Why do you want to be an actor?’ The girl next to me said, ‘I want to be an actor because I get to play different people.’ And I thought, that’s not the reason that I want to be an actor. The reason I want to be an actor is because I get to be different aspects of me. Deep inside of me, there is a Toofer. And it’s fun to explore that aspect of me. Deep inside of me is a dancer, a lawyer, but it’s all me, and being an actor is finding my way in.”