Actor Richard Brooks Talks ‘Being Mary Jane’ and Diversity on the Big and Small Screens
What does it mean to hit rock bottom? Is there any way to recover; to gradually rebuild all that you have destroyed on your downward spiral? Typically the freefall is what draws television audiences in, keeping them attached to the screen hour after hour or week after week. And yet on Being Mary Jane, a powerful drama on BET created by husband and wife duo Salim Akil and Mara Brock-Akil, the recovery is just as riveting.
Through the story of one Mary Jane Patterson (Gabrielle Union), who despite her high-powered career and luxurious home has ended up without the family that she truly desires, we meet her older brother Patrick (Richard Brooks), a recovering drug addict. Once known as the “King of Atlanta,” a man who owned a popular night club and a luxurious home, Patrick has become the ultimate cliché at the start of season one, possessing less than ideal qualities for an adult, such as neediness and defensiveness. By the age of 40, he had to return to his parents’ home (girlfriend and two young children in tow) because his addiction had destroyed everything that he’d built. Fast forward to season two (which premiered on February 3rd) and despite a minor mishap in his sobriety, we see a new persevering man slowly fighting his way back to the life he once had. Though he’s still in Mary Jane’s shadow, the eldest Patterson may not be a lost cause after all.
Richard Brooks, who many viewers might recognize from his days on Law and Order as A.D.A. Paul Robinette, eloquently plays a fellow now humbled by his circumstances. Giving life and appeal to his character, Brooks effortlessly encapsulates the struggle of a man who despite not feeling like he particularly fits in anywhere and is constantly humiliated by his present station in life, works through his flaws and presses forward, all the while being continuously aware that one slip-up could mean the end for him. It goes without saying that the Cleveland, Ohio native landed an empowering part that can truly serve as inspiration for those looking toward recovery and rebuilding a certain aspect of their life.
As the series began shooting season three, the multitalented Brooks, who has also starred in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger and has a role in the upcoming thriller Sin Seer as Jake Ballard (no, not the same one that you see Thursday nights on Scandal), took the time to speak with GALO about being Patrick and diversity in Hollywood, as well as to give us some insight into this season of Being Mary Jane.
GALO: Thank you so much for speaking with me and with GALO Magazine. I really enjoy Being Mary Jane, and I was excited to get to speak with you more in-depth about the show and about your career.
Richard Brooks: Thank you. We just started filming season three.
GALO: Congratulations! I did not know that. That’s fantastic!
RB: Thank you.
GALO: Jumping right into it, Patrick Patterson is such an interesting character. He’s wildly ambitious; however, his addiction has truly crippled him and left his life in shambles. I thought it was amazing for Mara Brock-Akil to write the character in this way. How important was it for you to play a full multidimensional character? Did you do a lot of research on addiction or speak with someone who has dealt with it in order to prepare for this role?
RB: It was important to be a part of a project like this, where I knew even coming in that we wanted to bring quality drama to BET and to our viewers — and just sort of raise the bar on African-American type dramas and show our humanity and things like that. A lot of [the work with] Patrick is a discovery for me, too, because he’s evolving as the show goes on, and it’s one of those things that is exciting about this show. You can have a character that can do anything, be anything at any moment — whether it’s vulnerable, great, heroic, or weak and fragile. So with the addiction, I didn’t speak with anyone [about] it. I basically just tried to get in touch with the vulnerability and him trying to control his obsessive overindulgence, as well as trying to get him into some zone of taking it day-by-day, you know?
RB: I ended up focusing on him just trying to be. Because he’s not really dealing with addiction so much as being a man and trying to be a father; the kind of man that he wasn’t in the past — because he was more of a selfish [person then]. I think what’s great is that [us] men, we go through certain stages in life. In our 20s, we’re trying to figure out what we want to do. And maybe in our 30s, we’re really going after it and we’re pushing really hard. By 40, we look back and we realize the mistakes that we’ve made; the things that we should have done — maybe we’ve put our career first or we kind of want to be our own man or something like that, so it’s just a great character to play with.
GALO: Oh, I definitely agree. In the current season so far, Patrick seems to have regained his sobriety and gotten his own place, but he is still uncertain about his future. He’s embarrassed when people recognize him and ask what he’s doing currently. How do you think Patrick is going to rebuild his life with so much against him? I know that when dealing with addiction, it is partially about taking it one day at a time. Do you think he’s moving in the right direction? What do you think about the progress of his character so far?
RB: Well, I think where we are, especially in season two, is really where I think you get to a breaking point as a man [and] as a character. There just comes a point where you’ve had enough, and people can try to help you but you really have to do it on your own. You have to try to be your own man and just start over. Sometimes the hardest thing for everyone to do, I think, — when you have a certain career or something like that and it doesn’t work out — is to actually start at the beginning, at the bottom.
GALO: Yes and rebuild.
RB: Yes. And so, what I see and what I love to embody within the character is the fact that a lot of people [restructure their lives]. You know, right now, we are going through this big financial crisis, and there are a lot of people rebuilding their credit and their lives. Maybe they lost their houses, lost their jobs, their pensions — and so, it’s one of those things where a lot of times our pride is such that we have a status and it’s hard. For [Patrick] to go and do security (it’s what I used to call a “mop and bucket” job), it’s basically like, “OK, let me just do whatever. If I have to go and clean toilets, it’s whatever I got to do. It’s just do what I got to do at this point and forget about the fact that I used to be the ‘King of Atlanta.’”
GALO: Forget about the glitz and glam life.
RB: Right, it’s like, let’s get real. At this point, I’m on my butt and I really got to do, what I got to do. So that’s just how I approach him. For me, as an actor, it’s really not so far from us. You might not know your next job sometimes — I’ve had survival jobs before I broke into the business in a big way. So what I love about him is that he has a dream. A lot of people have a dream that they are perusing, whether they’ve arrived at it or not.
GALO: And he’s willing to work. He’s willing to work for it and a lot of people aren’t.
RB: Yeah, exactly — and just face up to the mistakes he’s made. And to me that’s what’s so powerful about it.
GALO: To continue on with that, in the first season of Being Mary Jane, I really enjoyed Patrick and Mary Jane’s brother/sister dynamic. However, I felt that once Patrick discovers Mary Jane’s affair with the very married Andre, their relationship shifts. Did you feel that their relationship changed after that discovery? Did you view that as a turning point for them as siblings; one doing very well and the other at a very low point in his life?
RB: Well, Mary Jane likes to point out everyone else’s flaws, and it’s kind of hard for her to realize that she’s not perfect. I think it was one of those things where you know that someone in your family is doing wrong or making a mistake and you understand it. You can identify with it as an addiction. You want to be there and help them, but at the same time, you know they have to find that point in themselves where they can actually break it off. So, I think, it was definitely disappointing [for Patrick]. I think for Patrick, it probably would have turned to violence or something like that in the past. He probably wanted to beat the guy up, or take him out or whatever. So now this is new thinking [with my character in] trying to contain my passion, my anger, my rage and things like that. I think it took more of a philosophical approach. In the past, I think it would have been a more hotheaded response. He probably would have gone off on Mary Jane a lot more — you know, that big brother approach.
GALO: I can only imagine. It would have been a hot mess.
RB: Yes, it was crazy, but it was so shocking, too. I love the fact that even Andre could turn around and say, “I used to work for your brother.”
GALO: Exactly! To continue on with relationships and to get into broader ideas concerning today’s world, last season we watched Mary Jane’s friend and executive producer Kara struggle while trying to balance her career and her family — her kids ultimately decided to live with their father. In this season, Mary Jane has decided to freeze her eggs in the hopes of one day becoming a mother. I think that today, women struggle with finding a balance between family life and their career. What is your opinion as a man? Can women have it all in today’s society?
RB: Well, I think that it’s hard for women to have it all because there is such a big contradiction between how women are raised and this concept of finding a man, finding a good man that can take care of you. And at the same time, there’s the [concept of] being independent and not having to be submissive to anyone; to have your own career, your own life, and your own dreams.
GALO: It’s almost a catch-22, wouldn’t you say?
RB: Yes, it’s totally a catch-22. And what happens, I believe a lot of times, is that the balance of it is very hard because, of course, if the woman is making more money than the man, many times her family or her parents will be like, “well, what is he doing? Are you taking care of him? You shouldn’t take care of him, he’s gotta get a job.” There is a lot of pressure on the woman to make the man work and do what he has to do. But at the same time, if the man is busy and he’s working and doing all of this and he doesn’t have time for her, then there is the insecurity of: what is he doing? He should be home, or he should be trying to be a dad, or he should be doing this [or that]. So, I think it’s a tough world that we have now. I think it’s very hard with careers and trying to balance career and family. Especially in a competitive environment like there is now, where only the best can really have a chance to even break through. And there is still no guarantee.
GALO: Exactly, and unfortunately for women, we can run out of time. There is a point where you are no longer able to have a family naturally.
RB: Yes. And you know what is great with the show, which is something that you never really think about, it shows how expensive it is to try to freeze your eggs.
GALO: Fifteen thousand dollars! I could not believe it.
RB: Yes, so you have to be earning some money to even be able to afford that option. You have to be pretty successful to have 15 grand just to put down on something like that. And it’s not a guarantee. It’s just one of those things.
GALO: Of course.
RB: That’s what I love about the show; we really are hitting on those things. I think the best relationships that I’ve seen are when the couples work together. Our creators Mara [Brock-Akil] and Salim [Akil], they have a great relationship where they are geniuses in their own right — and they’re supportive. They balance it. They have two sons, and so they have to make time and arrangements to be parents.
GALO: I can’t even imagine balancing that, it’s amazing.
RB: Yes, it’s really quite amazing how well they have done it. I’m so impressed with them.