Dulé Hill

He started as a tapper, graduated to White House aide and now gallivants around Santa Barbara as a maladroit, mildly self-delusional detective.

That would be Dulé Hill, who at 36 is already a veteran of several hit Broadway musicals, a much-admired long-running TV show and the co-star of an ongoing popular TV series. Now he’s back on the Great White Way in a play called Stick Fly due to have its opening night on December 8. It’s being produced by Alicia Keys and centers on a weekend when two adult sons in an affluent African American family—Hill plays one of the sons—bring their girlfriends to meet the parents at their summer home in Martha’s Vineyard. The play won critical acclaim and numerous awards in previous productions.

For a Saturday interview, Hill first admits sheepishly that he’s “a little under the weather” and therefore hoarse. “I do apologize,” he adds with an old-fashioned politeness bordering on courtliness. He’s every bit as thoughtful as Charlie Young, personal aide to President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), the character he portrayed in NBC’s prestigious The West Wing from 1999 to 2006.

What a jump it was—for viewers at least—from serious Charlie to his current character, the often-goofy Burton “Gus” Guster. Gus is the loyal sidekick of Shawn Spencer, a fake-psychic detective portrayed by James Roday, on USA Network’s whimsical Psych, now in its sixth season. Gus (who like Charlie has his own lengthy Wikipedia entry) is an intelligent young man who aims to be respectable, brave and cool but repeatedly gets drawn into Shawn’s outlandish schemes to solve crimes—usually to the detriment of his pride. In one episode, he dresses up as Count Blacula (sinister star of a horror film), but everyone mistakes him for Count Chocula (cartoon character on a cereal box). Poor Gus hardly ever gets the girl—and when he does, the relationship always ends quickly.

Even more surprising than this chameleon transformation is that Hill’s initial incarnation as a performer was as a tap dancer. He’d been taking dance lessons since age three in his native New Jersey—he provides a good explanation for this when he talks about his mother—when he was chosen to become Savion Glover’s understudy in The Tap Dance Kid, after which he starred in the national tour. Several years later—after turns in Black and Blue and other musicals—he won a major role in Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, which Glover starred in and choreographed. Meanwhile, Hill appeared in Jim Henson Productions’ short-lived CityKids on TV and in a small movie role while completing high school and attending Seton Hall University, where he studied finance.

Despite his temporarily hoarse voice, which he kept low, Hill spoke with steady concentration about his eclectic career, his unusual name, his family—including a Long Island relative who supplies him with Jamaican eggnog—and his aspirations.

I read that you started taking dance lessons at age 3 at the Marie Wildey School of Dance.
Yes, in East Orange, New Jersey.

I don’t see a performing background in your family—your mother was an educator and your father an entrepreneur?
My mother was a ballet teacher. My cousins and my brother were also going to the school. That’s why I went there. My mother is an educator, she has a PhD in education. She’s a college professor… When she taught ballet, she was a chemist and worked at La Roche pharmaceutical company.

And your character in Psych is a pharmaceutical salesman. Is there any connection?
Not that I know of. [Laughs] No, it’s not connected.

Were your parents born in Jamaica?
They were first-generation immigrants. They came at different times. My mother came when she was maybe 13 and went to high school in New Jersey. My dad came when he was in his 20s.

How did you come to be cast in Stick Fly?
I did the radio play about three or four years ago, in 2007, in Los Angeles. It was a staged reading. That was the first time I’d done a radio play.

The character you play is part of an affluent African-American family. Does that reflect your own background?
We were a middle class family. The connection to the play for me is that it’s about a family that has dysfunction, and I think all families have dysfunction. My family may be very loving, but we have some dysfunction. It’s a play about identity, about how we’re all trying to find the truest essence of ourselves. It’s also about daddy issues. We all have daddy issues. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t…That’s what attracted me to this play. There is love there with this family, but so much is being unsaid. The dialogue is wonderful, but so much is not being said. I think that’s true of family dynamics. It’s an accurate slice of life. Even though it’s about an African American family, it’s about any family. We talk about racism in the play, but it’s about people trying to find themselves.

imageIn real life, you have an older brother. What does he do?
My older brother is involved with mortgage banking. He’s in the corporate world. He lives in New Jersey and works in Brooklyn.

You pronounce your name due-LAY, right? Is that a Jamaican name?
The pronunciation is French. The spelling has no meaning, but it means “of milk” [“du lait” in French]. My aunt heard the name from an actor named Keir Dullea, who was in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. He spells it differently, but she got the name from that. It’s actually my middle name. My first name is Karim, an Arabic name. But I’ve always gone by Dulé.

A long time ago, I interviewed Savion Glover, when he was young, and I remember that he seemed to regret not having enough time to play basketball because he was on Broadway. Since you started at age ten, did you ever feel you’d rather be doing something else, or did you like being in show business?
I really enjoyed it. My parents always said, “If you want to do it, you do it, but if you want to stay home from an audition, you stay home and play with your friends.” They weren’t stage parents. When I was doing Black and Blue at the age of 15, I had to stop playing soccer. It was not a regret, but I would have loved playing soccer some more. I had to choose. My parents made me commit. If I took a job, I had to complete the job. They didn’t make me perform, but they said that if I choose to, then I have to pursue it, even if it meant I couldn’t play soccer. They taught me to think things through before I committed. When I was touring, my dad said, “If you don’t want to do it anymore, call me and you can come home.” After one year with The Tap Dance Kid, I called him. I gave two weeks notice and I was out of the show.

And leaving didn’t crimp your career?
That was actually my launching pad. That got me in the business. I was in New York for a few months, and then they chose me for the national tour. As the understudy on Broadway, I went on every week. Another understudy and I did the matinées. I would do Wednesday and he would do Saturday, or vice versa. Whenever there were two shows, we would do one of them.

You were on The West Wing for seven years. How did you get that role?
The West Wing had a casting director named Kevin Scott. He remembered me from a pilot I had tested for the year before. I didn’t get that job, but when this role came up he searched me out, and I read for Aaron Sorkin [who created The West Wing]. I had been out of work for about a year, so it came at the right time.

That cast seemed to be so super-talented and tight-knit. Was it as heady an experience as it seemed, or was it just another job?
It was a magnificent experience. John Spencer [who played the White House Chief of Staff] always said we wouldn’t have these experiences if we were doing a cop show. We played basketball on Pennsylvania Avenue, we had a party for the DNC, the Democratic National Committee—so many experiences happened to us. The work was great, Aaron Sorkin is a phenomenal writer and John Wells is a brilliant producer. And the cast—Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Brad Whitford, John Spencer, Rob Lowe, Stockard Channing. For a young actor, that was a priceless time.

It seems like such a leap from the serious The West Wing to Psych, which is so wacky.
It’s funny how things are always connected. One of the executive producers of Psych was Allison Janney’s manager, and that’s how that relationship came about. My agent brought us together. After The West Wing, I wanted to do a comedy, and I wanted to have more of a leading role. When Psych came along, it was the right thing.

What do you see yourself doing next?
I leave that in God’s hands. I would like to get back to drama and to do more television. I think I would like to get into a drama that has a little more action to it. Either a drama or a sitcom. I prefer a drama, but I have not done a sitcom series, so I see that as a challenge. And I love theater. I want to do more theater, definitely.

What about movies? You’ve had some smaller roles.
I definitely want to do film. Film is the nut that I haven’t been able to crack yet. I’ve been chipping away at it, but like anything, it takes time. It’s worth the wait. In an ideal situation, I’d do an arc of a recurring character in a TV series, then go and do a play and then go into a film.

In Psych, do you ever feel that any of the characterizations of Gus veer into stereotype? Have you asked them to change anything?
No, not at all. I think they’ve done a great job. The character was not written as black in the first place, so it would be hard to stereotype. I give credit to Steve Franks, the creator of the show, who gave it to a black actor. I think they should do more of that—create a character and cast whoever is best for the part. I think the character has evolved. He is an African American, because I am playing the character. Some of the interactions between Shawn and myself involve race. You have to deal with race, race is always a part of life. Shawn and Gus are brothers, and they talk about race, but there’s no line between them. There’s a love between the two of them that goes beyond black and white. I’m not really concerned about the character [Gus] being a stereotype. He’s a very smart guy, he’s a pharmaceutical rep, he’s a fun character. There’s nothing stereotyped about him. How many African Americans are pharmaceutical reps who swear that they are cool as hell? He’s not cool as hell, but he thinks he is. I think Steve Franks has done a great job of developing this character.

Will you stay with the show as long as it’s on?
Oh yes. My criteria is always, as long as the fans are happy, as long as USA [Network] is happy and as long as we’re happy, we will keep on doing it. Those are the three checkpoints.

Are there any particular things you want to see happen on the show?
I would like to see a musical episode being done. And eventually I’d like to see Gus be in a relationship that goes beyond one episode—maybe two or three episodes.

Do you have a relationship going on in your personal life?
Yes. I have a wife. We’ve been married for seven years.

Do you have any connections to Long Island?
I have family on Long Island. I’d like to give her name: Vilma Pindling. I’m not sure where on Long Island she lives. She’s a relative of my father’s. I see her all the time. She comes to see me more than I go to see her, and she always brings me Jamaican eggnog. She’s replaced my grandmother as my eggnog connection. It’s made with Guinness stout.

What are your aspirations? Where do see yourself in five years or ten years?
Number one, hopefully a closer walk with God. After that, still working—more work and better work.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.