Actor Joseph David-Jones didn’t really have a choice; the acting occupation just sort of chose him. His life has been a series of fortunate events - successful twists and turns that have lead him to the sun soaked traces of Los Angeles. A coin flip determined his destiny, three for LA, which gave him no other choice but to pack up his suitcase and head for the golden acres by the Pacific. Photographer Janell Shirtcliff captures Joseph up against the warm blues of the Los Angeles sky, signifying how the City of Angels has embraced his driven soul. The occupation might have chosen him, but without it that could mean the extinction of his connection to everything.
In the fifth season of the television series ‘Nashville', Joseph seizes us with his emotive voice. On the show he plays Clayton, the likable struggling musician, who is deemed to turn a few heads with Joseph’s soulful portrayal at the backbone. His character dwells with the inconvenience of the past and holds on firmly to those precautions taken before to not disrupt the present tense. Only a strong source of inspiration could create the emotional luggage Clayton carries, which Joseph found in his late grandmother. While becoming closer to an important family member, he was forced to observe life run its course. There is no stronger imagery than that - seeing someone pass before your eyes.
Music has been Joseph’s escape in this precarious industry, but he has been lucky enough to combine his two passions, acting and music, in his two latest projects. In addition to his recent role in ‘Nashville’ earlier this year, he is set to appear in the historical drama ‘Detroit’ where Joseph plays ‘Morris’, a member of the musical group ‘The Dramatics’. The group is caught amongst the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, which causes a rift in the group. Is it their battle to play or should they go on minding their own business? Stylists Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo dresses Joseph in seemingly snug clothing for the intense LA sun, but his dapper self is now ready to tackle whatever role might come his way, whether it is a biopic or a story he has imagined himself.
Joseph David-Jones can be seen as playing ‘Morris’ in the film ‘Detroit’, which is now out in UK cinemas nationwide.
How was your shoot with Janell?
Janell has such an artistic eye, and initially I thought this was an editorial shoot, so I was expecting glossy glammed up pictures and such. It ended up being me captured in these little artistic moments.
It’s quite normal to think that you know who an actor really is, but in the end you’re playing a character, so who is the real Joseph?
Jeez, that is a philosophical question. I like to think of myself as an artist, but I feel like a better description of me is probably goofy. I really am in love with what I do and so I feel like most of my life and identity is pointed into this art - this craft. Everything I do really shows that. If I had to describe myself, I would say that I am dedicated to this industry. It really affects most of what I do - most of my opinions on life, on myself. It shows in the type of projects that I go for and the type of things I write and the things that I watch. I guess, artsy... I’m trying to think of the best adjectives to use to describe myself that like says it all - that has that sort of ‘je ne sais quoi’.
What do you usually tend to write?
I recently took about a month off from acting. I had just gotten out of doing the movie ‘Inner City’ and then I did this anthology series for Netflix. I wanted to take a break to write a screenplay, so I’ve been working a lot with my writing partner. Recently, I've been writing a true crime story with a couple of people who pulled this heist and we’re actually trying to adapt it into a movie. To do it justice and see their lives and what they went through, because they ended up going to jail for a while for this crime. Also to tell an interesting story.
Your entry into acting came through a couple of successful twists and turns, beginning with modelling in Kentucky and then winning ‘Actor of the year’ at the International Models and Talent competition in New York. Have you always aspired to be an actor?
You did your research… I’ve aspired to be a lot of different things. When I was younger I wanted to be a doctor and then I went to college and initially my first major was pre-med. It was biology, but it was with the intent of going into pre-med. However, then I switched from that to engineering, because a career aptitude test told me that I was better suited for a career in engineering. So I was like ‘Alright, I’m going to try to do that’. I kind of stumbled into modelling, I’d been like scouted at the mall or something and someone was like ‘Oh, you should really try modelling’, and I was like ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot’. In college I needed something to do for money, so I ended up signing with IMAGES Model and Talent Agency in Lexington, Kentucky. While I was doing it I had a decent amount of success in Kentucky - in the smaller market. I was getting a lot of good jobs and the head of the modelling agency was like ‘Hey, you should really do this competition, the bigger modelling agencies and people from all around the world discovers people there’, so I went to IMTA fully intent on doing modelling and ended up doing not very well in modelling - I think I came out 19th or 20th in this competition, which is weird that they count down that low - you think it would stop at like 1st, 2nd and 3rd, but no. I mean it was out of a lot of people… I think it was like 200 people who were in my age division. But for acting, I ended up getting male actor of the year and a whole bunch of acting agencies were like ‘You've got to come out to LA, you've got come out to New York’ and really wanted to sign me. I literally didn’t know if I wanted to do it. I was going to give it a shot, but I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer after having it as my major and seeing the reality of what engineering was, I was like ‘This is not for me, I need to be doing something more creative’. Once I started acting, it was just so unbelievably validating. It was no other option for me after that. Anyways, long story short, I ended up moving out to LA and signing with an agency from that competition and started working shortly thereafter.
It was supposed to happen - acting.
I know. I ended up flipping a coin, because I couldn’t decide if I was going to go to LA or New York. Three times for LA, so I was like; ‘Alright, this is clearly what I’m supposed to do’.
The film ‘Detroit’ is out now finally for the general public to enjoy, this is a project that many are considering to be on an Oscar level. How was it working on such a grand-scale production?
I think everyone had that kind of feel while we were shooting it - we didn’t think like Oscars or anything, but we knew while we were doing this project it was going to be something impactful and profound. Those are the kind of things that gets a lot of recognition around awards season. There was never a moment while shooting this where we didn’t think that ‘This is like a big deal’ and a couple of times I had to take a step back and be like ‘Man’. I went from doing small modelling jobs in Kentucky to being on the set of an Oscar award-winning director and writer. Being able to do something that is so relevant and so powerful - it was like an out of body experience.
‘Detroit’ is very much a historical story retelling events from an important part of American history, how do you enjoy history?
I mean - I feel like it’s very important. If anything, it’s the most important thing, because if we didn't know our history, we would be doomed to continue repeating mistakes. History has never been the fun place to look back at for a black guy, so I don’t know it’s ever been my favourite subject, but I’ve always viewed it as important. Understanding and admiring the people who came before me has all come from history. What we have to deal with now is nothing compared to what the people who came before us had to deal with and how they laid the foundation for us today - people like me. There is not the same immense battle with society pushing down on you - keeping you where you are. Now we have more opportunities, because before people had this mentality that they couldn’t do everything - that there were limits on how high you could go as a black person in America. Because of what came before and what they did, we can now even be President. I love history in that aspect and I love learning from it, because it opens your eyes to what’s happening and what could potentially happen.
Your character in ‘Detroit' is called Morris, would you like to elaborate a bit about your character?
I play Morris and he is a member of ‘the Dramatics’. He is the more militant of the group, so when he sees everything that’s happening in the streets of Detroit, the people, he wants to be a part of it and tries to insight the other members of the group to do the same - even though they are just musicians. There is definitely a difference in opinions of like ‘No we got to focus on our music, this isn’t our battle’. We end up in the mist of this rebellion, like seconds away from being at the Fox Theatre doing our thing and getting our big break to being caught up in the midst of this huge rebellion. It changes the group - a horrible event happens in this movie and it’s the event at the Algiers Motel and it changes the complete dynamic of our group. Some of the people in the group, they’re affected by what happens so deeply that they’ll no longer want to be in the group. And other people they’re in the midst of this rebellion and it doesn’t change their view, so we see this real separation in the group and Morris plays a huge hand in that.
How did you go about preparing for the character of 'Morris'?
We barely got any semblance of a script at any point in time while shooting this. They told us what group we were and what songs we would be doing, but everything was kind of taken from our own accounts. I got a list of the more popular songs of ‘the Dramatics’ and went ahead and learnt them as much as I could. We would get to set and we wouldn’t know. A: what scene we were doing. B: what songs we were doing. And if we were doing dances to the song, what would happen was that when we got to on set, so for instance with the opening scene, ‘the Dramatics’ are on stage rehearsing already.
That opening scene was shot with three different songs, so what would happen was that we would start singing one song, and then the director would be ‘Why don’t you sing this?’ We would start doing the other song, but then someone would come up and say ‘Oh no, they hadn’t recorded that song yet at this point in time’. The director would be like ‘Oh, then we will do this song’. Then that song wouldn’t be fun enough or it would be too slow, so she would say ‘oh let’s do this song’. Every time we changed to another song, a choreographer would run up and be like 'Okay, so now that we’re doing this song, these are the steps that you’ve got to do’ - literally teaching us the steps ten minutes before we would then go on to shoot the scene.
That must have been quite a nerve wrecking experience.
The most preparation we received was on the big performance that you get to see at the Fox Theatre. We got the song and our parts the day before, as opposed to finding out while we were there. We got to set about six hours early and just did choreography for the whole day for that song on the stage and everything. After three or four hours of choreography, practicing the song and working with the band - we shot it. That was like the most preparation we got for the performances. It was crazy, but watching the film, you can’t tell, everybody really stepped up.
The performance must have felt very much in the moment, since you didn’t have that much time to prepare.
There is a portion of it where we’re all doing the steps and I just stop, because it’s me singing. I just go forward and start lead singing or whatever, but it’s literally because I couldn’t memorize the second part of the steps for that song. They were like ‘It’s okay, you’re singing on this part anyway, just go up and sing’. That was different every time. I just went up, sang and engaged the crowd.
You’ve been on the fifth season of ’Nashville’ and you play the character ’Clayton’ on the show. He is a struggling musician and I must say I really enjoyed your portrayal of him. I saw somewhere that you based the character on real life artist ‘Raury’. Could you explain this choice?
Whenever you read something you begin to envision the character as you’re reading it, and when I heard who the character was and I went in and auditioned for it - in my mind I was like; ‘They’re not looking for me, they’re looking for Raury’. Then when I ended up getting the role, I thought; ‘Can I be Raury? Can I do this?’. They ended up having the whole back-story, which is very different from that of Raury, but how he was described and how artistic he was, so then I was confident I knew who Raury was. When I went in for it this guy showed me the concepts of what they were looking to do and I was like; ‘Man, we need to go fully in on this, we need to have the dreadlocks, we need to have the whole feel of this super duper artsy guy’. Luckily, they loved it and were willing to go for it and I loved it. It was a completely different character for the show and for me, but I think it all paid off. Everything worked out so great, because whenever you make a big choice, it could either be really really terrible or it can end up being great. Luckily it paid off and a lot of the fans of the show really liked Clay.
‘Clayton’ comes from quite a tough background with his mother being in and out of the street because of drugs and having to grow up with his grandparents. On top of it all, he suffers from bipolar disease. Firstly, we're interested in knowing if he suffers from bipolar type 1 or 2 and secondly, how did you lay the groundwork for that?
You know, it’s funny - we never went into depth on whether it was type 1 or 2. What ended up happening with this, because I didn’t know how best to incorporate the bipolar disease, and when I was working on it, Callie, the creator, said: ‘What we want to do with this is to make it seem like he is over this, this is something that happened in the past and something that he has taken steps to guard against’. You see that very much in the early episodes, but we also have a moment later in the season where he is not in control and he loses it. It’s brought up a bunch of times where Clay mentions being bipolar, but you don’t see it. Everybody likes Clay and he is like the nicest guy ever, but he has literally taken all these steps to hide this, to keep it in check and to not end up like his mother and other members of his family. In the end, this is what makes the scene where we see him kind of breaking under the pressure of it all, that much more powerful, because it is something you haven’t seen before. It’s something that hasn’t been building up, so it’s just there all of a sudden.
Where did you find the inspiration for Clayton's back-story?
I substituted a lot of the monologues that I had. I used my grandmother as an inspiration for that, because she just recently passed away, like a year before, so it was really about remembering how I felt when that happened. Even when I was working on the monologue during the introductory episodes, I would run it out as like I was talking about my grandma and then change it to mum later when we were on set - just so the emotion and emotional connection would be there for when I learnt and rehearsed it.
Did you have a close relationship with your grandmother?
I had an in and out relationship with my grandma. The problem is that, well, I guess it’s not a problem - the beauty is that when it was closer to the end she came out here, because before she had always lived in a different state. I mean, I will always love my grandma, but she was so far away that we only got to see her like once a year for a week or so. She came out here during the final stages of her cancer and we spent a month becoming closer with her telling me stories about my father and uncles and the times when I was a baby. To get really close to somebody and then watch that someone slowly deteriorate and pass away - that’s the hardest thing. That is why there was that strong emotional connection.
Going back to Clayton and mental health, what is your own relationship with mental health?
I think everyone has some sort of variable of mental health issues, but measured on a scale. Most of us are just a little bit lower on that scale, but everyone is dealing with something - everyone’s got issues. With bipolar disease, without going too much into certain family members - I have family members that suffer from that. It affects you a lot. They’ll have moments, moments where they can’t properly regulate their emotions and something that happens over a moment will affect their lives so deeply, because they can’t control their sadness or anger. There is sort of responsibility to that member of my family who suffers from that, to portray it right. To portray it truthfully in a scene, so that it would impact the audience as well - the people who actually have it. Fortunately for me, I don’t have it, but I think we can all relate to the experience of sadness.
On a lighter note, what makes you happy?
The most fun time I have ever is being on set. I love what I do and actually doing it and being on set is the most gratifying thing that I’ve done in my life. There are crazy aspects that come along with it, but being able to work, tell stories and knowing that people watch it and respond to it - it’s the most rewarding thing ever. On top of that I love music, I love playing music and singing and I keep that kind of as an escape from the industry when it gets a little bit overwhelming. The acting industry is tough and having that escape is one of the best things ever. Luckily I’ve been able to do both music and acting in my last two roles - combining the two passions.
What if someone were to take acting and music away from you? What would you feel?
It’s such a big part of my life and so much of who I am - I am so invested in what I do. I don’t know what I would do with my life anymore if I couldn’t act or sing or make music or anything. Probably become a priest or something.
A priest? Why a priest?
If I couldn’t do this, there would be no reason not to become just a minister within a monastery. I would have no more connections to this world. I don’t know what I would do with my life if I didn’t have this. That just shows you how great this job is.
Who influences you?
I feel like my peers constantly influence me. Those are the ones who inspire and push me the most - seeing the people who are like me, some older, some younger, showing me that I can do more - like Donald Glover. He created his own show and is constantly writing as well - making music and still acting and having a great career making great films. He is an inspiration to me, as well as some of the older mentors who do so much for our people like for instance Van Jones. He has been brilliant. I had the pleasure of meeting Al Sharpton, who has got the most amazing presence in the black community for years. There are so many role models that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, I mean, I just got to work with Denzel Washington. He is one of the reasons why I got into acting. Just seeing how great he was and what he has meant for the black community. Seeing his ability to cross over and be universally loved.
I can imagine working with him must have been amazing. You want to tell me a little more about that?
Seeing him work - that was like nothing else. Everything he does in a scene - it’s organic. He’ll change the scene at the drop of a dime if it’s not real to him. Then he’ll come up with things to make it more organic, to make it more interesting while he is doing it. The character he is playing in the movie ‘Inner City’ isn’t like anything he has ever played before and he was deep method the whole time we were shooting. He was supposed to be borderline… I’m not going to say fully autistic, but like borderline autistic, there was no vent on what he said - it’s almost like he had Asperger’s. He would be very awkward and anti-social and during a scene he couldn’t make eye contact. I would have to find time when he wasn’t in character to talk and joke around between the scenes. But I mean, he was great…
Did he have any wise words for you?
I never ask people for wise words. I feel like so many people ask for that when they meet their mentors. I wanted Denzel to see me like a friend, so I just tried to talk to him as a regular dude as much as I possibly could. We talked about sports and schools, and I guess his son had played my school a year or so ago - it was just regular guy talk. I think the first time I saw him I almost had a heart attack, which was at the table read and I wasn’t sure he was going to be there. When he came it wasn’t at a moment where I expected to see him, I was at the craft services table and someone just tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘excuse me, I’m just going to grab these cups’. I turned around and it was him, and I was like; ‘Hey man’. I kind of made a fool out of myself the first time we met, but luckily after being on set with him I felt confident that: ‘Oh I’ve already seen you before so it’s cool'.
What is your dream role?
I would love to play an historical figure. It would be something that is true and something relevant and important. They’re making a handful of these every year, so I’m always trying to get one of these films. Luckily I was in Detroit, although Detroit bounces around such a large cast. I think that carrying a film in a biopic role of someone legendary - someone who did something very powerful. To bring light to the story of someone like a Ray Charles or a James Brown - to be something like that. You know what I feel there hasn’t been? There hasn’t really been a biopic about an actor. Whenever they make biopics, it’s typically about people who were musicians, scientists or civil rights leaders. I want to do that, an actor who plays an actor. I think that would be the easiest thing to connect with.
What mark would you like to leave on the world?
That’s a great question. I would want to change things for the better. I’ve been longing to get more involved with the community - really help people. There are still so many things that need to be done, that can be done. I haven’t stumbled on my thing yet. One of the greater stories that I heard about someone coming into charity work was this guy from Africa. The village he came from didn’t have access to a lot of sanitation products, so when he came to the states, he stayed at this hotel and took the soap with him. When he came back with a new bar of soap - he thought they were charging him for the soap and was like; ‘No don’t charge me for the soap, I have a new one right here’. ‘No, we are not charging you for the soap, we’re just throwing away the old soap.’ And he didn’t want to waste soap, so he created a recycling company that recycled the soap of hundreds of thousands of hotels, which then sends them to Africa where people who don’t have regular access to sanitation products can now get that. It’s just something he stumbled upon, because of his own life experiences, so I’m kind of just waiting for my life experiences to lead me to something.