Yet Coy is entirely at ease with where he has come from and is not afraid to glance back. Photographer Gigi Umbrasaite captures the spark that ignites such a moment: a spark of excitement. The type of electricity that defines the quiet confidence of a boy who knows his own worth and is slowly but surely fulfilling his potential. Coy takes a walk through that sleepy toybox town. Skeletons of a not-so-distant past transformed into props and scenery: the world becomes his stage as he explores different versions of himself.
Stylist Branden Ruiz paints Coy with the same light and energy that the actor projects onto those he meets. His optimism for the future shines bright through primary colours and simple silhouettes whilst a sharp street style transmutes comfort and the actor’s undeniable collectedness and poise. Coy will next appear as Lorenzo Webber alongside comedian Gabriel Iglesias in series Mr. Iglesias, premiering on Netflix, June 21st.
Let’s start on a philosophical note. Who is Coy?
That is definitely not an easy question. I think Coy is a young man who feels the need to express himself through art. As a kid, I was never really great at expressing myself through conversation, but when it came to working in a scene or on music it felt like that was something that came very easily and naturally to me. So I think Coy is someone who is very observant of the world around him and has a lot of thoughts and ideas, but it’s difficult for me to get them out unless it’s in a creative setting.
What makes you happy?
I am a super family-orientated person. Whether that be blood-related family or really close friends, I am someone who really relies on my circle of people. If I didn’t have them then nothing else would really matter.
How do you ensure you find family downtime to fit within your schedule?
There are times when it can get really crazy for me. One of the things I focus on is making sure I talk to the important people in my life at least once a day even if I can’t see them. Lately, I’ve been all over the place so it’s been difficult to see them, but I make an effort to call because that connection is super important to me. But I am still learning how to balance work and family time, for sure.
Your first major role was at 13 years old in Are We There Yet? and you have been working ever since. How was it starting so young and growing up in the industry?
It’s been interesting. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages. Some of the advantages are that I have been here so long it is kind of second nature to me to be on set and in that environment; I have learnt a lot just from being in it for so long.
But living your life in front of the camera at 13 can be challenging because you are aware of your platform. You don’t really get to live as carefree or as wild a life as a normal 13/14-year-old would. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just takes some adjusting. I was lucky enough to have a great support system. I had everything a 13-year-old would - it’s just that my school was on set. My family and friends were really great at keeping my life feeling very normal which I think played a big role in the way I have turned out today.
Your Dad chronicles your journey into the entertainment industry and the impact this has had on the family in his book The Unlikely Journey. At what point did you realise this was your calling? Was this an unlikely journey for you?
It definitely was an unlikely journey. Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina wasn’t really a hub for entertainment… There were no people around me who were in the industry. It definitely was unlikely for me to end up where I am now, but definitely not impossible.
It was actually my very first job, before Are We There Yet?. I was ten years old and I was an extra on a movie that I don’t think ever came out. We shot in South Carolina during summer and it was super hot. I remember being on set and a lot of the other extras weren’t having the best time because we’d been there all day - long hours and things like that. But I remember at that age, despite the circumstances of the day, I did not want to be anywhere else in the world. I would have stayed there for an eternity if they'd let me. That day coming home, my Dad asked me if I liked it - and he assumed I’d be done with it because of how the day went - but I told him this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. Even if it was being an extra, at that age being on set was great and from that point on I needed to find myself back in this world somehow.
Have you had any doubts along the way?
Absolutely. This industry is very up and down. There are moments when you think your career is going to skyrocket, and it doesn’t, but then there are moments when you think your career is over and it skyrockets. There is no formula.
Being in Are We There Yet? as a kid and then going to Nickelodeon, I am now trying to make that transition from child actor to adult actor. Before I started that transition, it was definitely something that was very scary to me because not a lot of actors are able to make that jump. But like I said before, everything feels unlikely but it’s not impossible. It just takes patience and timing and trusting in yourself. My family and friends always told me if I had made it that far at 16 years old, I could do it another 5/10/15 years - it just takes perseverance.
Let’s talk about The Blacklist. How did you prepare for your role as Vontae Jones?
This is my first time playing someone in prison, so I took that really seriously. I wanted to get into the mindset of what it would feel like to be 17/18-years-old in prison. It was definitely a bit of a challenge, working with James Spader who is an incredible actor, so I wanted to make sure I step up to the plate and brought it.
In all of my scenes, I was his counterpart, so I couldn’t just show up and do whatever and hope that it worked. I really wanted to prepare myself. A lot of the circumstances made it easy - I went to work by myself, so I was able to get into that mindset of being alone and in an unfamiliar, cold, scary place. I used a lot of that energy to put into Vontae. The biggest thing I wanted was to show that even though he is a prisoner, he is a human being first. I wanted people to see that human inside of him.
What was the biggest challenge filming The Blacklist?
Honestly, funny enough the biggest challenge for me was to focus. By focus, I mean when I was working with James I would find myself not focusing as an actor: I would just be watching what he did because he is so incredible. I would have to remind myself ‘I am here to work’, but there were so many times when he had a monologue and I would be watching and studying. Once I got there and I met James he really, really made me feel comfortable and a part of the family, so after that first episode, it felt natural.
I read in a previous interview you said that this is the most intense work you have ever done.
Definitely. He is so precise and particular. I like to think that I am prepared and that I know stuff, but when you work with someone like James you really understand what it means to be prepared. And you have to be on your toes. So working on that, it felt great because I walked away feeling like a much better actor.
How did that intensity compare with your experience filming for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD?
It was a little different. Agents of SHIELD, surprisingly, was - is - the most fun I’ve ever had on a set and I think it’s because of the cast members. They are some of the most down-to-earth, light-hearted people I have had the opportunity of working with - you might not be able to tell because watching the show they go through so many dramatic and dark things, but they really are. They really made playing a superhero feel like playing a superhero, you know? Sometimes you work with people or you do certain things that presumably are a big deal but when you work with them, they’re like ‘ah this is pretty normal’. But working with SHIELD, they were very aware of how cool it was to be a superhero. They revered in that and made it fun.
The new Netflix series, Mr. Iglesias is premiering June 21st. Can you tell us about the series and your character Lorenzo?
It’s about the comedian Gabriel Iglesias, who is an incredible comedian from Long Beach, California. One of the nicest, most genuine guys I have ever met - you would not think that millions of people watch his stand-up special every day.
He was originally going to be a high school teacher, so this show is about that alternate reality if he had gone down that route. It’s based in Wilson High School, which is the actual high school he went to, so we could use the logo and all the gear and stuff - it was really cool. And he has a lot to balance: he has a crazy staff of co-workers and he has a crazy bunch of misfit students. I play Lorenzo Webber who is one of the misfit students. He is a major conspiracy theorist and that doesn’t clash well with Gabe because he is a history teacher so he has a lot of the facts, and Lorenzo is always there to question every single one of those.
It really is such a hilarious show. Whilst working on that it was very difficult to stay in a scene because Gabe is intentionally trying to make people laugh - whether that’s the cast or the audience members. I am so excited to see it and for its premier so other people can see it because there are so many funny moments that people are going to love.
Are you a conspiracy theorist yourself?
Oh goodness, I would say I might be a rookie conspiracy theorist. I don’t mind the everyday conspiracy, some of them are really fun to dive into.
What do you think it means to be a ‘man’ in today’s society?
That’s a great question. I think the idea of the man is evolving today, and it’s evolving in a way that is for the better. Being a man is sort of a fluid idea to me. What’s most important is being true to yourself. As a kid, I grew up thinking that being a man meant you had to be tough and masculine and strong… But you can be all of those things while also be feminine, and afraid, and weak. I think the most important thing is a) knowing yourself, loving yourself and b) also reciprocating those things to other men and women.
When you think about the idea of a man, society has kind of trained us to think that everything a man is, a woman cannot be. I find that I have a big issue with that because there are a million women in the world who can do certain things a million times better than I can. If we view ourselves as people first, then we can connect on a much better level.
But I am proud to be a man in today’s society because men are holding each other accountable and being held accountable more than they ever have before. It feels great to be a man today because I can stand up for myself; I can stand up for women; I can stand up for other men and it will be heard. I am excited to see how it continues to evolve and I hope it continues to evolve in the right direction. I am excited to hopefully one day bring a son into this world and raise a new idea of what a man is and what a man can be.
That was beautifully put. Are you an emotional person?
I am. I think that’s partly why I am in the fields that I am in. There is a pro in that which is that being an actor, you really do have to be connected to yourself in order to make those emotions and feelings feel true. I find myself having to take breaks from social media and the news and things like that because when I watch things happen in the world I feel so connected and affected by them. And there’s nothing wrong with that - I think quite honestly, we need more of that in the world. But that’s why I have my creative outlets so that I can express those feelings and thoughts.
How do you practice self-care?
I like to start every day doing something that I enjoy. I think that we find ourselves dreading waking up, dreading the morning, dreading having to start the day… And that kind of sucks. That’s not a fun way to live. I find myself practising things in the morning that makes me happy so that I have things to look forward to and that starts me off on the right foot. Whether that’s listening to my favourite album or reading a book or catching up on a show I’ve been meaning to watch - just something that brings me personal joy. The biggest way I practice self-care is by stepping away: allowing myself a day or a weekend to focus on the things that make me happy.
What is your relationship to mental health?
I treat my mental health very seriously because of the field that I’m in, it is very easy for emotions to overflow and overfill. You might have a really difficult, heavy scene to shoot that day and you might get home and find yourself in a dark heavy place. You know it wasn’t real but you find yourself triggering emotions, and thoughts and ideas that you may not have known you had. So, I have to be very well connected to my mental health in order to be healthy: in order to have a crazy, emotional meltdown scene, and be able to come home and join in with my family. As I hope the awareness grows, I hope that I get better with it. A lot of the time it’s easy to put it on the back burner when we have jobs that need be done and money to be made. However, what we don’t realise is that if you put the mental health first, everything else will fall into place.
Do you think representation in Hollywood is changing?
Absolutely. Finally. It is both heart-breaking and amazing to be able to say that Black Panther was the first black superhero that I saw in a movie theatre. That is kind of crazy, at 20-years.old, in 2018 - to really see that movie and feel for the first time represented in that world on film. It was kind of a realisation that ‘oh yeah. There really hasn’t been much of me on screen',
It is also happening for women, which I love. Like I was saying before, there are so many roles that are given to men because it feels like ‘that’s what a man should do.’ But there are so many women who can save the world or be a soldier or a spy or a lawyer. So, it’s definitely changing for the better. It starts with writers, and producers, and creators making sure that everybody’s voices are heard. There is also a role that actors play in it - making sure that everybody is represented in the right way, shape and form. It’s a collective and collaborative process.
As I said, I am excited to bring kids into this world that will finally see themselves represented in the right light. Growing up I always saw people of colour on TV and on film, but it was always in a certain type of film and always a certain type of show. Now I am starting to see people like myself fill in those roles no matter what the criteria. And that needs to continue to happen, and it will continue to grow.
Your debut album Everybody’s Got One deals with pretty powerful and raw themes of identity and ‘success’. What was the inspiration behind this?
At the time I was making that album I was going through a personal awakening or change in my life. It’s funny that you put ‘success’ in quotes because the idea was ‘what is success to me?’ You grow up and you have this idea of what it means to be successful, but you realise it feels like you can’t be happy until you reach that ‘success’. It’s like, what if I don’t reach that until I’m 50 or 60 or 70? I got to the point where I realised that there is a certain part of me, that EGO side of me, that felt that in order to be happy I had to be the best at what I did, and I had to prove to everybody that I can make it to the top and be successful. But in reality, everybody is successful in their own way. There is always going to be someone who is considered more successful. When I realised that I was like ‘oh, so it really is about your personal happiness first’.
The album is about a story of a young man meeting his ego and the need to face it head on, and eventually killing it so that he can go onto bigger and better things and genuinely be happy. I think that is a process I had to go through in order to get to where I am now.
What triggered that realisation for you?
I think it was trying to make that transition from child to adult actor. When I left Nickelodeon, I had a lot of opportunities to do similar projects and shows within the Nickelodeon world, and they were opportunities I had always wanted. But I had to think about the longevity of my career: do I want to be 25/26 still on Nickelodeon and Disney, or do I want to be doing more adult roles? I had to re-evaluate what success meant to me and I had to re-evaluate what was going to make me happy.
I wasn’t trying to make an album. I had this friend last summer that taught me how to make beats, and so I started making beats and writing in his garage. Two weeks later I had 15-16 songs recorded. And after that, I kind of figured this is a story and so I readjusted and put the songs together, sprinkled in some connecting tissue and that was that.
You sample your character Kevin’s dialogue (Are We There Yet?) in the song ‘15’. Is that you again confronting your childhood?
I am really impressed first of all. But yes, that is correct. I chose that sample because when I got that show I remember thinking ‘I’ve made it. This is it. This is the top’. Because as a kid being that extra, I never thought that I would be on TV. Then after being done with that show and realising there is so much more I could do and so much more I had
to do, that was another revelation, so I brought that sample in to confront and reference where I came from and the direction of how I got to where I’m now.
What has the reaction been to the album?
It’s been great. I’ve gotten a lot of DM’s from people saying how much they connected with it in a sense of re-evaluating their success. To me, that is so amazing. As an artist, all you want is for people to hear something or watch something, or look at a painting and say ‘I felt that’. And more importantly for me personally, I made it with two best friends and my girlfriend, who has also been one of my best friends - I've known her since I was a kid. We grew so close whilst making this album and we all opened up. So it was really amazing just making it because I was able to complete that full transition. I was like ‘okay I know what I want to do, and success means this to me, and I want to focus on what makes me happy’. I didn’t realise that by making the album that was the final process in me turning the page. So, it’s been great. It’s been incredible.
Have you got any plans to make more music in the future?
Yes. I will be releasing a lot of new music this year. I don’t want to spoil anything too much, but I’ve got a lot of music and music videos. I hope to potentially start touring and all that stuff. But you know, it takes time. I want to ease myself into it.
Has music and writing always been a part of your life?
Growing up with my family, my parents were always watching classic movies and listening to classic records. I think I kind of viewed actors and musicians as kind of superheroes, and it’s always been a part of my life. We would have talent shows at my house, where you would come and perform an original song. Like I said before, because of that, that’s why it’s so easy for me to connect and express myself through music or acting.
Do you consider yourself a dreamer?
Definitely. I have a notebook full of dreams, and ideas, and concepts. I am always thinking of fun ways to express myself and fun ways to connect with people. I’m at a place right now where I’m not allowing my dreams to just be dreams. If I have an idea or something I want to do, then I deserve to do it. If I can dream it then I can do it, so I would definitely consider myself a dreamer.
Can you share one of those with us?
Ultimately, the place that I want to get to is to be creating a platform for people like myself. Especially for music and creating art. I have big aspirations. I want to have a hub where talented artists can have a platform to put out their music or their art or whatever the case may be. We’re in a place and a culture now where we’re in a quantity over quality situation. I find it harder and harder to find music today. It’s not because it doesn't exist, it’s because people don’t have a platform for that: a platform where people can go to listen to real, good, true art. Right now, I’m not sure what that looks like and what that sounds like, but I believe that people need it and deserve it.