He's been mostly out of the mainstream media since his days as the iconic Steve Urkel on Family Matters, but this father of a 21 month old little girl is not slowing down.
Not only is Jaleel White an accomplished actor, he is also a well-respected screenwriter, having written animated series for Disney and feature films (he's currently working on a romantic comedy to be filmed in Canada in the coming months).
We sat down with Jaleel and talked to him about everything from his days as Urkel to his recent web series and his aspirations to continue writing. We also got a few questions in there about his new film Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer. So much to talk about!
He says he's having a blast with it all and while acting pays the bills, writing is his passion. "I mean some of my heroes you would never image. I want to be Diablo Cody in pants," he quips when asked about his screenwriting career.
But his most recent work is playing the fun and lovable Mr. Todd in the upcoming Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, co-starring Heather Graham and newcomer Jordana Beatty.
Mr. Todd is the kind of teacher every kids dreams of -- he plays the banjo and sings catchy songs, makes learning lots of fun, and even gives his class clues to find him during their summer vacation. Say what?
"It's me playing that thing. I learned all my chords for that song and I recorded the song several different ways, so that scene is definitely going to haunt me on YouTube."
So did he have any teachers like that to gain inspiration? Well, not exactly.
"I had teachers that sent me to detention. I didn't have some fun dude playing banjos and giving me clues on how to find him in the summer."
Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer hits theaters this Friday, June 10.
Continue reading to catch the rest of our interview with Jaleel.
Congratulations on the film.
Thanks. It was a no-brainer decision. Smokewood asked me to be in the film, which is kind of cool because you really fight for roles out here, but Sarah Magness, as it turned out, was a fan of mine and asked me to play the role of Mr. Todd. I have a 21 month old daughter, for those of you who don’t know and I thought it would be pretty cool for her to see me on the big screen. My parents are really looking forward to taking her to see it. I was going to bring her to the premiere, but I think she might make too much noise and only last 20 minutes. That’s really why I took the role to be quite honest. It was a popular book series.
Did you know the books?
No I didn’t. I learned about it and marched up to Barnes and Noble and said, ‘what you got on Judy Moody?’ When I did the role they sent me the first one, but before it arrived, I wanted to see what it was all about, so I went up to Barnes and Noble and just asked a couple of people I knew who had daughters and they were like ‘oh ya, Judy Moody, we know that.’ Obviously, I was looking for character references for Mr. Todd.
Did you reference any of your own teachers?
I was schooled on set, but also attended school, so as far as school’s concerned, I’m accostumed to being in a classroom, but I didn’t reference anybody for this particular role. The only thing you get is that there’s a little bit of illustration on Mr. Todd, he doesn’t really factor into the first book, so I didn’t really have too much to go on other than – John’s really gonna hate me for saying this, but John telling me, he wanted me to be Richard Pryor and Mr. Rogers.
It’s an ongoing character though, right?
It is an ongoing character that they see blossoming, so whatever that is – the way I approached it is, I could tell his classroom is a stage. He’s probably in a band or probably wanted to be a performer of some kind in his younger years and ended up being a teacher, so as a result when he’s in front of these kids, his classroom is a stage, so I really let that dictate all of my mannerisms of being more a performer, but dressed as a teacher.
Speaking of his musical abilities, what’s your own background as far as playing an instrument?
I don’t! I took piano lessons when I was a kid and that didn’t work out, but for some reason I keep being asked to sing and play instruments. I did an episode of Psych where I sang in a quartet called Quarter Black and then obviously I was asked to do this and I had to take banjo lessons for 3 or 4 weeks. I was thinking more sitcom and I was like, ‘go on tight to whoever’s hands you need to,’ but they didn’t really see it that way. So it’s me playing that thing, I learned all my chords for that song and I recorded the song several different ways, so that scene Is definitely going to haunt me on YouTube.
Were there any surprises on set?
There was a prank, I just can’t remember the specifics because Jordana ended up crying. There was a no Facebook rule and no Tweeting on set because it’s hard to keep things secret these days, so we made Jordana believe that something that she had done leaked onto YouTube and they mocked up a page and everything and so as soon as she saw it, she just started weeping. She’s the biggest professional, so she had the reaction of an adult that was about to get fired or something. So Heather Graham rushes in and says, ‘no we were just playing,’ but no, they had a no Facebook rule. That’s kind of new for me on set because I didn’t have to deal with those things as a kid, not at all.
It’s every kids dream of the ideal teacher.
I guess that’s what he’s shaping out to be. Everyone was asking me this morning, you know, did you ever have a teacher like that. Hell no. I had teachers that sent me to detention. I didn’t have some fun dude playing banjos and giving me clues on how to find him in the summer.
Did you always intend to be an actor or was writing also on your agenda?
Writing is still on my slate. Fingers crossed I have a film that’s racing toward pre-production right now in Canada and I have a film in the Cannes right now called ‘Rhymes with Banana.’ I don’t know how I got on the fast-track of film, but right now I’m just rolling on it. I’m a huge cinema buff and to be quite honest I’m from a different generation. I’m only in this business because my parents used it to raise money for college. I never acted with the idea that you could become a star. That was just a different mindset back then.
And what about this script from Canada?
It’s a romantic comedy. I don’t want to leak out too much because you never know what can change on it, but I just got back from a scouting trip on that. The script is fantastic and it’s just about actor attachments at this point and I’m really excited about it. But I’m patient enough to want to sit down with you again in the future and talk about it some more. It’s a romantic comedy based on text messaging. So it’s very relevant and very funny.
So acting pays the bills?
Yeah acting pays the bills and writing – I mean some of my heroes you would never imagine. I want to be Diablo Cody in pants.
You also did a web series recently. What was that like?
It was a lot of fun. I did a web series called ‘Fake It Till You Make It.’ A lot of people were really impressed with the fact that we got to Hulu and they were terrific partners with it. I’m not sure right now where it stands because the web space just really doesn’t support unsponsored content in the long-run. You still need a branded partner. It’s tough trying to find that partner that would say, ‘this in its totality is brought to you by us and we’re not touching it.’
Do you think doing stuff on the web is where it’s going?
I don’t know if that’s where it’s going, but there is a convergence of web and TV that is inevitable. So I almost see them as one. I use my Apple TV component on my television as much as I do sifting through the channels. I use Netflix and Apple TV as opposed to going to Blockbuster. At the touch of a button if someone tells me something is funny on YouTube, we watch it on the big screen.
Was it fate which brought you into Family Matters?
Oh absolutely. I didn’t even want to act anymore. All 5 ft 4 in of me wanted to go play high school basketball and I literally booked that job 6 months before I was going to quit. And I had braces on my mouth, so back then especially, they weren’t hiring any 5’4” black kid with braces to be on TV. As long as I’ve been in this business, I’ve never had a television show developed for me. I’ve never had a movie deal. I’ve never had a television deal and I’ve eaten just time.
You go with the flow and I know every great role, every great opportunity was turned down by someone else. That’s literally the way this town works.
What would be your dream role?
I do know a dream role, but I’m not going to say because I don’t want – there’s a superstitious side of me that thinks – as soon as I say it it’ll never happen!!