Spend more than a few minutes with Omar Dorsey, and you pretty much get the sense that this is a guy who’s having a great time living an actor’s life and enthusiastically embracing every opportunity coming his way. And it’s not just because of his regular role as Hollywood Desonier on Queen Sugar, now in the midst of its third season. And it’s not from his previous role as a killer on Ray Donovan. Or any of the other roles he’s played over the years. It has completely to do with… well, all of it.
“It’s mind-blowing,” he laughs in an exclusive interview with Life & Style. “It’s what I want, to share my craft. If I’m playing a bad guy, I want to be the best bad guy in the world. I want to be the most hated person, ‘cause I want to have done my job. And when I was doing Ray Donovan, I was doing the movie Selma at the same time. So I was playing a homicidal maniac on the weekends, then flying back to Atlanta to do Selma and playing one of the greatest civil rights leaders of all time, James Orange. Which is like my days doing summer stock, where I was doing three plays in one summer.”
But if there’s a soft spot in his heart for one project, it’s definitely Queen Sugar. In addition to the material itself, it’s the opportunity for steady work and the accompanying income. “Because of the show,” he says, “I don’t have to choose certain types of roles that I don’t want to play outside of the show, because I don’t need to have a money grab. At this point, I can curate the roles that I want to do, the projects that I want to do that will benefit me and make me feel better as an artist.
“For the longest time,” Omar adds, “you just had to take exactly what was given to you. You got bills to pay? You gotta do this, that and the other. But now, three seasons into Queen Sugar — and hopefully we’ll see a fourth — I can go and do these beautiful roles. And now there’s a fan base that’s gonna come with me for other films or other television things that I try to do. They’re, like, ‘Okay, well let’s see what Omar’s doing next.’”
The journey of an actor, one step at a time.
Born Dec. 22, 1975, in Decatur, Georgia, Omar explains that he’s been a theater actor since he was four or five years old. He performed in high school, and went to college to be an actor before studying writing and directing. His initial two film auditions came in 2000, first for Remember the Titans and, then, for Road Trip. He had no choice but to forget the Titans, but did manage to hit the road ever so briefly.
“It wasn’t that hard for me to break in,” he reflects, “but every step you take, you find that the next level is harder and harder to reach. So I might have been in Road Trip, had three or four lines in it and, boom, the next movie I was in was Drumline . It had five or six lines. But you gotta continue to go up, up, up and up, so by the time I get to doing television shows, you might take six months, a year, two years to go to the next level. That’s when they say the times are hard. That’s when you feel like you’re stagnant; like there’s nothing going on.”
And even with that, he was filled with a need to try and intelligently accept work that would ultimately benefit his career in the long run. Coming from theater, he might be playing Shakespeare, August Wilson, Robert O’Hara, Colman Domingo or Tom Stoppard. “I’m just not used to playing the same old thing,” Omar explains. “It’s a concerted effort for me that when I act on Ray Donovan, I turn down all of those gangsta roles I was being offered. I was, like, ‘I’ve already done that. I don’t want y’all to just see me as that.’”
Odds are they won’t. Back in 2012, he spent five months filming Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained as Chicken Charlie; two years later he acted for director Ava DuVernay in Selma as the previously-mentioned James Orange. Other film roles have come along, as did a recurring stint on the series Aquarius, but it’s Queen Sugar — created, produced and frequently directed by Duverney — that has been his biggest on-screen acting gig to date.
Omar finds a home in Queen Sugar.
The show is a contemporary drama set in Louisiana, chronicling the lives and loves of the estranged Bordelon siblings, Rutina Wesley’s Nova (a world-wise journalist and activist), Dawn-Lyen Gardner’s Charley (the savvy wife and manager of a professional basketball star), and Kofi Siriboe’s Ralph Angel (a formerly incarcerated young father in search of redemption). Tina Lifford plays Violet Bordelon, mother figure to the Bordelon children, who is dating Omar’s Hollingsworth “Hollywood” Desonier, a much younger oil rig worker.
Having worked with Ava DuVernay on Selma, she genuinely wanted Omar for the role of Hollywood and didn’t even require an audition. “I read the script,” he says, “and was flabbergasted that that’s what she wanted me to play. She said, ‘This is how I see you, and this is how I want the world to see you.’ So I just went in there and did my thing.
“This is a character that I’ve known my whole life,” Omar continues. “This is a blue-collar man, loves his woman, loves his family. He works extremely hard. But we’ve never really seen that on television: A black man who has this much love to give, and in this” — he motions to himself — “package. I’m not like some super model dude, I’m just a regular guy. The evolution of it is he’s beaten by two other blue-collar men, then he retires from his job and gets a big lump sum settlement because of a lawsuit, and now he’s a millionaire. It’s the ups and downs of that. A person who’s been so used to working with his hands on something every day, now he’s just a 43-year-old man and he’s just sitting back and enjoying life. The drama comes from the relationship between Hollywood and Violet, given that he’s 43 and she’s 60, and worried that he would rather be with somebody younger. At the end of the day, man, it’s family. And family goes through the drama they go through; their ups and downs. But because they’re family, there’s nothing gonna come between that.”
And obviously there’s nothing going to come between Omar and his respect for Ava DuVernay, whose credits as director include Girls Trip and A Wrinkle in Time, and who will be doing New Gods, based on the DC Comics title of the same name. “Her impact on this industry will be felt from here on out,” he says. “I say that because of this: I’ve been acting in film and television for 20 years and I’ve only been directed by two women in my life before I did Queen Sugar. Ava and one other person. Queen Sugar is a show that is directed only by women. That’s an extremely powerful thing, because now all of those women are off having these big, amazing careers. And the reality is that only 5% of directors are women, which is preposterous. Just insane. When I was in film school, half of the people were men and half were women. As time went on, the only people who I was working with were men. And I never thought anything about it until I saw what Ava did. I don’t know if she understands it, but I hope she gets the impact that she has and the power that she has that she’s putting to amazing use.”
A new kind of achievement.
Another element of Queen Sugar that’s made the experience so amazing for him is that this is a “black series”, rather than him being a black man on a series populated by mostly white actors. “This came off of the back of the #OscarsSoWhite movement,” he says. “There was a big uproar, because we have all of these great movies, but we’re not in these awards shows. We’re getting overlooked. So what’s happened on the back of that, is that Hollywood was, like, ‘Let’s open it up a little bit. Let’s let these black storytellers tell their stories.’ Out of that, you get Atlanta, you get Queen Sugar, you get Luke Cage. You get all these amazing shows that are told from a perspective of these black storytellers, who know the lives that black people in America live. And it’s not being dictated to the actors that this is what a white writer thinks it might be like.
“Even when I was doing other shows, it wasn’t from the black perspective, but I would try my best,” Omar reflects. “I never tried to step on the toes of any writers, but I was, like, ‘You know, people don’t really talk like that. It’s not the 1990s anymore.’ You know what I’m saying? They just don’t know, obviously. They’re not in the communities like that. Now you have a person like Lena Waithe, who’s the creator of The Chi, who can go and write the stories from her perspective where she is in Chicago. Or you got Donald Glover, who can write a show like Atlanta. He was born and raised in Atlanta. He knows that city more than anything, and can actually drop you into the setting of where he’s from, and it doesn’t come across as stereotypical. It’s just day in the life.”
Marvel’s Black Panther is another project he looks at with admiration: “Amazing achievement, man. Told from a perspective of a black man, [director] Ryan Coogler, who comes in there and does this. The thing about it is when you see that movie, it’s so much pride when you walk into it. There’s this black king — this African king in this beautiful African world with all this amazing technology… I know it’s just a movie. I know it’s just fantasy. But there’s a pride that you can have, because for so long, forever, a lot of stories that involve us cause us to face all the negativity of what it is to be black. We’re way more than that, man.”
While Queen Sugar’s third season concludes in a couple of weeks, Omar will next be seen on the big screen in this October’s Halloween, in which he plays the character of Sheriff Barker, who spends considerable time hunting down serial killer Michael Myers. “It’s 40 years after the first film,” he says, “and we’re ignoring all the other sequels that have come out. So we met Laurie Strode [Jamie Lee Curtis, who reprises] in that film, and we’re meeting her again in this one.” He smiles discussing this one. “It’s a big one, Brother. That’s one I’m extremely excited about. Can you tell?”
Yes, we can.
From there, he’s co-writing and producing a film called Cross of Redemption, which is shooting in Atlanta, and he has plans to move into directing, which is part of what he trained for in the first place. “I wanna be the person telling the story,” he offers matter of factly, adding that, creatively, it feels like he’s been set free. “I been feeling like I got this opportunity, man, and you gotta run with it. I’m not afraid of failure, so I’m ready for whatever comes.”