On the FX drama series Sons of Anarchy, actor Rockmond Dunbar plays no-nonsense Charming Sheriff Eli Roosevelt. After a tragic event turns his world upside down, the previously tough-as-nails lawman is clearly shaken to his core. The show stars Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal, Maggie Siff, Kim Coates, Mark Boone Junior, Tommy Flanagan, Theo Rossi and Dayton Callie.
During this recent interview to discuss where his character is headed in the remainder of Season 5, Rockmond Dunbar talked about never knowing where things are headed with Roosevelt, how he actually likes that element of surprise, that his character will continue to spiral out of control, how he came to be a part of the show, what he things set Sons of Anarchy apart from other TV dramas, how show creator Kurt Sutter inspires him, and the various TV and film projects he has in development. Check out what he had to say, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
ROCKMOND DUNBAR: I have no idea. I really don’t. We just wrapped up the finale, and we shot a scene that I was in with Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and Tara (Maggie Siff). We were having a lot of dialogue about the scene, and Maggie looked at Kurt and said, “Hey, what’s going to happen?,” and Kurt didn’t even know what was going to happen. He was like, “Look, I’m leaving the door open on this.” There are four different options of different directions for where he could go, with this moment that just played out. So, I never know what’s going to happen until I get to the read-through, and sit down with Kurt and the rest of the cast members and go through the script. I didn’t know last year, either. I thought I was going to die a horrible death, after 10 episodes. But, I’m here. I signed on to do six episodes and ended up doing about eight. My character is finding a nice little arc.
As an actor, do you like that element of surprise?
DUNBAR: There’s not that many surprises that you get in life. It doesn’t work, if you’re an actor who really loves to put in the work and create a character, but if you’re really good on your feet and you love doing the work and you have a full life, then it really doesn’t matter. I have so many different little projects going on right now, where I just got into the groove of the SOA crew. I pull together what I can, at the last minute, and just make it happen.
DUNBAR: This dude is spiraling out of control, and he’s literally taking no prisoners. He’s lost everything that he built his life for. He took a job close to home that he thought would bring his relationship to his wife a little bit closer. They were trying to have a baby, she finally gets pregnant, and then she’s killed. Now, he has absolutely nothing. So, what do you do, when you’re stripped of all the things that you think created your life? A lot of characters really need to be careful and look out for him because he’s on the edge.
Does he go over the edge, at all?
DUNBAR: I can tell you that he definitely invites evil into his world.
Is he going to realize that he has a common enemy with SAMCRO, or does it just set him more against them?
DUNBAR: Kurt [Sutter] would literally scare me, if I told you that one. You don’t want to blink on this one. The way that they position the character, the suspense that they have with the storytelling is going to pay off and really be worth the wait, definitely.
DUNBAR: I was shooting an independent film, and I had just finished Terriers. I got a call from my agent saying, “Hey, Kurt Sutter wants to talk to you about a role on Sons of Anarchy.” I went to go see him, sat in his office and he was like, “Hey, look, I called Shawn Ryan and said, ‘What about this kid, Rockmond Dunbar? Do you think he’d do a job?’” Shawn gave me the stamp of approval. So, Kurt and I sat in his office and talked a little bit, and he was like, “Okay, go to wardrobe.” It was a straight offer. I didn’t have to audition, which was great. Most actors love to get to the point where they’re not auditioning. So, it was a great meeting of the minds, and we made it work.
What do you think it is that sets this show apart from other television dramas?
DUNBAR: That we probably kill about six people, every time the show comes on. I don’t know any other show that does that, unless a plane has crashed, or something. It’s just so intense. I remember the writing on Prison Break, during the first and second season, was so good because they painted characters into a corner, and you never knew if they were going to be able to get out. I didn’t know if there was another show that could be like that and keep its intensity, but in the fifth season, Sons is continuing to do that. These writers are really incredible. They paint characters in a corner, and you think, “Oh, my god, they’re gonna either kill this character or lose this character. How can you do this to your lead character?” But, they do it, and you wait to see what’s gonna happen the next week, and if they’ll be able to get out of this trouble, danger or death box.
DUNBAR: The most rewarding part, to me, is just to see my mom and my dad’s face, and having them express that they’re proud of me and that I did something that they approve of, in my life. That makes me very happy, very, very happy. Out of everything – out of the money and the gift bags – the most important thing to me is just my mother and father being happy.
Have you always wanted to be an actor?
DUNBAR: Yes. In high school, I wanted to be a commodities executive, and then I started hanging around guys who wanted to be litigators. Then, I stepped on stage, my senior year, and I had the pleasure of creating six characters in a play, and that was only because a friend of mine made me audition for the school play. I wanted to go and have lunch, but he was like, “No, dude, you gotta audition for this play.” I was like, “Well, you know, I’m only taking acting classes because I don’t want to take gym anymore,” but I ended up doing those roles. I wanted to go to Morehouse College to study poli-sci because I was going to become a litigator, but in my first year, I booked the lead role in a play over at Spelman College, called The Blue Vein Society. I called some of my friends back home and said, “Hey, I got this play. It’s awesome. I beat out all of these upperclassmen, and I get to kiss two girls. This is great!” My friend, who I was telling this story to, said, “Rock, is it the law that you love and that’s why you want to be a lawyer, or is it acting like a lawyer?” And that question changed my life. I knew instantly, within my heart, that it was acting like a lawyer. So, I got off the phone and called my mom and said, “Mom, I’m gonna change my major.” She was like, “Well you’re just a freshman. Don’t worry about it. You’ll change your major a number of times.” Then, I was like, “Mom, I’m gonna change my major to acting.” The very first line that came out of her mouth was, “You didn’t go to school to become an actor, period.” My retort was, “Mom, when you first saw me on stage, what did you think?” There was the longest pause, ever, and then the most beautiful thing she ever said to me was, “You know, I knew that was what you were going to do for the rest of your life, when you stepped on stage. I just knew it.” My mother is very intuitive and such a great woman. After that, I just attacked it. I started studying, as much as I possibly could, and did more plays. And then, I transferred to the College of Santa Fe, where I got my butt kicked. I booked my first television role during my sophomore year, with Steven Spielberg on a show called Earth 2. It was a great show. I did that for a full season. And then, the show got cancelled, so I went back to New Mexico and enrolled in the University of New Mexico and started taking some more acting classes. I decided to go back to LA a little bit later, and nickel and dime my way into a pretty decent career.
DUNBAR: I’ll tell you this, he’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s multi-talented. Not only does he play Otto – and he kills that role, by the way – but he created the show, his wife is on the show, and he directed the finale. There was a scene, just last Friday, with Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal, myself and Theo [Rossi], which I could’ve shot all night, and it was because of the way that Kurt organized, choreographed and wrote the scene. He’s an incredible dude, and my hat’s off to him. I hope to have half the career he has, when I start getting more and more into producing and creating.
Aside from Sons of Anarchy, what else do you have going on?
DUNBAR: I’m shopping around two pilots right now, which are near and dear to my heart. I’m also getting on a plane to go and finish another series that I helped put together, called For Richer, For Poorer, on the Gospel Channel Network. Right after that, I go back to The Game on BET, and I’ll finish out the year with them. That’s a series that has been out for a little while and is doing pretty well. In January, I’ll do another feature with Russ Parr, called Definitely Divorcing. And it looks like I’ll go back and sit in the director’s chair for a script that my girlfriend penned, which is absolutely hilarious, called Tying the Knot. And we’ll see what the season brings for Sons of Anarchy, next year. If I can get these two pilots up and running, we’ll see. So far, we’re having some good traction. And there’s a movie that I directed several years ago, called Pastor Brown, which we’ve gone through some litigation on, but that’s having distribution next year, I think in April. That’s it.
You had a great career before Sons of Anarchy, but have you noticed that your appearance on the show has raised your profile even more?
DUNBAR: I hope so. You hope that you choose jobs that will get you some more star power, so that you can continue to work. That’s pretty much how it works. I’m happy to be on the show, even though I’m only recurring. I’m not a series regular on it, but I’ve had some great opportunities and worked with some really great people. We’ll see how long that goes.
Sons of Anarchy airs on Tuesday nights on FX. Click here for our recaps.