AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Actor and musician LEON is a man of many talents and is known for his memorable performances in The Five Heartbeats and The Temptations.
LEON stops by the WJBF News Channel 6 studio and sits down with WJBF as we talk about one of his most iconic lines plus we chat about his other endeavors, which include a new independently produced BET+ film, his production company, and his band, Leon And The Peoples.
Leon, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be here in Augusta and to be here for Celebrating Black Excellence. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get started with acting?
How did I get started with acting? Well, I was at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on a basketball scholarship, and a graduate film student chased me down on campus and begged me to be in his movie. And I was like, “Well, why don’t you get someone in the theater arts department? I’m sure they’d love to be in your movie.” And he says, “No, there’s something about you. I’ve been observing you. You’re going to be in the movies one day. I want to be the first one to do it.” So, I’m the type of person that’ll do anything once as long as it’s safe. So, I had an experience that we all have had in life. You know, you sit down and talk to someone you just met for like an hour, but you felt like you’ve known them way longer than an hour? That’s the way I felt on a movie set for the first time. So, it was like I’ve been there before. It felt natural. So, I changed my major and became a drama major. Studied acting, worked hard at it, and created some roles I’ve been lucky enough to create; some roles that people remember.
Now, can you break down the difference between the craft of acting and the business of entertainment?
So, you know, a lot of people who want to be an actor, you know, they don’t realize that you need to work on the craft of acting. For example, someone could be cast in the movie that’s very much like who they are, and they come off pretty good. But when they’re asked to create someone they’re not like and take someone through a story, that’s a totally different thing and especially on stage. So, the business of acting is totally different. It is not about who’s the best. It’s not about who works the hardest. It’s about a lot of different things, but who represents to what projects are available to you when you get hot. It’s also about keeping yourself relevant, whether it be through social media or through outside ventures. You always have to keep yourself in the people’s eyes, even when you’re don’t have a film out or a TV series, and it’s a business. It’s a business.
Do you have a preference when it comes to acting for film, television, or theater?
Well, I love theater. Theater to me is the mother of acting, and that’s how we learn to act. That’s how I learned to act is on a stage, but I think I was born to be on film. It just seems like the way people take to me on film. Yeah, it seems like that’s where I’m supposed to be.
Well, speaking of, of course, people know you for your iconic performances: David Ruffin of The Temptations on The Temptations movie. What was it like portraying him?
Portraying David Ruffin was this interesting. Otis Williams, who is the founding member and the only member still left The Temptations, came after me after I did a movie called The Five Heartbeats and told me that he wrote a book. They were making the movie one day, and he wanted me to play him. And so, when the movie came around, they said, “We know Otis wants you to play him, but we want to ask you, ‘Who do you think you should play?’” And I said, “Well, I’m flattered that Otis wants me to play him, but I think I probably best serve this movie if I take on the role of David Ruffin.” And they were like, “Oh my goodness! Thank God you said that! We didn’t know who was gonna play David Ruffin if you didn’t play David Ruffin!” (Laughs) When I played David, I just stayed in character the entire time; I was a method actor. So, I just had pictures of him all on our TV set and his moves in order to just try and create the essence of the character. Because when you portray, you can’t look exactly like that person. You can’t be like the person, but you can capture the essence. And that is the most important thing.
Now, “Ain’t nobody coming to see you, Otis.” This iconic line. Is it true that you adlibbed that line?
Yes. I was in rehearsal, and our lines were going. The director came up to me after he talked to the other actor, Charles Malik Whifield, who is a wonderful actor, and whispered, “He doesn’t like it when you say that.” And I said, “He’s not supposed to. Did you see his face when I said it? Isn’t that what you want?” Then, he goes, “Yeah, you’re right.” (Laughs)
Now, you share a child with supermodel and Real Housewives of Atlanta star Cynthia Bailey, and you’ve made appearances on the show. How was it for you sharing that part of your life on reality TV?
Difficult, but necessary for me. If you follow me, you always know that I’ve always been private and very discreet. But Noelle is my one and only, and Cynthia had married someone at the time. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was not raising my child. You know, she’s my one and only. They need to know that she’s got a daddy that is 100% raising her. So, if I had to go on the show to let people know that, then that’s what I was going to do. Plus, sometimes you got to do things for family, and it was a family business. Cynthia being on that show has opened up a lot of doors for her, and it’s also helped for my daughter to go to college and everything else. So, you know, it’s family business.
Would you ever be open to doing a reality show about your life?
No, no, no, no, no. I mean, the only thing I would possibly do is maybe do a reality show of maybe my band on tour, which would be kind of interesting to let people see that process. But my personal life… you know, well, I don’t know why. It’s not personal anymore.
Speaking of music, how long have you been doing music?
Well, for a while now. My band’s going together for like 15 years. So, we’ve done 38 city tours. We’ve been all over New York. We play reggae, soul music. And, yeah, I’ve been doing it for a while.
And the name of your band is Leon and the Peoples. What made you get into that? What put you in that moment?
You know, I was hosting a lot of festivals because I was a well-known actor, and I’d be backstage with a lot of performers. We’d be singing acapella, and they’d be like, “You should sing. You don’t have to, but, you know, you love it, you know?” So, I had joined this band called The Young Lions in New York. We started doing well, but they would just do cover songs. I wanted to do original material. So, I formed this band called The Peoples, and we played a few gigs, but I realized people didn’t know who The Peoples were. So, I had to pull a “David Ruffin” on them and call it Leon And The Peoples, and we started working.
And you released your second album, which is called “Love Is A Beautiful Thing,” and people can stream that on all digital platforms?
Oh, yes. Everywhere you get music.
Now you have a new movie coming out, which is independently produced by Megamind Media, entitled First Lady of BMF: The Tonesa Welch Story, which is coming to BET+. Can you please tell us about the film?
Wow. It’s a biopic. I think that 50 Cent has a few shows that are about BMF, but this is the real story of the real woman from the time she’s 17 until she’s grown and gone through all the trials and tribulations of being the First Lady of BMF, and BMF for those who don’t know is Black Mafia Family.
Who do you play in the film?
I play her dad. You know, I’m the actor that they usually get when you say, “We need somebody that can age from 35 to 50… LEON!” (Laughs)
How was your experience working on that film?
Oh, it was good. It was interesting. My really good friend Judge Greg Mathis is executive producing and Vivica A. Fox, who I’ve worked with before and known over the years, is directing the movie. So, it was fun.
And you have a production company as well.
Yes, Motion Mob Films.
Can you please tell us about that?
It’s a New York-based film company. We’ve been doing shorts, we’re developing a TV series, and we’re doing lots of music videos. Hopefully, I’ll probably do my feature film that I direct probably out of my company.
What advice or words of inspiration could you give someone who wants to get into acting or music or just entertainment business?
Well, the first thing I’d say to you is: “Are you okay with people saying no to you?” Because if people say “No” to you, nine out of ten times, you are one of the successful ones because most people never get a “Yes.” So, you have to be ready for that. And you’re doing it for what reason? You’re doing it because you want to be famous or you’re doing it because you really love the craft? Because in order to have a career, you got to have some control of your craft, whether it be working on your voice or working on your acting ability; something that’s going to take you over the longevity of it. You know, you can become famous for doing nothing nowadays. We all know that, but in order to sustain things, in order to make a career out of it, to be able to support your family, and constantly get better and better and create more and more fans, I think you have to work on your craft. So, are you willing to do that? Or do you just want to be famous? If you just want to be famous, do something crazy on Instagram and keep it moving. (Laughs)
First Lady of BMF: The Tonesa Welch Story premieres on BET+ Thursday, October 5th.