The Myth, The Man, The Legend, Steve Urkel – Interview with Jaleel White
For many kids growing up in the 90’s, Jaleel White was a pivotal actor on American Television. For years he came into your living room, on the hit sitcom Family Matters, as the iconic, lovable, and hopeless nerd Steve Urkel. 12 years later, Jaleel has since been seen in hit shows like Boston Legal, Psych, and the movie Dreamgirls. Now the 33 year old actor/writer is producing his own web-series, Fake It Til You Make It. Jaleel White stars as a former child star turned Hollywood hustlin’ image consultant Reggie Culkin. We got a chance to sit down with Jaleel and talk about his web-series and the role that made him famous.
Nerd Reactor: So tell us a little bit about your show, for those of us that don’t know. What is Fake It Til You Make It?
Jaleel White: Yeah, I’m really excited about it. Last year I did a web-series (Road to The Altar) for two female filmmakers that asked me to do it and I was kind of looking at my manager like “What the hell is this?” and he was like “Oh just go do it Jaleel.” I had a really good experience, but at the same time I said if I ever did this again, I wanted it to be my own voice, so that’s what “Fake It Til You Make It” is.
In the series, I play a former child star named Reggie Culkin. I use to be on this show called I Got Dibs and now I’m a celebrity mogul notary and celebrity trainer. I am a celebrity everything. I have 3 proteges that have latched onto me who are just dying to get a leg up in this business. The series doesn’t really poke fun at child stars so much as it pokes fun at this new showbiz culture of “I know you for as long as I need you” and it’s so true to life.
So there is a lot of truth in the series to what goes on in Hollywood?
Oh 100%. I mean literally 100%. Our characters are all designed to be laughed at and you laugh at them because they take themselves so seriously. I had to give that note to our lead actress and I had to tell her don’t try to be funny, because the funny thing about Kathy is when she takes herself dead serious, and that’s the way people are out here in Hollywood. We also have some amazing guess stars, we have Wayne Brady, who does an amazing episode, and we also have Rashad Evans, who just beat Rampage and I was so happy he won.
So is this the your first web-series you have ever produced?
Yes it is.
So what’s the difference now that you’re behind the camera and in front of the camera?
It’s just wearing a lot more hats. Acting for me is almost second nature, I’m sorry I don’t mean for that to come off cocky, but it’s just during the shoot rarely did I get a chance to just act and worry about character nuance. During one of the episodes we were shooting, I’m in the middle of trying to nail this scene and one of the producers comes up to me and is like, “If we don’t stop rolling in 3 minutes, we’re paying all these people time and a half.” [Laughs]
So I’m literally yelling at someone on the side, “Can you give me a calculation? Like how much?” She (producer) finally came back with a number that was way too high and I was like “OKAY EVERYBODY GET OUT OF HERE!” [Laughs]
Yeah unfortunately that’s just how it goes.
Hey man it’s a business man, everybody’s gotta eat. So that’s really the main difference, just wearing a lot more hats. I actually like it, because I’m use to playing 3 to 4 characters being Steve Urkel, so I’ve been trained to have a lot of things on my mind at once.
So speaking of Steve Urkel, there is a NEW DVD coming out this month?
Yeah I just heard about that! That snuck up on me.
I thought that you would be one of the first people to know?
You would think that. [Laughs] But like I said that snuck up on me. I got some criticism too; I wish they would have given people more extras. Oh my god!
You’d think that would be a key thing to include in the new DVD.
If they had called me, I would have told them! They want bloopers, they want extras! [Laughs] But it’s still a classic, especially the first season; and it’s extremely nostalgic for me to see it come out.
Yeah, it’s definitely a show that I grew up with, and it will be a show that I will always remember along with the rest of the lineup of TGIF. It was funny, I was watching an episode of CHUCK and the actor that played Carl Winslow was in an episode that was pretty much a Die Hard tribute and he kind of reprised his role from the movie. What was funny to me is I remember watching that movie as a kid and remembering seeing him and was like, “Oh my god! That’s the dad from Family Matters.” I think that was the first time I realized that people on TV can be in Movies. [Laughs]
Oh man I need to check that out, it’s probably on Hulu.
So the show was around for a while and a lot of people grew up with it and they love Urkel. One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is when you were playing Urkel, you were portraying what was presumed to be a nerd at that time, but now it’s “in” to be a nerd. I mean almost everyone wants to be a nerd now with Youtubing, Facebooking, Iphones, Video Games, and Comic-Con. Everything now revolves around nerd culture. I mean, times have changed.
Yeah it is amazing that “nerd” has become this fashionable word now. I just really stems from technology, and if you don’t know a nerd you don’t know what’s hot. [Laughs] But naw, I had no clue, it’s pretty wild to see how the whole culture has become mainstream.
Also the television industry has changed. I mean nobody saw Reality TV coming. Nobody saw that family television in general was about to get punched in the mouth. People always like to talk to me about typecasting and I’m not a typecast. I’m just a face of what the hell TGIF was. What happened was every network in the game pretty much said we don’t want families on television anymore. There use to be a broadcast standard practice that said what you had to put on at 8 o’clock was conditions for families to watch, that’s gone now. Now I got people in Jersey Shore scratching each other’s eyes out at 8 o’clock.[Laughs] You know life just changes and you got to roll with the punches.
Yeah I’ve definitely noticed how much its changed. For instance, we recently went to a comic convention and a lot of voice actors were there from Cartoon Shows that were on the air around the same time and we were like, “Hey what happened to all the cartoons?” There are like no cartoons anymore.
Oh yeah, that’s gone man.
It’s all Zack and Cody. [Laughs]
What’s even worse is those were original cartoons. Now even if you do see a cartoon, you’re going to see some property that’s been developed into a cartoon. You know the Smurfs wasn’t a property, someone made up those blue people! [Laughs] I’m really big on originality, and I’m just kind of waiting on the next wave to start. People need to say, “Look man, I’ve had enough sequels. Give me something new.”
Yeah, that’s going to be hard because as long as they can make their money, they’ll bleed a property dry.
I wanted to ask you, and I’m sure you get a lot of people coming up to you on the streets because they remember you as Steve Urkel, but do you ever get people coming up to you and saying “Oh man, I loved you as Sonic?” Is that something that rarely happens?
They’re like “Sonic Underground sucks dog” and I’m like, “Hey man, I just did the voice, I am not DiC Entertainment. You need to send Andy Heyward a mean email and leave me the hell alone.”
These people are venomous. “Man that was awful, Sonic Underground. I can’t believe you made that.” I’m like, dude I just get called in for a voice session. Now going back to the project I just did, it’s like finally, I’ve done something that I can defend in its entirety. From opening credits, to the music, to the end, I am responsible for it all. I wrote every episode, I produced it, I picked the director (a guy named Todd Pellegrino, who directed the “Mayne Street” for ESPN). That’s one of my favorite web-series. I think it’s very well done. I was able to get in contact with him and I was like, “Man, would you do mine, because I wouldn’t do it without a proper director.” I mean he and I just hit it off like brothers, but man, I try to avoid all the madness I catch for Sonic. People are mad, like I really had something to do with that.
I really can’t say anything on the subject because I really never watched Sonic Underground. I did however watched the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic The Hedgehog, and I loved those series. I remember to this day the episode where Sonic infiltrates Dr. Robotnic’s fortress and finds his Uncle Chuck, who has been converted into one of Dr. Robotnic’s robot henchmen. I remember it being incredibly sad and moving for me as a kid. So nobody better talk shit on those series! [Laughs]
Well, you’re always going to get somebody you know that don’t like something and they want to let it be known and it’s convenient to do so online. Fan mail has even changed. Back in the day, nobody that hated you was going to take the time to write a letter and put a stamp on it. [Laughs]
Nowadays, if you don’t like something, let me leave a nasty shady comment anonymously. That is one misconception that I hope Nerd Reactor can help clean up. It is that the average actor does not have any influence over the entirety of a project that people think. They really don’t. That’s why I admire great writers, executive producers, and directors. I can’t wait to see Inception because Christopher Nolan directed it. So the second I see a guy that directed something I liked, I wanna go see what else he comes out with, because I just know anything he paints will be visionary.
Yeah, for me when I heard about him directing Batman, I was like “Oh my god,” because I loved Memento.
Memento was an amazing independent movie.
Dude what about Prestige! [Laughs]
So I don’t know, I guess I have a little bit of nerd in me. You got to have a little bit of nerd, especially in this industry.
You’re a movie nerd. Can you confirm that you are indeed a movie nerd?
Oh, definitely a movie nerd. I know good film when I see it, I’ve been taught it all my life and I just want to do better film. That’s half the reason why people don’t see as much of me is because I don’t want to be part of a project that I could be ashamed of. Like I said, an actor is only going to have so much influence over a project.
Do you have any advice for today’s child stars? The Hannah Montanas, the Zack and Codys?
When ever people start asking me about advice for other child actors, I always say that I was a very fortunate I had a wonderful family. My mother and father were very caring individuals. They cared about education, they provided for themselves and I wasn’t their meal ticket. All those things need to be in place for somebody to come out well adjusted. The fact of the matter is, if anyone of these Entertainment Weekly’s or even Nerd Reactor, wanted to do a spotlight on child stars that have done well, you’d really find there are a lot more that have done well than have fallen off the wagon, and it always goes back to family. As far as I’m concerned, I consider Brain Austin Green and Leonardo DiCaprio child actors, I remember them as kids. I remember them from Growing Pains, it’s just that they didn’t hit their fame until they became adults. So there are a lot of people that started off very young as child performers. The ones that make it through have decent families, and the ones that don’t come from good families have a hard time. It’s not hard to understand.
So what would you say is your favorite Family Matters episode?
Phew, that’s a….that’s a tough one to say.
One of mine is the one when Eddie got beat up by the cops because he was black. I remember that episode because it was very deep and very emotional, one of the more serious episodes of Family Matters.
I actually remember that, I’m just shocked that you would pull that one out. Just most people do choose the very serious episode as their favorite. [Laughs]
Yeah they probably think of the Urkel Robot episode. What was the name of that robot?
Urkel Bot. That was a good one.
For me, at least in the first set, my favorite would have to be The Big Fix and Bowl Me Over. Big Fix was the first time I ever took Laura out on a date, and then Bowl Me Over was an episode that they ended up writing me into it and it just became a classic episode where we end up in this big bowling duel. But in terms of just overall I have to say Stephan, Bruce Lee, Urkel Bot. Those are my go to favorites.
So when you were creating Urkel, where did the inspiration come from for the character?
As far as creating the character, I have to give all credit to David Duclon. I never really felt like David Duclon has gotten his just due for what he did with my character. Basically the executive producer we had the first season did everything they could to ruin that show. David Duclon came in second season and added structure, and even added the Stephan character. I didn’t even want to play the character. I was like, “Dave, they want chocolate ice cream. Give them chocolate ice cream.”
That was spoken naively, just like a child, and he said, “No Jaleel, we need to do something different.” I said alright and I thought the character was boring. I walked in the first scene and I’ve never heard a crowd roar that loud ever, and in the back of my mind I’m like, “are you guys serious?” So if anything, I’m guilty of acting. [Laughs]
Well thanks for taking your time out to talk to me.
You sound like a genuine dude man, I loved our conversation.
Thanks again and best of luck with your web-series.
Thanks big dog.
Go check out Jaleel White in Fake It Til You Make It on Hulu.com
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