When we first saw Carl Anthony Payne II on The Cosby Show in 1986, there was no doubt that the young scene stealer had something we wanted more of. Payne later landed the role of Cole on the series Martin, which had a successful run from 1992-1997, and gave us another truly memorable character.
Throughout the years, Payne has stayed consistently busy with television, movie and theater roles, including the 2009 feature film The Messenger with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. The 41-year-old thespian is now celebrating the television release of his latest stage play Love Me or Leave Me, which is performed just as you would see it in the theater.
The play recently debuted on the GMC Network, and has been another step in Carl Payne’s ever-evolving career. Love Me or Leave Me, which also stars Elise Neal, Shirley Murdock, Clifton Powell, Terrell Carter and Terri J. Vaughn, is a heart-wrenching tale about a mother who chooses to leave her young children in the care of her family, but later returns when they are grown to get re-involved in their lives.
In this exclusive interview with UrbLife.com, Carl Payne speaks on reaching people with his work, the difference in politics between Gospel and secular roles, similarities in acting and Hip Hop and more.
You’re kind of a sitcom icon, and as of late you’ve done a lot of plays. How did you get into theater?
Carl Anthony Payne II: Well, theater has been around for a long time. It really started [with] the Chitlin’ Circuit, us bringing people what they want to see. After Cosby, I moved to California, I started working on some other shows, and anytime I wasn’t working I was on the road.
In theater, when things go wrong you have to improvise, and even on television you have to do that sometimes to get the best take. Was there ever a time where your improvisations messed up or couldn’t hit the right note?
CAPII: Are you asking me if there was ever a time I went off the deep end improvising, and it went wrong? [laughs] I can’t say that I have done that. Sometimes you may take a left turn, but as long as you take them on a journey it’s ok.
You started out in New York, went to Hollywood, and now you’re doing Gospel plays, seemingly very far removed from the politics of Hollywood. Do you find that the business politics are much different for you in the Gospel world? Is it the same type of rat race?
CAPII: That’s a good question. Now that plays are becoming more popular, I would say that some of the politics bleed into it, but it’s not the same. I have run into it, but there’s a difference. They’re not just all gospel-based plays, but since we’re talking about that – they have an origin. I was raised spiritually, I believe in God. This is the basis of these plays, which is the foundation that you already come from, so there’s a certain familiarity there.
However, business is business in any realm, so just like the business of the church itself, there’s going to be politics. It’s not the same, but there’s always a certain amount. I think the difference is that people expect you to walk the life [of your character] but for some people it’s just work. Not me personally, but there’s been times when people look at you and expect you to do what you’re portraying.
That just happens in general. I played a very naïve dude for a long time on television, so naturally when they meet you, they expect you to be dumb. And I’m like, “nah, that’s just somebody I portray.” There are politics involved though.
That makes sense, like they may also expect you to have a belief in what you’re playing. In Love Me or Leave Me, the subject matter is very strong – the mother can’t take care of her kids and leaves them behind. So are you now going to have to have some sort of moral opinion with that since you played this role in the play?
CAPII: Exactly. [In that way], It’s like rap music. That’s the type of issues we’re bringing to the forefront, that we as Black people deal with, but we’re also saying don’t forget your foundation. At the end of the day, that’s what these plays are really about, is putting life on stage that people can relate to. They leave with some cathartic release, feeling like, “I can relate to that” or “I can get through these hard times.”
Do you know how many times people who were once in jail, who came up to me like, “I just want to thank you for all the laughter. If it wasn’t for Martin, I couldn’t have made it through my three-year bid.” That’s on television, so imagine that mother who might be going through things, who comes to see the [play] – we’re right there. When I go outside and people want your autograph or just to touch you, that’s a big deal [to know how you affect them].
UrbLife.com is very much about the generation that came up with Hip Hop, and who are now grown. You grew in your career on The Cosby Show and Martin, which appealed to a generation of Hip Hop heads. Are you still finding ways that Hip Hop touches your life?
CAPII: Me, being an original Hip Hop head from the culture standpoint, I gravitate towards the original social commentary that they make. These days we’ve gotten totally away from that… I have children, so I see how the new Hip Hop is influencing this new generation.
It’s one thing if you’re a battle rapper, it’s another if I’m showing off my fly cars and jewelry and I’m talking about something else [positive], that’s one thing, but if that’s all you talk about, and that’s you’re about, that’s not good. I almost feel like Nas is right, Hip Hop is dead.
You think so? I think we’re just getting old.
CAPII: Well, I don’t think that’s where Hip Hop is meant to go, is what I’m saying. The fact that it’s still here is great. I commend certain cats out there who are trying to expand it and take it to the next level.
Like who? Who do you respect right now?
CAPII: I respect a lot of cats, from Pharrell to Kanye, Jay-Z, they’re bridging gaps, they’re taking it to another level, they’re exposing another world to it, but these are the type of business moves and things that need to be done so that it can reach the masses.
Remember when our parents heard our music and said, “What is this hippity hoppity stuff?” Eventually if they sat down and listened, or a certain song came on with a sample of something they loved, now they’re listening to it, but they’re actually listening to the words like, “This ain’t bad!” But now even if you’ve got the old song, and you’re listening to “shake that ass, put the money in the air,” that’s what our kids are listening to…
It’s like when I first went to Howard University. People can say what they want about HBCU’s, but when I went there, I thought it’d be a really militant school, but no, it was teaching me things about my own culture and my own people. I gained a whole new respect for us and Hip Hop as a culture. These are the things that I’m not happy with in Hip Hop right now.
Fair enough. I don’t have kids, so I probably have a little different experience, but I have to agree that we can do better [with what reaches kids’ ears].
CAPII: Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all Hip Hop should be like that, but there should be an even playing field.
When you’re talking about reaching the masses, Tyler Perry went from doing the plays to reaching the masses through movies, and lately with For Colored Girls which was originally an incredible play. Are there any plays you’ve done that you think should be turned into movies?
CAPII: Yes, but I’m not going to mention any.
CAPII: [laughs] For business reasons. But I’d have to start with the ones I’ve written myself. I think with some of these stories, there’s a familiarity that you can relate to, and they should be put out more.
How do you feel about your performance, and what do you want people to take away from Love Me or Leave Me?
CAPII: My jobs have different job descriptions sometimes. I always try to look at the overall picture and see what can I bring to the table, how can I add to it… shine, but not steal the team’s shine. What makes the championship team? That’s what I wanted to bring to this play.
The part [Joseph] was actually created by myself and the writer [John Ruffin]. He had a different take on this character, and the producer called me and said “You know what, I’d love for you to be a part of this project, I’ve worked with you as a producer before, and I know you could work on this if we left as-is, but if you could get with the writer…” Basically he was like “do what you do.” So, days before, I went in the lab and re-wrote the character, and submitted it to John, who was like “that’s right on point.”
I think in general people will be excited to see you, and because you’ve done a variety of roles, people should recognize your full body of work.
CAPII: That’s why I’m happy to be involved in this, because I have been writing, I just finished two pilots. One is called Valley Boys, it’s got Jackie Long, Samantha Mumba and cameos from Big Baby Davis and Dave Faustino from Married with Children. I called in all my favors. [I also have] reality shows I’m currently pitching. I’ve got a couple of networks interested. You can’t pigeon hole yourself.
One thing these plays do, which I commend, is when I played the lead, I’m letting people know [I have that talent], when they might have remembered me as Cole or whatever. They see you in a whole new light, as a leading man. It’s all perception, but it’s all great, because you’re really reaching that fan base.
Love Me or Leave Me is airing again on GMC on November 27 at 7, 9 and 11 pm EST, and December 5 at 7, 9 and 11 pm EST! Read the synopsis and watch the trailer below!
Cynthia Wyatt (Angela Evans) is a troubled teen who abandons her fraternal twin infants, leaving her own mother Annie Wyatt (Shirley Murdock, A Mother’s Prayer) to raise the children. Now, 25 years later, one of the twins, Josephine Wyatt (Elise Neal, Hustle & Flow, The Hughleys), is an attorney who is engaged to the man of her dreams, Justin Daniels (Christian Keyes, Madea Goes to Jail). Cynthia then returns to the scene to reclaim her place in her children’s lives. Will she be accepted? What made her leave in the first place?