WITH JUDY MOODY ACTOR JALEEL WHITE
Jaleel White is familiar to millions as
nerdy teen Steve Urkel on the situation comedy Family Matters,
which ran on ABC from 1989 through 1997. But Jaleel has had an
extensive and successful Hollywood career on both sides of the
camera. In the PTC Seal of ApprovalTM-winning
movie Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, Jaleel plays
Judy’s geography teacher, Mr. Todd. The PTC spoke with Jaleel
about child stars, life Hollywood, and his current role.
PTC: There are a lot of child actors
in this movie. Could you talk a bit about being a former child
actor? Unfortunately, in the media today, there’s often a way in
which some people wait for the child actor to grow up and rob a
video store or something.
JW: (Laughs) Well, y’know, some of
that’s fair and some of it’s not. I think there are more child
actors who have grown up to have well-adjusted lives. For every
story like that, there are a lot of child stars that aren’t even
famous as actors anymore, like Peter Billingsley, but who
continue to work as producers and so forth in Hollywood, and
they don’t get a front-page story. Nobody gives Jodie Foster or
Ron Howard nearly as much credit as they deserve. It’s just
that, unfortunately, articles about those people don’t get as
much press as when something goes wrong.
PTC: What are your thoughts on the
young stars in the industry today? Are they growing up too fast,
and is it a lot different from when you were a kid star?
JW: Sometimes I’m amazed. Always
going to clubs and like that…I didn’t have access to any of that
kind of stuff. When I started driving, I drove my mother’s car!
It conked out on me after taping one night, and I’m standing
there outside the studio with the tow truck, and the executive
producer drove past me and yelled, “Driving good is feeling
good!” I went and bought a Range Rover the next day. (laughs)
That’s when I had my first real taste of being a star. But I
drove my mother’s car for a year before that happened.
PTC: Did you have a curfew?
JW: Oh, yeah. My curfew matched my shoe size. I
eventually wore 12 ½, so that was fine…but it took me a while to
I do think in some ways its harder for the
kids trying to break into the industry now. In Hollywood today,
there’s a higher premium on being famous than on being good. So
the best person for the job doesn’t necessarily get the role,
because they’re not famous. You have to be famous to get the
role. That’s a lot of pressure to put on young people trying to
carve out their careers. A lot of times, they think they have to
do stupid things to be noticed first. You have people that are
like, ‘hey, I caught you burglarizing my house. You wanna do a
reality show?’ Then they’ll use that to platform into their
first reading for a role. It’s a little nutty right now in that
I’m telling you, though, it doesn’t have to
be over-examined: if you come from a home that gives a damn,
this kind of stuff doesn’t happen. And people talk about
“getting sucked into LA”… well, they’ve got drugs in Milwaukee,
too. It all comes down to the parents, and how they raise their
kids. I had great parents.
PTC: You’re a father now. Will that
be a determining factor in roles you now take?
JW: Yes and no. ultimately, I figure
if I’m lucky enough to be sitting here, and I’ve already been in
the business for 30 years, I’ll just have this amazing range of
characters I’ve played. Some people will appreciate certain
characters, and some will appreciate others. But when I decided
to do this film, definitely my child played into my decision to
take the role. Because it was the first chance I’ve had to give
her a chance to see me in something new. My parents are itching
to take her to the movie. Inevitably when I come on the screen
she’s pretty quick, and she’ll say “Daddy!” That’s what I want.
PTC: Have your kids expressed
interest in acting, and would you steer them toward that, or
away from it?
JW: My daughter’s 21 months.
(Laughs) People ask me that, and I’m sure it’s a clichéd
response, but I want her to choose whatever will make her happy.
The not-clichéd side of it is, I want to make sure she can do a
lot of other things, not just act. I think kids in our future
are not ever going to discuss careers the way we did. “I want to
be a fireman, I want to be a policeman.” I think this coming
generation will see things in terms of skill sets. What can they
do, how many things can they do, that are considered
“professional?” Technology will cause entire industries to dry
up overnight. Like now, I could care less about having a
publicist; I need a social media manager. That’s a brand new
career, and I’m sure it’ll be altered in a few years, too.
PTC: Given what you just said, what
do you think is the importance of performers like yourself in
providing role models for young kids?
JW: I think it’s a huge influence.
I’ve actually enjoy being a role model, I really do. But I look
at it from the standpoint of not so much as being a role model
for others, as representing what my parents raised me to be. I
think for a large portion of your life, you should live to make
your parents proud. I see some of that going away, at least with
the younger performers who are coming up now.
PTC: What do you want kids to know
JW: I’m a hard worker, and I’ve been
patient. I haven’t been in this business for 31 years by
accident. I have some really interesting chapters in my past,
and I have others to come; but I’ve had to work for them, and
wait for them.
I saw Sally Field the other day, and
someone said, “Wasn’t she the Flying Nun?” Sure, that’s where
she started out; but she’s also won two Oscars and three Emmys
for acting. Some people still think of me as Steve Urkel, and
that’s fine; but in part, that’s a generational thing. Now I’m
catering to that generation who’s going to be determining my
future. Those past generations who look at me and say, “Urkel!”,
well, y’know, their kids are going to see me and say, “Hey, it’s
Mr. Todd!” Mr. Todd doesn’t have anything to do with what I did
in my past.
PTC: And speaking of Mr. Todd…what
was it like, playing the teacher in Judy Moody?
JW: I looked at the first Judy
Moody book, I saw the illustration of him, and I knew I was
in for a bad haircut . (Laughs) But at that point, it was just
about drawing from whatever I could, because there wasn’t much,
to be quite honest. There isn’t much about Mr. Todd in the first
book. So the question then becomes, how to create this guy?
Ultimately, I was able to hang my jacket on something very
simple. I think Mr. Todd is somebody who was a performer in his
younger years. Probably he was with a band, he wanted to be on
the stage, and now he sees the classroom as his stage. And so he
really enjoys captivating his kids. It’s not just a classroom
for him -- it’s “Curtain Time!” Once I was able to craft that
mindset for him, then it was just a performer dressed up like a
teacher, and it was actually a rather easy role for me to
PTC: What was hardest about playing
JW: Playing the banjo was probably
the toughest. That’s the cool thing about acting. You get thrown
in the fire and asked to do things, and you have to lie and say
you can do them, and then you figure out how to do them
afterwards. So I took three, four weeks’ worth of banjo lessons.
John [Schultz, the movie’s director] was pretty serious about
those darn banjo lessons! When you see me playing the chords and
singing, there’s no lip-synching going on, no recording in the
background, that’s me. That’s 100% me.
PTC: What’s the main reason to see
JW: It’s truly a family film. I
imagine a mom and a dad and two elementary-school kids going to
see this film and really enjoying it. The interview I enjoyed
the most was a woman who brought her six year old daughter to
interview me. Kids will blindside you, and she asked me the
cutest, most insightful questions: “Was that really you driving
the truck? Did you really want the kids to be able to find you?”
That made me feel great, because you could really see the
amazing amount of enjoyment on her face from seeing the movie. I
know I’m supposed to “sell” the picture, but the best way to
sell something is to find the truth, the most honest streak in
it; and that was the most honest sale of the day. That girl is
the audience for this picture, and she loved it.