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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 get there!

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 regard.

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 about you?

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 embody.

PTC: What was hardest about playing the character?

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 Judy Moody?

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.  





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