It’s no surprise that actor Jason Dirden has a passion for storytelling. Growing up on the north side of Houston, Texas to a father who is an actor and mother who taught theatre arts for an elementary school and directed plays, Dirden was always surrounded by creativity. Although he was well rounded in the arts he took up other activities such as sports. Dirden played basketball, baseball, and football. Now finding his niche in T.V., Dirden has starred in Oprah’s OWN Network hit show Greenleaf, as Basie Skanks the vengeful antagonist, which is his most recognizable role to his most recent role as Gerald Aims, a smooth-talking hustler in BET’s drama American Soul, which tells the story of Don Cornelious and the evolution of Soul Train.
The Source: For those who may not be familiar with you, who is Jason?
Jason Dirden: I’m H-Town born and raised. I’ve always said if I could have done what I’m doing now in New York, LA, and Atlanta, in Houston, I would have never left. I love the city that much. I have all of my family here. I’m a Moorehouse College Graduate. I have my Masters of Fine Arts in acting at the University of Illinois. I moved to New York in 2006. I lived there for about six years then moved to L.A. As an actor, you go wherever they sign the check. I live in L.A. now but I work all over the place. I still do theatre. That’s my first love.
I read that while you were in high school, you really didn’t pursue acting
I didn’t. I wanted to be a world-famous saxophone player. True story. I started playing saxophone at MacGregor Elementary which is a music and science magnet elementary school. At first grade, you had to start playing a musical instrument. They started us on the piano or the violin. Then by third grade, you could actually choose which instrument you wanted to play and I picked the saxophone because I’ve always thought it was a cool looking instrument and my grandfather played the saxophone. He used to always send us tapes of him playing the saxophone recording music that he had written or just covers of old songs. So I picked the saxophone and feel in love with it and in third grade, I decided I wanted to to be a world famous saxophone player. So I played the saxophone from third grade to the tenth grade. I was in All City Houston, all kind of stuff. When I got to high school I felt like I wasn’t learning as much as I wanted to learn musically. We couldn’t afford private lessons so I quit playing the saxophone. Then acting came like in the tenth grade. My brother was doing it. I was like, let me see what Brandon is doing. He actually asked me that. Early on it was competitive because we would go to drama tournaments. It wasn’t like a hateful competitive it was more like I bet I can win the trophy. We were always pushing each other to do better. He won many more trophies then I did. That’s for sure and I hate to admit it but he has the proof. He has the trophies. I was pretty well rounded with music, sports, and theatre. It all goes into storytelling. It’s actually one of those things that you learn that the older you get and the longer you’ve been in this business as an actor, the more you understand that everything you do in your life feeds your creativity and your ability to do certain roles so you can tell certain stories. Since I’ve been an actor I have had to learn three musical instruments for a job. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t already been musically inclined since I was eight years old.
You were in Broadway shows Fences and A Raisin In The Sun acting alongside Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, what was that experience like?
It was really cool. The Fences job I was an understudy which means you cover someone until they can’t go on that night and I went on a couple of times. There was like an emergency event where the guy actually hurt his leg the night before and I had to go on the next day for the next show and I had never worked with Denzel. I barely spoke to him. So it was a little nerve-wracking. It wasn’t intimidating but nerve-wracking because it’s Denzel. Like most young actors, you look up to this guy when you are coming up. You are like this guy is amazing and then you get the opportunity to actually be in a show with him and actually talk to him. He is such a hard worker and he is so fun to work with. I think initially he just wanted to make sure I knew the lines he didn’t care if I could act. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to mess up the lines. I came in for an early rehearsal and when I walked in there before I could say anything he says, “are you just coming in from this morning?” I said no, I’ve been here a couple of hours talking to the stage manager. He says “no, that’s the first line of the play. Let’s go. It was the first line.” He didn’t say hey Jason how are you doing, he started with the first line of our show. So, we started going back and forth with the lines and I could see that he was getting more comfortable knowing that I’m ready and I can do it. Then once we hit the stage that night it was on you know. It was just two actors on stage. Once I grew out all the nerves it was like I belonged on stage with him. I’m confident enough in my ability. I know what I’m doing and at this moment on this night, I belonged on stage with him. That was the only way I could get through the performance successfully. No matter who you are working with, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Glynn Turman, Sam Jackson, Oprah, you have to believe you belong at that moment with them because you are there.
What was the biggest take away you learned from Denzel Washington?
To never stop working to seek the truth in the work that you are doing. Also, something that is bigger than that that he carries is a saying and you may have heard it because he has said it at many award shows. He says man gives you the award God gives you the reward. So basically what we are doing is not for an Oscar, a trophy, or, whatever recognition of man saying you are great. It’s knowing that you are fulfilling and walking in the purpose that God has blessed you with and through that you are touching people and you are doing a service. We are in the service business. No matter how famous we get our how much money we get, or how well we can take care of our families. We are in the service business to where we give that blessing when we share our blessing of storytelling. We are serving people to be inspired by what they here, not be inspired by us but being inspired by what is coming through our vessel. So I really appreciate that from Denzel and I really try to live that.
Let’s talk about Greenleaf. First, I love that show and I also grew up in the church so the show is definitely relatable. With that being said, I think everything is great about this show except for Basie’s behavior. One one hand I feel like he is a terrible human but on the other hand, he is the villain you can’t help but like. How were you able to get into his character?
Here is the thing about storytelling, the thing that you have to understand as an actor, when you approach storytelling, you have to have certain parts in order to make the whole story. You can’t just have the hero without the villain. How can the hero be the hero if he doesn’t have opposition? As an actor I say, this character is necessary number one. I also don’t look at the character as a villain. I actually try to see what the character does. That’s what we all see. It’s the surface. But exploring the why they do it that’s where you find the humanity in the person. That’s where you find the everyman characteristics in the person, the universalities of the person. So when you understand that this man is coming from a place of hurt and pain because he has the knowledge that someone has killed his father when he was a kid. That’s like, how do you know what you will do when you meet the person that killed your father when you were a child? How do you know what you will do? Now, you may not go about it in the same way, using the same tactics, the manipulation, and all the other stuff but there may be a level of vengeance and even hatred you have for the person you’re looking at who you know killed your father. On top of that, he isn’t admitting to it and on top of that, he is a man of the church. He is supposed to be all good. He is supposed to be without sin. He is preaching to a congregation and as far as you are concerned that’s based on lies because he isn’t being truthful about his own past. The skeletons in his closet. So, that’s how I have to look at things. He isn’t a bad person. He is a hurt person full of pain and finding the humanity in that person and having fun with it. So it’s okay if you dislike him, my job as an actor, I always say, I don’t care if you like me, I just want you to feel me. If I can inspire a feeling in the audience with my character in the storyline then I’m doing my job.
Let’s talk about your latest character, Gerald Aims and how you prepped for that role.
I had to watch a lot of Soul Train. Not just watch it but actually listen to the music. I don’t dance in the show so I really wasn’t watching the choreography that the dancers had on the show. But, the music and the way people moved and the way people talked really can inform people of the time period and the energy of the time period. It’s a different end game so we moved differently. We talked differently. I did the research. Then I had to marry that with the character break down of Gerald Aims and also with people in my life who I have come across that are similar. Maybe in a different decade but, similar. I always say a lot of my characters come from people I’ve seen in the barbershop. All walks of life come through an African-American barbershop. Preachers, hustlers, nerds, and athletes. They all come through the barbershop and that’s where they are the least filtered when they are in a place of comfort and they can just talk and be who they are. So, I just remember just observing certain walks of life coming to the barbershop and putting them in 1971.
Did you have any challenges going into your role as Gerald Aims?
The challenge was to recognize how he was different from Basie on the surface because he is a hustler. He rides that line of legal and illegal or doing bad things. People can really make comparisons to Basie and as an actor, you want to be able to completely transform and be different people in different projects. So, it was a challenge to discover what made Gerald Gerald. Especially coming out of Basie. You can sometimes carry certain characteristics because they work good and they feel good so you can carry them into another project. So, I really wanted to break away from that and just zone in on what made Gerald Gerald. Early on it was difficult but as you watch the season progress I think you will really see how Gerald is his own person. He is a little darker and even more complexed than Basie but both are really great characters.
Did you have a favorite part on Soul Train?
The scramble bored was cool but I could always guess it based on the clue so it wasn’t really my favorite part. The Soul Train line was cool but it also depended upon who was performing that week. They had Marvin Gaye performing or The Isley Brothers I would have to stop to watch them because I just loved the music. Then as we got into the 90’s when Destiny’s Child was on there for the first time. I actually remember Kelly Prince being on Soul Train.
Lastly, what can we expect next from you?
I’m developing a script for a film, a feature film that will star myself, my brother, my father and a couple of other brilliant actors that I know and want to work with. We actually want to shoot it in Houston so that’s coming together.