Cass Tech grad, who got his big break on ‘All My Children,’ says working with executive producer Shonda Rhimes is ‘every actors’ dream’
If Olivia Pope and her Gladiators profiled actor Cornelius Smith Jr., they’d tape his picture to a window pane and rapidly describe all of the aspects that make him who he is.
They’d tell us that the Detroit native is the eldest of Cornelius Smith Sr. and Pamela Lynn Perchman-Smith’s five children, grew up on the city’s west side and graduated from Cass Technical High School, Southern Methodist University and New York University grad school, respectively. His first big acting break was on the ABC daytime soap “All My Children” as Angie and Jesse’s son, Frankie, and he’s also appeared on shows like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Major Crimes.”
Thankfully, Smith is a co-star on ABC’s “Scandal” and not the subject of one. So it’s worth noting how warm and personable the 34-year-old is and how hard he had to work to earn the role of Marcus Walker, a civil rights activist who has run the gamut on the Shonda Rhimes drama.
First, Marcus challenged Olivia (played by star Kerry Washington) and then he needed her help and now he works for her. Smith’s audition and hiring process, which began in December 2014, has been similarly frenetic with his guest-starring role in two episodes of season four evolved into that of a series regular in season five.
“Initially, the role of Marcus Walker was a guest star possible recurring, but I was unable to make the audition,” Smith recalls. “I went out of town and then made a self tape and sent it back to LA. I didn’t really like the tape, but sent it anyway, and then proceeded to enjoy the holidays. When I got back in January, I heard that the role wasn’t cast, and Linda Lowy (casting director) called me back in and I did my thing.”
The time away was just what Smith needed.
“It went more smoothly this time, because even though I hadn’t been thinking about the audition, the material had kind of sunk in a little more and I was more comfortable with it,” he said. “As you know, ‘Scandal’ has a lot of dialogue and they want you to be able to say it pretty quickly.”
Marcus is the only Gladiator who hasn’t killed anyone, at least not yet.
“Anything can happen in Shondaland,” Smith says, referring to executive producer Shonda Rhimes. “There are a lot of twists and turns. We have great writers on the show. They don’t solicit our opinions on where we want to see our characters go, but Marcus right now is the only character who’s really standing for justice. All of the other Gladiators have at some point stepped over the line, and Marcus is the only one who represents the good on the show.
“I’m not sure if he’ll get his hands dirty because then there’ll be no one doing what’s right,” Smith adds. “As an actor, I’d love for Marcus to get his hands dirty. I don’t know when or how that could happen, though. We’ll have to wait for season six. I’m very excited.”
Taking it easy, coming home
Fans will have to wait at least eight months to see what Marcus, Olivia, Fitz, Abby, Jake and everyone else within this fictional world does next. The sixth season of “Scandal” won’t kick off until January, out of respect for Washington, who is pregnant with her second child and on maternity leave.
In case you need a refresher, season five closed with Marcus and Mellie (Bellamy Young) growing closer and Olivia becoming more and more like her father Rowan (Joe Morton).
While he’s on break, Smith will be enjoying a few laid back days in Detroit visiting family and taking it easy. Fans see the glitz and glamour, but probably don’t realize it takes about 10 days to shoot each episode of “Scandal” and that there are 21 episodes in every season. But that’s nothing compared to the work schedule Smith had when he was on “All My Children.”
For instance, dramas usually have nine-month-long shooting schedules. Daytime soaps shoot all year round with the actors appearing in multiple episodes throughout the week. Smith says he looks back fondly on the daytime soap dues he paid.
“That was the first official job I booked out of grad school,” Smith says. “It was my first working gig and really exposed me to cameras. Before, I had done a lot of theater work and hadn’t really done much television. It was a great opportunity for me to hone in on my craft, not to mention I was playing Frankie Hubbard, son of two really legendary characters and actors — Debbie Morgan playing Angie and Darnell Williams playing Jesse.”
Judy Blye Wilson remembers casting Smith in the role of Frankie years ago, due in large part to the actor’s undeniable charisma.
“I first saw Cornelius as a graduate student at an NYU Tisch School of the Arts presentation. On stage, I thought he was so dynamic, a wonderful actor, and very handsome,” says Wilson, who now works as the casting director for CBS’ “The Young and the Restless.” “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is going to have a career.’ A few months later, I was asked to cast the recurring role of Frankie Hubbard for ‘All My Children.’ When he walked in the room — his confidence walked in before he did (in a good way). He was well-trained and so talented. It did not take long for the show to see what they had and sign him to a contract.”
For Smith, “All My Children” not only turned out to be a major professional boost but an education in what he does and doesn’t want.
“While I appreciate the daytime soap grind, I can’t say that I miss it,” Smith says. “The work load is intense. You have a lot of material you’re dealing with on any given day and you have to come in ready to go. I love the soap world and appreciated the opportunities there, but definitely glad to be able to move on and do other things.”
When Smith attended Cass and acted and sang in the school’s productions of “The Wiz” and “Sarafina,” he was just as driven and honest, says drama teacher Marilyn McCormick.
“From the moment I met him, I knew he was going to be an actor and an artist,” says McCormick, who has taught at Cass for 40 years and will retire at the current semester’s end. “He doesn’t have the presence of someone sitting behind a desk from 9 to 5, but he does have that kind of intellect. He’s really good at math. Usually, actors don’t have that type of balance, but Neil has both a mind for mathematics and creativity.”
The ‘Scandal’ life
Smith also has a soft spot for his parents, sisters and brother, and loves that his father became a fan of “Scandal” after he joined the cast.
“My father is tremendously excited,” Smith says. “I don’t think he watched ‘Scandal,’ so it was a new thing. Once he did his research and people in Detroit told him how big the show is, he was really excited.”
“Scandal” also has given Smith co-stars he respects and admires, and the boss he’s always wanted in Rhimes. She also happens to be the only African-American executive producer with four hit television series on air and a Thursday-night slate she can call her own.
“Working with Shonda is every actors’ dream,” Smith says. “It’s the best of both worlds — working with a high-caliber professional who is also a genuine, loving and kind person. It’s such a joy to see how you can do beautiful work that touches and changes lives while also maintaining a sense of family, love and respect.”
Smith doesn’t believe in coincidence. So for him, it was only a matter of time before his career turned out well and this is only the beginning, he says.
“I’m a huge believer in insisting upon your destiny,” says Smith, who meditates. “What you’re destined to do in life is not a suggestion. You have to be insistent on it and follow through. There’s nothing wrong with following your heart.
“Sometimes, when you follow your heart, you may lose people who you thought were your friends, and that’s OK. If individuals don’t believe in your destiny or your vision, it’s not your job to persuade them.”
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV writer and critic.
About the actor
Name: Cornelius Smith Jr.
Born: March 18, 1982, in Detroit
Education: Cass Technical High School, Detroit (2000); undergraduate studies at Southern Methodist University and University of Texas at Arlington; master’s degree, New York University’ Tisch School of the Arts
Professional acting roles (partial list): “Scandal” (Marcus Walker, 2015-present); “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” (Case, 2015); “Whitney” TV movie (Michael Houston, 2015); “Major Crimes” (Rangemaster R. Morton, 2013); “All My Children” (Frankie, 2007-2011)