*When you talk to Robert Christopher Riley, you get the distinct impression that he and success are the best of friends.
In short order the hunky actor’s career has taken off, putting him on a meteoric path to stardom. The 32-year-old star of VHI’s Hit The Floor is quickly becoming the one to watch in Hollywood.
If you ask the Brooklyn native with Caribbean roots (his mother is from Trinidad and his father is from Barbados), he’s the first to admit that dreams have come true for him that he didn’t even know he had.
It’s probably because he has a good heart, a sincere spirit, an immediately likeable personality accompanied by loads of talent. Ok, he’s also about as sexy as they come!!
While attending Lehigh University in 2003, Riley was cast in the role of Walter Lee in Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic play, A Raisin in the Sun. That same year he co-wrote, along with Kashi Johnson (his professor and mentor), Untold Truths: Why We Always Sit Together. The play was about the minority experience at predominately white institutions of education.
After graduating from Ohio University in (’03) with a MFA in the acting program, Riley was cast in several independent films, commercials and print ads.
His career ramped up even more when, in the winter of 2006, Riley landed a role in August Wilson’s, Fences, which included a six-month, three-city tour (Hartford/Dallas/Portland). In 2007, he was cast as ‘Jeremy’ in Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Baltimore Center Stage.
In 2008, Riley landed on Broadway in the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was cast to play the role of “Brick” as an understudy for Terrance Howard. For 23 shows he played opposite James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Giancarlo Esposito and Anika Noni Rose.
In 2011, Riley was cast in the Broadway production of Lombardi to play Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson.
Riley’s career has been diverse and, he says, satisfying.
I recently caught up with him to talk about how it all came together.
DD: Talk about the dreams that came true that you didn’t know you had.
RCR: Well, for sure it’s being on Broadway. I never thought about that. I never had that as a dream. But, once I was there, it was awesome.
DD: Why did you want to be an actor?
RCR: I went to school to be an accountant or football player. Math is my favorite subject. I was going to be a football playing accountant (laughter). I played safety and wide receiver. Anyway, the school was doing a production of A Raisin In The Sun. They needed more black actors to fill it out. I was in an intro to acting class. They begged me to audition. I refused. Then I decided to audition as a sense of obligation. They cast me in the lead role – Walter Lee.
DD: Had you seen the movie before you auditioned?
RCR: No, I had never seen the movie. I had no exposure to Raisin when I did it. I didn’t see the movie until years later. I think Sidney [Poitier] is brilliant. I’ve seen 80 percent of the films he’s been in.
Q: Who are some of your favorite actors and why?
RCR: I loved Val Kilmer in Tombstone. That was one of my favorite roles. I was a big fan of the movie, Desperado and Antonio Banderas. I’d have to say my favorite actor is Don Cheadle. It’s the fact that he does film, tv, theater, big budget and independents. I’ve loved him since I saw him in Devil In A Blue Dress.
DD: What was your first professional gig?
RCR: My first pro gig was probably a dramatization on the History Channel for a show called Honor Deferred in 2005. It was about the seven or nine African American soldiers who received medals of honor. I played one of them.
DD: You did a show with Kashi Johnson, someone you consider a mentor. It was called, Untold Truths: Why We Always Sit
Together. What did you learn from that project?
RCR: The artist role is to pose questions, not answers. I played 14 characters, she played 12. I realized theater had the power to change the world. People can walk out feeling different about themselves and their neighbors. It’s also pure entertainment. If I can create, produce and direct something so poignant that it helps the world become a better place, I’d be happy.
DD: Any obstacles in achieving your dream?
RCR: Yeah, making enough money to survive and not lose sight of your goal. You can get caught up chasing the money if you’re not careful. There are just so many roles for African American men, especially ones that aren’t stereotypical.
DD: You have a crystal ball. Where are you 10 years from now?
RCR: I’ve probably directed a handful of films and television. I probably have one or two children. I’m married in a nice, comfortable home that is quiet and removed from most people. I teach from time to time. The roles will get bigger, paycheck larger and my profile will increase. I wake up everyday and I’m grateful everyday. I have a roof over my head and food in stomach.
DD: Talk about working on Broadway in the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
RCR: It was surreal. Being on Broadway wasn’t a dream of mine. I can sing and dance, but I don’t specialize in musical theater. For my first role I’m understudying Terrence Howard. My character was Brick, which is one of the most coveted roles in literature. My first day, James Earl Jones at 77-years-old had his lines memorized before anyone. Being across the table from Mrs. Huxtable. Someone I watched all the time. Lou Myers from A Different World. Giancarlo Esposito is on Breaking Bad. Anika [Noni Rose] had just come off Dreamgirls, Terrence was nominated for an Oscar. I got to play Brick 23 times. That’s 23 master classes. James Earl Jones and I would meet before the next performance and talk about what happened the night before. That teaches you what you should do when you get to that point. Phylicia Rashad took me aside and talked about what it means to be an understudy. The things I learned, it’s all invaluable. I’m taken aback at being in that position.
DD: What is your preference, theater, television or film?
RCR: I love them all for different reasons. I lean toward the theater because you work six days a week, and I like to work. When doing a play I’m sharing that moment in time with audience members, and my cast members. We have devoted this two or three hours to telling this story. A year later a film comes out. In theater, I walk out 10 minutes later and I shake your hand and you let me know how you felt about it. Immediate responses are genuine and most rewarding. It wouldn’t be the same without you being there. No show is the same.
DD: Talk about why you’re most proud of the role as Hall of Fame linebacker ‘Dave Robinson’ in the 2011 Broadway production of “Lombardi”.
RCR: Because of what Lombardi meant to so many different people. I was a football player. I played for eight years. I didn’t have aspirations of going to NFL. I didn’t have a letdown. Here is this Italian man, white man in late 50s, early 60s in America who was colorblind and didn’t care about sexual preference. He had an insane commitment to winning and an incredible work ethic. You just don’t see that. We received standing ovations every night.
DD: Talk about how you came to be Terrence Wall on VH1’s Hit the Floor (www.vh1.com). Talk about your character.
RCR: I came and auditioned. I was in Atlanta doing Single Ladies. I got an audition for the role of Derek. I taped the audition in my hotel room, just me and a lamp. I sent it to the folks at VH1. They asked me to come in and read for Terrence.
DD: What do you think they saw in your audition?
RCR: I’ve heard it was because I went for it. The scene began with an orgasm. Terrence and Jelena were having sex. Lets just say I showed my commitment to the role.
DD: What do you like about Terrence?
RCR: I love Terrence. I think he’s amazing. We have a lot in common. He really loves Jelena and uses the gift he’s been given, the money, fame and position – to do good things. It seems like he’s doing the right thing with it. He used his money to open a restaurant and named it after his girlfriend instead of making it rain in a nightclub. He understands who he is. He’s an African American athlete and is portrayed as a stand up gentleman. I don’t take that lightly. I support his decision of leaving Jelena in season one. I don’t think you can stop loving someone who did something horrible. I would have done the exact same thing.
DD: As a teacher/mentor you worked with the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in South Central, LA. Why?
RCR: I remember being a kid. I’m not that old. I’m 32. I was one of these kids. I grew up in the inner city. I was raised by my mom and my grandmother. My father was a philanderer. I grew up in the 80s. I know these kids need a positive role model. I’d like to have a hand in changing the fate of their situation. They need to know things are positive so they can shoot for it.
DD: Lets get personal. I understand you love to cook. What’s your best dish?
RCR: Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo. I’m notorious for my breakfast. My cheesy eggs are the best. Bacon has to be there, too. I usually have a smoothie of some sort. I try to have one everyday. I know my way around the kitchen. I could also make rice and peas and curry chicken. I learned how to cook because I was a picky eater as a child. From the time I could reach the stove, I learned how to cook.
DD: What did you expect from this business and what did you get?
RCR: I expected to have fun telling stories and to be able to give people some insight on things they didn’t know. I expected to provide entertainment. I like putting smiles on faces. I’ve been entertaining folks for about eight years professionally. I’m literally
living my dream.
Facebook: Robert Christopher Riley
VH1.com – Hit The Floor
Darlene Donloe is a seasoned entertainment and travel journalist whose work has appeared in People, Ebony, Essence, LA Watts Times, Los Angeles Sentinel, EMMY, The Hollywood Reporter, Rhythm & Business, Billboard, Grammy, CYH, BlackVoices.com and more. Contact her via: [email protected].