Malcolm-Jamal Warner Reflects On 'The Resident,' Winning A Grammy, The Legacy Of 'The Cosby Show'
FOX drama “The Resident” returns from hiatus Tuesday night — with a homecoming of Malcolm-Jamal Warner as AJ Austin.
His character is a surgeon who falls in love with a colleague, played by Shaunette RenéeWilson. Warner is a multi-talented man — an actor, director, poet and musician — who will also forever be known as Theo Huxtable, Cliff and Clair’s only son on “The Cosby Show.”
AJ Austin is a high-powered surgeon, the best at what he does, and also kind of a jerk. Warner doesn’t allow himself to embody these traits in real life and appreciates how different the character is from the role he’s best known for.
“I think other roles that I’ve done may have been a little more Malcolm-infused,” he says. “But to play someone who is really, you know, so out of what people are used to seeing me do is really the most fun.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the filming of the show’s third season centered around a superbug outbreak. Watching a real pandemic unfold after shooting this storyline felt “surreal,” he says.
This season of “The Resident” is a nod to the hardworking, selfless medical professionals who put themselves and their lives on the line to care for people. Warner says he feels an additional duty to properly represent health care workers — “the real-life superheroes” — during the pandemic.
At age 6, Warner says he told his parents he planned to become a famous actor, poet or basketball player — and he achieved two out of three of those dreams.
Growing up, Warner’s father would give him poetry books, one favorite being “Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X.” Named after Malcolm X and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, he says he realized around age 15 that his father set him up for greatness.
Warner won a Grammy in 2015 for his poetic contribution to the Robert Glasper Experiment remake of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America.” His poem was inspired by the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
Glasper told Warner about how one of his friends was working on a poem about Sandy Hook while the two hung out, Warner says. Two weeks later, Glasper’s friend decided the tragedy was too close to home because he knew the father of one of the kids who died.
Upon Glasper’s request, Warner says he went upstairs and wrote his poem about Sandy Hook within an hour.
“We had no idea. For it to be nominated for a Grammy was one thing,” he says. “But to actually win, it was a great confirmation or reaffirmation in terms of the artistry and the substance behind the words.”
On top of poetry and acting, Warner also took up playing bass as a hobby when his “joy for acting had begun to wane,” he says. But the instrument didn’t stay a hobby for long.
“I figured, I’m going to pick up an instrument. I’m not going to record any CDs. I’m not going to start a band. I’m not going to be one of those corny actor dudes who want to do music,” he says. “And then it turned out to be another career.”
The role Warner plays in society as an actor, poet and musician reflects back upon society itself. He reminds us of our potential — a big reason why Theo Huxtable and “The Cosby Show” resonate so deeply.
On his latest album, “Selfless,” Warner says the song “Brand New Day” ends with a line about how he’s “holding out for that iconic love like Cliff and Clair.” He released the record in September 2015, the same month he met his wife.
In light of sexual assault cases against Bill Cosby, many parents struggle with sharing this iconic show with their children. Warner watches the show with his 3-year-old daughter, who loves the character Rudy, but he understands that people struggle to enjoy the show because of the controversy around Cosby himself.
“For me, there’s so much that that show has done for American culture, for Black culture, for the global perspective of Black people,” he says. “There’s so much of that work that cannot be undone.”
“The Cosby Show” aired at a time when Americans were all watching three TV networks and universally captured the attention of audiences beyond race.
For Warner, there were times when Hollywood couldn’t see him beyond his role as Theo. But the older he gets, the more Warner appreciates the show’s role in our culture.
“I’m still proud to be a part of that show. I’m still proud of the legacy. I’m still proud of the timelessness and how much even in 2021 that show is still important and relatable,” he says. “It’s evergreen.”
Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.