Cornelius Smith Jr. ’07 (MFA, Grad Acting) is best known for his roles as Marcus Walker in Scandal, and Frankie Hubbard on All My Children. He is also the star of Apple TV+’s newest hit mini-series, Five Days At Memorial. What some may not know, however, is that from a young age, he developed his love of acting on the stage. Today, he is exploring a powerful role in Charles Randolph-Wright’s American Prophet at Arena Stage in Washington DC.
In American Prophet, Cornelius stars as Frederick Douglass, renowned social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and writer. The musical features a score from Grammy Award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon, and is primarily told through Douglass’ own speeches and writings.
NYU Tisch Alumni Relations sat down to learn more about Cornelius’ time at Grad Acting, how he balances an acting career between the stage and screen, and what he hopes the show will mean for audiences.
American Prophet will end its run at the Arena Stage on Sunday, August 28th. Get your tickets before it's gone!
Alex Manges: To kick us off, can you tell us a little bit what brought you to NYU Tisch?
Cornelius Smith Jr.: So, I went to SMU, Southern Methodist University in Dallas Texas to major in Theater. In undergrad, I heard a lot, "Cornelius, you're going to be fine, you have a great look, you're going to work.” But that statement actually made me a little insecure and a little self conscious. I didn't necessarily want to work in the industry based on a look or an aesthetic that I had. I wanted to work because I’m a trained actor. I wanted to learn longevity in this career, I really wanted to study the craft and sharpen all the tools in my tool belt, if you will. So that was what prompted me to go to NYU’s Grad Acting program and further my study.
It was lovely. It was one of the best times of my life–one of the most challenging ones as well. I like to say that it was a time of the good, the bad, and the ugly. It all came together to make a wonderful delicious stew.
AM: Was there a moment or experience when you were young that sparked your interest in becoming an actor?
CSJ: I was the child at family functions who was always entertaining my mom. She is no longer with us, but she was an avid believer in me from the jump.
She was not afraid to put me on blast, to put me in the spotlight at a family function, so I found myself singing and entertaining the family at her request (and sometimes not at her request).
When I got to high school it dawned on me that this was something that I could actually do as a profession. I really owe a lot of my experience to a wonderful woman, Marilyn McCormick, who was my mentor and teacher in high school in the performing arts. She took a group of us students to Edinburgh, Scotland to do a festival. We raised money to send ourselves out there, it was an amazing experience.
Traveling the world and having that experience really opened my eyes to the power of performance. I thought, 'Wow, I'm really in Scotland, and not just reading about it. This is amazing. I’m touching lives and and really feeling the effects from the stories that we were telling.’ It was a great feeling.
I can also remember the first play I did, it was a musical. I remember how I felt when I stepped out on stage and had a little bit of applause. I was like ‘Oh, this feels kind of nice. I think I could get used to this.’
AM: Since graduating from NYU, you've had starring roles on Scandal and All My Children. Was it difficult to transition between the stage and television?
CSJ: I got my roots on the stage, so at first, transitioning from theater to TV was really difficult. It's just a different medium, it's a different beast in terms of what the camera sees versus what you see on the stage.
When I first started out, I would hear a lot from casting directors say, "You're too big!" I think that's a note that a lot of people might get starting out. "You're doing too much, bring it down, tone it down a little bit." It took some time for me to re-calibrate.
When I finally moved to Los Angeles, I I found a coach that I really work well with and have come to build a lovely relationship with. His name is Geof Prysirr.
It had dawned on me that when I look at professional athletes, they have coaches and staff who prep them for practice. That stuck with me. I had to think about what I was doing to continue my studies and continue to prep myself and my craft on a daily basis. Who's my coach? What's my team? What am I doing that that will be equivalent to what I see athletes doing on the field for practice?
That's when I committed to seeking out a coach. It has helped me be more specific, and also challenged me as I craft each character in a performance.
AM: After that work of going from the theater to the screen, was it difficult for you to go back from the screen to the theater for American Prophet?
CSJ: No, not that difficult at all. Once you get more awareness and control and information about your own body, shifting back and forth isn’t as much of an issue. I’m thrilled to be back on the stage, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a professional production.
Technically American Prophet is my first professional musical, so I was really excited to get back on the stage. It's just been a great joy and a great opportunity and I’m having so much fun and learning a lot at the same time.
Cornelius Smith Jr. as Frederick Douglass in 'American Prophet'
AM: Can you can you tell us a bit about how you found the show, or how the show found you?
CSJ: Years ago, before the pandemic, I auditioned for Motown: The Musical with the director, Charles Randolph-Wright, (the director and writer of American Prophet), and it went really well! Charles wanted to see me again at another round in New York.
Unfortunately, my mother passed away on the Friday before callbacks. I had also just won the ABC digital competition called Make Me a Star, and the winner of that competition got a one year holding agreement with ABC.
I flew to New York that weekend to do the audition for Charles, but I didn't let them know anything that was going on. After the audition I called and said, "Hey, I just got this holding deal, so I don't know what my availability is going to look like now. I also just lost my mom, but I believe she would have wanted me to come here and see this through."
Charles wanted me for that production, but it just didn’t work out. Two and a half years later, he approached me and said "I have something really special that i'm working on, and I believe you are my Frederick." So he sent me the script and the music, he said, "Give it a listen, let me know if this is something you'd be interested in doing."
I listened to the music and it immediately took my heart. It just swept me away, I was so moved by what I was hearing. And the fact that this is a story about Frederick Douglass–I mean, it was epic! So I immediately told Charles, "I’m on board, I would love to be a part of this project."
So we got together to do a reading, and then we did a workshop at the Apollo Theater. That was the first time that we'd really gotten knee deep into the workings of the play and got a really great response, and we were moving forward to put it up on its feet.
Then, the pandemic hit. Obviously it shut everybody down, including us. I kept in touch with Charles, and we kept talking about the script. We weren't constantly working on it, but there were check-ins like, "Hey, this is still happening."
It wasn't until last year that we did another workshop in New York, and everybody was getting really excited to take the next step forward, to put it up on its feet again. So now we're finally here in DC at Arena Stage!
This did not happen overnight. This has been a long time coming. I'm just so proud and excited about where we are and what we've accomplished. Finally, here we are we're doing it.
AM: What are some of the main takeaways that you hope audiences leave with after seeing American Prophet?
CSJ: Agitate! Agitate, agitate, agitate.
Almost 85% of the words that I speak in the play are Frederick Douglass’ actual words taken from speeches, letters, and articles. That's actually the subtitle of the play American Prophet, 'Frederick Douglass in his own words', because they're his words.
I think one can be struck overwhelmingly at how relevant his words still are today. These were spoken in the 1800s, and when you hear some of the things he’s saying, it's like he could have been speaking this morning.
I hope people leave with that sense of empowerment, of emergency, of activism, of needing to speak the truth–no matter what, seek the truth and then speak the truth. I hope people take that away after seeing the production, just being really invigorated and charged to take action, especially given the most recent acts in the world.
AM: Have you found that embodying Frederick Douglass and speaking his words each night has invigorated you to a higher degree in speaking out against injustice?
CSJ: I think it's something that's always been of interest to me– I’ve always recognized the importance of staying active and seeking truth and speaking truth.
But you know after a while playing this role, I’ve gotten more sensitive and more alert and aware of what's going on, and of the importance of fighting for your rights, and protecting them.
We all have to be aware and take action and continue the fight, and that fight starts on a personal level and extends to the ballot box. That's really where the voices need to be heard in order to make these significant and permanent changes.
Cornelius Smith Jr. and Kristolyn Lloyd as Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass
AM: What's next for the show?
CSJ: There are many intense, positive conversations about it coming to New York, and so I think Broadway is a very real possibility.
We'll just have to see how things shake out where and when, but I think that's the next step for this show. New York is next, so y'all get ready!
AM: We can’t wait! NYU will be in the front row waving violet flags. Other than the production, is there anything coming up that you're really looking forward to?
CSJ: Yes! So tomorrow, August 12, I have a show on Apple TV+ that is getting ready to premiere called Five Days at Memorial.
I'm really excited and proud about that production– it has a phenomenal cast and has gotten a lot of great and positive feedback so far. The series follows a group of doctors in New Orleans at Memorial Hospital and the difficult decisions they had to face during and after Hurricane Katrina.
When hurricane hit, this particular hospital lost power and they were there for five days. So we sit and journey with the doctors on staff there about what that experience was like, and the decisions they had to make. It’s a very, very powerful series. I'm just really proud to be a part of it and to share that story as well.
AM: Do you have any words of advice for acting students, or anyone who is on their journey to honing in their their acting craft right now?
CSJ: I would advise you, if you don't already, to constantly ground yourself in gratitude. Have that be your foundation. If you can build a foundation of gratitude, then that is the first step to unlocking and attracting your destiny. In order to get more, you have to be grateful for what you have first. That's a big thing for me, that's a big part of my life.
I always say that your destiny, and what you want to be in life, is not a suggestion. You can't suggest it, because if it's a suggestion you can take it or leave it. It is something that has to be insisted upon. Something that is concrete, that is real for you, that you can actually see and believe and receive for yourself before you even have it.
Be bold in in what you want to live–claim it, be specific, and embrace it unapologetically. I think that the more you can be your authentic self and not apologize for that, the happier you will be.
AM: That's great advice for everyone, not just acting students. I’m taking that advice!
CSJ: It's so vital, it's so important, and not enough people are talking in that way to really support themselves.
You can have anything you want, but you have to do the work, have faith, and follow through. That's another big thing for me. You can believe all you want–and you should believe! You should have the faith that you can do whatever–but to make it real, you have to follow through with the work. ♦