Orlando Jones has over a quarter century of writing and acting experience, he is one of the most vocal nerds on the planet, and he also, you may have noticed, does an awful lot of stuff for us right here at SYFY WIRE.
So, I was a little surprised when our Features Editor asked me to do a sit down interview with Orlando Jones in the middle of a very packed San Diego Comic-Con 2018. "But what am I gonna talk with him about that he hasn't already said to and for SYFY," I wondered both to myself and aloud. Jones is, after all, one of the most vocal voices representing SYFY WIRE.
I thought, since he had just finished the successful "Great Debate" panel at 2018 with folks like Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day, and John Barrowman, that we'd have a light talk about that sort of stuff — what's the best color lightsaber, who's the best Starfleet captain, best vampire slayer... goofy stuff like that.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Orlando Jones doesn't just have over a quarter century of professional acting experience, he has a quarter of a century's worth of writing experience. That means he knows both what's happening on the set and before production even begins.
So I asked Orlando about comic conventions and how — or if — they've changed. And his answer to that question is, I think, pretty illuminating:
"It's been a community since Sergio Aragones brought me here in 1997. And it's always been an audience that people have marketed to and it's a group that really has a legitimate distrust of the machine because the machine only says, 'watch and buy,'" he said. "They don't ever tend to really care about the issues that affect the community at large. And so I think there's a component of fandom that operates like a disenfranchised group in that they are well aware that they're the ones that have been made fun of and that are thought of to be weirdos for dressing up and such. It has evolved. It's totally grown, but I think it knows what it is. Whereas the outsiders are too busy trying to calculate and create commerce. They're not really trying to sit in a flame war and understand what it's about."
So right from the start, it was clear that maybe there was more deeper territory to explore, a richer vein than the normal, necessarily quick chats that happen over and over again in mid-July in San Diego. And that's part of why I waited on this until after Comic-Con was over — this is more than just a conversation about conventions.
We talked about Black Panther, a film that is spoken of glowingly as a game changer for diversity in Hollywood. Without knocking any of its creative team off a pedestal, Jones didn't see any ground shift beneath him.
"It didn't change the lives of African Americans. It didn't change representation in Hollywood," he said, matter-of-factly.
Did it matter that people who have darker skin, who are dealing with colorism specifically, can look at Black Panther and see dark-skinned black women up on the screen? Does that not matter at all?
"Not, really," Jones responded. "I've been through seven diversity revolutions in Hollywood where each time it was supposed to change. It hasn't changed yet. My great-great-grandfather didn't change. My grandfather didn't change, my father didn't, and it hasn't changed for me. So I think we might be overvaluing ourselves a bit here. I enjoyed the movie. I supported the movie, but no, it did not fundamentally change anything about representation in Hollywood."
This is a different tune than people have been singing most of the year, since Black Panther crossed $1 billion in box office receipts. With over a century of history lingering over the discussion, we start to dig into what it is that Jones is really looking for in representation.
"Look, I think representation is an incredibly important thing. I've talked a lot about that fairly extensively. I would say the following: diversity is not just black and white," he said. So, again, black people have better and greater representation than Native Americans, than Latinos and Asians and Indians, than LGBTQ+. And disabled people represent 20 percent of the population. So if we're really going to have this conversation, then it has to be about diversity in a far broader sense.
"And it has to be about diverse storytellers. That's also critically important. That can't happen if the guild is predominantly white and male. And that's true of the director's guild, the screen actor's guild, and the writer's guild. And that's where studios hire storytellers from," he pointed out, tracing the root of the problem to the industry's complex legal system, which seems like so much arcana to people on the outside. "So until the membership components of the guild shift in such a way as to be able to embrace those people to make them employable by the system, then, of course, you're not going to really have representation after one movie's released on Martin Luther King weekend."
We measure progress first by what makes it on the big screen, and then more significantly, what makes enough money to justify a return trip and all the ancillary commerce that have made San Diego Comic-Con a financial machine. But that is not the only thing that matters.
While SDCC may have become very Hollywood, the truth is that, in 2018, there was no Marvel, there was no Game of Thrones, there was no Star Wars. But, just like when this was a tiny little get-together of SoCal nerds back in the '70s, there were plenty of comic books. And comic books are still, in many ways, the last lawless land for storytelling. And if you've been in a good comic book store, it's still one of the best places to use the stories you love to have a deeper conversation. So we talk about that for a bit and then Orlando recalls this story of one of the first times he ever went to a comic shop:
"I'll never forget the first time I went [to a comic book store], it was to get Mad Magazine. I didn't know I was going to get Mad Magazine. I was looking around, not really knowing so much and I started off with, 'Oh, that guy looks funny,' and I looked at that [Mad Magazine], and I opened it up and I literally saw the Spy vs. Spy pages and I was like, 'what is this? ... I need more of these!" Jones recalled.
A lot of it, he didn't quite understand. Maybe it was a little bit advanced for him. But that was part of the fun of it all, the challenge the book presented.
"I got parts and it was okay that I didn't get it all. I aspired to be able to understand what they were talking about. Kids are capable. If they don't get it the first time around, we'll figure it out," he said. "Sometimes they'll then read it the second time and, because they read it the first time and didn't get it, it's like all this stuff bubbles up, right? They go, "Oh." It's like multiple layers that happens instead of just the one."
It's more than just an anecdote. It's a statement about the work that we consume and the work we're willing to do as an audience. Jones was a writer and performer on the Mad TV sketch comedy show, and the difference between those books and the show was made very clear from the start.
"I really was trying to push towards what they had done originally [in the magazine] and that was one of my first sort of big educations in Hollywood," he remembered. "I'd been on a sitcom before and so you know, it's family oriented, on at 8:00-8:30 and kids are up. There are things you can say, things you can't say. It was network TV, you know: a different world. And now suddenly I'm in this completely different position where I'm like, 'sketch comedy, we can do anything we want!'
"They're like, "No, no, no, no, no. That's not what it is,'" he continued, reliving the conflict. "And I think about all this stuff I got in trouble for, my goodness. I got in trouble on that show so much all the time for something I had written or done. And then somebody's office and they were like, 'You cannot do this.'"
We stopped recording after that, but I wanted to impart one thing Orlando Jones seemed very proud of: marrying people at Comic-Con. Before the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con, SYFY came to Orlando and asked him what he would want to do there. And he said he wanted to marry people, because there could be nothing corporate about it, no brand synergy, no opportunity to use the idea for anything other than what it was: bringing people together in marriage surrounded by the art they're passionate about.