Louis Gossett Jr. on the importance of continuous improvement

“As an actor you're constantly selling yourself. You have to be as versatile as possible”

Louis Gossett Jr.

Louis Gossett Jr. at ‘The Book of Negroes’ screening reception at The National Archives on January 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty)

Academy Award–winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. is starring in the CBC miniseries The Book of Negroes. Here he talks to us about leadership, the real value of awards, and shaping the career you truly want.

A lot of people know you best from your Oscar-winning turn as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. In your own experience, do you think that “beat ’em down” style of motivation is really effective?

That’s the way it was—that’s how the marines made tough guys. I spent time on a marine base [while preparing for that role], and if I had to go into the service, I’d go straight back to the marines. I love them, and I have a lot of respect for them. That said, there’s a little bit more sensitivity in the arts than in the military, and I’m nothing like that character. My own style of leadership is mentorship. I believe in inspiring by example. Young people have see-through vision. They know what the truth looks like. They can tell the difference.

What did you learn about leadership wisdom during your time on the base?

In the military they use discipline to get you into the receptive mode so that you can learn. I guess what I took away is the idea that you can always be learning. I like to say—in life or in the marine corps—school is never out.

You have said it’s important for an actor to be an entrepreneur. Can you elaborate?

It’s a job where you are constantly selling yourself, and part of that is being as versatile as possible. If you get a hit with one type of role, then you should try a different type next. It’s about always stretching your instruments, constantly growing, constantly sharpening.

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done to sell yourself?

I campaigned pretty hard for my role in Enemy Mine [the 1985 sci-fi classic in which Gossett plays an unrecognizable alien]. Everybody had turned it down because it was a challenge. I showed up and did the hours of makeup and just let them know I was up to it. And I think it turned out pretty well in the end.

You won an Emmy for Roots, and now you’re starring in The Book of Negroes. Has choosing roles of social significance always been a priority for you?

I haven’t always had choices. Sometimes I just took the only parts that were offered, but I’m glad they were parts that were offered. It just seems like my path. It makes sense, and I think maybe movies that have a strong message or purpose last longer—people pull them off the shelf more often, and they maintain their relevance.

Was there anything in particular that attracted you to The Book of Negroes?

It was just a perfect fit. There were people who had a problem with the name. I call that contempt prior to investigation, because once you read the book, you understand. The story is amazing and important, and then we shot part of the movie in South Africa, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also got to know Nova Scotia. They have a little bit too much oxygen there. It makes you sleep well. And you can go almost anywhere and get a lobster.

In 1958 you were drafted by the New York Knicks, but you decided to pursue acting instead. Was that a tough decision?

I wasn’t drafted yet, but they sent me up to the Catskills for rookie camp. I was getting ready to go into rehearsals for A Raisin in the Sun and, if you can believe it, I was making more money in rehearsals than the average basketball player at the time.

What are your feelings around success and social responsibility? Do Fortune 500 CEOs earn the right to while away their days on a yacht?

I think we all have an obligation to give back. I don’t give back because I’m famous—I do it because I’m a grandpa. Wealth and success is something to pass on. I started my foundation, Eracism, which aims for racial equality. With all the headlines about cops killing kids, we need some tumultuous change. I’m trying to open up a centre where I teach young people of all races and religions how to get along. Being a mentor is very important to me. I worked with [the young Canadian actor] Lyriq Bent on Book of Negroes. He would ask me questions, and I would offer him my advice.

What sort of advice?

I think the main thing I would tell any young actor is that you can’t put your happiness in this business or any other business. Happiness is an inside job. My own version involves a relationship with God, but that doesn’t have to be the case. The key is just that you have to think of professional success as gravy. It’s great, but it can be so fickle. After I won the Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman, I thought my phone would be ringing, and that wasn’t what happened.

What kind of racial progress have you observed in Hollywood over the course of your career?

I have certainly seen that there’s a lot more representation of all the races on television, movies and commercials. The people who sell the products are very aware of the diversity of the market in terms of the people who buy their products. That spills over into film and television. We’re going in the right direction.

Who knew economics could be such a force of good?

It becomes a no-brainer: Companies want to sell their products, and they see that everybody’s a buyer. They can’t be prejudiced against their customer base. They look at the cash register, and that spills over into society.

I read that you’ve never been paid more than a million dollars for a role. Is that something that frustrates you?

It used to, but not anymore. My value system changed. I have a great quality of life. I have enough money to live in Malibu. Maybe that’s enough.

Was that initial frustration based on the fact that you weren’t earning on par with your contemporaries?

That’s the way it started, but I had to make peace with that.

Maybe you should have just signed with the Knicks!

Yeah, maybe I should have.


The Book of Negroes, starring Louis Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr. and Aunjanue Ellis, airs Wednesday nights on CBC until Feb. 11 and on CBC.ca. It’s also being shown on BET throughout the month of February.