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In 2007, Malcolm Mays, then 17, was touted in a New York Times profile as a promising young director working on completing Trouble, a $5,000-budget film about Black and Hispanic turf wars in L.A. Still in high school, he had interned in director Martin Campbell’s office, made two shorts, gotten a UTA agent, and won backing from the likes of producer Todd Black; DeVon Franklin, then an exec at Sony; and Gary Martin, Sony’s president for studio operations, who compared Mays to a young John Singleton. (Singleton would later become a mentor to him.)
Mays — who grew up in South L.A., the son of a football coach and a mom who worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds — thought he was on course to blaze a trail as a director. Instead, “the shit didn’t go,” says Mays, 31. “It was a beautiful experience, but my career didn’t take off.”
Now, more than a decade later — after working as a music video director and getting into acting (the 2015 film Southpaw, FX’s Snowfall) — the stars again seem to be aligning for Mays. He can be seen in the new Starz drama Power Book III: Raising Kanan, a prequel in the cabler’s hit franchise, bringing a cool intelligence to the role of drug dealer Lou Lou. “He projects such strength, such masculinity,” says executive producer Courtney Kemp, “and he also brings a believability.” Mays stars opposite Tony-winning actress Patina Miller, Tony-nominated actress Hailey Kilgore, Omar Epps and Mekai Curtis (who plays a young version of Kanan, the character played by 50 Cent in Power.) The show, adds Kemp, has a different tone than others in the Power universe. “It is a darker, more realistic show than Power Book One or Ghost, which have a lot more humor. Although Raising Kanan does have humor, it is really a serious drama,” she says.
Mays’ writing career also is at full tilt, with him having penned a New Jack City sequel for Warner Bros. and Flint, a Chinatown-like drama set against the Michigan city’s water crisis, and having been tapped to write a biopic of escaped slave-turned-politician Robert Smalls for Amazon Studios, with Charles Burnett attached to direct. (“He’s up there to me with Tarkovsky,” says Mays of Burnett.)
He spoke with THR about the Starz show; what it was like growing up in South L.A. in the 90s (his late uncle, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, was a founder of the notorious Crips gang, though Mays didn’t know early on in life what he did); and how he was able to make his own feature film as a teenager.
How did you end up doing Raising Kanan?
Honestly, I didn’t want to do this, man. I’m a bougie-like snob. I ain’t never watched Power, and I had only heard about it in a pulpy context. I auditioned, I left, I got a call. And then I was convinced to say yes, and I am so glad I did. I love to be fucking wrong. Every episode just gets better.
What drew you to the part?
Black Michael Corleone. He’s just cool, calm, collected. He’s ice. He’s tired of his job, and there was something very, you know, “man of constant sorrow” about him.
What were the ’90s like for you growing up in South L.A.?
There’d be gang shootings, everything, but it was just a community to me. There was a Mexican street gang called 18th Street, and their initiation was to murder a Black male in a white tee. And so I would jump from school to school, and it would just be like my mom be trying to get me out the way. I went to like five different high schools.
How did you get interested in pursuing entertainment?
I started doing theater as a kid. Then you try and get on TV and film, getting on the bus and going places. Even as a 10-year-old I told my mom I was tired of going out for troubled ghetto youth. And I realized that you were at the mercy of the writers. My mom told me if I was tired of auditioning for these roles that seemed stereotypical — cause I grew up in an ethnocentric, progressive Black home — she said, well, then you need to go ahead and write your own stuff. So as a kid I started writing my own stuff. I got some poetry published and tried to write a theater play and then tried to write scripts and movies. I did a short film and then learned how the process went, that the only way to protect what you’ve written is to direct.
What kind of films did you watch growing up?
My father and my mother had a very deep love for films. My dad liked shitty ’80s [films], Rumble in the Bronx, Once Upon a Time in China, like fighter movies, but he also liked Tombstone, and my mother loves Steven Spielberg and James Bond. Then, because our Blockbuster card got rejected, I ended up having to go to the local library to rent movies, and all they had was the old cinema, like Casablanca, It Happened One Night and shit. And we didn’t have enough money to get the Blockbuster card renewed.
How did you end up getting a film internship at age 15?
Me and my boy Russ, who was this white dude who lived in Beverly Hills, we bonded over David Lynch films and The Godfather. We ended up making this short called Open Door, very Lynchian, and it won this little international shorts L.A. film festival. We were supposed to go accept our little new filmmaker award, but we couldn’t get in because we weren’t legal age to drink. And just through happenstance one day they announced my win over the PA system in school and the physical trainer [there] was like, “Malcolm, you make movies and stuff? Well I think my wife is looking for you. My wife went to the short film festival. She saw this crazy short film and she was looking for the filmmakers, but she could never meet them because they didn’t come to the gala night.” Her name was Lucienne Papon, and she was working as the creative executive at Martin Campbell’s production company on Sony’s lot in the Fred Astaire building. I loved Fred Astaire because my momma loved MGM films. My grandma too. So I went up there to meet her and I pitched my feature film about the racial tensions between Blacks and Latinos. I pitched it because my homeboys had just been getting killed every fucking few weeks and nobody was talking about it. I wrote this film out of my pain and I went and talked to her and pitched her. Because I didn’t know no different. I was like, “Oh yeah, you can get my movie made. You work for Martin Campbell and it’s going to be great.” And she said, “Uh, kid, that’s not how this works. I was just going to offer you an internship — at best. I didn’t realize you were a child, but do you want to intern here over the summer?”
What was that experience like?
They were away shooting Casino Royale in London, so I had this office all to myself for, like, the whole summer. At like 15, man. That shit was crazy. And then I started running meetings out of that office. I was calling like big people in there to have meetings. And they were coming cause like, who is this kid working at Sony Pictures? I think I called Michael De Luca. At some point he showed the fuck up. It was wild. So what? They going to be mad? Like, what are they going to do? I didn’t have the same block of fear that everybody else had. Cause to me, this is fairy dust, you know? And Todd Black found me through one of his executives. And suddenly I had him trying to help me make my movie. And then Gary Martin, who’s the head of physical production at Columbia, he kind of connected with me and gave me an office in [the] Thalberg [Building]. I went full corporate, they got me HR and I got a physical pass. I don’t think that they understood that when I said I was in school. I think they thought, yeah, they thought I was at college.
And how did you get an agent at that time?
At some point I ended up at Uni [University High School], and they had this program [with] United Talent Agency to meet with agents, to mentor with them, but it wasn’t to do Hollywood shit. I think it was just like a résumé-builder program. Nobody was supposed to actually get an agent. It was just business people helping some kids, right? My stupid ass goes in there thinking, “No, I’m going to get an agent.” And I did. I met Howie Sanders. He was a partner at UTA. He was in literary. And I was like, “I’m trying to make this movie. Can you help me?” And he’s like, “I’ll represent you, kid, and we’ll figure it out.” And that’s how I met Howie Sanders, who ended up being my first-ever agent. He really did put his neck out there for me.
And did you feel like the entertainment world was going to open up for you?
I was front of a New York Times article, John Singleton’s calling me to link up with me, um, I’m having sex with starlets, and I’m just some little kid from South Central who like, you know, didn’t know no better. I’m just out there thinking hard work pays off. I won the Panavision New Filmmaker grant to get a Super 16 millimeter camera.
And what happened during your 20?
I could tell you how many half starts I had. At some point, I met about possibly adapting In the Heights at like 19 at Universal. Like, I’ve been almost for the longest, bro, whether it was Big Momma’s House or Star Wars or whatever the hell. Like I’ve been so close for so long. It’s the only reason my agencies kept me — because I wasn’t booking, I was just getting so close, so many times.
How does your experience as a teenager, who was talked up early on, inform all the positive stuff that’s happening for you now?
It’s a double-edged sword. They’re putting my face on billboards and buses, baby. In my city. [But] now most of my friends are dead, you know? So the people I would celebrate with, that I’ve known since I was a kid — even John [Singleton] who knew me since I was 16 — aren’t necessarily here. And I’m just trying to be grateful [for the success] instead of just treat it, like, casual, so that I can’t get hurt by it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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