Running off to freedom and abandoning his fellow slave was grueling for Chris Chalk ’01. He could not imagine ever doing that. But his character Clemens Ray did. Chris played the role with conviction in the Academy Award-winning movie “12 Years a Slave.”
Working under director Steve McQueen and alongside actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o was inspiring, but his scenes as Clemens Ray were tough. At one point, Chris had to stop production in order to grasp the hard truth in the character. Portraying the truth is critical to him.
“That’s what we were able to do with this movie — tell the truths we don’t see in a compelling and beautiful way that will change lives,” Chris says. “If a person does a terrible thing, we have to look deep. There’s still something human, and we have to find that.”
That’s exactly what Chris wants to do with his life – create and produce stories that portray the diversity and truth that exists in America. “It’s time to see minorities in roles that make them fully human.”
Early in his career Chris chose to play the roles of thugs and criminals. “I got the chance to turn them into real people rather than the ones we often see — caricatured and general.”
The business is not always glamorous, he says. The auditions, digging up leads, researching, learning, managing your time to the last minute — it’s hard.
“But I don’t think there’s anyone who likes this job more than me,” he says.
The seeds for his future career were planted early in life, and his mother and stepfather supported Chris’s budding passion for drama. Having earned honors from his Asheville high school, Chris wanted a university that would challenge him. He heard UNCG calling.
Right away, the environment at UNCG was productive and stimulating, one of tough love. “There were so many who excelled in different disciplines — like Department of Theatre professors Jim Wren, John Gulley and Michael Flannery. We’re still in touch today.”
In one of Chris’ favorite acting classes, Gulley hollered:
“Stop! What are you doing?”
“No, you’re not. You’re acting! Just listen to the words and let them affect you.”
“That was eye opening,” Chris recalls. “Acting is a reminder every day to be who I am. It translates into your life. If you’re honest about yourself, your goals, your relationships and take action every single day, you’re gonna make it.”
Now after 10 years in New York City and three in Los Angeles, Chris is not just acting; he is serving a bigger picture.
“The more I do, the more access I have to help young students, especially young people of color. My mission is to see myself and other people of color on the screens and in the plays and even in the cartoons. We as an entertainment community need to talk to the world that exists, not just the world that we think pays the bills. We need to represent everybody — in a strong way.”
Story by Kathleen Martinek, contributor
Photography by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images