Mark Christopher Lawrence has been working in the entertainment industry for most of his adult life. As an actor, some of his credits he is known for include Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Pursuit of Happyness, Seinfeld, and Chuck. I had the privilege of interviewing Mark recently, and in true PopMalt fashion, what started as a light-hearted conversation then took a serious turn—exploring some important topics of our day including autism, bullying, and suicide.
I hope you enjoy this interview. If you’re not already following Mark, you can do so on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on his website. He’s doing some great things and has some exciting projects in the works!
Andrew: You’ve been focusing a lot on your standup comedy show in recent years, how’s that been?
MCL: Focusing on standup is good, it takes my mind off of the hustle of Hollywood. That’s where I can be creative by myself and I don’t have to jump through any hoops per se. Getting booked is like jumping [through hoops] but not quite the Hollywood hoops. It’s been fun just performing and making people laugh for that 45 minutes to an hour while I’m on stage. It takes my mind off of anything that’s stressing me and takes the audience’s mind off of anything that’s stressing them—so there you go. It’s been good.
Andrew: Oh Yeah. And you produced this show yourself right? It’s a lot of behind the scenes work as well, not just on stage?
MCL: Well, it’s interesting. I produce a couple of different shows. I produce a show four times a year at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, anywhere from two to four shows at P2K shooting range which is a very interesting place to do a comedy show—it’s a gun range. I’m now producing a show in a gallery down in Little Italy in San Diego. So, some shows I produce and some shows I just go and perform. The producing shows are fun just because I get to control who’s on the show with me. That’s always good because at the end of it I can look at it and go “wow, that was a great show” and I sort of have a knack for putting the right people together on the show.
Andrew: Is there any character that you’ve played that feels like the Mark audiences get when they attend your show?
MCL: None of them. All the characters I play as an actor generally are written by other people. I bring a piece of myself into it, but I’m pushing to play a character that’s pretty different from me in my everyday life. In standup, I tend to write for and from me. So, my standup persona is closer to me than anything that I play in TV or movies.
Andrew: Perhaps I should have asked how much of you comes out in your characters? It sounds like it really depends on the specific character and the liberty you’re given by the director.
MCL: It’s like, you know, as an actor, you don’t want to play yourself. I mean, as a character actor, sure—playing myself is a choice but most of the time when a writer writes something in some TV film or stage piece, you know, they’re not writing Mark Christopher Lawrence, they’re writing the character as the character. So, I may not do a funny walk or a funny voice or a different voice from myself or whatever. As an actor, generally, I’m playing, you know, acting 101. I’m playing my objectives. As far as character development, hopefully, it’s been done for you in the script and you just add layers to it. I never set out to just go and play me whereas on stage I’m writing stories right out of my life. I’m playing me but a little bit heightened.
Andrew: I’ve seen your show, and you use the term “clean comedy” when describing your act. Did you start out clean? What made you go that route?
MCL: When I started standup comedy I was in the 11th grade and still living at my mother’s house. I had to write in a way that she wouldn’t lose her mind if I said something on stage and somebody from her church or something saw it. You know what I mean? Then I was very fortunate, working with some headliners back then that sort of mentored me. Robin Harris taught me. Robin Harris was crazy funny, he’s since passed, rest in peace. Thursday, Friday night we’d be at the comedy act theater The Black Theater Artists Workshop down in Leimert Park and his acts would be pretty blue. And then, we would do a show at like two o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday in the park. We’d basically be doing the same act squeaky clean. I was always fascinated how he could go from so blue to so clean and in our conversations, he was like “Look Mark, you’ll always write clean, it’s easy to dirty up a clean joke then it is to clean up a dirty joke. If you write clean, you can work anywhere. It just gives you more places to play.”
Andrew: So clean really is a business strategy as well and not just personal preference?
MCL: It became, for me, about faith. It’s like I started writing because I wanted to do more faith based venues. I wanted to sort of be true to that. There came a point where being in church and being a Christian—as I write, I think about that. I wanted to play more churches and more faith-based venues. As I write, you know, I keep that in mind. Comedy is not only just an entertainment tool but it can also be a ministry. I look at it that way. You change people’s minds when you make them laugh, I think—you help heal people. Ever since I did an episode of Heroes, I get asked this question, “If you were a superhero, what power would you want to have?” I said, and I always say, “I wish I had the power to heal.” Even if it was only for a year, if I could just travel around the world healing people. Every time I healed someone, even if I meant it took me a step closer to my death, I would want to do that. To heal people. I said that on stage one night. We were doing a little talk back after the set, a little question and answer period. This lady stands up and says. “Well, you know, you are a healer. I haven’t been out of my house in 6 months. I’ve been so depressed and tied to my home because of it.” Finally, people drug her out because they know she likes the show Chuck. They brought her out to see me. She says “I laughed tonight so much, it’s more than I’ve laughed in the past year. I can feel there’s a change going on in my life right now. So yeah, you are a healer.” We look at comedy, you know comedy is healing. I remember one time when I was in college. I was sick man. I had walking pneumonia and I was down and I remember the day that I felt better. I work up that morning still sick, still feeling like an elephant was sitting on my chest. It was like 2 or 3 in the morning, I turn on the TV and the Three Stooges were on. I remember cracking up just laughing, it was one episode after another. I was laughing so hard and I’m hacking up a bunch of crap out of my lungs and then that day, I got out of bed, I felt so much better that day. I attribute that to the laughter. Yeah, it’s healing. Laughter is healing.
Even if it was only for a year, if I could just travel around the world healing people. Every time I healed someone, even if I meant it took me a step closer to my death, I would want to do that. To heal people.
Andrew: Laughter is the best medicine, right?
MCL: Yeah, it definitely helps.
Andrew: So you grew up in Compton. Some big stars have come from there—’Straight Outta Compton’ being an example, but even that documentary shows the challenges of growing up here. What was it like growing up in Compton and what would you say to young boys and girls growing up in such areas now?
MCL: My mother raised three kids. When we moved to Compton, Compton was rural. It was rural Los Angeles. That was one of the reasons she moved there. There were strawberry fields and dairy farms. Drive through dairy and orange groves in Compton. In 1969, we were the second black family on our street, and by 1974 all the white families had basically moved out. That was a period of white flight in Los Angeles. That’s when the gangs started moving in. 1974 is when I distinctly remember a family that had moved in and it was the first thing I had ever heard anything about a gang. I didn’t know what a gang was. Things just a little rougher but, it’s like if you put a frog in a pot of water and turn the fire on and let it slowly heat up, the frog will sit there until it’s boiled to death. So it’s the same sort of situation. I’m immersed in this environment that heated up around me.
I was fortunate enough to run into a teacher who really cared—who really put herself up there. This was Pat Schilling, she was my 10th grade English teacher. She got me involved in speech and debate. She got me involved in acting. It changed my life because there were some guys I was hanging out with from Jr High on up until about the 10th grade who were really headed down a path of self-destruction. I got to the 10th grade and all of the sudden, I had other stuff to do. I think part of it is our country has been systematically dumbed down. We’ve experienced a systematic dumbing down of America. Every time there’s a crisis with finances, one of the first places they take money from is education and the arts. John Ratzenberger told me that when he was shooting his show, Made in America, he found out that the median age of a welder in America is 50. That’s directly correlated to taking money out of education. They’ve taken shop out of schools. If you go to the urban areas, there’s no shop in schools. You can’t go to school and learn how to be a mechanic or a welder. All that’s gone. Our current president took a big hit to the National Endowment for the Arts. So now arts are coming out of schools completely.
I think what has to happen is, it can’t just be people like me saying to students, “You can make it, you can do something with your life.” Yeah, that’s part of it, the other part of it is parents have to get involved. My mother would get up and take me to speech tournaments or drop me off at the school so my teacher could give me a ride to the tournament. Parents have to get involved, communities have to get involved. The school districts have to get involved in changing lives. You can’t rely on a celebrity to be the catalyst for a student in an unsavory environment to change their life. What are the odds they’re ever going to have a one-on-one situation with a celebrity that’s going to change their life? What are the odds that a student will even see this interview? So what we have to do is make sure that school districts and parents and teachers and communities are doing things that are in the best interest of the children.
Parents have to get involved, communities have to get involved. The school districts have to get involved in changing lives. You can’t rely on a celebrity to be the catalyst for a student in an unsavory environment to change their life.
Our government should be doing things that are in the best interest of the children. If you’re not doing something that’s in the best interest of the children, you’re not really making America great again, are you? That’s where we have to start. I heard one of the president’s cabinet members saying right after they slashed the arts, that in his neighborhood, the community pays for the arts stuff. Well, your neighborhood is an affluent neighborhood so yeah, ok, good. Good for you. He went on to say that there’s no documentation that shows that the arts even kept anyone from being on the streets. I am a living, walking, document that the arts helped. If I hadn’t met Mrs. Schilling who got me involved in speech and debate and acting, I could have possibly been a murderer or a drug dealer just because of the people I was hanging out with. One of those guys murdered a guy the summer between 9th and 10th grade. These are the people I was hanging out with because I had nothing else to do.
My mandate is to say to communities and government and teachers and parents; put your head on straight and parents, put your head on straight and talk to your kids, find out what they’re doing. I think another thing is that people say, “I was more afraid of my mother than I was of the gangs.” I was actively looking for something else to do. My mandate would be that we have to encourage and support kids but it can’t just be from a celebrity standpoint. I would tell kids—to get back to your question—I would tell kids “Find something that you love to do.” Not just like to do or you’re doing it because your parents are making you do it or your teacher is forcing you to do it or whatever. Find something that you really love to do and pursue it hard. That what I would tell them.
I would tell kids “Find something that you love to do.” Not just like to do or you’re doing it because your parents are making you do it or your teacher is forcing you to do it or whatever. Find something that you really love to do and pursue it hard. That what I would tell them.
Andrew: That was an excellent answer. It’s interesting, there’s kind of a movement of looking to celebrities as thought leaders. It’s refreshing to hear you, when given that chance, you actually turn around and say, “I want to speak to the parents and tell the parents to be speaking to these kids instead of me speaking to these kids.”
MCL: Exactly! That used to be Charles Barkley’s hero cry. “I’m not a role model. I’m a grown man playing a sport.” That’s what Charles Barkley used to say, you know? Don’t look to me to be the role model. Raise your kid. I think, just because I know a lot of celebrities, [I know] every celebrity is not a smart person.
Andrew: I’m not going to even make a comment on that one. I think we can all imagine the ones that you’re talking about.
MCL: I’m just saying. Every celebrity is not out there making great choices. Why would you want a celebrity to make choices for your kid? Or to help your kids make decisions?
Andrew: Well you’ve obviously made some great choices, some of those have been to dedicate your time and money to some charity work. Tell us about some of the charities you work with and what they’re doing in the community.
MCL: I primarily work with two charities. One is Act Today. Act Today is autism care and treatment today as opposed to say Autism Speaks. Autism speaks is a great foundation and what they basically do is go out and raise money for the cure. Meanwhile, they help people and children that are on the autism spectrum and have to deal with that on a daily basis. How do parents that have kids that are on the autism spectrum deal with that today? That’s what Autism Care and Treatment Today, ACT Today is all about. They say that one in 68 kids, I think boys are diagnosed, maybe 1 in every 88 in girls. They also say that it takes about 3 million dollars to raise a child throughout their life that’s on the spectrum. So how do parents deal with that?
Autism Care and Treatment Today, they have grants and programs to help parents. One of the things that they do, they have a technology grant. There was a kid last time I hosted that gala. There was a kid who at 6 all of the sudden a switch flipped in his head and he and his mom couldn’t communicate. Autism does that sometimes. They got him an ipad that basically spoke for him, he would just type what he wanted to say and it would tell her. It’s that kind of thing. How do you as a parent—all of the sudden you have no way to communicate with your child, how do you do that? All of the sudden here’s some technology that helps. My nephew has 3 children in the spectrum. He had one from a previous relationship and his wife had one from a previous relationship. When they got married they had a child and she’s also diagnosed in the spectrum. There’s varying degrees, these three children. For me, it became a thing about trying to understand autism and understand how to deal with it and how to find some help for them. So I’ve gotten involved with this charity because of that.
The other charity that I spend a lot of time with is the Human Growth Foundation. I have to say this lady’s name Daphne Plump is the lady who got me involved with Autism Care and Treatment. She also works with the Human Growth Foundation and she brought me in to host an event that they had. That organization helps children with growth disorders. So everybody is involved in the medical industry from doctors to endocrinologists to pharmaceutical companies. Everything that the Human Growth Foundation does is sort of funded by these pharmaceutical companies and all this research and all kinds of stuff. Just because Daphne and I became good friends through Act Today, that was the bridge to that charity and I started doing stuff for them. I started doing stuff for them. I like them and they like me and we just continue to work together.
Andrew: I know people who’ve worked with kids in the spectrum, including full blown autism, and it’s challenging—it’s really hard. To hear that there are various technologies out there that are able to help these kids and these families is just incredible.
MCL: The treatment works. You catch it early and get kids treatment, it works, it helps. It helps turn things around. I would implore anyone that gets this to go and find Autism Care and Treatment Today, ACT Today and plug into them. They are a great resource for them. They work with CARD, the Center for Autism Related Disorders. It’s really a great program. Also, there’s a branch of ACT Today that I’m involved in that is ACT Today for military families. I live in San Diego, here in San Diego we have one of the highest concentration of military personnel in the world. Because of that, I have a lot of friends that are military and I have a lot of friends that have kids who are in the spectrum. We host a run/walk yearly here in San Diego to help bring awareness to it. We do this walk, the ACT Today for military families fun run. It’s in Tecolote Shores Park. People come out and bring their kids, there’s a big fun festival going on, an Easter egg hunt, it’s a lot of fun, a lot of vendors, lots of information that’s shared. It’s one of those situations where if you come out, you will get some information that can help you.
Andrew: It sounds like you’ve definitely found what you love and are doing it in a lot of different areas. So what’s next for Mark Christopher Lawrence?
MCL: One of the events I do for the Human Growth Foundation is the Say No Bling festival. They are actually using part of their website, there’s a video that I shot about bullying a few years ago for a different event. It’s just me sitting in what looks to be park and just talking about bullying and how it affected me as a kid and where it is now. Toward the end of the video as it pulls out, you realize I’m not sitting at a part, I’m sitting at a graveyard.
MCL: Kids are killing themselves because of bullying. My very next thing that’s on my plate. I am gearing up right now to raise funds to do a video, a short movie about bullying. We’re gonna take a funny perspective on it because, you know, we bring the funny. We’re gonna shoot this video and use it as a component to a little bit deeper reach into bullying where I go into schools and workplaces and we show the video and it opens up a conversation about bullying. To let people know, if you’re somebody who sees something that’s going on, some bullying happening and you’re just watching, you’re actively participating by not saying anything. [You’re] not doing anything by not helping. I think it’s important that people understand, bullying is omnipresent now. When I was growing up, if you got bullied, it happened at school or whatever, once you got home there was a safe ground. But because of cyberbullying, kids can’t escape it. It’s not only kids. I was talking to a really good friend of mine and she said, “yeah it happens at work too. You’d be surprised how many times we have to send something to HR because there’s something going on at work. You might want to expand your talks to workplaces.” So yeah, we’re going to look into doing that as well. The first element is to raise funds to shoot this video and then plan a school tour. Try to get into school and have the conversation and share some great ideas on how to prevent bullying. We gotta stop it somewhere. Kids are killing themselves and that doesn’t make any sense.
…if you’re somebody who sees something that’s going on, some bullying happening and you’re just watching, you’re actively participating by not saying anything. [You’re] not doing anything by not helping.
Andrew: I can’t imagine some of the stuff kids go through nowadays, especially coming home and not having that safe place. There’s just so many opportunities to fix what’s going on. I think people need to be more aware. I’d love to promote that when you have it. I’m sure that’s something we could plug on the site and help get the word out.
MCL: As soon as we can get cracking, I’ll definitely let you know.
Andrew: Just for fun. PopMalt is kind of an interesting name. Pop culture—sort of mix and blend of things. People have said it sounds like it could be a drink. So random question. You walk into a diner or a restaurant after a long day and they ask you what you want to drink? What are you having?
MCL: Hmm, well lately it’s been water. I’ve been working on my weight so I’ve been drinking so much water. I actually had a soft drink a couple of days ago. It was actually juice but it was so sweet because literally for the past month, I don’t think I’ve had anything but water. It was so sweet that it’s gonna have to be water until I reach my goal.
Andrew: So hopefully I didn’t just get you thinking about all these drinks you can’t have.
MCL: I do like lemonade and Arnold Palmer. I remember when I was in this little town in Missouri and the lady came to the table and asked me if I wanted to have sweet tea or Kool-Aid. I said, “Do you have lemonade?” She says, “Yeah.” I say, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll have an Arnold Palmer.” She says, “ok.” So she brings out the Arnold Palmer and it was so sweet I was like “Man, I didn’t have diabetes before I came in here!”
Andrew: I give you an easy light-hearted question and instead of a light-hearted answer you brought it right back to serious. Thanks for making me end this on a serious note.
MCL: Hey, I’m just saying, keep you on your toes.
Image: Mark Christopher Lawrence / Coast Highway Photography