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A Chat with Jaleel White

That’s right: the guy who played Urkel on “Family Matters.” He’s starring in a new movie – “Who Made The Potatoe Salad?”, heading to DVD on Tuesday, November 7th – where he finally gets an the opportunity to be the straight man; he also has a small role in a big picture due for release at Christmas…but since he’s already less than thrilled that word of his appearance has leaked out, we’ll at least hold our tongue here and let you be surprised while reading the interview. White sat down with Bullz-Eye to talk about both flicks, and, yes, he was willing to drift into a bit of conversation about the series and role that brought him most of his fame.

Jaleel White: Will H.! What’s goin’ on?

Bullz-Eye: Nothing much. How’s it going?

JW: I’m good, I’m good.

BE: Well, first off, I’m glad to discover that you’re still alive.

JW: (Laughs)

BE: I guess it’s a rite of passage for every former child star to have to deal with someone starting a rumor that they’ve died.

JW: Ah, I don’t even know what to say about that darned thing. As much as you try to live your life your right, you’re gonna get sucker-punched now and then. That was my sucker punch back in June.

BE: I have to admit, I hadn’t even heard the rumor ‘til I started doing some research before this interview.

JW: Oh, really?

BE: I guess I got lucky and missed it. So, anyway, I got a copy of “Who Made The Potatoe Salad?”

JW: Oh, gosh…

BE: And I laughed…but I also felt really, really white and suburban.

JW: (Laughs) Y’know, what can I say? It’s definitely gonna play to certain audiences easier than others…but it is funny. As long as you got your laughs.

BE: How did you find your way into the film?

JW: I knew the writer (Damon “Coke” Daniels), actually, because we both worked for a mutual producer, and he actually approached me over lunch one time, which was two years ago! And he was, like, “Dude, I want you to do this flick.” And I really wasn’t keen on acting at this time, but I took the script and I stuck it on the left side of my desk…and probably about a month or so later, my manager called and said he had a project for me that he wanted me to act in. And I said, “Well, what’s the name of the script?” He said, “’Who Made the Potatoe Salad?’” I said, “Man, that’s Damon’s script!” So I actually thought that was a harbinger that my manager found it through his own devices. And then I read the script, and I’ve got a simple rule when it comes to jumping in front of the camera: is it funny? I didn’t think my role was anything that would be too startling for anybody to see me doing, and Eddie Griffin was doing it, and Clifton Powell was doing it, and so I said, “What the heck, let’s just rock it!” And it was a crazy two, two and a half week shoot. But that’s how I became involved in the project.

BE: You’re basically the straight man in this.

JW: Exactly! My job is simply to react to all of the madness around me! And I don’t have to tell you what the movie’s about, because you’ve already checked it out, but that’s really what was my job: to provide the reaction.

BE: And, of course, Clifton was in “Ray,” but were you already a fan of his work from, say, his sitcom stuff, like his time on “Roc”?

JW: Oh, yeah, we all know each other. We all know each other, either on a casual basis or better than.

BE: I actually know Ella (Joyce) more from her role as a nurse in that movie, “Bubba Ho-Tep.”

JW: Okay.

BE: I don’t know if you’ve seen that or not.

JW: I know Ella more from “Roc” than anything.

BE: Okay. What was it like having them play your future in-laws?

JW: Just great! It’s easy working with those kinds of people, because they’re veterans, you know? They’re always gonna give you something to play off of, and they keep you on your toes. You gotta bring your A-game. Unfortunately, the whole A-list / B-list / C-list thing has nothing to do with chops anymore. I consider those guys, as far as performances go, as A-list as it comes. They’ve all got chops. It was fun being all the set. The stuff that made the shoot tough was, more or less, time. The camaraderie on the set and the ability of the actors made things a snap.

BE: One of our other editors saw the press release for the flick and said, “Okay, clearly, you have to find out why the director’s nickname is ‘Coke.’”

JW: (Laughs) Hey, you know what? I’m not even gonna lie. I have told Damon, “For the most part, dude, people are gonna get the wrong impression ‘bout your little hood nickname! For real!” And he’s, “Nah, that’s just me bein’ me, man.” I’m, like, “Hey, man, well, you be you, but I’m tellin’ you, outside the circles of the people who love you most, people are gonna get the wrong impression about that!” So, no, I’ve never seen the director around any white powder myself, but that was a very just question, I will say that.

BE: I know Eddie Griffin co-wrote “My Baby’s Daddy” with Damon; is that how he got involved with the picture?

JW: Yeah, I’m sure that’s how he got involved with the picture. I’m positive that they built a relationship when they were in Toronto.

BE: Now, I have to ask: was Eddie even on the set with the rest of ya’ll? Because the way his character is only seen on videotape, he could’ve been a thousand miles away.

JW: Yeah, uh, naw, I didn’t shoot my stuff with Eddie. Eddie shot his stuff in a different location.

BE: Okay, now, looking at the back of the DVD box, do you think maybe they’re trying a little too hard with the advertising campaign to have the tagline be “Get Ready To Meet the Parents In A Hilarious New Comedy,” and then have the words “Meet the Parents” printed in a completely different color, so as to specifically draw attention to them?

JW: You know what? I haven’t seen it yet! (Laughs) I was basically kinda like, it’s a funny joint, I know it is, so I’m, like, cool, I’ll talk about it. As a matter of fact, my mom just got a box of them that they just sent, like, the other day…and it’s your mother, so she’s really excited to see you on the box of anything. So I don’t know if they’re trying too hard. But she did tell me that the actual disc itself is made to look like potato salad… (Laughs) …which I thought was actually damned funny. So let ‘em try hard, man. It’s a DVD, and you gotta try and make some noise for yourself.

BE: I hear you’ve got a small role in “Dreamgirls.”

JW: Yeah, y’know what? Unfortunately, we live in an IMDB world, and I really do mean that, because it’s clearly Jamie (Foxx) and Eddie (Murphy) and Beyonce’s film, and it’s terrific, and I’d kind of hoped that my little two-week stint on the set would have been just more of a surprise for people…but now I have to talk about it. I can’t really say much, other than that it was a great experience being on that set. (Director) Bill Condon is a prince, and the film is definitely gonna garner some incredible reactions, reviews, and awards.

BE: You used to do a blog on the NBA website, but it looks like that hasn’t been touched in awhile.

JW: Yeah, it was something I used to do in the middle of the night when I would get writer’s block, ‘cause I could go on anytime I wanted. It’s just that I’m such a stickler about blogging – I can’t stand grammatical errors, left-out words, misspellings – that I would just spend so much time on it late at night that I just wouldn’t get back to my work. So, y’know, you do something for awhile and you just kind of move on. Maybe I’ll jump back on it if something super-interesting ever happens.

BE: Talking about blogging, do you do the MySpace thing?

JW: I don’t play with that. I don’t play with that; I do have imposters, sad to say, people who say they’re me, and they’re not me. One guy, I even went to college with, but he hasn’t really been responding to the cease and desist.

BE: Ah. Yu know, speaking of IMBD as you were a minute ago, I had no idea that you did the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog in the animated cartoon.

JW: Yeah, I did it for years.

BE: How did you score that gig?

JW: What can I say? I had a great run throughout my teen years, where everything I touched did a hundred episodes. We did a hundred-something episodes of “Sonic,” and it was just a relationship that was forged with the owner of DIC (Animation), who wanted to do something with me. And “Sonic” came along, he tossed it my way, and, like I said, we did over a hundred episodes.

BE: Is it true you used to play basketball with George Clooney, back when “E.R.” and “Family Matters” filmed on nearby sets?

JW: Yeah!

BE: Did you, uh, ever win?

JW: Yeah! (Laughs) George is a great guy. You don’t want to play him in Horse, though. And you definitely don’t want to play him in Horse for money.

BE: This may or may not be rumor mill stuff, but I had heard that you were more or less contractually forbidden from working out while you were on “Family Matters,” lest you develop a, uh, non-geeky physique.

JW: I think that’s been misconstrued. I was not contractually bound to do that at all; I was just dedicated to my character. I knew…if you were to meet my father at all, I knew that if I were really to go in the direction of athletics, like I wanted to do at the time, I would just outgrow the character and, y’know, cut my money short.

BE: And I’ve been intentionally holding off on the specific Urkel questions, but have you reached a point where you can appreciate the work you did as Urkel on “Family Matters” without feeling like it’s just this big albatross hanging around your neck?

JW: Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s, like, 15 shows in the history of television, man, that have 200 episodes, and we hold some good company with “Cheers,” y’know, some of the great shows in television history. I’ve never had a problem with that. Really, I never have. My whole thing is just trying to amass a body of work that speaks more to who I am as a performer across the board, and that’ll just happen over time. I mean, I’m 29.

BE: Were you at all panicked when “Grown-Ups” (White’s first post-“Family Matters” series) didn’t take off?

JW: Uh…it’s UPN. (Laughs) I knew I was shooting the dice at UPN. That’s not even a network anymore, so that lets you know what I was working with.

BE: And I know you’re available for speaking engagements, but your Wikipedia entry…because if it’s not an IMDB world, it’s a Wikipedia world…

JW: Right!

BE: …but it says that you’re a full-time writer now, and that you’re working on a screenplay or two.

JW: Oh, yeah. I’ve written for everyone from Imagine Entertainment to the Disney Channel…in fact, I’ll be working for the Disney Channel next week…and PBS. Primarily comedy. That’s what I went to school for when I went to UCLA; I went to film school with a concentration in screenwriting. I fell in love with it when I was 18, and I knew this was definitely something I was supposed to do well into late adult years.

BE: Any specific shows you want to mention that you’ve worked on?

JW: Shucks…uh, I filmed two pilots, movies…again, you kind of wish that you had that hit to just be, like, oh, yeah, I did that. I don’t like being a staff writer, I will say that, on another sitcom or anything like that. I like doing my own work and adapting, dealing with my notes on my own.

BE: Any other projects in the pipeline you want to talk up?

JW: I’m working with Joel Zwick right now, from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and I’m putting a rewrite on a project that I’ve written for him to produce, and maybe jump behind the camera. But other than that, no. I’m not one to jinx my projects, y’know? Like I said, it’s unfortunate that we live in an IMDB world. But for right now, it’s all about “Who Made The Potatoe Salad?” And “Dreamgirls,” of course. But when projects come out, hopefully we’ll be able to have another conversation.

BE: And one last question, just for fun: did you ever actually wake up in the morning and have a nice bowl of Urkel O’s with milk?

JW: I actually did! Because I was not allowed to have sugary cereals when I was a kid, but when I got my own, my mom had to kind of bend that rule.

BE: I was actually reading in a blog about how a guy was given an autographed box of Urkel O’s…autographed not really to him, but just to someone with the same name…and it was long since expired, but he felt he just had to try it, and he said, “And it was still good!”

JW: That’s nasty!

BE: He said it was, like, 4,300 days past its expiration, and the milk he put on it was only two days past its expiration, and it tasted worse than the cereal did!

JW: I think they make them that way, man. Space food.

BE: All right, I think we’re good.

JW: You got everything you wanted to know?

BE: I think so.

JW: You’re a good man.

BE: Thanks a lot.

JW: Take it easy!

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