January 22, 2003


What's up with Carl Lumbly


Best known for: ABC's Alias, on which he plays Marcus Dixon, the stalwart sidekick on superspy Sydney Bristow's (Jennifer Garner) far-flung operations. Agent Dixon is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. For one, he's "very hooded and shrouded," said Lumbly. "You only find out about him what you need to know." But Dixon himself doesn't know a big secret: that the company he and Sydney work for is in fact a renegade intelligence agency fighting against the CIA. "It's perverse, but I love that," said Lumbly. "As an actor, it's about as juicy as you can get." Specifically, he gets off on Dixon's "living a lie" to his own wife, who thinks he's an investment banker. "But who goes off on a business trip and comes back with three bullet wounds?"


Bug Bites Reporter: Raised in Minnesota by Jamaican immigrants, Lumbly was working as an AP reporter in the early 1970s when he covered an improv group in St. Paul. He thought auditioning for the troupe would make a good angle for his story; he ended up working with the company for two years. The appeal? "What they were doing hadn't been written _ it was happening right there," Lumbly recalled. "It was curious. It was like a writing form more than anything."


First big break: He moved to San Francisco and saw a want ad seeking "two black actors ... for South African political plays." He went to audition for Athol Fugard's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island and met the director, Robert Woodruff, and co-star Danny Glover. After a run at the Eureka Theatre, the two took the show on tour. Said Lumbly, "That was the play in which I realized I truly wanted to do this."


TV or not TV: Before Alias he'd recurred on Cagney & Lacey and landed some memorable roles: To Sleep With Anger, Nightjohn, TNT's Buffalo Soldiers. He also went through the TV wringer, first with 1992's Going To Extremes, from producer Joshua Brand of Northern Exposure fame, about medical students training--in Jamaica. "I thought at the time, This is it, this is a dream come true." It lasted three episodes. M.A.N.T.I.S., about a scientist- superhero, lasted a short season on the Sci-Fi channel. "It's like alchemy," said Lumbly. "You always know when you're onto something good, but you don't necessarily know upfront what will serve as a hit. I never feel wildly disappointed, but also I'm never really prepared for it when it happens."


Alias was "singular" from the start, Lumbly said, particularly the lead, Jennifer Garner: "She has an almost retro ingenue quality. Somehow she was raised in such a way that she comes to the world without a lot of preconceptions about how she's supposed to comport herself. She looks people in the eye when she speaks. Whatever star quality is, she has it." He admires the show's emotional truthfulness, if not its realism: "I mean, open-heart surgery in a speeding ambulance? At that point I just have to say, I don't believe it could be done, but if it could be done, it would look something like this."


Lumbly also starred in a new version of Sounder, about a Depression-era sharecropping family in Louisiana, that aired Jan. 19 on The Wonderful World of Disney. Lumbly's performance as the family's hard-driving patriarch helped to leaven the telefilm's sentimentality.


Against type: Often cast as serious, taciturn, even traumatized men--we recall his heartbreaking turn in Jitney at the Taper--Lumbly said in real life he's "a relatively whimsical individual. I like art, I love music, I love to get dirty out in the garden. I'm trying to stave off getting old as much as possible, so I'm very active, probably more than I should be." He lives in Berkeley with his wife, actor Vonetta McGee, and their 14-year-old son. Marriage, he joked, helps him bring some "world-weariness" to his characters; his son keeps him "in the present tense."


His biggest challenge: As a theatre-trained black actor, he's had the usual frustrations with audition feedback like "more 'street' " or "blacker." But he's philosophical about it: "I'm a runner, and I love to run in regional parks, often where people walk their dogs. I hate to get dog mess on my running shoes, but sometimes when you run in the park, it happens. That's where the dog mess is. And if it happens, you rub it off your shoes; you don't stop running."


--Rob Kendt