26 Feb Leon
Photo by José Pagan Photography
Actor, singer, producer, Leon Robinson aka ‘Leon‘, is a triple threat! Best known for his roles as David Ruffin in The Temptations, J.T. Matthews in The Five Heartbeats, Derice Bannock in Cool Runnings, or as Russell in Waiting to Exhale, Leon is one of those very few actors leading a career that has spanned three decades. A wonderful talk with a man whose aim in life is to promote love and togetherness.
By Victoria Adelaide | Feb 26. 2018
Victoria Adelaide: What do you usually look for in a role?
Leon: Well, usually when I’m looking for a role, I always like to do something that’s different. Something that is a different type of story or a different type of role for me. Because I like to challenge myself. I don’t like to be one note. Being unique as a person and as an artist, is being able to have unique qualities, and in order to display those qualities you have to be in a certain storyline and certain roles. So I’m always looking for something that can distinguish me, or put me in a position where I can help distinguish a story. That’s the most important thing for me. I consider myself a storyteller, more than I consider myself an actor, a songwriter or anything. Because what we remember most of any movie, or any book is the story, not one character, as we only remember great characters that are in great stories.
VA: Having said that, what kind of role would you like to get that you haven’t played yet?
L: Wow! (laughs). There are so many. Well, you need to realize that, there are a lot of things that we can change and things we can’t change. I can change my accent, my weight, or my body. I really can’t change my face too much. So being able to either create a project or be cast for a project, in which people feel that it’s what is different from you, it’s tough. I just think anything that’s really wildly different from me or something I’m so right for, it’s like the perfect marriage. You always look for those kinds of things. There are so many different roles, so many different stories to tell.
VA: Yes, and you have to get into it and sometimes I guess to mold yourself into that character to better suit yourself or your performance?
L: Yes, that happens all the time. Once you figure out who this character is and what he is in the story, lots of times you have to mold yourself into that person. Sometimes I play real life characters. When you play someone who actually walked and talked on this earth, you owe it to their friends and their family, you’ve really got to work on capturing the essence of that person. Like when I played David Ruffin in The Temptations, I studied him, I studied his movements, everything, heard all kinds of stories about him… I wanted to make sure I did a proper representation of him. Same thing when I did Little Richard.
VA: How has your approach to your work changed over the years?
L: The biggest difference is the amount of time and of preparation, which you don’t have as much now, because people just don’t rehearse and prepare for a long period of time like they used to. And also just the process of life. When you are a young actor, you don’t really have a lot of responsibilities other than to act, so you can delve into roles and just stay in that character. When you’re older you have more responsibilities, you usually have a home, maybe a family, businesses that you can’t let go just to become another person (laughs). It just becomes harder to just delve into roles, become another person for a few months and not have to worry about anything else. I think when you are young and don’t have as many responsibilities, it’s a lot easier to do that.
VA: On the 25th anniversary of Cool Runnings, how does it feel when you see that the movie is still so popular?
L: Well it’s fantastic, 3 weeks ago we did a screening of it, on the big screen at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. I was there with the director, the editor, and another cast member, it was wonderful. Everyone said the same thing, if this movie came out today it would make 200 million dollars. It could be made today. It’s just amazing how well this movie holds up the story. I mean everyone just gives into it, it’s amazing. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had movies that have stood the test of time. Starting with The Five Heartbeats, which was voted the number one African-American movie of the last 25 years and a couple of other ones…like The Temptations, people just watch them year after year after year and celebrate them. I feel very blessed. When I started my career, an attorney friend said to me, “Listen, so many actors have been a walk across many stages, many screens and they will not be remembered. What you want to do more than anything else is memorable work that resonates to people even long after you’re gone.” And that has always been a goal of mine. So any time I get a chance, get lucky enough to be in a great storyline like Cool Runnings, The Five Heartbeats, The Temptations or whatever, I feel very blessed and I’m happy because I’m achieving the one thing I really want to do.
VA: You also have a production company called Motion Mob Films, in New York. What are you working on right now?
L: Well, right now we have a short film making the film festival rounds, which is called Make America Black Again (laughs). It’s a political satire about a candidate who is running for office under this present administration, under Trump. He is a black candidate running on the campaign slogan of Make America Black Again, which is kind of a takeoff because the President Trump thing is Make America Great Again, but he’s really trying to say Make America White Again. So we made it Make America Black Again, and he is running on that campaign’s slogan with an entirely white campaign staff. Also we are currently developing our first TV production which is called The Pulp of Avenue B. It takes place in downtown New York City, in Alphabet City. It’s about a street therapist who doesn’t have an office per se. So he meets his clients in the park, in coffee shops, in bed, wherever…(laughs).
VA: You are also a musician. What is your songwriting process and what inspires you?
L: What inspires me is real life. Singing songs and identifying with the people who can identify with those songs. So lots of my inspiration either comes from stories or things I’ve experienced though life, or through other people. I think that’s when music has always resonated with me, when I hear a song and all of a sudden I can almost imagine either me going to it, me feeling it or me singing it. That’s usually what inspires me in my writing.
VA: “Beautiful” : what does it means to you?
L: Well, my new album is called Love Is a Beautiful Thing, and it’s about all types of love. Not just the kind of love that we have for someone that we are in a relationship with, or we sleep with. There are people that do have relationships from 5 or 10 years and just because they’re not sleeping together anymore, they don’t know where that person is in the world. I’m talking about the type of love you have for your brother, your sister, or your friend. Some days you may even hate them but in the end you’ll always love them. And there are all types of love, there’s motherly love, there’s romantic love, there’s friendship love, and there is the kind of love that’s broken. Love comes with so many different things and that’s what the album is really about.
VA: Do you think that generosity is the strongest quality an artist must possess?
L: I don’t know if it’s a quality that artists must possess. I know that it’s a quality that I need to possess in order to do what I do. There are all types of artists. Artists write and create all kinds of things. Just as I’m talking about love right now, there’s an artist that can be talking to you about evil, and that’s what drives him to write things. So I wouldn’t want to say that all artists need this, I just know that it’s important for me to have it, in order to write the kind of music that I write. Because I write music for the people.
VA: What had the biggest impact on you musically?
L: I don’t know if there is one thing that influenced me other than probably the drum and bass of Reggae. Reggae music is probably what made me want to sing. My own music is a mix of Reggae, Soul and other elements. So there’s usually a Reggae back beat in a lot of our songs.
VA: Did you come from a musical background?
L: No, not really. There was always music in my house, because my dad was a lover of music and loved to sing. But no-one professionally in that avenue. In my family, I was the first.
Photos by José Pagan Photography.
VA: What’s coming next for Leon & The Peoples? A new album?
L: Yes. The album I mentioned, Love is a Beautiful Thing. The first single after the album is released, will be a single that I’m very proud of, called Sometimes I Wish I Was Single. (laughs)
VA: Well, that’s an interesting title (laughs). Can you tell me a bit more about that?
L: Well, as I said, I write songs for the people. When I came up with a concept for this particular song, I was just talking to so many of my friends, either married or in serious relationships. At some point, all of them, everyone, men and women, wish they were single. Even if it’s for 10 minutes out of the day, or when your girlfriends tell you they’ve got an extra ticket for you to go to Costa Rica for the weekend and your husband says, ‘No!’. Just to have that freedom is something everyone wants at some point in their life, even if it’s just for an hour out of the day. So I wrote this song around it. It sounds like a bad boy song, but it’s basically a love song about how much you really appreciate the person that you’re with.
VA: On a personal note, you seem to have a fantastic relationship with your daughter. How has being a dad changed your life?
L: Tremendously. Especially when you are an artist, so much of what you do is about you. And all of a sudden there’s someone in your life, that you love more than you love yourself. I think when you are parents, you have this gene in you, it’s called a “selfless gene”. You’re selfless. When I go on vacation, it’s not really that important to me whether I have a good time, it’s only important to me when my daughter has a good time. How my daughter is doing is more important than how I’m doing. It really changes you in so many ways.
VA: What kind of dad are you?
L: I’m definitely a dad that’s a friend with his daughter. I believe that when you’re super strict, sometimes you lose your kid. I don’t want to lose my kid. I don’t want my daughter to keep things from me. So I think by letting her know that I’m also her friend as well as her dad, she can talk to me about everything and I’m going to give her my opinion. I’m not going to be super strict on her and act like I never did anything wrong. I want her to go through the things she is to go through, she’s going to make her mistakes and I’m going to talk to her about everything. I’m going to talk to her about her career, school, sex, whatever. I’m going to share my knowledge, and my mistakes, everything with her. So she can have an even better life than I do.
VA: You became famous through a number of great movies. How did you learn not to take yourself too seriously?
L: Well, I kind of learn through life. I think as you get older you need to look around and see how life really is. We are taught so many things when we’re young. I think by the time you are 40 years old, you should be able to figure out things. You should figure out who should be around you, how your temperament should be, how you want to approach life, what works and what doesn’t work, what you’ve been taught that is true and what you’ve been taught that is nonsense. You should have figured out life for yourself. It’s one of the pet peeves I have, when I see people who have lived their lives for so long and they’ve yet to figure anything out. I’m like, “Do you take time to look at yourself?”, “Do you take time to figure things out?”, “Do you go from one relationship to the next, never realizing what you’ve been doing wrong in the previous relationships?” I mean these are the things that we have to do when we get older, when we mature. I think so many times people just don’t mature. They don’t try to look around and see what life really is about, because they’ve lived enough of it to get to know it.
VA: Is there something the public doesn’t know about you?
L: Hmmm…let me see, maybe that I was raised as the only male of my generation, so that I was surrounded by women my whole life. I learned to love women before I even wanted to have sex with them. I think that’s the reason why I get along with women so well, they can sense that I have a genuine care and love for them far beyond just the normal guy-girl thing (laughs).
...I’m talking about the type of love you have for your brother, your sister, or your friend.``