TORONTO – You know that guy from school who was cool with everyone from the goths to the thugs? Omar J. Dorsey is that kind of guy. He’s the kind of guy who makes an interview happen without a publicist, giving a reporter his number so they can actually set a time.
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He’s the kind of guy that the game came to, he didn’t have to chase it. Dorsey’s father is a reverend and his mother is a theater director, both with doctorates. Even his brother has a doctorate. At Decatur’s Avondale High where he acted and played football, he also met his best friend, then child actor Dorian Missick, and his homie, actor Ronreaco Lee. Dorsey’s Georgia made all the way – he got his bachelor’s in Film at University of Georgia and his master’s at Georgia State. So acting was always his focus.
“I just saw these guys who I was in class with every day on television so I was like OK, it can be done,” Dorsey says. “I was still a hood dude. I was still doing hood rat shit with my friends. But my mind was always on the prize. [My parents] pushed it from the beginning. They did so much for me to be here right now. They sacrificed for me even when I was a grown, 30-year-old man.”
He’s the kind of guy who will show up at the appointed time at the appointed place and will give you a good portion of his time, despite being in a press run for Harriet with just a few days off before heading to his next film shoot. He’s the kind of guy you’ve seen in dozens of TV and film roles in the last 20 years – most recently in the Netflix drama When They See Us. Dorsey’s even been in three movies that were Best Picture nominees – Django Unchained, The Blind Side and Selma.
Now seated at an upscale Toronto hotel bar with previously referenced reporter, Dorsey draws little attention, because he’s the type of guy that can blend in unless he’s in a predominantly Black neighborhood. The role of hard-working, good loving Hollywood Desonier on OWN’s Queen Sugar has made him beloved among Black folks who appreciate his portrayal of a genuinely good Southern man. He got the role via his ‘sister,’ director/producer Ava DuVernay who had previously worked with him when he played civil rights leader James Orange in Selma. His was the first role cast on the show and he didn’t even have to audition for it.
“Quentin Tarantino changed the trajectory of my career. But Queen Sugar changed my life,” Dorsey says, while sipping on a ginger beer. “I’m talking not being able to go out of the house without knowing I’m going to be bombarded,” he says. “It changed everybody’s perception of me. I’ve always played the heavy or a guy full of machismo. Playing a guy as sensitive and as loving as Hollywood made people say ‘That guy can do everything!’”
He’s grateful for his newfound fans after toiling away as a working character actor for years. He’s in Toronto for the Toronto Film Festival, doing several days of press for Harriet, where he plays slave catcher Bigger Long, a role that won’t endear him to Black audiences. Or anyone. But on Queen Sugar he’s the husband, uncle figure, and big brother everyone loves. And if you think the family looks tight onscreen, it’s just a reflection of the close-knit cast, who hang out with each other offscreen during the shoots in Louisiana and beyond.
“This is a real family,” Dorsey says. “It really is. Kofi (Ralph Angel Bordelon) is like my brother. Tina (Aunt Vi) and I just had this instant chemistry. And I love her. She loves me. And that goes down the line. I make sure that we all hang out outside of New Orleans. Ava says she doesn’t just hire actors, she hires people. So that’s where that comes from.”
If you’ve been introduced to Dorsey via Queen Sugar, his role in Harriet will shock you. He’s a brutal Black slave catcher whose scenes will make your skin crawl. For Dorsey, the role was a chance to provide balance to his work, something he’s been comfortable with since his theater days.
“I’m used to doing different roles and different characters,” he says. “I haven’t played the bad guy since Ray Donovan so if I’m going to play the bad guy, I’m going to go all the way out there. I want people to see the dexterity. I want people to love me but I want people to really hate me, too.”
Mission accomplished, brotha. Long is venal, but it’s a character that Dorsey understood from a contemporary perspective.
“It’s self-preservation. He doesn’t want to be a slave so he’ll sell his own people out and it’s always been people like that in our history since the dawn of time.”
Dorsey, a father of two daughters, has a 16-year-old and one at Howard University. Yes, he’s also that guy who sent his daughter to an HBCU. His longevity as a member of the small (but growing) acting fraternity means he’s got friends with bold-faced names like Jamie (Foxx) and Samuel L. (no last name needed) as well as lesser-known but not lesser talented actors like Walter Goggins (Justified, Sons of Anarchy) and Rob Morgan (Mudbound, Just Mercy).
Dorsey is mentored by the likes of Samuel L. and he pays it forward for actors on the come-up and those he works with on Queen Sugar. He says that while it’s an increasingly great time to be a Black actor, there are more than the still-popular stories of Black pain and pathology out there. And he wants to be hired for them.
“I like genre movies. I want to be in space. I want to be on a horse. I want to be a cowboy. Once you show Black people like me in space or on a horse, it normalizes it. Because there are dudes like me that go to MIT and Georgia Tech and the Naval Academy who want to be in space. I don’t want us just to do mysteries. I don’t want us just to do comedies or just do drama. I want us to do everything.”
PHOTOS: Harriet Movie Premiere: Eric Charbonneau, Le Studio Photography
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