The actor discusses making the film, playing Urkel, and the movie he's currently writing.
After single-handedly taking over the show Family Matters with the now iconic Steve Urkel character, Jaleel White could have very easily gone away like so many other child stars. Continuing to work in various roles on TV, Jaleel recently played a part in the highly anticipated Jamie Foxx/Eddie Murphy/Beyonce Knowles' starrer Dreamgirls. He has also been writing screenplays and if his past performance is any indication, White should find just as much success as a budding scribe.
He recently sat down with us to discuss the upcoming DVD release of his film Who Made the Potatoe Salad?. White headlines this urban comedy helmed by Damon 'Coke' Daniels and co-starring Clifton Davis (television's Amen), Eddie Griffin and Deray Davis. He stars as Michael, a San Diego police officer who travels to the L.A. home of his intended bride Angela (Jennia Frederique), to meet her outrageous, eccentric family and officially announce their wedding plans.
What attracted you to Who Made the Potatoe Salad?
Jaleel White: (Laughs) The fact that the script was funny. It's very rare that you get something on your desk that is actually very funny. I also work as a writer so there was a writer I knew named Damon Daniels who wrote the project, and we were out having lunch and he was telling me about this project and he said, "You should act in it." At the time I really wasn't feeling like acting but I took the script, and you do what everyone does, I put it on the left side of my desk. Then my manager called about two months later and said he had a project for me that they wanted me for on request. I asked what it was, "Who Made the Potatoe Salad?"
So I popped open the script and it was damn funny and I really got two rules when it comes to comedy and working in general in front of the camera. I do whatever my manager wants me to do because he's got great taste. And if it's funny? I absolutely have to do it. I don't care about trailer sizes or any of that kind of stuff.
Is comedy like the comedy in this film second nature now because of all the other things you've done?
Jaleel White: No, not at all. To be quite honest with you it's about identifying comedy. A lot of stuff that you're asked to do is not funny. After awhile, you got 215 episodes or something in your head, and a laugh track in your head, you know what's funny and you know what's not. This was the kind of situation where by page 10 I'm laughing out loud at the stuff that I'm reading. So, it's pretty easy to translate to screen once it's on the page.
What was the atmosphere like on the set? You had a lot of comic talent were you allowed to improv?
Jaleel White: He let us freestyle, man. He's got people like Eddie Griffin and Cliffton Powell, these people can handle themselves around a camera. It was a helter skelter shoot. We shot this sucker in like two and half weeks. And not necessarily in the sexiest of environments but I gotta be real though, I've kind of learned this about comedy, when comedy gets too expensive it might not be funny. Sometimes it's good to keep the conditions where you're pressed for time and it's just about getting the work done, as opposed to how much things are we eating on the set.
Did you draw on any personal experiences to play the character of Michael in the film?
Jaleel White: You know what? I did get treated very nicely by the parents of the ladies that I've dated. So I kind of had to imagine what it would be like to get completely, totally disrespected in someone's living room. It wasn't that difficult. I basically play the straight man in this picture. I have people around me who it's my job to give the apropos reaction to the things that are going on around them.
You seem very grounded about being a child star based on other interviews I've seen you do, especially about the Steve Urkel character. Is that an accurate impression?
Jaleel White: I'd say that impression is accurate. A lot of people don't know me. I was a man in a suit for many years, but it's really gonna work to my advantage and I've always known that. I'm turning 30 in a month... that's something for me to look at. Generally when people see me and greet me, they're kind of astonished at what I really am. It's all about playing character and really becoming somebody else. I've always said, "Acting is nothing more than paid schizophrenia if you're doing it right."
What do you have coming up next? What kind of roles are grabbing your attention?
Jaleel White: I don't need to play villains or anything like that to show people that I'm different. I just want to be a part of stories that hold up over time. Too much of this stuff is forgettable, man. I had a small role in Dreamgirls and I pay full respect to the fact that that's Jamie's and Eddie's and Beyonce's movie. I'm just happy I can be in the film, because I know the film is gonna be around long enough for my kids to see it. It's an incredible film. When it comes to being an actor, I don't know how good I am but I always say this, I've never been the problem in the cast. I just want to keep that streak up and do more projects in the future, that's it.
I'm actually writing a film that's set to shoot in Texas in I think the second quarter of next year. So I'm in the middle of a rewrite right now. Really working on film stuff. That was a part of my career I never got a chance to touch upon and that was film. It's gonna be a whole second phase that's pretty exciting. I'm approaching it humbly but at the same time I got the eye of the tiger, man!
What is the name of what you're writing?
Jaleel White: Oh, I can't tell you, dog. I would love to tell you, seriously, it's just I'm not gonna jinx myself. But can I call you when we get it in the can?
You can call me anytime, anyplace, open 24 hours, we never close.
Who Made the Potatoe Salad? gets served up on DVD November 7 from Fox Home Entertainment.