Playing the role is Omar Dorsey, a 43-year-old actor whose recent work is a roster of many of the marquee film and television projects that have tackled issues of race during the past decade: “The Blind Side,” “Django Unchained,” “Queen Sugar” and “When They See Us.” About US talked with Dorsey about the emotional and psychological labor that he, as a black actor, takes on by playing these roles in projects that grapple so directly with issues of race and racism.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How has your own identity as a black man factored into the roles you’ve chosen over the course of your career?
I used to play these gangsters all the time. And my ex-wife, she told me: “You need to stop playing those roles. You need to do something that will make you proud.” Now, I had to pay the bills. . . . So when I got the opportunity, I was like, “If I’m going to play a gangster, if I’m going to play someone who is bad, it has to be an integral part of telling a bigger story.” I’m not just playing Thug Number One anymore. Even in “Harriet,” I play Bigger Long, who is a really bad person, but he’s important to telling the story. When I started looking at the things I really wanted to do, I wanted to tell stories about race, and I wanted to tell stories that lift us up as a people. So cut to “Queen Sugar” and being able to play the best man on television was something that is very important to me. And being able to make a black man look good and show that he knows how to love.
Among your more recent roles have been two civil rights activists. You played James Orange in “Selma” and Elombre Brath in “When They See Us.”
It’s an important job to have, to portray these characters. I’m proud to be able to step into those shoes of those really great men. . . . You have to do your homework. In “When They See Us,” I’m talking to Elombre Brath’s son. We’re talking on the phone. He’s sending me things: “This is how my father was.” I had prepared so much that I could walk into those shoes. I don’t even look like Elombre Brath. Elombre Brath was about 5-foot-9, 160 pounds. I’m 6-foot-2, 240 pounds. But I had the essence of him. When you go back to “Selma,” I knew James Orange like the back of my hand. I’m from Atlanta. He was a civil rights leader in Atlanta. I lived down the street from James Orange Park. I know that man. I talked to his daughter. I did enough research and homework that when it was time for me to go on set, I could bring a bit of Omar to it but also the rest of it, too.
Your character in “Harriet” is nothing like that. In a movie with a lot of villains, Bigger Long is one of them.
I read the script, and I thought: “I haven’t played a bad guy in so long. It will be a little bit fun to step into it.” . . . I’ve played all of these great men, let me throw a curveball and show people that I’ve still got dexterity. To show people that I can still bring it on that end. It wasn’t that hard to really get into that, because there is a little bit of psychopath in all of us, and there is a little bit of self-preservation in all of us. So I just had to heighten those impulses up a little bit more.
You know, there’s often a debate about whether slave narratives have been overdone. You know, like, can’t we tell some other stories?
The slave narrative is a little bit daunting, and I’ve been in two slave movies. What I’ll say about “Harriet” is that this is a freedom movie. She’s out of slavery within the first 15 minutes of the movie, and the rest of the movie is about her coming back and getting her family and the other blacks through the Underground Railroad and to freedom. And that’s the difference between this film and like . . . “12 Years a Slave,” which was important. It was a snuff film, but it was important. I don’t know how much more we have to tell about the slavery narrative. There are so many other stories. Black folks are everywhere. We’re in outer space. I’m doing the new Halloween franchise, and I’m playing a sheriff. . . . I would like to see other stories being told . . . but people do need to understand how this country was built on the backs of people who were enslaved.
Does working on projects that are so topically heavy take something out of you? Like you said, a lot of these are heavy roles.
It’s quite heavy. When we first started “Django,” I had crazy artificial teeth in my mouth, my hair was all wild, and I looked in the mirror and I just broke down crying. You know, because there was a man who was my great-great-great-great grandfather who looked just like this man in the mirror right now, who went through all of these atrocities. And it just really stuck with me. When we were doing “When They See Us,” we had grief counselors on set when we were shooting that miniseries. It does take a bit out of you, but those stories have to be told.