Right about now, it’s good being Cornelius Smith.
Smith is a featured actor on one of the nation’s hottest television dramas, he’s an alumnus of one the most popular and longest running soap operas of all time, and he’s a native Detroiter at a time when native Detroiters can boast that they were Detroit long before Detroit was declared a cool comeback city. And he’s only 34.
So yeah. Being Cornelius Smith at this point in time in 2016 is a very admirable place to be.
“I’m really grateful and happy for where I am now, but more importantly where I’m headed,” he said during a recent interview.
Smith was in town several weeks ago to participate in the retirement celebration of Marilyn McCormick, the longtime Cass Tech performing arts teacher who helped launch Smith on his career path as well as so many others during her 39 years at the school. The fact that Smith felt an obligation to return home from Los Angeles just to pay his respects says a lot about McCormick’s influence and the esteem in which she is held by her students, but it also says quite a bit about Smith as someone who does not forget those who helped him get to where he is now.
“She is such an incredible person, she has touched so many lives. She gave me constant advice, constant support. That’s why they’re having a big celebration for her,” he said. “At Cass Tech I did a number of plays under Miss McCormack’s direction.”
As a matter of fact, the very first play Smith ever performed in was “Something’s Afoot,” directed, of course, by McCormack. Prior to his immersion into the thrill of performance, Smith had changed his major several times, expressing an early interest in mathematics and related fields. But once bitten by the acting bug, his path became clear in a hurry. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the arts festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, was a particularly influential experience that helped Smith make up his mind about what he wanted to do with his life.
“That experience is really what kind of changed me and opened my mind that I could be doing this as a profession. After that experience I decided I wanted to go ‘hard in the paint’ as they say.”
Smith left Detroit to attend Southern Methodist University, where he majored in theater, then went straight from there to New York University to pursue graduate studies in acting. Shortly after graduation, Smith performed in a Shakespeare in the Park production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in New York, after which he went straight to the big time with a prime role as Frankie Hubbard in “All My Children”.
“I got a number of accolades from working on the show. I was nominated three times for an image award,” he said. “Out the gate it was a pretty wonderful experience”.
Smith said he was about 25 years old then, but that as promising as his career may have appeared at the time, it certainly was not without its bumps in the road on the way to his prime time gig as Marcus Walker on “Scandal” nearly a decade later. Smith said that around 2012-2013, he entered a period of depression that he couldn’t seem to shake. He was involved in a struggling relationship that “ended terribly”, plus neither his career nor his life in general was going the way he thought it should.
“I was looking at my life, and coming to terms with everything that was happening … and I looked at a quote that said ‘the good, the bad and the ugly you’re responsible for.’ And that was kind of a hard pill for me to swallow. …I desperately wanted to unlock my destiny and I felt like it was being blocked. And I was the one blocking it.”
That changed when Smith managed to calm himself down and get more in touch with his spiritual side. Once he did that, Smith says his life began to get back on track. He currently gets up every morning at 6 a.m. to meditate and to get himself centered and anchored.
“That’s my time with God, and to actively fill myself up with love each and every day. If you’re not doing that, then you have to know you’re filling yourself up with something else. With gunk.”
When Smith first appeared on “Scandal”, he played the role of a fiery, committed grassroots organizer named Marcus Walker in what will surely be recorded as one of the best, most intense, and most socially relevant episodes the show ever produced – and Smith’s outstanding portrayal of Walker had a lot to do with the episode’s electricity. Fellow Detroiter Courtney B. Vance, who portrayed the enraged and heartbroken father of a slain youngster around whose death the episode revolves, was the other reason the dramatic impact was so powerful.
Initially, Smith was only written in as a guest star “possibly recurring,” meaning he may or may not return in later episodes. But his portrayal was so strong that it landed him a fulltime role as a member of Olivia Pope’s firm of morally flexible fix-the-problem-at-any-cost types. The fun is witnessing how the morally righteous Walker navigates his new environment, and how he deals with his colleagues who are far less moral than he when it comes to the job at hand – whatever that job might be.
“It’s exciting to see a new character in that environment and how he deals with that. What lines will he draw for himself and also for the team. “Marcus has a lot of tools in his toolbox, but he prefers to take the right path, to do right by people.”
Which is why in the future it could be fun to see some interaction between Smith’s upright character and Joe Morgan’s gloriously amoral Poppa Pope, the other leading African American male character who serves as Walker’s polar opposite. For Pope, right and wrong only apply in the context of how he chooses to define each word at any particular time.
But in the meantime, Smith is simply enjoying his ‘overnight’ success, and seeing where it all will take him.
“It did happen overnight, but after ten significant years of building, grinding, and preparation.”