Most viewers are likely to know Cornelius Smith Jr. from his 57-episode stint on the hit show Scandal. In Five Days at Memorial, Smith Jr. gets to show another side of his acting ability, As the real-life doctor Bryant King, Smith Jr. represents the anger, frustration, and helplessness of a character who believes he is right, raises his voice, but is not heard.
In our conversation, we discuss where those emotions came from, what it was like to film such a heartbreaking show, and how understanding is the key to empathizing with characters who are playing care-givers in the impossible circumstances of post-Katrina flooding, which left the hospital bereft of power, and short on food, water, and life-sustaining supplies.
Awards Daily: What was it like for you to walk in Dr. Bryant King’s shoes?
Cornelius Smith Jr.: It was an honor. I look at every character and opportunity to really try my best to live in that character authentically and be present in the circumstances. And obviously these are extreme circumstances. That’s what makes it juicy for me as an artist and as an actor. But the circumstances and the stakes were high. And again, that’s another juicy thing for an actor and it just was an opportunity to really fully step in and do my best to show what Dr. King was going through and feeling. As a fellow black man, there were a lot of things that he was going through that I could easily relate to and understand.
Awards Daily: I know from talking to other actors in the show that you weren’t allowed to talk to the real people for legal reasons, but nonetheless, I imagine there’s still a sense of responsibility of carrying the character of a real person that you might not have from a purely fictionalized character.
Cornelius Smith Jr.: Yeah, that’s interesting. For some it is a sense of responsibility, but I also think that it’s just a different type of awareness, that you are playing somebody who actually lives. And so that brings your awareness to real specificity and wanting to come as close as you can to embodying at least the essence of the person you’re portraying because they’re real. Whereas, obviously, if you’re playing a character that you know is fictional, you don’t have that awareness. Not that playing a real person is holding you down, but you’re aware that you can’t necessarily do just anything. It has to be performed through who this person actually is as opposed to a creation of your imagination. So, that’s really it for me. Playing Dr. King, at first I wasn’t aware of the story. So when I heard about the story, that was enlightening and enhanced my awareness of what everybody went through. Specifically, playing Dr. King was a challenging experience. The shoe is like a boiling over melting pot. It was challenging. Even though it’s not necessarily the best story or the best circumstances, I think that along with my fellow cast members and everybody involved we found a sense of joy in retelling this story for others to know about it.
Awards Daily: Circling back to what you said about being a black man, I interviewed Michael Gaston and he was telling me about how he had spoken to a white man in New Orleans who considered Anna Pou a hero, and then he has a close friend who happens to be a black man who saw it completely differently. He saw it as black people having their agency taken away near the end of their life. Dr. Bryant King is probably the angriest person in the hospital about what’s happening. When Michael shared that, I started thinking of our long history of treating black people as secondary citizens. Did that play a part in your performance?
Cornelius Smith Jr.: Yes, next question. [Laughs.] How could it not, given the circumstances of what’s going on? You’re at a hospital. My character is at a hospital. He just got to the hospital, and hasn’t been there even a year, with new people, the only black doctor on the staff, and then he’s been thrusted into this hurricane, which brings along these other sets of just incredibly difficult circumstances and situations that they all have to encounter. It’s an interesting place as an African American person, to be in a place—in a corporation, in a business—and kind of overtly but just plainly kind of see what’s going on, but not necessarily feel safe or be even in a position to actually speak to what’s going on. I say a black person, but that applies to a lot of people.
There are people in institutions and in places who don’t necessarily feel safe to speak up about the truth. I think what adds another layer to Dr. King is that he is black. It is a predominantly black community that he’s servicing. And so you want to say you see these things and nobody really knows what’s going on in the chaos, and perception is king, so every perception is really kind of composed of each individual’s upbringing and your life and how you were raised as a child. And so it’s easy for people to see things, or not recognize things because we’ve all come up differently and have a different filter, if you will, of viewing life. But one of the most powerful things about the series is that it has a beautiful way of letting you into all sides and everything that’s going on. Just give me a different perspective. Because sometimes that’s all it takes. It’s just a slightly different perspective other than your own and that can open up your heart. That can open up your mind. Even if it’s just a sliver, if we were able to do that, then I think we’ve done our job.
Awards Daily: There’s a part of Dr. King that’s almost playing detective in this. He is laser focused on where things are happening, what’s going on, and he’s ahead of everybody else who’s sort of at this point of this isn’t really happening, is it? They’re not really gonna do this, are they? And Dr. King is like, no, no, they actually are doing this shit, right? And I think that very much comes from a person who’s seen these types of things before just under different circumstances.
Cornelius Smith Jr.: Well, not only seen. I mean, listen, it’s in the history books. I’m not sure, but it would be a good guess that he’s experienced it in his own life. But even if he hadn’t, just the world today and just what has happened in our history in our lifetime. So yeah, he’s seen it time and time again. When you are willing to kind of embrace it, and you know that history, you can see it kind of repeating itself even to the extent of the government disaster preparation in terms of the story. They knew there would be a next time, but there was no preparation and so history repeated itself. It also goes to show that not all people, and not all black people, think the same and see things the same way. But for Dr. King, he’s like the painting’s on the wall. Are you kidding me? Like, they’re doing it. They’re shooting us. They’re giving them shots. We’re beyond the point of “is this really happening”. Because there’s the shock of it and it just makes it a little more interesting and difficult when you have that disposition and you maybe have to try to persuade someone to wake up and see what Dr. King feels was his truth.
Awards Daily: When I started watching the series, there were certain facts that I knew: that a number of people died, that there was a real question around the circumstances, but the show takes you into how this could have happened in the first place. As an actor, as you were reading the script, I imagine there were revelations to you where like, holy crap, this really happened.
Cornelius Smith Jr.: 110%. I knew of Hurricane Katrina when it happened, obviously, but I don’t necessarily recall seeing any news coverage about Memorial Hospital. Maybe it just didn’t come up where I was living at the time, or I just missed it on the local news, but I was completely dumbfounded that it had happened and number two, that I had never heard about it. So yes, it was a big educational experience for me. You know, I mean, history, man. It’s shocking but not surprising in a way. It’s just like wow…like how…but of course. Sadly. So to learn about that and I guess really the big takeaway for me is that I have the opportunity to educate others because I know there are people out there like myself who have heard of Hurricane Katrina but probably have not heard of anything that happened at Memorial Hospital.
Awards Daily: I think you could anticipate this show being made in a way that tries to sway your opinion in a certain direction. But this show is actually the opposite of that. It presents everybody’s perspective and lets you decide, and that’s a lot more challenging for the audience member. It might even be more challenging as an actor or a screenwriter to try to develop that, but I thought it was just a great choice to say, here it is. And then you start thinking, well, what the hell would I do?
Cornelius Smith Jr.: Yeah. Yeah. Kudos again to John (Ridley) and Carlton (Cuse). I think that’s exactly right. What we did was a very conscious effort to just present the story, just tell what happened. We don’t want to color it. We don’t want to make you think one thing, we’re not highlighting who’s right or who’s wrong, who’s good, or who’s bad. Before you make any decision (as a viewer), you’ve got to know what happened, the bare facts, like what are the bare facts? And so I think we really strive to just kind of get the bare facts of the story of what happened so that, again, people kind of make up their own minds about who did what, who was right or wrong. People can draw their own conclusions. And then more importantly, it hopefully takes you on a deeper journey inward to make you think about what you would do in that situation, in hopes to maybe reach the land of compassion. I think it’s all of that.
Awards Daily: The fascinating part is I don’t think there’s anyone who’s shown operating in the hospital who on some level doesn’t think they’re trying to do the right thing.
Cornelius Smith Jr.: Doctors are in the business of saving lives and doctors take an oath to do such. Obviously looking at our medical professionals today and all the sacrifices that they’ve given during the pandemic, they are the real front liners, heroes, people who are really keeping us safe, who put their lives on the line every single day in order to save a life, to help humanity.
Awards Daily: There’s a part of you that could say, oh my gosh, if they have to leave and those folks are just gonna die in their own flop sweat and excrement, there’s a part of you that can understand howAnna Pou could reach the decision to permanently end the suffering of those patients. But I keep coming back to the idea that those folks in dire health conditions weren’t given agency in that decision. To be fair, some of them were incapable of making a decision due to being in and out of consciousness, but still…
Cornelius Smith Jr.: That’s a great point. And it’s something that throughout we want to present all sides. And if we’re doing our job well, you can not only present. but you can understand all sides. It’s not just really about seeing it. We wanted to get behind and really show, or at least try our best to show what happened. So you not only see it, but you can hopefully have a little bit more understanding as you draw your conclusion on the bigger picture about what happened and where you place your judgment.
Awards Daily: Yeah, I think that’s the right point. It’s not about necessarily agreeing with anybody, it’s about understanding.
Cornelius Smith Jr.: I hate to argue and so I always say I’m listening to understand. I really want to understand first so that we can really have a conversation.
Awards Daily: I know Five Days was shot during the pandemic and you had extraordinary challenges with the shoot in terms of not being able to see family, being sequestered, tested constantly. I have heard from everyone I’ve spoken to about the show that the quality of the set was remarkable in terms of how people got along and treated one another. I can’t imagine doing such an intense show under these circumstances without that level of camaraderie.
Cornelius Smith Jr.: It was key. It was a lot—quarantining in Canada for two weeks before we even began shooting. We were able to find the joy in telling this heavy story because of each other. Everybody involved, top to bottom was professional, kind, generous, open, caring, and considerate, but they also followed through on the standard for behavior that was set at the beginning. The follow through meter is heavy, you know what I mean? So we found a way when it wasn’t too heavy on set. We were hanging out, chilling, creating great memories for each other and creating bonds. It wasn’t necessarily difficult. Because my cast members and the crew and everybody worked so hard and the level of professionalism was amazing, with John and Carlton at the helm setting the tone about the work environment, I really thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process.
Awards Daily: It has to feel really good to be a part of a project that is willing to push and not compromise in what we might consider typical ways.
Cornelius Smith Jr.: This has been one of the greatest honors of my career, thus far. There are just so many things that selfishly are working in my favor. Kick ass creators Carlton and John, great support from Apple, and an amazing cast.The cast is genuine and loving, they’re like a second family and we still keep in touch to this day. The most important thing that I think you take away from an experience is relationships. The relationships that have been established, that’s the priceless stuff, right there. And the script and the show in terms of the storytelling and what we’re saying and what we’re doing and not necessarily placing any judgment on it, but just telling the story, giving you the hard truth so that you can draw your own conclusions. I had a great role to play in Dr. King and the circumstances allowed me to really explore parts that maybe people haven’t seen from me on the screen. So, selfishly I’m looking at all wins in this column. Regardless of if you’ve seen it, I have beautiful relationships. I feel proud of the work. I feel proud of the story. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity. I hope people will continue to see it and discover it as I know they will.