There’s no denying that we live in divided times. Regardless of the subject – politics, social injustices, judicial appointments – we all could use a moment away from the noise, a reprieve from the back-and-forth to smile and escape. That’s where a show like “The Neighborhood” comes into play according to series star Sheaun McKinney. The CBS sitcom, which also features Cedric the Entertainer, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs and Tichina Arnold, is tackling hot button talking points, but doing so in a disarming way.
There’s a sickness in this country that we’re all sharing in, and perhaps in the end, laughter will prove to be the best medicine. (Take a dose of “The Neighborhood” tonight and feel better in the morning!)
We recently sat down with McKinney to discuss the Miami Dolphins, the silver lining we should look to, and the reason those things that make us laugh are the steps we need to take to enter a bigger conversation.
TrunkSpace: We know you’re a Miami Dolphins fan, so for full disclosure, we thought it would be a good idea to let you know we’re a stones throw away from Gillette Stadium and Tom Brady.
McKinney: This is no longer off to a good start. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: The Dolphins haven’t had a terrible start this year.
McKinney: It’s fool’s gold with the Dolphins, because this is what we do. I’m going to play out the rest of the Dolphins season, ’cause this happened for the last 35 years that I’ve been on the earth. This is what’s going to happen. We are going to lose four of the next five games. Then, they’re gonna make a valiant effort to possibly make the playoffs so we can get a middle-of-the-round draft pick that won’t pan out, à la DeVante Parker, and we’ll be stuck in this scenario until the curse of Dan Marino beats us.
TrunkSpace: So wash and repeat?
McKinney: Yes. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: Well, like in the NFL, this industry has no guarantees and yet something like “The Neighborhood” seemed like it was put on a path to find success. Did the popularity of the premiere take you by surprise at all or did you see it coming?
McKinney: That’s a good question. I’m a person who tries to stay out of what the ratings are, what reviews are, what people say. I try to treat every project just like it’s theater… I go and do a play and I leave it. I think what we all felt was that we were sitting on something really cool because everybody really gets along so well, and every script that we’ve had, we’ve all come together. The way that we communicate with each other… it doesn’t happen like that all the time. The things that we discover about each other on and off set have been really cool and enlightening. The show is naturally topical with everything that’s going on in our country and certain topics naturally come up. I think we all just thought, like, “Man, there’s something really cool happening here,” and I think we’re lucky because our show is able to deal with these things through humor, and humor is very disarming. So we’re able to approach certain topics without being in your face and also without being too over-the-edge… without trying to be forceful. I think a lot of things that are out right now… we push the bar so far, and I think our show sits in this very unique pocket where we’re able to deal with these things in a funny and a somewhat non-aggressive way.
I heard that the show did great, obviously, and I think that’s just people responding to needing something to go and watch when they don’t have to either think so much or when we can let our guards down a little bit and laugh.
TrunkSpace: We live in such divisive times, but especially with comedy, it’s a way to bridge the gap, to tear down those figurative walls and bring people together without them even realizing it.
McKinney: Absolutely, and if you approach somebody with humor, you can get into a conversation about anything before you know it, and our walls come down. Everybody has an opinion today. Nobody can tell you what anybody else’s opinion really is because you’re just worried about getting your own out or defending whatever your own is, and rightfully so – whatever it is you’re passionate about or whatever it is you may be defending. We’re only gonna get somewhere if we start listening. I think that’s the key point of our show… it’s communication.
TrunkSpace: Is it a scary time for somebody like yourself who is in the public spotlight to put yourself and your opinions out there, especially in social media where things can turn so quickly?
McKinney: I think it’s a double-edged sword in that I’ve had to realize that the one thing with, whatever celebrity truly is, is that you don’t really get a chance to make a mistake in the moment, if that makes sense. What you say, people are gonna take that, harp on it, pounce on it, and, in our country, people will forget three years later or whenever they feel like you’ve suffered your penance. Depending on what you’ve done, people will forgive you. The silver lining, I think, about the climate that’s going on right now is that nobody should be silent. Nobody should be afraid to speak. The fact that a lot of people who are speaking out against people that are speaking out… those points are played, because all the bullshit they’ve gotten away with for years is coming to light.
I’m 6’1 and I’m dark. I’m African American, so I deal with a lot of stuff on a daily basis, and I’ve had to deal with racism in this climate. That’s gone on for years. Even I had to take a step back with the issues that are going on with women in this country. I have to take a step back and be like, “Holy shit.” I was enlightened. Of course I was aware of gender equality, but when you really looked at it and started listening to women and what they had to go through, it boggled my mind. As it pertains to that, I can only listen before I have any type of opinion on that. I think the silver lining about this climate… it’s recognizing that we need to speak up. We need to address these issues, but we also have to be cognizant of the fact that we’re speaking up to find the solution. We’re not speaking up to create walls and divisiveness, and I think that’s where we are in the country right now. It’s like, “What do we do now? What do we do with all these issues?” We have to find that solution.
TrunkSpace: That silver lining makes a lot of sense and it’s one that musicians – artists – seem to be jumping on. There’s a sense that people are saying something, not just saying anything.
McKinney: Exactly. Yeah and, as African Americans, most of our exemplars are people who were prominent in the arts and sports because that’s all we had. So just getting back to that mindset, when you look at Kaepernick and you look at LeBron, and you look at all these people who are using their platforms to effect change, it’s the one thing about this whole time that’s going on… we should all pay attention to the people who have spoken up on certain sides of the arguments. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about how you feel, but whatever your stance is on anything, if that, in any way, has an infringement upon the mass populace, that’s wrong. We need to find a way, I think, to have some type of solution. Obviously, you can’t please everybody, but what can we do that’s gonna please most of the people or get equality started for now?
TrunkSpace: And that’s the beauty of something like, “The Neighborhood,” which is streaming into all of these different homes, and there are all of these people from different walks of life, different points of view, watching it, finding common ground in it and not even realizing it.
McKinney: Absolutely. 100 percent! And I’ve had people, already, that have texted me about just little cultural differences that have… like in the second episode where they’re discussing white people not using washcloths and black people using washcloths. We laugh at little things like that, but those little things are the steps into a bigger conversation. That, to me, is what’s important.
TrunkSpace: We spoke about the divisiveness in the country right now, but sometimes comedy can be divisive, too. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure in terms of comedic tone. You come from “Vice Principals,” and that’s, obviously, a much different type of humor than “The Neighborhood.” As an actor, how do you adjust performance and delivery in comedy for tone?
McKinney: I was telling somebody the other day, when I came off “Vice Principals,” obviously, being on cable, being on HBO, I was able to improv and you’re able to curse and you’re able to use different language. Actors, we love cursing. We love to do it. But I remembered when I left “Vice Principals,” and I came back to LA, I had an audition, like a network show, and I went in and I was like, “Oh, I’m a pro now. I got this.” I started improving and ad-libbing and cursing, and they looked at me like I had choked someone. I was like, “Oh, okay. Lesson learned. I can’t do that.” (Laughter) I had to realize with network, I have to trust the writers a little more and the overall point of what they’re trying to articulate.
I have young family members, young cousins and nephews, that can’t watch “Vice Principals” because of the language, but I can sit them down in front of “The Neighborhood,” and they can watch it and it can resonate with them. I think, as the actor, that the learning curve is trusting a little more the words that are coming from the writers, trusting your scene partners more, and trusting the overall point of what you’re trying to say within a sitcom.
TrunkSpace: Well, from a career standpoint, too, it must be so nice not to get pigeon-holed into one particular type of comedy because it certainly has happened to people in the past. To be to able to branch out and try all of these different avenues opens up the career in ways you can’t plan for.
McKinney: Absolutely. It’s funny because when I first came here… I’m a part of a theater company back home in Miami, and all we do is intense, dramatic work. I had an improv background, doing improv and guerrilla theater, and just whatever, so I was used to comedy, but my intent was always to come to LA and be, like, this serious actor first. Then comedy took off first and, for a second, I would tell my reps, “I don’t know, man. I don’t know if I wanna go through a sitcom. I don’t know if I wanna do this because I want to get into Art House, indie films.” I had to realize, it’s much easier for an actor to segue from comedy to drama because when people identify you with dramatic work, and they see you do comedy, it’s like, “Oh wait. I don’t know…” Whereas, they may see you be funny and then be dramatic, and they’re impressed by it.
TrunkSpace: Your career as a whole is a great example about how people can never really plan for things in this business, because from what we understand, you were heading back to Florida to pursue an entirely different career when “Vice Principals” happened, correct?
McKinney: That’s life in general, and me being a person of faith, I have to trust my faith. Yeah, I had moved back to Miami for about a year and half. I was gonna be a police officer, and I had taken all the preliminary tests so that you can get into an academy and I was just working at some law office and waiting to see if I could get into an academy. I came back to LA for what I thought was gonna be a weekend and things, sort of, unfolded. Within two months “Vice Principals” happened and I’m still here.
TrunkSpace: Which is a great lesson for people, to never turn your back on an opportunity or find an excuse not to do something that has the potential to change your life.
McKinney: 100 percent, brother. I would not be sitting here right now. I wouldn’t, and I’m glad I did. I’m glad I just trusted my faith and sometimes, you gotta get out of your own way and let these things unfold, and really just dive into ’em. I was listening to a pastor the other day, and he kept saying, “Just do something. Just do something. Just dive in and don’t give up. Just dive into it and you might be able to just figure it out as you go.”
I actually would’ve been content back in Miami, but I definitely wouldn’t have been as happy as I am now and as excited as I am now about the future.
“The Neighborhood” airs Mondays on CBS.