Morris Chestnut Reflects on Surviving and Thriving Three Decades in the Business: ‘In Hollywood, There’s No Blueprint’

Morris Chestnut doesn’t have a “secret” to success, per se, but there is one thing he wishes he’d done when he started working in the industry three decades ago: study.

“If I knew when I was first starting out that I would still be here, I would have focused more on the craft — I would have studied like crazy in the beginning,” he tells Variety. “When I got into this, I got a big break early. I was always trying to look for the next job. But I always ask young actors, ‘What’s your background? Did you take any classes?’ That’s what I tell them most of the time: Study and get the foundation because once you get that, you’ll always be around and you’ll always have opportunities. When you do get that big break, you’re ready for it. When I got that break, I definitely wasn’t ready.”

That big break came in John Singleton’s 1991 film “Boyz n the Hood,” in which Chestnut starred alongside Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Regina King and Nia Long.

However, his first role — the part that got him his SAG-AFTRA card — was one year before. He starred in 1990’s “Freddy’s Nightmare,” a horror anthology series that was part of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise. When reflecting on the memorable moments throughout his career, he can’t leave that out.

“It wasn’t a weekly show. It was one of those shows that come on at 2 o’clock in the morning on random channels,” he says. “After it aired, I was at a local play and a woman came up to me. It was my very first time being recognized. I was like, ‘You’re up that late watching the show?’ It was really just one of those moments where I was like, ‘Wow, I think I can do this.’”

Now, Chestnut has starred in dozens of films and movies, and on March 23, will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“For lawyers, you go to undergrad, law school and take the bar. Doctors have a very specific route to become a doctor,” Chestnut says. “In Hollywood, there’s no blueprint. It just doesn’t work like that. My whole driving thought was, ‘Continue to work.’ That is what I want to do: work.”

He learned how to do better work when playing football player Ricky Baker in “Boyz n the Hood,” a project he can’t discuss without noting how honored he feels every day to have had the chance to work with Singleton, who died in 2019. While on set of the movie, Chestnut discovered the importance of listening.

“I really watch people and I ask a lot of questions. With Cuba, it was a situation where he had been working in the industry for a long time. I think he had a holding deal. He had some experience. I was asking him a lot of questions at that time, and he was telling me a few things about the nature of the industry,” says Chestnut. “I never really had a mentor, someone who says, ‘You should do this. You shouldn’t do that.’ There would be people I would learn from by watching, seeing how other people behaved on set. I was very observant.”

Gooding recalls making memories with Chestnut during filming, explaining that it was easy to see how determined his co-star was.

“Morris and I were pups on that set,” Gooding tells Variety. “The world of film seemed like all there was to live for, and we both only ever wanted to please John. We even walked along a backyard wall where Doberman Pinschers were barking at us like crazy. If Morris or I fell, we would have been mauled. However, we got the shot and didn’t think twice because we pleased our director.”

He adds, “That sums up Morris’ passion to a T.”

The dedication was always there. In fact, that drive to be an actor is the reason he’s still acting today. Born in Cerritos, Calif., Chestnut’s first job wasn’t in showbiz but instead as a bank teller, a position he held for many years.

“I thought I was going to have a finance career. I was working at the bank, and I asked my manager for some time off for an audition. She came back about a week later, asking, ‘Hey, did you ever get that part?’ I was like, ‘No, I didn’t get it.’ She was like, ‘Listen, when the acting thing is over for you, we’d always love to have to here,’” he says. “She was just trying to be nice, but it was one of the things that motivated me. It was good to know that I would have had opportunities there, but it really motivated me to continue acting.”

It wasn’t easy — and at one point, he couldn’t land a role in a commercial, and he considered changing careers. “I could never get a commercial to save my life,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was tough. It crossed my mind that maybe, I just need to focus on something else.”

If Morris had thrown in the towel with acting, he likely would have continued pursuing a degree in finance and work in banking. “I would have been somewhere in finance in the beginning, because that was my background, that’s what I felt comfortable with.”

However, he couldn’t sit with the fact that he’d constantly be reminded that he could have been a star.

“At one point, I said to myself, ‘They’re going to be making movies for the rest of my life. They’re going to be making TV shows for the rest of my life.’ I don’t want to turn on the TV or go to a movie and say, ‘I shoulda, woulda, coulda,’” Chestnut says. “I didn’t want to be reminded of the fact that I quit and didn’t give it my all.”

So he kept going — despite losing out on commercials. Little did he know, that wouldn’t matter. In 1999, he landed “The Best Man,” alongside Taye Diggs and Nia Long, a role that earned him an NAACP Image Award nomination. For the 2013 sequel, Chestnut worked with famous trainer Obi Obadike to get back in shape for the role. He enjoyed the journey so much that the pair co-authored a health and fitness book, “The Cut,” which was published in 2017.

In 2021, “The Best Man: The Final Chapters” was announced as a 10-episode Peacock series.

Chestnut has done a plethora of genres in both films and on television. He was part of the main cast in 1992’s “Out All Night,” 2009’s “V,” 2013’s “Nurse Jackie” and 2014’s “Legends.” In 2015, he led Fox’s “Rosewood,” which aired for two seasons on Fox. More recently, he led “The Enemy Within” in 2019 and joined the cast of Fox’s “Our Kind of People,” which wrapped its debut season in January. Now, he hopes to “explore the action genre more,” while continuing to work on romantic comedies, a genre that, he notes, is making a resurgence.

Although he has a specific role he’s hoping to play soon, he also plans to step behind the camera. “I have a couple of concepts and ideas. There’s one, I can’t say it’s a dream role, but it’s just a great project. I can’t speak too much on it because I’m hoping to talk to people about it. But honestly, I also want to produce projects that I’m not in. There’s a lot of talent out there. Being in an industry a long time and seeing what I’ve seen, I think that I would be perfect mentoring someone and bringing someone along.”

WHAT: Morris Chestnut receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. March 23
WHERE: 6353 Hollywood Blvd.

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