“It’s Not Just About Me”: An Interview with Mo McRae

An up-and-coming renaissance man, Mo McRae works as an actor, producer, director and screenwriter. He is familiar to many film and TV fans thanks to a prominent role in Gridiron Gang and memorable guest spots on dramas such as Southland, CSI: NY and Detroit 1-8-7. He’ll have a role in Showtime’s up-coming drama Ray Donovan and has also wrapped filming on Lee Daniels’s newest film, The Butler. He’s been busy producing and directing his own pilot project, too. Of course, many TV viewers are now familiar with the young actor thanks to his role on the fifth season of the acclaimed biker drama Sons of Anarchy.

Embracing Anarchy

On SOA McRae plays Tyler, the newest leader of the One Niners and a man of few words. Tyler is decidedly different from Laroy, the charismatic, long-time leader of the One Niners who was killed early in the fifth season. When asked about how he approaches playing the moody gang leader, the actor says, “I try to humanize him and not make him a person I would murder if I was a gang member.” It is perhaps the sensitivity to his character that has made McRae’s appearances throughout the season so impressive. His work to communicate Tyler’s apprehensions about leading the gang—especially under the direction of crime kingpin Damon Pope—marks a refreshing turn from the tired old trope of the heartless, sociopathic gangbanger so often seen on crime dramas.

The criminal-gangbanger trope is one with which McRae is intimately familiar. Throughout his career, he’s been tapped to guest star on crime-oriented shows as a young criminal. Talking about how he landed those roles, McRae says that

It’s something that just organically happened, it wasn’t the aim. But I think in the environment that I grew up in and at times aesthetically I’ve been able to find a really organic authenticity to bring to those roles. It also has to do with—I don’t like to get into this too much, but it is the truth—for the age range I was at the time, young African-American males, that’s what a lot of the roles were.

In playing such roles, McRae has frequently appeared in shows that carry a certain emotional weight. He says that “earlier in my career and sometimes even now, I am affected by what goes on with the work thing and the characters but I really try hard to kind of leave the characters on set, to leave that environment there because…it’s so dark.” The fifth season of SOA has been one of the darkest, with fan-favorite character Opie (played by Ryan Hurst) killed in a brutal prison beating. “You don’t see it often, but those guys are deeply affected. They formed true bonds with each other. They worked in that artistic atmosphere,” says McRae of how that particular plot twist affected the mood on the SOA set.

When I asked McRae about the development of his character this season, he talked about the intricacies built into the series, remarking that

Kurt Sutter does such a great job creating so many layers and levels in every scene and in each episode and then these characters’ lives. I don’t think it’s one dimensional. For me, with playing Tyler, there’s duties as a leader that I have to get into and orchestrate. You know, in the last episode I was in, we decided to work with the Mayans and SAMCRO to move drugs in Oakland and it’s all being orchestrated by Pope’s character. So there’s those things because his basic need, you know, number one, is survival.

Musing about the experience of playing Tyler, who is driven by the simple need to survive, McRae asks “how do I survive after seeing what happened to Laroy, seeing what happened to the other guy that arrived after Laroy that was murdered in front of me while playing a true friend of mine?”

How this basic imperative to survive drives character and development has long been explored on SOA. The fifth season has proved to be the grittiest and emotionally charged in the series thus far. The fate of Tyler is largely unknown to viewers — McRae said that fans often stop him on the street to praise his performance and ask if he’ll survive the season. Of course, as has been the tradition with SOA actors, he just won’t tell. When asked if the show’s fans should be more scared of former Sons president Clay Morrow or crime boss Damon Pope, McRae did indulge the question a bit. “I really don’t know, but if I were to take a stab at it…they’re both very dangerous, they’re very similar. They’re very, very similar because you don’t really know how far they’ll go. There’s kind of no limits.”

Despite the dark nature of the show, McRae says that on-set “people are cracking jokes. You share a donut with somebody and then you go in a scene and you hate them, then you cut and you go back to cracking jokes and talking about motorcycles or whatever.” The show has provided great exposure for the actor, who is well received by fans despite the relatively small role that he plays. He said that his own work is inspired by the gritty turns made by actors like Kelsey Grammer (from Frasier to Boss) and Brian Cranston (from Malcolm in the Middle to Breaking Bad). And, of course, he had something to say about SOA‘s own Katey Sagal: “From Peg Bundy to Gemma…that leap is incredible.”

The Motivated and the Motivating

Yet for McRae, the work he does both on screen and behind the scenes is about more than just gaining fame and fortune. At the root of his personal philosophy is the belief that it is important to be “humble enough to believe in something greater than myself.” Via his Twitter account (@TheRealMoMcRae), the actor makes a point of offering humorous and often uplifting messages to his fans. A passionate advocate for underserved youth, he says that he is blessed to be in a position where he can be a positive force for kids, too.

You have to be able to have the ability to overcome–and resiliency is key. So for the underserved youth, one thing that I’m big on is bringing self-confidence and resilience. And when you get those things, then you can go out and improve yourself with education and understanding the arts and not being afraid to travel outside the little parameters that are kind of boxed in in those inner cities

It’s not just about me…it’s about that kid somewhere in South Central, or that kid in the backwoods of Louisiana or residing in a trailer park somewhere that starts off with these really humble beginnings. And it’s important for them to know that you can start there and end up wherever you want to.

As a boy growing up in South Central Los Angeles, McRae experienced bullying but believes that the resiliency he learned during his childhood has been crucial to his success as an adult. He happily notes that he loves biographies and is a person that “YouTubes commencement speeches and things like that.” Mixing his own positive attitude with an intuitive compassion for his character has allowed McRae to stand out as Tyler on Sons of Anarchy. His versatility and ability to look beyond the surface of even straightforward-seeming characters will no doubt serve him well as he continues on his journey as a passionate screenwriter, producer, actor and director.