By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Kerwin Thompson met with The OBSERVER at the Grange Restaurant and Bar inside the Citizen Hotel. Thompson lives in Sacramento, but Hollywood is calling. He’s currently starring in a new hybrid competition series, “The Quest” on Disney+. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

After cutting his teeth in stage productions and small television roles, area actor Kerwin Thompson is coming for the number one spot.

“Where we’re going, the goal is leading man status,” Thompson said.

He’s even given himself the title on his social media platforms.

“I named myself ‘The Leading Man’ to speak that out into existence and now it’s coming to fruition.”  

Thompson stars in a new show, “The Quest,” which debuted on Disney+ on May 11. He describes it as a fully immersive adventure competition show.

“If you take ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Amazing Race’ and you put them together, that’s ‘The Quest,’” Thompson said.

The OBSERVER sat down with the actor at the Citizen Hotel in downtown Sacramento for a conversation about the new series, his Hollywood goals, and race and representation in the entertainment business. 

Thompson first took the stage at age 5 and has appeared in productions such as “Two Trains Running,” “Newsies” and “A Lesson Before Dying.” He recently was featured in an episode of HBO Max’s “Southside” and in ads as the face and voice of the University of Alabama Birmingham’s 2021-22 men’s basketball season. He looks forward to doing more television and feature films.

“I want to have the type of career where whatever you see me doing, it’s nothing like the last thing you saw me do,” Thompson said. “I’m a chameleon and I like to change it up.”

Thompson respects veteran actor Denzel Washington’s breadth of work and counts Jeffrey Wright (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Angels In America”) Johnny Depp (“Blow,” “Chocolat”) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Doubt,” “The Master”) as his acting heroes. 

“Those guys, they’re transformers. I study all the leading men … Kevin Costner is getting $500,000 per episode right now for ‘Yellowstone.’ I want to be on that level. Twenty million (dollars) a picture – that level.”

It’s a lofty goal, but Thompson says he’s willing to put in the work.

Getting Into Character

Actors are often asked how and why they chose particular roles. Sometimes it’s the size of the check. Sometimes it’s the opportunity to stretch and show people what they can do.

In “The Quest,” Thompson plays King Silas, an optimistic ruler with a bleeding heart.

“The opportunity to play royalty, as a Black man, that was it for me,” Thompson said.” “I saw the breakdown for the character and it was open to any ethnicity.”

Many popular shows now feature colorblind casting. Fans can see Black people in period dramas like “The Witcher,” “Cursed,” “The Wheel of Time” and Shonda Rhimes’ series, “Bridgerton.”

“What y’all are going to see in ‘The Quest,’ it’s never been done before from the point of blind casting, you’ve got royals of every ethnicity. You’ve got goddesses of every ethnicity and it’s a beautiful thing,” Thompson said.

“Nothing happens in a vacuum,” he continued. “I think this is just a gradual progression of all the pushing that we’ve been doing over the last 100-200 years. I think it’s a spinoff of ‘Oscars So White.’ I think it’s a spinoff of Black Lives Matter – just these constant pushes, these constant movements that we do. They gain traction and eventually enough eyes get open to start making the change that we want to see.”

Money also plays a role, he admits.

“You always follow the green. When producers realize that you can make money when you include everybody and you can make more money when you include everybody, then I think the blind casting becomes even more attractive,” he said.

“The Quest” is a hybrid reality-competition series that is both scripted and unscripted. Thompson said he surprised himself with his ability to adlib and roll with the action that unfolded.

Real teenagers get dropped into a mystical world of ancient kingdoms, goblins and sorcerers. And yes, there’s a Black contestant going for the win.

“She’s half Black, half Japanese, with beautiful, beautiful hair,” Thompson said of the contestant and her natural hairstyle. “I remember being so happy that they didn’t try to tame her hair. They let her rock it the way she wanted to rock it and it was beautiful and magnificent.

“They dropped these real life kids into this adventure and whenever they see us, we’re always in character. We never break character. We keep that fantasy and that immersion alive for them as they’re going through these competitions, helping us to save our kingdom from the evil sorceress. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Thompson is definitely a fan of the genre.

“What was always disappointing to me though was that in everything medieval, you never saw any Black people, except for Morgan Freeman with Kevin Costner in ‘Robin Hood,’ but even then he’s a sidekick,” Thompson said. “Then they redid ‘Robin Hood’ recently, they had Jamie Foxx being the sidekick to the dude from ‘The Kingsman.’”

It was rare to see Black characters, let alone occupying thrones. Thompson sees the bigger picture of being handed the keys to the kingdom.

Kerwin Thompson has acted since age 5 and says the opportunity to play and model royalty for children of color sold him on the new show. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

“When I got cast as King Silius, I was very excited for myself and for my career, but I also was very aware of the awesome responsibility that was put on my shoulders to do it. To have all these Black and Brown children looking up at me and for the first time whenever they see a medieval king, they see a Black man,” he said. “That’s life-changing.”

He went to the theater multiple times to see Chadwick Boseman play King T’Challa in “Black Panther.” 

“I like Sean Connery as King Arthur, Richard Gere playing Lancelot and that’s going way back, but I was always yearning to see us because I know we are the original man. There’s no place on this earth that we haven’t been, so anytime I see a story that excludes us, I take it personally because I think that they’re purposely excluding us, because we’re everywhere. So when ‘The Quest’ made a conscious effort to include us, and not just in a domestic capacity, but in a royal capacity, I was all in for that.”

A huge Darth Vader fan, Thompson also respects James Earl Jones, the veteran Black actor who voiced the epic villain. Jones also played King Jaffe Joffer in “Coming To America” and again joined his queen, the late Madge Sinclair, in “The Lion King,” voicing Simba’s parents, King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi.

“His voice and his majesty are iconic,” Thompson said. “And he’s still doing it. The voice is still fantastic and that comes from discipline. He takes care of his voice and his personality and I admire that as an artist.”

Chasing The Dream

Thompson moved to Sacramento from Atlanta in March 2020, just as the coronavirus was shutting down things and making cross-country travel difficult. He relocated to the capital city after marrying his wife, Brandi Richard Thompson, who works for FEMA. His wife also acts as his publicist, in a perfect example of teamwork making the dream work.

The days of driving Uber to support himself are over. Thompson is determined to make it despite not living in an entertainment hub. “Nobody was discouraging me,” he said. “They were like, ‘Leave, man. Go chase your dreams.’

“It’s not easy at all, but I’m doing it. That uplifts people and that’s rewarding in and of itself.”

When Thompson isn’t starring as the leading man at home, where he’s catching his wife up on all the “Star Wars,” movies, he’s traveling to Los Angeles and Atlanta for work.

“A lot of it is networking. A lot of it is just showing up in places, meeting people and pressing flesh,” he said. “In the meantime, continuing to do good work, whether you’re paid for it or not. Just continuing to put content out there so people can see you; the more eyes that are on you, the more people want to continue to see you and your career continues to build.”

In a rejection-based business, Thompson has developed thick skin.

“We hear so many nos and it’s demoralizing. you get dejected, but you have to practice self care,” he said. “You got to pray a lot. You have to have a support system.”

Thompson is hungry and has a lot on his plate. He’ll return to Atlanta soon to film some independent projects and a feature film. He’s also set to produce a short film, a psychological thriller steeped in Gullah-Geechee culture. Thompson also plans to add nonfiction to his credits with a self-help book that teaches readers how to cope with the loss of a loved one.

“Stay tuned,” Thompson said.