Years ago, if you told Marque Richardson that one day he’d be working alongside Delroy Lindo and playing Kerry Washington’s love interest, he’d be in utter disbelief.
“I never, in my life, thought that this day was even possible,” Richardson said. “Let alone one of them, let alone two of them, let alone being in the same space and sharing the same energy with both of them.”
Working with what he calls his “Mount Rushmore of Black actors,” Richardson tried not to fixate on the star power surrounding him — “because if I did, I would lose my mind,” he said. Instead, he paid attention to the task at hand.
In 2017, Richardson captured our hearts as headstrong firebrand Reggie Green in Netflix’s “Dear White People.” Now the 37-year-old actor stars in “UnPrisoned,” a Hulu dramedy that follows Paige Renee Alexander (Kerry Washington), a single mother and licensed marriage and family therapist, as she reunites with her father, Edwin (Delroy Lindo), following his 17-year prison sentence.
Richardson portrays Malcolm “Mal” Kennedy, Edwin’s criminal justice social caseworker. Though Mal is only an auxiliary character at first, he eventually finds himself involved in the family’s affairs in more ways than one.
Set in Minneapolis, the story chronicles Paige’s journey to heal old parental wounds while Edwin grapples with reacclimating to modern society and becomes a father figure to his teenage grandson. The eight-episode first season — inspired by series creator Tracy McMillan’s own experiences with her formerly incarcerated father and the foster care system — serves as a form of catharsis through comedy.
Richardson talked to HuffPost about working alongside Washington and Lindo, his personal connection to the show and the criminal justice system, and what “UnPrisoned” has taught him about forgiveness and Black men’s vulnerability.
What drew you to the project?
“UnPrisoned” came about a year and a half after we wrapped the last season of “Dear White People.” I just wanted to work with people that I loved, respected and admired. When the project came across my desk, I saw Tracy McMillan, [showrunner] Yvette Lee Bowser — who I had worked with for three seasons on “Dear White People” — Kerry Washington and Delroy Lindo. I was like, “Wow, could I actually do this? Could I do this?” This checked off everything on my list. I’ve respected Kerry and Delroy all my life, and I really loved what the story had to say. The content was important to me.
Tell me what it was like meeting Kerry and Delroy on set. I know your wife, Tiffany Boone, played a younger Kerry Washington (Young Mia) in “Little Fires Everywhere,” so it’s almost like a full-circle moment.
It’s funny because my wife was like, “So when you get to work, just don’t be yourself. Don’t open your mouth until like, Episode Three.” Of course, on day one, I get to work and I open my mouth. Between one of the takes, it’s myself, Kerry and Delroy — and I stop halfway through. I’m like, “Look, I cannot pretend that this is not happening right now. And I’m freaking out.” I just started rambling and telling them how much they mean to me as artists, as businesspeople, as Black people, and how much I respect them. Delroy is like, “God bless you, brother.” Kerry is like, “We have time. We have so much time! It’s OK!”
To their credit, they were just so open, gracious and giving to anything that I asked. I mean, it was like a master class for me in grad school. I’m asking them every single thing. I wanted to know how they do what they do, at the level that they do it, in this crazy-ass world, and still keep some sense of sanity, family, respect and non-jadedness for the craft and business. They welcomed me with open arms, so I’m forever grateful for them and this experience.
Is there a particular piece of advice that Delroy or Kerry gave you that has resonated?
There’s one specific thing that Kerry said. I asked, “How do you do this, go home to your family and still have energy for home life with everything that you do?” She’s like, “One, you have no idea how resilient you are until you have to be. And two, get a staff.” I’m like, I ain’t got no Kerry Washington-staff-money, so what am I gonna do today? But that’s the thing that sticks out to me the most in terms of the conversations.
What was it like preparing for the role of Mal after playing Reggie on “Dear White People”? Mal is a mature, secure and emotionally intelligent social worker mentoring a formerly incarcerated elder, whereas Reggie was this computer-science student activist searching for his sense of self and a Black male role model at an Ivy League institution.
It was an exciting shift. It was something different for me. Mal is technically a criminal justice social caseworker. He loves his work, he’s passionate about it and he roots for his clients. He has a special connection with Edwin, played by Delroy Lindo, of course, and he’s really just rooting for him. Then, that develops into what I call this love triangle-ish situation with Mal, Edwin and Paige. I mean, he’s this compassionate, empathetic person who really has this level of forgiveness that was beyond myself at that moment. He really meets people where they are.
The greatest thing that I’ve learned from Malcolm and from creating this character was, he came in a moment in my life where he was somebody who I didn’t know that I needed to be, just in regards to some personal shit that I was going through.
Again, that level of forgiveness, compassion and meeting people where they are was something that I needed to do, and to learn, in order to get through what I was going through. In preparation, [Mal] was a grounding force for me. He was a rock for Edwin and Paige, and I grounded him in nature. So, I wore a lot of earth tones in my wardrobe and scents like lavender or rose. Even in my trailer, I had a lot of green and brown and whatnot.
I also interviewed a bunch of different people. A particular situation that stands out in my mind is one of my best friends ― her and her father are basically in the same situation as Paige and Edwin. So we just went to El Torito, got some margaritas, got some tacos, and they really let me dive in and ask all the questions. I feel so privileged just to watch the nuances, the delicate moments, the complexities and the level of compassion that she had to have in order to forgive her father. It’s a complex situation.
With regards to forgiveness, you alluded to how you had to access a part of yourself that wasn’t there before. Do you want to describe what you were going through in that season of life?
That parent-and-offspring connection. I just had to forgive myself and forgive my father for some things that had happened. To keep that chain — that connection and that relationship between a son and father — is very important. Even though at times I thought, “This is it,” I wasn’t willing to throw it away, because that connection is important for the future and future generations of my family. It was just a level of understanding and empathy that I decided to come to in the relationship with my father, and not necessarily agree with things that happened, but really realize that we’re all human. We’re all doing our best. It was about [developing] a level of understanding and acceptance for what happened, but still, just as with Mal, maintain my boundaries. Learn how to be strong in my yeses, and also strong in my noes.
What was it like talking to your peer and her formerly incarcerated father firsthand, seeing the real effects of the carceral system? How did that make you feel, and possibly connect you to the broader cause of restorative justice?
What was so interesting was that she shot a docu-short of the experience of her father coming back home. This was at least 12 years ago, so I’ve been privy to the experience, but that particular moment at El Torito [allowed us to] further dive into what that experience is like, and just the complexity of it. It made me feel like we need to talk about the lifelong consequences and effects that incarceration has on, like, Black and brown families, especially in our community. It really humanized it more for me. With the show presenting these topics in a way that is funny, serious, provocative, sexy and complex, I hope that viewers will really see the humanity of these situations, relate more and move forward with action that could help effect change for formerly incarcerated people.
I feel like a lot of the more recent projects that I’ve done have been in this realm of having something to say, having some sort of activism attached to the art, which I, as Marque, personally believe in. I think art can and should be activism. This project feels aligned with what I’m up to. I’m still excited to see what unfolds; I am interested in projects that don’t have to say something, but these are the projects that I’m attracted to. “UnPrisoned” definitely seems aligned with what I’m up to, even the service work that I’m up to.
Now, I’m working with an organization called Juvenile Law Center, which is a national organization based in Philadelphia that advocates for the rights of children in the welfare and justice system. That partnership came along right after I finished wrapping “UnPrisoned,” but allegedly, they weren’t aware of what I was up to. The universe was kind of like, “Here you go.” I just followed my gut, and I’m really looking forward to helping shine a light on what they’re up to and doing what I can to serve their mission.
How do you think your character Mal shifts the way Black men and Black male characters are perceived on screen?
It’s interesting, because he is one of the most, if not the most, secure character on the show. His attachment style is secure attachment, mostly. In terms of the depiction, it was my goal to really create a whole human being. I hope people get whatever they get from it, but I know what I got from it is I can be vulnerable, I can be honest about how I feel, I can be grounded in my feelings and in my awareness, and I can accept more.
Vulnerability is a strength. I know especially for Black people, people of color, and Black men, specifically, vulnerability is not something that we’re taught is our power. But through Malcolm and through a lot of new projects that I just continue to do, it’s like, “Oh! It really is a strength. It really is a superpower.” I hope people can see that.
Be it “attachment styles” or other behavioral jargon, is there something that you learned from reading the script?
Absolutely. I mean, it’s funny, I was talking to my therapist about attachment styles right before this project came on. They were like, “Eh, you’re probably in the avoidant-dismissive category,” and I was like, “Wait, what do you mean?!” What I did learn is what a securely attached person is, and that I wasn’t as secure as I thought I’d been my whole life.
What do you hope people glean from this series, and how do you hope that it impacts people?
I hope people are entertained. I hope people have a good time. The show just says so much to me. I mean, it’s multigenerational, it’s provocative, it’s a good time, but it also speaks truths. There’s a line that Paige’s character says in, maybe, the first episode: “The word ‘parent’ and ‘partner’ are one letter off.” I remember seeing it and that hit me, then being at the screening, the whole audience was like, “Ooooh, shit.” I hope people can take something, whatever it is, that helps them progress in their personal growth and in their personal freedom. This show says so much that I feel it’s not right for me to constrict it down to one thing. I hope they get unprisoned.
I hope to do a lot of things. No more nice guys for a while. I want to do some crazy shit, some weird shit. I’m writing some things; I’m producing some things. There’s a project that I have in some festivals right now with my team, called “That’s Our Time.” It’s a short film, and we’re developing that as a feature right now. Hopefully, y’all will see that coming soon.