‘Swagger’ star Orlando Jones on being unceremoniously dumped from a show

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike that began earlier this month.

The Apple TV+ series “Swagger” follows a group of young basketball prospects and the ambitious, straight-laced athletic director at their swanky prep school is played by Orlando Jones. The character believes the path to success when you’re a Black person in a white environment often means suppressing one’s true emotions. “You swallow everything,” is how Jones put it. “Repress and play chess.”

The world of the show is one he’s very familiar with: “Every male in my family played professional sports,” said Jones, who was a high school basketball All-American himself. “My father played professional baseball and coached basketball for 30 years at the collegiate level.” So Jones has plenty of insight into this experience. “I literally grew up in it.”

Jones first came to notice as a cast member on “MADtv.” His credits since have included everything from the movie “Drumline” to the sitcom “Abbott Elementary” (as Gregory’s father) to the TV dramas “The Good Lord Bird,” and “Sleepy Hollow,” to name a few. He also has a considerable career behind the camera, as a writer on “A Different World” (where he first met “Swagger” creator Reggie Rock Bythewood) “Roc” and “The Sinbad Show.”

When asked about a worst moment in his career, Jones talked about his experience on the Starz series “American Gods,” adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel, and the unraveling of his time on the show. The series was notable for its drama behind the scenes, cycling through different showrunners for each of its three seasons, which ran from 2017 to 2021.

My worst moment …

“On the show, I played Mr. Nancy. Now, some background: When I was a little kid, my grandmother used to read Anansi stories to me about this trickster god. I always knew Anansi to be the god that helped people survive the Middle Passage. He is the god of all stories and he is the holder of all the world’s stories and he uses that to his benefit, and that’s where the trickster part comes in. That’s who Mr. Nancy is.

“In the first season, I was in only two scenes: One that takes place on a slave ship in the second episode where I have this big monologue, and then a scene in the finale. That was it.

“But when the show came out, that scene on the slave ship became a centerpiece in all of the marketing, and it became a huge part of the press. I wasn’t a regular character on the show at that point, so I had no expectation that I would be asked to do the insane amount of publicity for our show. But I was. And I did it.

“There was a 19-month hiatus between Season 1 and Season 2 and, by that point, the two people who had brought me into the show, (the original creators) Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, were suddenly gone. So I felt a tremendous amount of pressure in Season 2 because my writing gurus were gone and it was daunting because it was clear that there was no one there to write my character.

“Now the next bizarre component happens. Neil Gaiman walks up to me and says, ‘We don’t have a character bible for your character, I’d like for you to write one.’ I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan and I’ve been in the Writers Guild for 35 years and have a long list of writing credits myself, so I appreciated his acknowledgment of that.

“But suddenly I had the pressure of, I had not planned on being a writer and producer on the show — I had been hired as an actor — and now they wanted me to write, too. Which I did for Season 2 and it was well-received.

“During the offseason, all of our communication was about how they would be redoing my deal for me to be a writer, producer and actor in Season 3, based on the work I did in Season 2 as a writer, producer and actor. So I was being told that I absolutely would be there for Season 3.

“And then suddenly I was fired.

“It was eight days before I was supposed to report to work, and I got a phone call from Starz, which was odd because I didn’t work for Starz, I worked for Fremantle (the production company). And they said, ‘We’re not picking up your option.’ What I was hearing from other people was that the new showrunner didn’t like the character.

“But I couldn’t get released from my contract. It is customary that they send you a release — that’s what your agent and manager can use to prove that you’re available and no one’s going to get sued — but Fremantle would not give me a release letter (nor was the decision publicly announced). And that kept me out of work for months. I’d been released supposedly, but they wouldn’t write me that letter, and without it, I couldn’t be hired by anybody.

“This was in September. September passes. October passes. November passes. Now we’re in December and I still can’t get a release and I can’t pursue other jobs. I’m stuck. So I made a little one-minute video saying I was fired from ‘American Gods,’ don’t let these people tell you they love Mr. Nancy, they don’t. I did that to clear the road for me to go to work in January.

“And that’s when everything blew up (laughs). Mr. Nancy was one of the most popular characters on the show, so announcing that I wasn’t going to be there was a big deal to the fans and obviously a big deal in the press. And remember, this was a show already wrapped up in turmoil.

“My thing was: Why are you selling the anticipation that I will be there for Season 3 if you won’t tell anybody that you fired me? I needed to let people know I wasn’t going to be on the show and free myself from ‘American Gods.’ I did eventually get a release letter and I believe it was just after the video.

“I don’t regret the character. I don’t regret the show. I don’t even regret the experience.”

What was going through Jones’ mind as this was happening?

“I was asking myself: Orlando, if you had to do it all over again, what should you have done differently? And I couldn’t figure out what move I could have made that would have changed anything. So that was a tough, low point for me.

“It was odd because I did my job to the best of my ability, and everybody said it was incredible — but that wasn’t good enough. So I guess that means I’m not good enough. I had a real crisis of faith in myself.

“One of the ways I got over that was getting a phone call from Ethan Hawke and he said, ‘I saw Mr. Nancy and what you did with that was brilliant. I’m doing ‘The Good Lord Bird’ and I want you to come do it with me.’ And I got a lot of phone calls from other friends. Gabrielle Union. Laurence Fishburne. A community of people I did not expect reached out and reaffirmed my faith in myself and my talent.”

The takeaway …

“It is important, when you can, to not align yourself with producers who do not value or care — on any level — about the players or the content itself. Those types of producers tend to create extremely toxic workplaces. Doesn’t matter how much money they offer you. So if you can avoid it, don’t go down that road.

“I just decided, I don’t want to do that anymore. I have the resume to not have to do that.”

Nina Metz is a TV and film critic at the Chicago Tribune, where she writes a regular series, “My Worst Moment.” Actors recall their worst moments and how their careers were shaped by them.

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