This was posted by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk on Sunday, January 22, 2017
Actor McKinley Belcher III returned earlier this month to his high school in Smyrna for the first time in many years to talk to drama students, many who were infants when he graduated in 2002.
Belcher, in Atlanta now shooting a recurring role on Netflix’s Jason Bateman drama “Ozark,” came to Campbell High School not just to talk about his career but also promote PBS’s “Mercy Street.” The Civil War era drama, in its second season and returning Sunday evening.
He didn’t become an actor until he attended Belmont University in Nashville so his memories of the auditorium stage was playing saxophone there, not spouting off Shakespeare. He was in marching band and track. “It’s weird being here,” he said before taking the stage.
Very little has changed physically, he said later: “I had fond memories of high school. It’s nice to see the students and reminds me how far I’ve come over 15 years.”
There was an awkward moment when one of the students asked if he was single. But otherwise, the questions were focused on acting tips and how to get into the business. Belcher spent many years trying to break into Hollywood, then pursued theater in New York City to bone up on his skills. That worked.
“Theater helps build your instrument,” he told the students. “Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep laid their foundation there. I felt that was important for me. I did my first off-Broadway play in 2013. That got me attention. That’s when I started doing more TV.”
Although “Mercy Street” is his first regular role on a TV show, it only tapes six episodes a year. That leaves plenty of time for other acting pursuits, which is how he landed a recurring role on “Ozark,” shot locally.
“You have to keep growing,” he said. “I have to keep auditioning. I’m shooting the Netflix show later today. I’m promoting ‘Mercy Street.’ I also have to find time to put on tape for another job today or tomorrow. I’m always juggling but constantly moving forward. Honor the opportunities you already have. My agent is always sending me stuff.”
In an interview after he met with the students, Belcher said he loves his character Samuel Diggs, who plays a free black man who aspires to be a doctor in Alexandria, Virginia in 1862.
“I’m grateful he is not a slave,” Belcher said. “I feel like that territory is well trodden. I love that he aspires to be something everyone tells him he cannot be, that it’s not practical. It relentlessly speaks to his character. I feel honored to tell a story not necessarily told. I’m excited as we get further into the war. We talk about colored troops, the contraband stories, the chaplains and commissioned officers. I’m excited to get to tell that.”
Contraband camps are recently freed slaves set up as refugees trying to figure out what free is. “They proclaim their freedom,” he said, “but they don’t know what to do with that freedom.”
Samuel’s love interest Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant) is an escaped slave. Season two, “he learns some things about her life he was not remotely aware of.”
“Mercy Street” will expand out season two beyond the hospital into the war fields.
As for “Ozark,” which is set to debut on Netflix later this year, this is Belcher’s first time he has ever done TV in Atlanta. “I get to work and visit family at the same time,” he said. “It’s nice shooting scenes in places you recognize in childhood.”
He said his character gets to interact with both Bateman and actress Laura Linney.
“Laura Linney is one of my heroes,” he said. “The first day I got to work with her. I was so excited. I got to really act, stretch and banter with someone at the top of their game.”
In “Ozark,” Bateman plays a Chicago accountant who moves from a city to the Ozarks and who must pay off a debt to a Mexican drug lord, with Linneey as his wife.
Belcher plays an FBI agent chasing them down.
“Mercy Street,” 8 p.m. Sundays, GPB