Kevin Daniels Talks Leading Role Debut in Broadway’s ‘Magic/Bird’ (Exclusive)

Kevin Daniels in Broadway's 'Magic Bird'

Joan Marcus

The Great White Way is opening its doors (and stages) to black lead actors in several new productions.

Eric Simonson’s “Magic/Bird” is the latest Broadway play taking theatergoers by storm with a diverse cast.

Kevin Daniels stars as NBA legend Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson in a biographical drama about the friendship and legendary rivalry with fellow NBA great Larry Bird.

Blackactors.net recently sat down with the actor to discuss his new role and the challenges that come along with playing an iconic figure on Broadway.

Black Actors: Congratulations on your new play, Kevin! How are you dealing with all of the pressure that comes with Broadway stardom?

Kevin Daniels: Our director [Thomas Kail] has been really great at alleviating us of all the pressure that comes from taking on a project like this. Because it’s all about the story. We trust the story that we are telling. There’s a great ensemble of actors and we just come in and start jelling. We just listen to each other and respond. Everything else takes care of itself.

What attracted you to theater and how’d you land this role?

KD: I was trained in theater. I got accepted into Juilliard in 1994. I was 17 years-old and I did a lot of theater back then. I’ve been in LA for the past 10 years, and I wanted to do something else. I wanted to get back on the ball and it kind of made itself available. My agents sent me a script that they thought I would fit. I recorded tapes that were sent to them. I just thought there was no way they would let me play Magic Johnson. I thought it was for one of the other roles or something. They wanted me to fly out and I was like, “Dude, I’m not going to fly out for something I’m not gon’ get!” I flew out to meet with the director, but I was kicking and screaming the entire way there. The producers held me there for a full day in auditions. I got a phone call the next day and was offered the job.

Tell me about your experience at Juilliard.

KD: I grew up in Texas and I attended a college fair down there. Juilliard had a post card that I sent in. After I received an application and sent it in, I flew out to New York City to audition. Had I known of the school’s reputation at the time, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in. Thank God I didn’t know! I did a bunch of monologues and was accepted. I had a blast! I learned so much, and met so many people. I credit those years for my entire career.

What’s the backstory to “Magic/Bird?” Tell me more about your role in the play.

KD: I play Magic Johnson. It’s story about the rivalry turned friendship between Magic and Larry Bird. It’s a visual experience that spans from 1979 to 1992. It takes you throughout the years as it plays incredible archive footage on large television screens. You get tidbits on the backstory throughout the show. What I found most exciting about it was the way the story creeps up on you unexpectedly as they become such good friends. It’s a human story about two men who used each other to better themselves.

It’s rare for a black actor to headline a Broadway play, but we’re seeing it more and more each season. Did you ever think you would actually make it to this point in your career? Ever considered giving up?

KD: I was in it for the long haul. I’ve always known that it wasn’t going to be easy. I’ve always known there would be obstacles I would face as a black actor. There are fewer parts that mainstream theater or Hollywood will allow for us. You’ve got this army of talented black actors who are swarming around, looking for that part or for a way in. But you just have to stick with your dreams and stick with your training–just stick with it! I’ve had the opportunity to work with John Travolta, Tyler Perry, Vanessa Williams and others. Opportunities are going to come if you just keep your head in the game. I say “yes” to everything. Because you never know what young writer or producer you meet now might someday become some major mogul years down the line.

What has been your most significant role so far?

Kevin Daniels and Vanessa Williams in ‘Then Came Love’ © 2007 Warner Home Video

KD: I did this movie with Vanessa Williams called ‘And Then Came Love,’ which Warner Brothers ended up picking up. It was with Vanessa, Eartha Kitt, Ben Vereen, and Michael Boatman. I was the young romantic lead in that film. It was the biggest thing I did at the time. It was an amazing experience. And a lot of people loved the movie–and a lot of people really did not [laughs]. It was great and Vanessa just came to the show last week and brought some flowers. I’ve been really fortunate and blessed in my career. I also did a television pilot years and years ago called “I’m With Stupid.” I thought that was going to be my big break, but the show didn’t end up moving forward. It was based on a British show and bought over by the same people who brought “The Office.” I went to Greece after we shot the pilot, and when I came back they told me Jeff Zucker wasn’t picking up any new comedies that year. I knew it was back to the drawing board.

What challenges do you face as one of Broadway’s newest stars?

KD: There are challenges when you do your first or second play. You realize theres a crowd you have to do a show for every day. But it’s still a play, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. You tell yourself that you’re going to tell the story and it’s going to come together. You just rock it out! What becomes clear is that if something doesn’t go the way you want it to go, you’ll always have another show to come back and fix it. Every show we do gets deeper. It’s live theater and it’s really wonderful.

At one point in the play, the subject of how Magic Johnson contracted HIV is addressed. What place did you have to go to mentally (and emotionally) in order to play someone coming to grips with being diagnosed with a disease that was really considered a death sentence in the 80s and early 90s?

Magic/Bird

Kevin Daniels as Magic Johnson in Broadway production of ‘Magic/Bird’

KD: That was actually one of the biggest challenges for me as an actor. Trying to put yourself in that position in 1991. We didn’t know anything about this disease then. We know a lot more now. All we knew was some people got this and were sentenced to death. As an actor, I researched that era and I also researched Earvin’s life in order to find out what were the steps he took. He was convinced that he wasn’t going to die. That was the whole thing, he just kept saying it. But you know underneath there has to be a little fear. You want to ffsee what’s really there. But he kept a positive attitude and was determined to beat it by eating right and taking his medicine. And here we are 20 years later. But at that time, he had no idea. As an actor, you find your tools to connect and respond in the moment.

What does the future hold for Kevin Daniels?

KD: Man, right now I’m just trying to make sure that I get this play down and everyone comes to see it [laughs]. I’m off today. I have a show at seven o’clock tomorrow. I just take it one day at a time.

What advice would you give to black actors trying to make it in the business?

KD: Don’t give up! Go out and meet people. It’s about building a network. It’s about finding out where you fit in the game. You want to go and you want to take classes; you want to go out and see work! Go out and see movies..shows…and stuff that you like. One of my really good friends Tracie Thoms,told me about this thing called the chocolate takeover. You get in these rooms and you meet people who cut checks and make big decisions, yet a lot of people who go in there don’t have projects ready to present. Chocolate takeover is about taking charge and not sitting around waiting for a phone to ring.

“Magic/Bird” is currently playing at the Longacre Theatre, 200 W. 48th St., NYC. For tickets or more information, visit magicbirdbroadway.com. Follow Kevin Daniels on twitter at twitter.com/kevinddaniels.