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Exclusive interview: Anthony Alabi talks Family Reunion on Netflix

Anthony Alabi
Anthony Alabi shines as Moz McKellan, the dad on Family reunion for Netflix. Pic credit: Paul Smith/Netflix

Netflix’s Family Reunion star Anthony Alabi is the patriarch of the McKellan family that has left Seattle for the home team family back in Atlanta, Georgia.

The show is now into Season 3 as the McKellans, led by the former Seahawk Moz (Alabi), who found out that their finances are more precarious than they realized.

The Season 1 visit to Georgia has morphed into a permanent move, for now.

The fly in the ointment is that cultural schism, as Moz’s religious parents — his dad a pastor, mother a leader in the Southern Baptist Black Church — are slightly horrified by the loose reins the McKellans use on their precocious kids who miss nothing.

Not just a fish-out-of-water yarn, Family Reunion is also a masterclass on how talented writers can pen uncomfortable and upsetting scenes that do not sink the effervescent nature of this nostalgically filmed, multi-cam sitcom. Everything is on the table for discussion. In the end, doing the right thing, family, love, and loyalty always win.

The contrast of the more secular McKellans from Seatlle is artfully played by Cocoa (Tia Mowry-Hardrict) and their four children. They are living in close quarters with decidedly conservative in-laws, and this setting is the fuel for showrunner, Meg DeLoatch.

Talia Jackson is cast as teen daughter Jade, Isaiah Russell-Bailey as Shaka, Cameron J. Wright as Mazzi, and Jordyn Raya James as the baby, Ami. All hold their weight in the cast, delivering a charismatic presence among heavyweight talents.

The sly MVPs are Loretta Devine as M’Dear, Moz’s mom, and her cheeky sisters played by Jackée Harry and Telma Hopkins. It doesn’t hurt Alabi that the “coolest man” he ever met, according to him in our exclusive interview below, Richard Roundtree, plays his pastor father.

And with this embarrassment of actor riches, DeLoatch cleverly ignites a myriad of subjects — some universal, some newsworthy and gutting — that the ensemble cast works out under the watchful gaze of Alabi’s Moz.

The strength of the family rests on his big shoulders, but he’s man enough to show emotion, be a bit goofy at times and let the women in his life shine and succeed. He’s a big man, yet he has mastered the energy shift to allow others to appear bigger in specific scenes with him, not an easy thing for an actor to do. Alabi as Moz portrays the good son and the strong father figure right to the hilt.

Alabi takes his NFL team days to ensemble MVP

Not from Georgia, but Texas, Alabi can relate to his fictional character Moz in many ways.

In real life, he is also a former NFL footballer (a lineman for the Miami Dolphins / Kansas City Chiefs) who knew he wanted to be an actor thanks to his Nigerian-born father who encouraged him. Alabi has since been cast on Shameless, Black-ish, Modern Family, NCIS, The Mick, Bosch, Insecure, and more.

This plum role has led him to the vaulted pantheon of “TV Dads,” that group of men who make their mark as memorable cultural American patriarchs.

Alabi, who you can find on Twitter at @anthonyalabi, is also a writer and has built a library of comedy and drama scripts. His specialty is creating a relatable world with a touch of absurdism. Anthony has produced many comedic digital sketches that can be seen online under the banner “Mudda Sucka.”

Like his character Moz, Alabi is also a father.

Monsters & Critics spoke to Anthony Alabi about this wonderfully written and presented show that can be watched by the entire family altogether.

Monsters & Critics: Family Reunion is not just about kids, but it’s about the intergenerational squeeze. A lot of families find themselves in three generations and having to live with each other.

Anthony Alabi: Right. Yes… it’s funny, I never thought of it that way. I just, as you were saying, it is kind of like when families have to kind of mix and blend under one roof, that’s right. And they have to.

M&C: Well M’Dear is very, very understanding considering your kids are breaking her stuff.

Anthony Alabi: You know what I mean? [Laughs] We’re just tearing that house up and she’s still cooking for us.

M&C: You work with stone-cold legends. Richard Roundtree, Loretta Devine, Jackee Harry, and Telma Hopkins…what’s it like working with them?

Anthony Alabi: In all honesty it’s, and I say this all the time, it’s like Christmas. As an actor, to be able to have that rich kind of fertile ground of all of these legendary actors together and seeing just how they work and how they’ve refined themselves and their craft so well that they kind of can just drop into it whenever they need to. It’s really cool to see.

As a younger actor…perhaps it takes time and as you get older, it gets quicker and quicker. Loretta can be talking about something completely different and hanging out and laughing and doing something else. And they yell ‘action’ and she’s crying and you’re like, “Whoa,” you know what I mean?

She just has that ability to kind of make that switch and to access those parts of her skill set, and it’s amazing to watch. It’s something that I’m constantly taking notes on to make sure that I’m gathering as much info and learning as much as possible during this time.

And Richard [Roundtree] is just… probably the coolest man that I’ve ever met ever. Period, full style. I mean, that guy…and to this day, I remember we went to Essence Fest the first year and we’re walking through the airport and it’s as if I did not exist.

The amount of women and everyone that were just turning, saying “hey Shaft!” as they were stopping him, taking pictures. I took so many pictures. I was like, I should be a photographer. And he said, “Well, you know, you’re an actor for now, but it’s a backup,” but I’m like, Jesus, even when you say that, it’s cool!

M&C: What makes or breaks a show, especially with a large cast is chemistry — and you guys definitely have it. You did a podcast interview, and said that you had met Tia literally on day one of filming?

Anthony Alabi: It was interesting because I remember I had learned probably, like, maybe a week prior, that Tia was going to be my wife in the show and learned who got cast as Cocoa McKellan. I knew what I was going to be in the show or if I was going to get the part.

I remember day one, I was just like, we haven’t even had conversations or like met each other yet. We got in there and we both have the same kind of goofy kind of lively personality. Right away, we kind of went off on a joking tangent for about 20 minutes.

I think that was all it took, and right after that we were in sync and since then it’s never stopped. It is such a pleasure and such a joy to work with someone who just gets you, who is ready for anything you throw at them, who is up for any kind of game or ready to play. Anytime we’re in a scene or who throws things at you, [still] almost nurtures that part of you that likes to play.

That improv part of you that wants to do random things and throw things out there. She does that and she’s fantastic. I feel really, really lucky and fortunate to have someone like that. And I knew it from day one. She knew it from day one and we’ve been kind of very much husband and wife on set since then.

M&C: Another aspect of a really good successful show, of course, is the writing, not just the quality of actors and that elusive chemistry. I bring this up because the writers took on a subject resonating, sadly again, in the news right now. I am specifically talking about, the Season 1 episode ‘Remember When Our Boys Became Men?.’ Where the writers and you take on that malignant policeman that harasses your family. Your writers also address colorism with Jade (Talia Jackson), who got a lot of flack from Black Twitter. Your show deals with all of this very well.

Anthony Alabi: Yes. You bring up a lot of good points. Our writer’s room, and I think the thing that makes them so amazing…I know everyone talks about that it’s an all-Black writer’s room… For me, what makes them special and brings the magic on screen is their fearlessness.

I think [showrunner] Meg DeLoatch has zero fear in tackling themes and topics that people normally would shy away from. She has no problem kind of being like, ‘Okay, if police versus people of color is the issue, then let’s tackle it.’

The thing about them is they don’t only tackle it and start, kind of, attacking police or attacking white people. They do it in such a way that walked such a fine line, where they show you what’s happening. And they don’t try and skew you one way or another, but they present it in such a way that you can see, I don’t care who you are, this is wrong. And they show that.

I think that’s the best part of it, that for me is where the skill comes in. The ability to execute these topics and these themes in such a way that it isn’t meant to campaign anyone one way or another. It’s meant to inform you.

And depending on if you’re a white person, or if you’re a Black person, you take it however you want. But there’s a clear and moral line there. I think that’s the magic of this show.

Talia Jackson who plays Jade … that light-skinned thing was an issue and people talked about that and they had a problem with that. It’s been a thing that’s been in the Black community for the longest time, this colorism within the black community. That paper bag test that they used to have, where if you’re lighter than a paper bag, then you’re not black. If you’re darker than a paper bag, then you’re good.

It’s just ridiculous. That kind of thing is what needs to stop because it’s like, listen, we get enough racism and enough stereotyping and enough prejudice outside of the Black community. The last thing we need to do is to turn on each other and be doing that. And for some reason in human nature, we have this need to differentiate this, need to show that, “because I have this I’m better than you are”… “because I’m this, I’m better than you”, and I don’t get it.

I say this all the time. It’s why I’m a big Star Trek fan. It’s why I love that genre. Because it’s in a world where all of that is gone. The only thing that matters is human advancement and science and math and people.

That’s why I love that so much because it’s so disheartening. it’s so ridiculous that that is the state of affairs that we are looking at other Black people and going, “you’re not really Black because you’re light-skinned.”

For instance, I got a lot of heat because I have a white wife and interracial kids and [heard], ‘Oh, well, clearly you’re not for the Black community because you married a white woman.’ Or … she’s just my soulmate and happens to be white. You know what I mean?

M&C: There’s no subtlety, it’s just bludgeoning online.

Anthony Alabi: Exactly. And when you have that, it breeds nothing but hate, and hate breeds fear, and fear ends up having the thing where everybody wants to attack each other.

At the end of the day, you really don’t know what you’re fighting about. That’s a sad thing. I think that’s terrible.

Talia Jackson is a fantastic actress. She’s an amazing person. I told her, ‘You are my favorite all the time,’ because she’s just so sweet. And it’s ridiculous that these people are attacking her. If you want to judge her on something, judge on her acting ability, judge her on her performance, don’t judge her on her skin color. What does that matter? You know what I mean?

We have to get to that point where we’re looking at people and treating them as human beings and stop trying to differentiate based off of whatever preconceived notions you have on race or what things should be.

M&C: The relationship with the children on the show, the way they write it too, it feels very authentic. The culture contrast between Seattle and Georgia, the secular versus the Black church culture is fun and fascinating too.

Anthony Alabi: Southern religion. It’s deep, strong, and very concentrated. Coming from Seattle, I think that’s kind of where the funny [for the series] came from, coming from Seattle where it is just so liberal and we have this concept of the kids kind of police themselves.

Then coming to Georgia where it’s so conservative and it’s so religious-based, and everything is kind of just wrapped in Jesus. So, it is obvious from moment one on the show, the stark contrast between the two.

M&C: Talk to me about the transition you made from your physical life as an NFL star to this more cerebral career where you’re not being beaten up by big men. How did that happen?

Anthony Alabi: The first thing is to kind of rework the question because, from, I think from the age of like five years old, my dad used to take us to the movie theaters on Sundays, and we go from nine or ten in the morning, till nine or ten at night. We’d watch movies all day. It was his way of kind of relating to American culture and learning the culture.

It was my way of eating snacks all day. As a kid, I fell in love with every character and I wanted to be a ninja, a cowboy, a cop, or a bank robber and everything that I saw on the screen. I remember one of the times that he took us and afterward, I was saying all this in the car and my dad goes, ‘Yeah, well, you want to be an actor.’

I go, ‘What’s that?’ He explained it to me and then that was it for me.

That is when I focused and acting was all I wanted to do. The problem is when you come out of the womb and you’re 6ft 6in and 360lb, you play football in Texas [laughs]. I think around eight, I made the conscious decision that I’m going to take football as far as it can go.

That way I can be allowed to act and do whatever I want later, having fulfilled this obligation of having to use my body. Once I got to the NFL and I reached that period where you get vested after four years, which means your retirement’s taken care of, I padded it for another year or so.

Then when the opportunity came and I think I got injured with Tampa Bay, just a small injury that once you recover, then you’ll jump on to another team and keep playing. But I saw it as this small window that I could “escape”, for lack of a better term.

What I did was I just took off to San Diego and I remember I had a teammate that lived there and he was retiring. He was in Arizona. He offered me to keep the place for a month.

Every day I would drive up to LA, I was Googling every night ‘What’s an audition, What does this mean? What does that mean? Who does this… a DP, a grip,’ and the first audition I ever got was an Italian bank robber.

They called me and they go, ‘Hey, do you want this part?’

I said, ‘Well, I’m not Italian.’ And they go, ‘do you want it or not?’

Well yes. I’ll take it. You got paid a hundred dollars over three days and you think, you’re winning! That’s how I knew I was in the right place because my agents called me after I got that job.

And they said, ‘Hey, the Seattle Seahawks want to offer you this contract for a year.’ It was a very lucrative offer and, still, I wanted to take this hundred dollars, just take that.

That’s when I told them and they respected it and they kept trying over the next six months or so to bring [me] back to football, I’m like, ‘Hey, I just wanted to do this.’

You meet your manager through people [that] you meet. I met my writing partner on that project and I’ve been so fortunate that it grew this way and that we’ve been able to kind of do what we’ve done so far.

It’s just been an exciting and, kind of, just amazing ride that I dreamt about this, and this is the way I envisioned it. It’s just really awesome and kind of weird that it’s actually happening this way. I’m just kind of going with it.

M&C: I know that you are building your own production company and you’re writing and it’s comedy-centric, who are the comics that spoke to you?

Anthony Alabi: Will Smith, Dave Chapelle, Eddie Murphy. Those are my big ones. Those are the big ones that … that had it for me.

M&C: You are a TV father, a lofty fraternity, who were your favorites?

Anthony Alabi: Bryan Cranston in Malcolm In The Middle. I love Bryan Cranston, so he’s amazing. Uncle Phil, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. obviously Bill Cosby, The Cosby Show. I know…[Laughs], Carl from Family Matters. Those are my big ones.

Family Reunion is currently streaming the new season on Netflix.

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