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Justin Cornwell stars in the new ‘Training Day’ — but not in Denzel Washington’s former role

Just two years ago, he was onstage in Louisville, Kentucky, playing Muhammad Ali

Justin Cornwell’s grandmother ran a video store from her Louisville, Kentucky, home. That’s where he got the acting bug. Watching films that people in the neighborhood would rent, watch and return — perhaps one day he could be one of the people in those movies. He had great training, so to speak, on the stage.

Cornwell brought one of Louisville’s greatest citizens to life before 500 people a night over a four-week run. “Yeah,” Cornwell says casually, “I played Muhammad Ali in a play written by Idris Goodwin, called And In This Corner … Cassius Clay.” Cornwell is a part of the Muhammad Ali Center. “I’ve been volunteering there for years. And I’d known Muhammad Ali and his family for years … After I auditioned in Chicago, they actually had me come back to Louisville where I’d spent most of my life … I had dinner with Ali while he was still here, with his family at his house, and I brought my brother … and his family was just really happy and the premiere was great. Everybody came. Malcolm X’s daughter came.”

Now, Cornwell is starring in CBS’ new Training Day, ostensibly based on the Antoine Fuqua film that Denzel Washington won an Oscar for in 2008. The show is unlike the film, though. Cornwell is playing a straight-arrow officer to Bill Paxton’s veteran tough guy. And after the show’s debut last week, Cornwell is ready for more. We talk.

What made you say yes to Training Day?

I originally heard they were doing a pilot way back in January [2016], and I was just tracking the show. They were going to flip the roles. They were looking for a younger African-American person, [but] I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to score an audition. I actually tweeted at Antoine Fuqua’s page that they should come to Chicago to give me an audition. I don’t think they ever saw that tweet!

“I actually tweeted at Antoine Fuqua’s page that they should come to Chicago to give me an audition. I don’t think they ever saw that tweet!”

What was it about Training Day that spoke to you and made you be that proactive about getting the role?

When I saw the movie Training Day … I was just enthralled with what the characters weren’t doing. The movie’s so subtle and by the time you get to the part where Denzel’s going to send Ethan Hawke’s character to die, it’s hinted at so well before then … [yet] you feel as surprised as Ethan does when they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to kill you now.’ It just had so many great lines and great scenes and has such a real feeling to it. It’s a master class of acting from everybody involved. Hit every note.

Did Muhammad Ali ever see you bring his life to stage?

He didn’t get to see me performing the play. His wife and his immediate family all came. At that time — it was 2015 — he was just starting to get sick, right after the play opened. He had his first bouts with pneumonia right around that time. What we did get to do was we had dinner twice. We had dinner at the Muhammad Ali [Center]. Jim Brown and everybody came out. We had dinner there, and then had dinner at his house. The last time I actually got to see him was at his house.

“I feel like every kid that comes up in Louisville — Muhammad Ali’s banners line the streets and we’re almost taught his kind of metaphor and how to live life.”

You’re a young man, working to be an actor and you get this role, and get to meet the legendary person that you’re playing.

I feel like every kid that comes up in Louisville — his banners line the streets and we’re almost taught his kind of metaphor and how to live life. You’ve got to be confident in what you’re doing, but you also have to be patient and you have to be giving, you have to be loving. That’s what I learned when I was the captain of the ship for the show I did in Louisville. I learned then that I had to embrace the fact that if it was a bad night, it was going to be mostly on me because I was the person that was doing most of the steering. I learned to be responsible for something that’s great, and not letting the weight of something that has a lot of power and a lot of meaning for people crush you. Because performing Ali in front of his brother, in front of his wife, in front of the people who knew him best, in Louisville, where he grew up, that is a lot of responsibility. But instead of being afraid of that, I embraced it, and I feel like that’s exactly what I did with Training Day. They said, ‘Hey listen, you’ve only been to L.A once, and we just got this script two days ago, but you got to go into fight training tomorrow because we’re going to shoot in two days. It’s time to go.’ I had to just jump in headfirst. And I was prepared to do that.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.