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‘Greenleaf’s’ Tye White on becoming an actor, meeting Oprah and being a Michigan fan

‘I remember the first time Oprah told me that I was handsome’

When Tye White’s dad found out that he had enrolled in drama classes as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he was given no choice: Find new courses.

After graduating from college, White took a job at Chase Bank, but he didn’t find it fulfilling. He was in his early 20s when a friend said something that resonated with him: “Man, only 40 more years until we retire.” A month later, White quit.

“I was never happy with my 9-to-5, but being the corporate-life-chasing person was ingrained in me as a kid,” said the Detroit native.

It’s been almost a decade now since the actor quit his day job in Michigan and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. White booked his first show in 2011 as a jock on Freeform’s TV series Pretty Little Liars. Perhaps you’ve seen him as Aiden Hanna in NCIS: Los Angeles, with LL Cool J playing his on-screen father. Or as Jason Simpson in the FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Or maybe in the 2014 movie Drumline: A New Beat, the sequel to 2002’s Drumline, where he played Armondi Mason.

His latest venture is Greenleaf, an OWN television drama series that follows a loving Memphis, Tennessee, megachurch family as they are repeatedly faced with scandals, in which he plays the role of Kevin Satterlee.

As one could imagine, his parents and friends are now supportive of his career.

What was it like leaving Michigan for Los Angeles?

At that point in my life, Michigan was all I knew. It was scary because I didn’t know how I was going to survive, but I knew I had to try. I woke up with a renewed purpose for life because I was chasing something that I actually wanted to do.

What would you tell your teenage self?

Start believing in myself and embrace my choices sooner. I was self-conscious about my career choice for a long time because I had doubts on whether or not I’d be successful and whether I was any good. I didn’t fully grow into that confidence until three or four years ago.

What were some of your biggest challenges breaking into the industry?

There’s a glass ceiling at so many levels of this industry. One of the first struggles that I encountered was getting an agent, and then getting a good agent. Working consistently was another challenge I faced early on in my pursuit of acting.

How did you land the role of O.J.’s son on FX’s The People vs. O.J.?

I think they were seeing everyone under the sun for Jason Simpson. That was probably the worst audition I’ve ever had. I walked out of that audition confident that I wouldn’t get it. I laughed about how bad it was. I put it past me and moved on. Then six weeks later my agent called me, while I was driving, and told me I booked the role. He told me they loved me from day one.

How did you land the role as Kevin on Greenleaf?

Originally, I auditioned for Jacob, which is Lamman Rucker’s role. The directors thought I was too young to be Jacob. Then I was asked if I wanted to audition for the role of Kevin Satterlee, which ended up working out.

How did you prepare for the role?

Kevin is such a complex character, and I’m not at all. … What I did do was ask questions to people that have come out. I’ve been empathetic and open to learning so that I can bring authenticity to that role.

How has that role helped you in your career?

I’m really happy that I took that role because it allows me to be considered as a real artist. Yeah, I could have been on television just blowing stuff up and fighting people. And that stuff is fun. But it’s special playing a character with this much meaning and this much depth. Hopefully my role resonates with people that might be going through similar situation to give them some type of freedom to live their lives the way they want to.

You and Deborah Joy Winans are both from Detroit. Did you know each other prior to being husband and wife on Greenleaf?

We did not know each other at all, but I knew her family. She is from the great Winans family; BeBe and CeCe Winans are her uncle and aunt. In metro Detroit, they are pretty famous gospel singers. They’re like gospel royalty, honestly. As soon as I met her she told me her name, and I immediately knew she was related to them.

I love Joy. She’s so cool. It’s mostly because I feel like that Detroit inbred in us forces us to be nothing but real.

What was it like meeting Oprah for the first time?

I don’t really remember the first time I met her, which is crazy. I have to really think about it. I’ve been around her a lot now, but I do remember the first time Oprah told me that I was handsome. When I first went to Atlanta to shoot [Greenleaf] I didn’t have a beard, and somewhere along the season I grew one. Oprah came in and said, ‘When did you grow a beard?’ She proceeded to say, ‘I didn’t know you could grow a beard. You need to keep the beard. You look handsome.’ She’s incredible.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t let another person tell you that you can’t do something.

Last stamp on your passport?

I was in Jamaica in June marrying my wife.

Place you’ve never been that you’re dying to visit?

I want to go to Egypt.

Favorite team that always disappoints you?


Who is your favorite athlete currently playing?

LeBron James. I appreciate what he’s doing off of the court as much as what he’s doing on it. He has accepted the challenge to be a pillar of the African-American community and be more than just an athlete.

Favorite basketball movie?

I have two: the more rooted-in-reality one and the fake one. He Got Game because it talks about how the college game is corrupt and shows how everyone is trying to take from basketball star Jesus Shuttlesworth. Teen Wolf is my favorite fake basketball movie. Scott Howard [played by Michael J. Fox] turned into that wolf and was getting buckets. He could actually ball. One of my pet peeves is when I watch a basketball movie and the actor can’t hoop but they try to make it look like they can.

Are you finally past the heartbreak of your alma mater losing this year’s NCAA finals?

I’m still not over when Michigan lost with Trey Burke in 2014. I’m still hurting from Chris Webber’s timeout in ’93. That really broke my heart.

No, I’m not over it. We are owed a championship. I thought last season would be the season.

Greydy Diaz is a Contributing Writer for Andscape. She hopes to never have to choose between her two favorite movies -- 'Love and Basketball' and 'He Got Game.'