Sarunas Jackson talks basketball and his role on HBO’s ‘Insecure’
The 6-foot-8 actor played AAU hoops with Paul George before moving on to college and overseas
Sarunas J. Jackson is working to become a household name in the acting world. Fans of the hit HBO show Insecure certainly know him as “Dro,” the married dude who says he is in an open relationship and is sleeping with Molly.
Along with joining Insecure in its second season, Jackson has a basketball background that includes playing on an AAU team with NBA All-Star Paul George, applying for the 2013 NBA draft and playing professionally in several Asian countries as recently as last spring. Standing 6-foot-8, Jackson is tall for Hollywood and stands above the rest of a tall Insecure cast.
The Corona, California, native sat down with The Undefeated to talk about George’s team ending his high school career, his NBA dreams, catching an alley-oop from NBA star Chris Paul, being shy around Denzel Washington, how he would dominate the 2018 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game if invited, playing the role of Alejandro “Dro” Peña in and out of bed, and more.
When did you first fall in love with basketball?
I fell in love with basketball when I was a child. As long as I can remember, I always loved the three main sports when I was a kid: basketball, football and baseball. As I got older, it was basketball and football. When I was 3 or 4 years old, I was playing basketball every day. Sometimes I would get in trouble because you had to take turns with sharing the basketball with the kids, and I would end up trying to steal it from them and play as much as I could.
You and Oklahoma City Thunder star guard Paul George are from the same neck of the woods from outside of Los Angeles. Did you play against him in high school?
Absolutely. My very last high school game [at Roosevelt High School] was against him, that punk. He eliminated me in the [California state playoffs]. My very last high school game was against Paul George [and Knight High School]. We were up four points with a minute, 15 to go. We tricked it off. It was terrible. We were guarding each other a lot. I was a shot-blocker. [Los Angeles Rams wide receiver] Austin Hill, we put him on [George] and I would play help side.
It wasn’t even [George] that killed us. It was a random kid on his team because we locked in on P.G. [George] had a dunk at the end that kind of took the air out of the building with about a minute left on a sideline play. Austin threw the ball right to [George] and he cocked the ball back and boomed it. It took the air out of the building, gave them momentum and they ended up winning by like two.
Did you see something special in Paul George back then?
Absolutely. We were on the same AAU team. We worked out a lot together. We were in the Pump-N-Run program. I was immediately calling him T-Mac [Basketball Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady] at that time. It was crazy because he wasn’t getting a lot of attention. Maybe it was because of the area that he was from. But I just remember seeing him play and telling the other players, ‘This dude is league [NBA] to me. He’s nice.’
And I remember being shocked that he was going to Fresno State. He was easily Georgetown. He’s going to go somewhere big. It worked out. The cream rises to the top. We were teammates our senior year. It was me, him, [former NBA player Tyler Honeycutt], UCLA’s Anthony Stover … I played with Malcolm Washington, Denzel’s son. I got to meet Mr. Washington. But it was easy playing with guys who know how to play ball. You come down, hit the trail, P.G. is going to hit the shot or go to the rack. It was easy basketball with guys who know how to play the game.
Did you ever ask Denzel Washington for advice about acting?
No. No. No. I never had the courage to go up to him. You know sometimes you don’t want to seem a certain way. At that time, I definitely wasn’t done with basketball yet. Down the line, I figured I would run across him and pick his brain about some stuff and have a real conversation. Never ask for help, but just [talk] to gain knowledge because, obviously, he’s a national treasure.
I’ve never have been able to come across him [since]. I’ve seen his wife and I talk to Malcolm. Malcolm is a director now and he is doing some good things. I might possibly do some things for him. But I know eventually I will [talk to Denzel Washington]. I’d be surprised if he remembered me, to be honest.
What was your inspiration to get into acting?
I always wanted to act since I was a child. My mother would take me and my baby brother to the movies every Friday because she worked during the week and she would feel bad that she didn’t spend time with us. I fell in love with the movies when I was a kid. Even though I didn’t quite understand what was going on when I was that young, I just knew that I wanted to be a part of that world.
Then I’d see guys I could relate to like Will Smith. He was an early inspiration to me because he was a tall guy with big ears like me. He was goofy. He was from Philadelphia. I had Philadelphia roots as my father was born and raised there. There was somebody I could relate to on the screen and it seemed maybe, possibly attainable.
My theater teacher, Ms. Mastroianni, was the first person to tell me I was talented in acting and if I want to take it serious I can do something in it. She said, ‘I know you’re going to be an athlete and you’re going to go off and play sports, but just in case, I would hate myself if I didn’t tell you I do think you’re talented. If you wanted to go after it, you could actually do something with it.’ I was like, ‘Dang, really?’ It was someone other than myself telling me that. It just opened up a door that I always wanted to visit when I was a child. She planted that seed.
What was your first acting gig?
As a basketball player, you can easily transition to the basketball world. My first acting gig was a commercial with Chris Paul when he first came to the [Los Angeles] Clippers. We did this big three-day shoot at Paramount Studios. The slogan was, ‘Complete, controlled chaos.’ He was coming out with a new [Jordan] shoe and I was catching an [alley-oop] lob from him. It was one of my favorite experiences that I’ve ever had.
I didn’t know what that world was like and my first part was big. Paul Hunter was the director of that. He had done Michael Jackson, Snoop Dogg and Mariah Carey videos. And remember that [basketball] commercial where [NBA players] use basketballs to make a beat? He directed that. He’s a family friend. My big brother played basketball at Clark Atlanta and was a film major. After college, he started working for Paul Hunter at Prettybird Productions. I would be around them. I expressed I was interested [in acting] at some point. [Hunter] asked me later on, ‘You still interested in doing stuff? I got a Jordan Brand commercial with Chris Paul that I want you to be in.’
I saw the checks come in and I didn’t realize how much we get paid. I was like, ‘What the heck? I wanted to do this.’ But I just know from being at Paramount Studios walking around the lot, I was in love with it already. … I also did a Carmelo [Anthony] commercial in 2012. I did a lot of basketball commercials.
What was it like being around Melo and Chris Paul?
I’ve been around other guys, obviously, before being a basketball player. I would come back, work out and there would be games at [Loyola Marymount University]. K.D. [Kevin Durant], James Harden and Russ [Westbrook] would be there. I worked out for those guys and my boy Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Thomas and Paul George. It was cool to have that camaraderie and to be able to hang out with them.
Carmelo is supercool. Chris is, too. I worked with Chris a couple times. I worked with Blake Griffin a couple times and got cool with him and his brother, Taylor Griffin. It’s just fun to be able to hang with those guys and goof around all day.
Where did your college basketball career take you?
I went to a J.C. [junior college] at first, Saddleback College [in 2009], and that was tricky. I wanted to be comfortable where I played. I didn’t want to be just stuck down low. I wanted to run, shoot and handle the ball as well. That didn’t happen. But my first year we went to the state championship and lost, and the second year we went back and won.
After my two years there, I was getting recruited by a lot of people. USC recruited me. Boise State. I had a lot of D-1 schools. I had a lot of schools my freshman year. But my sophomore year I didn’t play as much and he would only play me in very crucial and clutch situations. I still was getting recruited, but not as much as my first year, so it slowed things down. I looked at the options I had. I always wanted to go to an HBCU [historically black college or university]. North Carolina A&T was very appealing to me. But competitively it just didn’t make sense because they are usually not that competitive when it comes to Division I basketball … it’s unfortunate.
Duquesne in the Atlantic-10 Conference was interested. It might not be the best school in that conference, but at least the competition was good with Xavier, St. Joe’s, Temple, against all those schools and other schools outside your conference, which are good. That became more of an interest after that and I thought I was going there.
But the NCAA has so many rules. I switched majors a lot because I wasn’t sure with what I wanted to do. At that time, you had to be 40 percent graduated in a major. I had good grades, but just wasn’t 40 percent graduated. So that caused me to end up going to [Division II] Post in Connecticut [in 2011]. I played good, but I ended up having back surgery my senior year. They weren’t even expected to make any postseason play, but I came in with two other players and we won a little bit. We made a little push to get in [the NCAA tournament], but we didn’t go far, we lost to Philly U.
I did do decent numbers for that school, system and that coach. I was an 11 [points], seven [rebounds] type of guy. At one point my senior year I was top 10 in the nation in blocks, but then I got hurt for half the season.
Did you have any NBA aspirations? (Jackson entered the 2013 NBA draft but wasn’t selected.)
Yeah, I definitely did. I did have a workout with the [Sacramento] Kings’ D-League team after college. I was going to a few workouts and people noticed me. I had a few D-League workouts that had interest. But I wanted to do the overseas route. You get more exposure in the G League now. But I hated the pay that they had. And overseas traveling was something I always wanted to do. I just knew [the NBA] would be a long route for me.
What was your overseas professional basketball experience like?
Yeah, I played three years and it wasn’t straight through. I was all over Asia. I was in Tokyo, Taipei, Taiwan. I loved Taiwan. I made a stop in Indonesia on a tour. And up until springtime of last year when I thought I was done, things were real slow for me [actingwise]. I got a couple workouts and got noticed again. I had a friend who was going to Hong Kong and they showed interest and picked me up. I ended up playing in Hong Kong last spring for a few months.
When did you decide to put your attention into acting and not basketball?
I was kind of already mentally doing it while I started doing commercials. I wanted to take advantage of my youth and knew that my career in the film business could take a while. I have to be in shape [for basketball] and I wanted to play a couple years. But mentally, I was already shifting to the film business back in 2012.
The summer before my senior year I was like, ‘Yeah, I know what I want to do.’ I wanted to do maybe two years. If I got on a D-League team, then maybe do that. But I knew where I wanted to end up. I think I owed it to myself for all the hard work I put in [to basketball] and all the bulls— I had to deal with. And also, if I have a son and he plays basketball, I can say, ‘I played basketball and I did this …’
Your mother is Panamanian and you have had interest in playing for the Panama National Basketball team. Are you still interested?
I am very interested. I have to finish up my dual citizenship, which is not hard. Once I finish that process, I would be interested in doing that because national team play only takes a small amount of your time. My mother was born there and that is something she would be happy and proud of. My mother’s family all lives in Panama. I would love to represent Panama on the basketball court. If something crazy happens and they go to the Olympics, that would be a huge honor.
I definitely ain’t getting picked to play for USA’s basketball team. So, with Panama, why not?
How would you describe your game?
I’m someone that is pretty versatile. I’m good at a lot of things, but not great at anything. I am a great passer. I am a facilitator, step up and hit the open shot, stretch four- or three-man. I’m a defender. That was always my thing. I block shots. I use my length on smaller guys. I can guard perimeter and interior.
Would you want to play in the 2018 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game in Los Angeles?
I would love to because that would be the closest thing to fulfilling my hoop dreams, to play at NBA All-Star Weekend. Obviously, it would be different than I had imagined. But I’ll take it going from being in NBA 2K to All-Star Weekend. I would be an honorary player in the NBA.
And I would destroy everyone who is out there. I won’t play no games. Pull up from deep. Get a dunk or two if my lungs allow it. But I’m going to the rack on whatever 5-foot-something star is out there. The second half, I’ll be Ben Simmons and distribute. That’s my game plan.
How big of a break was it getting added to Insecure as Dro for the second season, especially after the initial success of the show?
It was such a relief. Grateful doesn’t describe how I truly feel. I was grateful to be in a role where I am not a basketball player or anything that has to do with being a thug, street-related. I was already a huge fan of [actress] Issa’s [Rae]. I’ve been watching ‘Awkward Black Girl,’ since my senior year. I had back surgery during my senior year and ‘Awkward Black Girl’ was one of the shows that got me through my surgery when I was laid up.
When you have surgery, it can be depressing. You’re used to being strong and physically able. When you’re just laid up, it can be sad. That was a show I had never seen before. This girl was really creative, talking about Issa Rae, and she is an amazing human being. Just for them to give me the nod to join them sent me to the moon. I was so happy.
Being on HBO was always a dream of mine because I always watched HBO shows with my father when I as a kid. Sopranos. Arli$$. I wasn’t supposed to be watching it, but my dad was never that guy that said, ‘Oh, cover your eyes.’ That’s just how the world is. Might as well educate you now than shelter you from it. I always wanted to be on HBO. My favorite TV shows always came from HBO. It really was a dream come true.
Standing 6-foot-8, I’m sure people are surprised by your height when they meet you. Does Insecure have a tall cast?
Jay Ellis [who plays Lawrence] is about 6-4 himself. Issa’s brother [Moustapha Lamine Diop], who pops in and out of the show, is 6-5. Issa and Yvonne [Orji] are 5-8 themselves. They are not shy about hiring tall actors. Literally four days before I got the audition, I told myself, ‘I am going to find myself into season 2 if they are not scared of tall actors.’
I was happy when I saw Jay in the lead. He’s 6-4, cool. That’s not new to them to deal with a tall actor.
When you started reading the script and saw how your role was developing, being an adulterer and with sex scenes, how did you respond? Did you have to warn anyone in your family?
Reading it, first of all, I loved the writing. I was reading it as a fan and you kind of forget, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m Dro.’ I was like, ‘Ooh, OK. Um. All right. Let me process this.’ And I was actually given a fair warning with the casting director. She kind of slipped and asked her associate, ‘Is this before or after he has sex?’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow. I am going to be out there.’ And this is HBO, so you know they are not going to be that shy.
I was like, let me go tell my mama right now just to get this out of the way. I told my grandmamma, too. ‘I am going to have my cheeks out there. Just letting you guys know so you’re not surprised.’ My dad was easy. It wasn’t so much warning him. It was like, ‘I’m going to be getting it in.’ And he was like, ‘OK. OK.’ I told my brothers, and we’re like best friends. I have an older sister as well that I had to give a warning to. I was like, ‘Just so you know…’ She was like, ‘Oh, God. OK.’
Was it hard to prepare for the sex scenes?
Really, just the first one. After you get the first one out of the way, you’re comfortable. I am really lucky to have a cast and crew that’s very, very respectful. They just make you feel comfortable. When you’re in the mix, it’s a choreography. Yvonne said it best, ‘It’s like a dance.’ You got to hit some marks. The camera is going to go to a certain place and you have to do something.
I try to tell people, it’s not really sexy in a way. Obviously, Yvonne [who plays Molly Carter] is an attractive woman. But I’m just saying the acting itself. You’re gone, then you’re in it, you’re in it, you’re in it, and then you hear, ‘Sarunas, can you move your head to the left a little bit?’ Then you’re like, ‘All right. OK. OK.’ ‘A little bit more.’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ‘Action.’ It’s done tastefully. It serves a story. It serves a purpose. It’s not the most difficult thing. And it helps to have someone like Yvonne, who is an incredible human being and a great actress. She made it supercomfortable for me.
We hung out a month prior to that. She’s a comedian, so I would go to her stand-up shows. We would go out with her friends and my friends and get something to eat. We just got comfortable and built up that chemistry, but more importantly a friendship between us to feel comfortable to be in those positions and make light of it. You’re just there doing your work and your passion.
How much did joining this show change your life?
A lot, really, and in a good way, too. You get to meet cool people. You go out and people say they like your show and respect your work. I meet people such as yourself. I am always excited to meet people that I’ve already known and appreciated. You get invited to things. You’re given free things, that’s one of my favorite things, to be honest, the free stuff.
Also, you create better opportunities. You get into bigger meetings. Also, the important thing, the culture and the community, you see how much they appreciate it. That’s very important to me. Not just the culture and community, but the industry. That is something I’m always worried about. It’s been a fun ride. It can be overwhelming at times depending on where you are in a good way.
Then sometimes you get numb to it because you get used to certain things. Like, ‘You’re going to this …’ Or, ‘The demographic is going to be this so you’re probably going to get a lot of attention.’ It’s all good. You meet a lot of good people. This show has a lot of good people watching it. I’ve been grateful.
What is the most flattering and offensive thing you’ve heard since landing this role?
It’s funny. I don’t really get offended because me, my cousins and brothers we just roast each other and joke a lot. I can tell you where I can get offended. The light-skinned jokes, obviously. I was called ‘Chico-O-Stick DeBarge.’ I was called ‘Al B. Uncertain.’ I was called, ‘Drake with a missing chromosome.’ They really go after me. They murder me.
I would say the only offensive thing, but the one thing that aggravates me is how prevalent the colorism is in the community and the culture. Just certain things, because of my shade of skin tone or people’s thoughts about me because of skin tone, is really ridiculous. I am someone who advocates for the culture so much. It more so makes me mad when I see that at times. I don’t live in anything. It just passes through. That is the only thing that aggravates me. Other than that, it’s all hilarious to me as far as jokes.
Do you get asked about whether your wife on the show knows that you are sleeping with Molly?
People ask about that all the time. I’ve taken a poll on my Twitter, bro, of what people think. Eighty-five percent of the people think Dro is lying and the wife doesn’t know. But the funny thing is the wife does know. She does. What I am saying is we definitely are in an open marriage.
People question it like, ‘Dro is in an open relationship by himself.’ No, no, that’s not how it works. His wife does know they are in an open relationship.
What is next for you?
Obviously, we got season three of Insecure picked up, so I am happy for that. I am also writing and creating my own series. Right now, we’re taking meetings and developing it. I just did a fun sketch for a VH1 show, Talking 30, coming out soon. It’s hilarious, fun stuff. I’m just taking meetings and I am going to be doing an episode on a TV series, but I can’t talk about that right now.