I have to say, we’ve really had a run of good luck with our interview guests here at onFiction this year, and today’s talented visitor is no exception. When questioning stars of screen and stage I’m trying to deliver a behind the scenes look at their process, thoughts and opinions. Our latest, the amazing Echo Kellum, delivered on all three as we discussed his past, present and goals for the future.
Now a series regular on The CW’s hit show Arrow, Echo play Curtis Holt, a now essential member of Team Arrow. You can also find him – well, hear him – on one of my personal favorite things in the world, playing Brad in Rick and Morty. You can keep reading me talk about how talented, thoughtful and smart he was during our chat, or you can just see for yourself…
onFiction: Congratulations on being a series regular for the upcoming season 5 of Arrow. When you look back at season 4, what are you thoughts? You’ve joined what’s kind of a comic book golden age, what’s your take away now that you’re part of it?
Echo Kellum: It was one of the best artistic experiences I’ve ever had in my career. First, I started off at a very early age reading comic books, just being a fan of all these fantastic worlds and to have it coalesce right now in my career, to be playing a comic book character representing a diverse background is a blessing and a gift. Coming on that show and how everyone’s very down to earth was all I could dream for. A show that’s already kicking ass and feeling like I’m part of the team day one, they excepted me one-hundred percent.
It’s just been a whirlwind year, season 4 was so amazing and season 5 is looking primed to be even better than season 4 so far. It’s really cool to come from that perspective of being a recurring guest star to now series regular then now working with other recurring guest stars, making sure that I help them transition to this world like people did for me when I came in.
oF: What kind of prep do you put into a character like that? You’re obviously dealing with someone who’s established in the comics and has been around for years, what do you have to do to craft him for the show?
EK: The great thing about playing a character like Curtis is that he’s multilayered. He comes from a lot of perspectives and I can relate to him in a lot of ways. Like on the tech side, I used to work at Geek Squad, I love science, engineering and all the stuff like that. And for me just rereading JSA and Mister Terrific and just seeing this character use his brain for good to stop insane psychopaths. It’s just something I felt I really wanted to do justice to but I also want to show the character’s layers and his arcs. He’s this kind of nerdy engineer but he’s more than that. He can become more hardened and serious and all these other things and I really love playing with that. But I definitely went to the source material to understand the character from there. It’s really fun to find him and continue to develop him and the fact that I’ll have twenty-three episodes this season to really delve into that is something I’m very much looking forward to.
oF: When you’re looking at the different projects or roles you might take on, like with Curtis, is there something in the writing or the character that you look for? Or do you look more just at the project itself?
EK: You know, the great thing about a project like Arrow is the writing. It’s so good. They really understand these characters and really, I feel like, they’re brilliant at getting the most out them and really exploring their different dimensions. So for me, I like to bring my own spin to it, but it’s coupled with them having a game plan and such a clear vision of where they want to go with it. I like to do my research, but I also want to be kind of a blank canvas on set so that I go wherever I need to go in the moment. That might be from my improv background, where I’m used to just creating things on the fly. I like to be open and very much able to go with the flow depending on the specifics of the situation.
oF: How has the fan reception been?
EK: I’ve got to say it’s overwhelmingly positive. Overwhelmingly positive. This fanbase is so tremendous, so supportive and completely passionate about the show and the people that play these characters. I feel fortunate to have been put in this situation. The fans are so onboard and really liking the character and what I bring to the table. The fans have been nothing short of outstanding to me and the character and the process, it’s been wonderful.
oF: A couple aspects of Curtis touch on some pretty relevant social issues, being a gay superhero not the least among them, what I like is that they didn’t make it about that specifically, it’s just an aspect of his character. How much of that was intentional?
EK: I worked on a show called Sean Saves the World a couple years ago with Sean Hayes, he’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had a chance to work with, his character on the show was a single father who was gay, dealing with life, and I remember he would say in interviews that, “He’s a member of LGBT, but that’s like the fifth most important thing about him.” He’s not defined by his sexuality. No one in real life is defined by their sexuality and I think that the producers in Arrow really had the perspective of, “Yes this character’s gay, but we’re not playing at that. He’s a breathing person, a living person and in our world you don’t live out through your sexuality.” And I think that’s important to have more characters on TV who aren’t playing stereotypes, whether it be LGBT or people of color or anything. It’s not right for every Asian person to play an Asian stereotype, that’s not how Asians are. It’s time to just let actors come in, be who they are, see if they embody the character and not worry about any type of stereotypical thoughts of what a character should be. And I think that was something that I loved the most about their approach to this character, he’s just a human like we all are. And while his sexuality is important, it’s not the most important thing about him.
oF: So we’re getting a lot more of Curtis in Season 5 and I know that the handcuffs are on when talking about the new season, so instead of story details, what can you tell us about your character’s evolution?
EK: I think you’ll see a character really battle with the aspect of his home life versus work and if he actually wants to be out in the field. It will be an interesting arc to see him go through this season, to really see what he wants. I’ve had a blast shooting the episodes we’ve shot and I think there’s a lot of really cool fun stuff, and surprises, that people are going to really gel with. I can’t wait for people to see it. I wish I could be more specific, but I think seeing Curtis battle with what he really wants in his life at this time and that he’s tasted the life of Team Arrow but he’s also very focused on being this brilliant mind and engineer, helping to build things and create things. Last season he created bio-stimulant and the power cell and is definitely going to battle with that aspect of engineering, home life, field. I think it’ll be fun. I’m very excited and there’ll be some surprises along the way.
oF: And if my info’s right, you’re also in an episode of Legends of Tomorrow?
EK: Everything’s still coming together, but he’ll definitely be in the crossover.
oF: I know you have an extensive background in the improv comedy world, how does that type of performance and that type of preparation translate to working on a set with a script?
EK: I started doing theater when I was about thirteen, and I would do some comedic things and some dramatic things, I joined this group called Kids are People Too. We got to perform throughout the midwest for thousands of kids at different locations. I always knew I wanted to act because of In Living Color and watching Jim Carrey do comedy. So I really grew up with the perspective of really dramatic and comedic acting. I started out acting, my first acting experience ever was doing church plays, being Mosses and other biblical figures. But then I found improv when I moved out to L.A. in 2009 and it blew me away and just changed my perspective on everything. It’s been so beneficial as an actor, like I was saying earlier, to be a blank slate, just really become such a cooperative effort between the actor and the director and also being fluid enough to go with each moment and situation. Definitely going from improv to an hour long drama is a leap for sure, but I definitely feel like it helps me stay in those moments and feel fresh in every take like I can give something new and different in every take.
oF: What kinds of things do you do to work on your craft? Knowing the grueling schedule of an hour long drama, what do you even have time to work on?
EK: I do Arrow Monday through Friday and, generally if I can, I fly back Friday night to L.A. and I have a comedy show at UCB Franklin every Friday night at 9:30. And then every Saturday night I have an improv show at 9:00 called the Armando Show. Generally I’m doing Arrow Monday through Friday then I come back on the weekends to do those shows and to work on some writing projects.
oF: So you don’t sleep very much is what you’re telling me?
EK: I wouldn’t want life any other way. I love the craft, I love being an actor, I love writing, I love making people laugh, making people have different types of emotions. I’m a true entertainer and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m blessed to continue to do that.
oF: You’re also in probably my favorite thing in the world right now, Rick and Morty. Are you doing anything for season 3?
EK: I’ll be in about three or four episodes of season 3. I’m very excited, I love Dan and Justin and everyone on that crew, they’re just so dope. I’ve been a fan of Justin and Dan, personally, since Acceptable TV on VH1 back in like 2006. And it was very much like their, they used to have this cinema show out here where they have five very small series, each series episode was like three minutes, and you got to vote each week to bring two back. I became such a fan of that and to see how far they’ve come whether it be Community or now Rick and Morty, it’s so great. I knew these dudes were geniuses so long ago and they have a show that’s so good, and the fact that I even get to play a small part on it, it’s like, ‘What is life? How did I get this?” I’m so thankful.
oF: You’ve definitely touched on some really great franchises. You also have Girlfriend’s Day coming up soon which was produced for Netflix. What is that experience like making content for a streaming service versus a more controlling network?
EK: I love what Netflix is doing. First of all it creates a lot more jobs in the industry and I’m all for helping people get work, but also their material is usually phenomenal. They don’t have all the restraints that networks have and it’s not based off of viewers, necessarily, but more so that they continue to have good membership and it seems like such a good model. And the really cool thing about this movie is it’ll be released at theaters and simultaneously on Netflix at the same time. I’m a huge Netflix fan, I’m a huge fan of the material they put out and I’m very happy to be in this phenomenal movie written by Bob Odenkirk, staring him, and the character I play is really silly and he’s this poet and also a card writer, it’s a real fun role for me and I’m really excited. It’s gonna be on Netflix and I got to be in it with one of my idols.
oF: In days past it seems like with networks and the bigger studios there are so many producers and others who influence a production but Netflix seems to really cater more to the creators and the creative element, did you find that to be true?
EK: Absolutely. I would absolutely say that. That they let creators create and do their thing. If they believe in your vision, they let you do your vision for the most part. I’m not saying they don’t have any notes, but even certain cable channels are just a little bit more lax sometimes than a lot of networks are. Or sometimes new venues like Amazon or Netflix are generally just, “We believe in this creative talent, and we’re gonna just put our faith in them.” I love the fact that Netflix made the decision of putting the belief and the choice back in the creators hands.
oF: It seems overdue. From someone working on the outside of the industry, it’s great that we’re finally getting situations where the artists and creators are getting much more free reign, but it really feels like it took a long time for some of the studios to realize that the guys in suits that have no idea how to make a movie should have less to say.
EK: And it’s still taking a while. They’re still dragging their feet with this process. As, I think, more companies start showing that this business model can work, eventually every stockholder or people out there who want to continue to have capital flow will see that audiences are drifting more towards people who have more control over their product because they really get the product.
oF: I also think when an audience pays for a service like Netflix you literally vote with your dollars. If you don’t like what they do, you cancel the service.
EK: Yeah, remember Netflix, people forget about six, seven years ago when they changed their pricing structure and went to Netflix online, they were hemorrhaging customers, losing a ton. But that’s the good thing, if you make some bad decisions on a platform like that customers say, “Well, I’m out.” It should be about the customers. I’m not saying the customer’s always right, cause I have worked in the service industry before, but it is about the customer though.
oF: What are some of your goals as you look forward? Are there some projects you’d like to jump into or maybe a different hat you’d like to wear?
EK: One thing I really want to do is direct. And I’m at some pretty early stages, I’m writing this film that I will star in and direct, it’d be like an indie feature. That’s really something I’ve always dreamed of doing, something that I’m developing, trying to figure out exactly what it is, get a good story around it and hopefully see who wants to work with me and help finance it and put it out there. I’m very much into directing, writing and part of that is because of improv. In a lot of ways when you’re up there on stage you’re doing it all, you’re acting, directing, choreographing, editing, writing, I mean, all instantaneously. And there’s something about doing that, it’s almost like working out with weights on. So when the weights actually come off you feel faster, more able to pitch on ideas, more in-depth in finding different shots that work. Improv has been absolutely crucial and pivotal in my career and really opening me up as a creative voice.
oF: It doesn’t sound like you get much of it, but what does some down time look like for you?
EK: I have two kids, so right now we are all about Pokemon Go. I’ve probably put, myself, about twenty-eight kilometers on the app. We’ve been having so much fun going on the hunt and finding Pokemon. Really, for me, it’s all about them, or if it’s just some leisure time, video games or politics. Those are like my top things I love. Video games really help me get away and reset from work, living a life inside another character kind of gets me a little mini vacation. Stuff like video games have always kind of steadied me, helped me when I’ve had a really crazy, tough day. I’ll sit back, play for like and hour and I’ll be fine.
oF: I know you’re doing a ton of press for Arrow and all your other projects, but is there something you haven’t been asked or had a chance to say that you’d like fans to hear?
EK: Ooh, that’s such an interesting question. I guess I would like to say to people in general, not necessarily anything for myself, but to definitely stay inspired, follow your dreams, watch Will’s Wisdom on YouTube, have an inspiration, treat each other well. I think that’s all I really want to say to people.
I absolutely can’t thank Echo enough for taking the time out of an insanely busy schedule to sit and talk with us! Make sure to watch Arrow season 5 which begins airing on The CW October 5th. And for more on his exploits, give his Twitter page a follow.
** Photos of Echo by Lesley Bryce **