The Road to Success
Actor Sheaun McKinney took the long road from the ‘hood to the halls of Lincoln High in HBO’s new comedy Vice Principals.
“You will see my face.”
Sheaun McKinney responds self-assuredly when asked what he has in the works now that he’s completed filming all 18 episodes of HBO’s new series Vice Principals. “You will continue to see my face, and if you don’t, you should ask somebody why you don’t see my face, because the world needs to,” he laughs.
McKinney’s journey as an actor hasn’t been easy, but he has the self-confidence of a man who creates his own opportunities. Growing up in urban neighborhoods in Miami, those opportunities were pretty scarce.
“I was born in the projects in Coconut Grove … the area that some people might not want to walk in, “ McKinney says. “Coconut Grove was founded by Bahamian settlers, and my father’s mother is Bahamian, so we always had a deep connection there. I was also raised in a neighborhood called Richmond Heights. I have to claim both places,” he laughs, “If I don’t say both I won’t be allowed back in.”
McKinney continues, “Although things were outside my doorstep that could get a lot of people in trouble, I was very fortunate growing up that I had my mother and my father and a really strong family. I grew up with a lot of friends who made not-so-good choices, but there was still a sense of community back then. We might not have had all the things that other kids had, but we definitely had support within the community.”
He adds, “I wouldn’t change where I grew up or how I grew up for anything.”
Urged by a seventh grade teacher to take up acting after reading the part of Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun during class, McKinney took a few drama courses in high school, but decided he’d rather be a chef. “Once I realized I wasn’t going to be a star athlete,” he muses.
“I started to learn how to cook from my grandmother and my parents… but I didn’t have any sort of culinary arts program to go to.” Instead, he ended up taking classes at Miami-Dade College.
Oddly enough, a failing grade in a humanities class led McKinney on his first steps on the road to becoming an actor. “The professor of that course was one of the theater directors at the school. She mentioned to the class (looking directly at me) that if we auditioned for a play we would get extra credit.
"My mom was paying for my classes at the time, and when I went home she was asking me how my classes were going. I was like, ‘You know, I’m doing great except for this one course, and I’m sure my teacher doesn’t like me, but she said if I audition for this play I’ll get extra credit.’ My mom looked right at me and said, ‘Your ass is auditioning!’ I had no choice at that point.”
“I went to that audition, and I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I’m born and raised in the hood. I get there and I’m the only black kid, and they’re doing this mask, almost pantomime-type acting… And there’s this one kid who was really cocky, and I remember him looking at me like I didn’t belong.
"So, they asked me what role I wanted to read for, and I didn’t know any of them, but I’m competitive, and that cocky kid was reading for the lead role. So when they asked me what part I wanted to read for, I said to the director, ‘I’m reading for that role-- the lead role.’ She was like, ‘Uh, do you know…’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know, lady, but I’m reading for that role.’”
McKinney didn’t end up with the lead role, but the part he played allowed him to be on the stage for the majority of the play. “Although I was wearing a mask, I felt so free for the first time. It felt like being a kid again because there were no more walls-- I could do and be anything I wanted. It was so liberating and so freeing. I got bit by the bug, and I stuck with it. Long story short, I was offered a theater scholarship.”
With his path seemingly chosen, McKinney took his first confident steps, landing a few roles in professional theater. “At the time, I didn’t even know there was professional theater in Miami because when I was young I wasn’t exposed to it, “ he says.
He and his best friends, Arturo Rossi and Bechir Sylvain, auditioned around town but found that there “weren’t a whole lot of roles that we wanted that were available. We were very young and very ambitious,” McKinney notes, ”and we didn’t see a reason why we could not play the roles that we wanted to play.
"I think true art in its form is an individual’s interpretation of what they feel about something, and there’s no age on that, there’s no color on that, there’s no gender on that.”
So, in a 4am meeting at Denny’s, the three friends decided to pave their own way, starting their own theater company. “That’s where it was birthed out of, that need for a voice for people who are somewhat under-served. We felt like we weren’t listened to, and we had so much to say, “ McKinney pauses reflectively.
“We put up productions and wherever we could find a space to perform, that’s what we would do. We learned, and continued to learn, as we grew.” They named their company “Ground Up and Rising,” a testament to both their roots and their ambitions.
“Our mission is always to serve the community and the voices that don’t get heard. When you look at the make up of our company, we look like the United Nations. We are from everywhere. We tend to do very intense, dramatic, and gritty work… things that really speak to the common person. I’m very proud of it. Very, very proud.”
The same three friends worked together to win over an agent, and McKinney ran towards his goal of trying film and television. Having already received critical acclaim for his theater work, he soon landed the lead in the movie The Bahama Hustle, guest appearances on Burn Notice and Common Law, as well as a recurring role as Eddie on Graceland.
Unfortunately, a move to LA resulted in bumps in the road. At one point, unable to find work, McKinney almost gave up.
“I had been in LA for about four or five years on and off. At one point, I decided I was done with films, and that I was going to move back home to Miami and become a cop. I had always had an admiration for police work and really wanted to serve the community I grew up in.”
“I’m from the inner city, and I understand the inner city, and I always felt like I could relate to the people I grew up around. I moved back home and started training, and I passed the preliminary tests so that I could be accepted into a police academy. I was there, waiting to hear if I had gotten accepted, when my manager called me to audition for something.
I ended up in LA for what I thought was a weekend… and I booked Vice Principals. My first piece of mail in my new place when I moved back to LA was a letter about orientation to a police academy.”
What could have been a permanent deviation in McKinney’s path ended up as only a minor detour. Vice Principals is the break he has always hoped for and has endured so long to receive.
On HBO’s new comedy, taking the coveted place of Veep on Sunday nights at 10:30pm, McKinney plays series regular Dayshaun, a cafeteria worker at Lincoln High School and the only confidant of Vice Principal Neal Gamby (played by Danny McBride).
The show, created by McBride and Jody Hill, centers on McBride’s Gamby and a second vice principal, Lee Russell (played by Walter Goggins) fighting to take over the retiring principal’s position. When the school board hires a successful, well-educated black woman named Dr. Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to run the school, the two VPs team up to overthrow the new hire.
When asked about his character, McKinney chuckles. “Dayshaun is the coolest dude you have ever met in your life. That’s just who he is in a nutshell. He is the head cafeteria worker and he likes to make that known to people - that he runs the cafeteria. He is very much Neal Gamby’s voice of reason in the school.
"While his loyalty and respect are always to Danny’s character, he doesn’t necessarily agree with Gamby’s tactics and how he goes about them. Dayshaun sees Gamby’s drive. He respects that. He respects the hustle, but it’s also his job as a friend to tell Gamby, ‘Hey, man, that shit ain’t cool the way you’re going about it.’”
As fans of McBride’s similarly irreverent Eastbound and Down will understand, Vice Principals isn’t for the faint of heart. The very premise of the show-- two middle-aged white men waging war on an educated black woman-- garnered some controversy due to coinciding with racial tensions in the news.
However, McKinney supports the show’s message of dealing with issues head-on, asserting that talking about taboo subjects creates opportunities for growth.
“I think the show is fearless in that it’s saying, ‘This is where we live, and this is what’s happening.’ It’s pushing those buttons and touching on some topics that people are afraid to talk about, and it’s not just race, it’s gender, too. These men are forced to recognize that Belinda (Hebert Gregory) got there by how hard she worked.
"She’s intelligent, she’s smart, and no matter how much they dislike it, she is the principal and she runs the show.”
McKinney continues, “Oddly enough, I think the show is right for the climate that we are living in, because to me, whether we like it or not, we have to live and deal with each other. Whether you want to accept it or not, you can either deal with the times that are going to change, or you can stay where you are and you’ll get passed by.”
Vice Principals will run on HBO for two seasons, and McKinney has already written, produced, and filmed a comedic web series called Make it Happen with friend Sylvain. Having risen from the ground up, journeyed so far, and learned so much along the way, McKinney is confident in the road that lies ahead.