Sarunas J. Jackson talks 'Insecure,' Afro-Latinidad and Fatherhood
You may know him as Dro from the HBO series Insecure, where he plays Molly's (Yvonne Orji) childhood friend and former bae who just so happened to be in an open relationship with his wife, Candice (Gabrielle Dennis). However, Sarunas J. Jackson is ready to prove to the world that he is more than a former 6-foot-8 college ball player with a built physique — he's an unapologetic Afro-Latino ready to take Hollywood by storm. Originally from Inland Empire, California, the actor was raised by a Panamanian mother and an African-American father, allowing him to embrace both sides of his culture. In an exclusive interview with People CHICA, Jackson gave us the scoop on his life as a new father, projects he has in the works and identifying as Afro-Panamanian. He even offered his two cents on open relationships and why anyone would need thick skin in order to successfully manage a part-time lover.
Congratulations on your first child! How are you enjoying fatherhood?
Thank you. It's exciting — it's definitely new. I've always wanted to be a father and have a few kids. She's still a baby, she doesn't fuss much, just a little bit when she's hungry. It's fun. I'm kind of anxious to get the journey started, [I can't] wait to see her grow older. I want to contribute in her learning process 'cause you know we're their first teachers, I want to teach her the values that I feel are necessary — and you know, help add a good person to this world. Raising a [baby] girl to become a woman. If anything, though, I want to give her as much insight [as I can]. I'm going to tell her everything I know as a man, about guys I know, I'm going to kind of school her on the game so she's not out here being foolish or falling for the stupid stuff that men pull on women. It will give her an advantage of you know, having a BS radar that works well.
That's amazing. Let's talk Insecure: Was it hard for you to play the role of Dro? Is Dro someone you can relate to in real life?
It wasn't hard at all, Dro is someone I can definitely relate to. He's always calm, cool and collected, and that's the type of guy that I am. I'm funny and goofy but I like to keep it cool. You haven't seen much emotion come out of Dro until Season 3, Episode 1; this is the first time you see him in a somewhat aggressive manner, very defensive energy versus Season 2, where he was always trying to keep it cool. Me, I can relate to that where I'm always cool but everyone has a trigger, so it wasn't a stretch at all.
I think there have been so many people in Molly's situation before — myself included, what advice would you give someone who finds themselves in Molly's position? Stay in or get out?
If you're in a situation where you're messing with someone who's in a relationship and you're not the actual girlfriend or wife, then you have to go in to it being completely all right with not being the main priority. It has to be an agreement between both people: We have fun together, that's what it is when we are together — and that's that. You gotta be real with yourself. Don't do relationship-type things, unless you could handle it. If you could handle that and want that type of attention but you know you're not going to have any type of feelings or emotions tied into it, then by all means go for it. But if you know yourself, and you know affection is going to get you tied into your feelings, then I wouldn't involve myself with that person. Just have fun with it, nothing deeper than that.
[Why] do you think Insecure is important for POC?
Absolutely. I think it's so important to see minorities represented in a way that isn't so stereotypical. You want to see black people in something but you don't always want to see them in some hood shit or gang stuff. Even with Latinos, we don't want to see them with the cartel, you know what I'm saying? It's important for us to see ourselves in everyday lives where we can explore having real emotions that others can relate to. We don't usually get to see ourselves, we're usually in limited environments. I think it's extremely important for people of color to get these type of specific narratives.
You have another show you're currently working on, correct?
Yes, it's happening right now. I shot my first episode for Good Trouble starring Maia Mitchell and Cierra Ramirez, about a couple weeks ago, I play Isaac. Beginning of next year, I think, we'll be seeing more promotion for it with a release date. I'm really excited about that.
How does your character on Insecure differ from Isaac on Good Trouble?
It's funny you ask that [because] on the surface, yes, because Isaac may be a little younger, he's not married, he's definitely not in an open marriage, but for me I find that the energy is very similar. He's confident in how he handles himself with another woman. I find a lot of similarities, but the situation is completely different of course. But as far as having to portray his character, it doesn't feel completely different from being Dro as of right now.
You're half Panamanian and half black, do you identify as Afro-Panamanian?
Of course. I'm a first-generation American on my mom's side. I'm working on getting my citizenship in Panama, so I'm very connected to the culture, and so is my baby brother Darius. If you know me, you know a couple of things like how I'm a Philadelphia Eagles fan, I'm Panamanian and I love film. If you go on my Instagram bio and Twitter bio, you'll see a Panama flag. I'm proud of it. I'm half-fluent speaking in Spanish but I fluently understand it, which is frustrating. When I was young, I was fluent in it. I had to translate, like when my grandmother came to help when my baby brother was born she couldn't speak English. She would tell me something and I would have to tell my dad since he didn't know [how to speak it].
There's always time to learn! You already fluently understand it.
Exactly. It became that thing where my mom would speak to me in Spanish and I'd answer in English when I was younger. So that's what started happening, especially because no one was speaking Spanish where I grew up.
I always 100 percent knew who I was — I never struggled with that. I feel like the people around me had the issue of identifying me. I know who I am and I'm not about to slow down for you all to catch up. Even when I would speak Spanish, kids who wouldn't understand would say I sound stupid, but I'd respond saying “Listen. I speak two languages. You only speak one.” I would never ever let anybody make me feel bad about who I am or what I was.
Growing up, I was more accepted by the black community. The Mexican kids weren't as accepting, I wasn't necessarily someone they can identify with, so they weren't trying to hang out with me or anything like that, so I wasn't with the other Latinos. My black friends identified with me more than other kids did because ‘Afro-Latino' wasn't really a [known] thing to them. Afro-Latinidad is still new to some till this day.
Auditioning for roles isn't always easy for me. For instance, there's a show that's out right now that my manager was trying to get me to go out for, but they were like, “Oh, we want Latinos.” My manager responded, “He is Latino.” It would just be easier for them to say they want Euro-Latinos or European descent than Afro descent. But they don't want to say that because they know it sounds ridiculous. It's mad disrespectful because Latinos come in all shapes, colors and sizes. It's like being in America. When you're in America an “American” can be anybody: white, black, Latino, Asian. It's not necessarily a race, it's a culture, it's a nationality, you know, depending on where you're from.
The industry is still generalizing Latinos and that's why I think there's this constant fight for representation. I think it's awesome that you're standing up for the Afro-Latino community, which still is fairly new to most. People don't understand it still but it's up to us to educate them.
Slowly but surely, I'm trying to keep educating people [on the topic of Afro-Latinidad] and be more of an advocate for the Afro-Latinx community. Like look at what Amara La Negra did, she was so outspoken and I think that was amazing. People should always respect that if I say that I'm Latino, I'm Latino.
Catch all of Insecure Season 3 on HBO.com while waiting for the just announced fourth season to arrive (no date has been confirmed)!