All hail the chief

A LOT OF Hollywood celebrities like to think of themselves as people who have had a major impact on the world, all a part of that altruistic ego so many of them share.

By Mohamad Kadry

Published: Sun 12 Apr 2009, 9:53 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 10:56 PM

But there is only one man who can truly claim to have helped shape one of the most important elections in American history. As Commander-in-Chief on the hit TV show 24, many people claim it was Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of a black president that helped pave the way for Barack Obama’s rise to office.

From his roles as President Palmer to President Mandela, this ultra mellow and philosophical Hollywood veteran has been cast in the highest roles of authority, and for good reason. At 6ft 4in, the former athlete with a distinct bass voice exudes a presence of power wherever he goes.

What brings you to Dubai?

I just wanted to come to a film festival and immerse myself in the culture. I’m here to relax a little bit because I just wrapped the fourth season of The Unit.

Many people say that your portrayal of an African American President in the hit series 24 helped pave the way for Barack Obama’s election. What are your thoughts about that?

To be perfectly honest, I’m sure it had something to do with opening the minds and hearts of the American people to a possibility. The character was very well-received, very well-liked and people thought he was actually doing the job when it was just fiction; he’s just a character in a play. But I did think it had an effect on how people saw the possibility of not just anyone walking through the (White House) door, but someone who could convince, and that was Barack Obama. Other men couldn’t do it; Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton couldn’t walk through that door. It had to be a special kind of person. A long while back when we were first shooting the show, I said that if by some chance I could influence one person to step up, I would have done my job.

One of your most important roles was the portrayal of anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela. What affect did this role have on you?

It was difficult and I almost turned it down, I was intimidated by it. I was afraid I wouldn’t do a credible job. As an actor it wasn’t an easy role to take and it shouldn’t be, but I had to have something that challenged me. It was also a difficult role to play because I was playing it on (South African) soil in front of his people. I visited his jail cell and the first time I stepped into it, I cried very hard. Somehow I summoned his courage and had to get Dennis out of me and get over the pain as he did.

Can you tell us about some charities and causes you support?

We built playgrounds in New Orleans and I’m also very outspoken about HIV/AIDS awareness. Now I’m into nutrition for children and trying to tackle obesity in America. We need to get these kids off the videogames or get them a Nintendo Wii video game console! I think that’s Japan’s answer to their kids being so engaged with video games, it makes them active.

You seem to be always cast in roles of authority. Why do you think that is?

Maybe because I’m 6ft4.5in with a strong deep bass voice lol. But some of my favourite and most well received roles have been romantic ones, the ones that accentuate the sensitive side of my nature.

You have said that your role as a military leader in the hit show The Unit has been very intense for you. In what way has the character changed you?

Every society, every country and every place needs their warriors to protect them, protect their people and protect the tribe. Being a soldier sometimes you have to do things that are not necessarily right and things that are most definitely needed, and some things that are just required of you. The fine line as to whether those things are good or bad are sometimes blurred. It affects me on a very basic level of humanity as I’m sure it must affect the warriors of any society. I would like to think it has a healing effect on the viewers. When the general public sees what these men - that my team and I - portray, it should make them think of who they elect to office.

You actually turned down many athletic scholarships to pursue a career in acting. Was this a difficult decision?

I just figured I could do all those things in the movies. As an athlete I played basketball, fenced, ran track and played football. The huge risk was not in walking away from the scholarships; it was in accepting them because a lot of kids that go through college playing sports usually end up in a different career. I wanted to protect my knees so that’s why I’m so deeply into nutrition because I hear about some of the things that athletes eat, and people really need to be cognitive of what they put in their bodies. If it is poison, then you have to step away from it.

Is fame and celebrity everything you expected it to be?

I don’t know if I ever expected it to be anything in particular; it is what it is. Acting is what I do and not who I am. I try to keep those things separate and when I can use it to accent a role, I’ll do that. I’d like to continue doing romantic comedies, sci-fi, and I’d love to play a superhero one day.

What’s your philosophy in life?

Live life and don’t let life live you. Relax and do your thing, do what you want to do and don’t hurt anybody in the process.

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