Daryl “Chill” Mitchell — ex-rapper, T4 SCI, disability activist, actor, currently the co-star of NCIS: New Orleans — is at war.
So far he seems to be on the winning side. Nowadays he is arguably the most steadily-employed actor with a disability in Hollywood. And certainly the most steadily-employed black actor with a disability. He belies all of the pathetic statistics on the hiring of performers with disabilities in film and television. The most recent survey, courtesy of GLAAD, shows that only .09 percent of all characters on network television last season were people with disabilities. Another study from the Ruderman Foundation found that 95 percent of those characters with a disability are played by actors without a disability. We are talking even small speaking roles a la, “Can I get you another Scotch, sir?” There are no statistics on black actors with disabilities. It’s a demographic too small to sample.
Chill’s war — his metaphor — has been a protracted one that he has been engaged in most of his life. The first campaign was hip-hop. That’s where the name “Chill” came from. It’s short for “Chill-e-dawg,” a moniker given him by one of his comrades in the three-man rap group, Groove B. Chill. Along with Gene “Groove” Allen and deejay, BiLal, the group started at the bottom on their home turf of Long Island. They built their reputation by busting rhymes in front of Bronx theatres off the back of a flatbed truck — until the police showed up. It worked. They got a major record deal, cut an album, “Starting from Zero,” which led to meeting filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, which led to a role in the Kid ’n Play movie, House Party.
He then decided to leave hip-hop and become a full-time actor in Hollywood, a black actor with few contacts in a place where working black actors can all fit in a corner booth at Canter’s Delicatessen. He realized he was an alien in a strange new world. He carefully observed how others behaved, learned from their mistakes, and figured out a way to do it in his own style. It was one skirmish at a time.
He got bit parts on the Cosby Show and Law and Order, a meatier role in the Steve Martin comedy, Sgt. Bilko, and then became a regular on two network series, a rarity for any actor. The first was The John Larroquette Show, a modest hit, followed by Veronica’s Closet, a modest miss. Battle won, right?
One day in November 2000, Chill took off on a nephew’s motorbike at a family gathering in South Carolina. Though a skilled cyclist, he missed a turn, hit some soft terrain, spent three days in a coma, and ended up a T4 para. The story begins again.
Post-accident, Chill got back on the acting horse pretty quickly, motivated, in part, by the need to take care of his family. In less than a year, he became a regular on the NBC sitcom, Ed, playing (what else) a paraplegic injured in a motorcycle accident. After a few more guest spots, he then jumped to a starring role tailor-made for him. The Fox series was called Brothers and starred Chill and former football great turned media star, Michael Strahan, as two estranged brothers trying to reconnect. Because of poor ratings, the show was cancelled after 13 episodes. Nevertheless, Chill gained even more recognition upon receiving the coveted NAACP Image Award for his role as a paraplegic struggling to keep a restaurant going. He cried on stage. He felt validated.
Skip ahead a few years. Chill can currently be seen weekly on the sixth most-watched TV series in America, NCIS: New Orleans. He plays Patton Plame, an “investigative computer specialist,” or more snidely, a hacker. He has given himself the nickname, “Triple P,” the third P for Perfection. He’s that kind of brainiac/wiseacre. The series goes into its third season in the fall and could go on for years.
One successful actor in the performers-with-disabilities category does not reflect a trend, but it doesn’t hurt to investigate how he did it. Who is this guy? How did he pull off something so rare? Is he just incredibly lucky, incredibly talented, or what? He is quick to answer: “A little adversity goes a long way.”
Chill Mitchell often speaks in aphorisms, probably because one, he’s a former rapper with a gift for pithy phrases, and two, he has his game down pretty well after all the battles he has fought. To him, they are all of a piece — learning to make it as a rap star, learning to get acting jobs, learning to live and thrive with a disability.
Different arenas, same game plan. “It’s an outsider’s perspective,” he says. “When you are starting at the bottom, go for it.”
‘It isn’t about my talent, but about my personality.’
Getting an acting job is a skill Chill has mastered and it’s not a bad analogy as to how anyone in a chair might function in the world of jobs. Here you begin with a casting session. The whole audition process is a form of acting. The more you hone your performance, the more you up your chances of scoring. As Chill says, “When you get into that audition room, you have 10 seconds to give them that vibe. Ten seconds. You got to give it to them. The minute you turn that door knob, you got to be in charge.”
But what if they are uneasy in your presence and lock in on your wheelchair and your “tragedy?”
“I’m sure they may be uncomfortable, but I don’t give them the time. I rely on my strength and my strength is my sense of humor.”
“Being a minority, I had to do the same thing. Not only that, but being a rapper coming into acting, I had to do the same thing.” The thing he had to do was to divert people’s attention from seeing him as either a black man for half of his career, or a disabled black man for the other half.
Early on, he used to walk into a casting room and the people on the other side of the table, having seen his resume, were thinking, “Oh, no, he’s a rapper,” with all the baggage that carries (e.g., he might be belligerent, secretly hate all white people, or start trouble just for fun). How to counteract that? Don’t talk street, don’t dress street, don’t bring your posse to the reading, and most importantly, be prepared for the role at hand.
He tells a follow-up story about being a regular on the Kirstie Alley vehicle, Veronica’s Closet. “I always had wardrobe bring me a suit jacket when I was on the set, even if I had on jeans and a T-shirt. You know why? Because I had to make the writers not see the street in me. I wanted them to write human stories, not rapper stories. Everyone else can be as casual as they want to be. Me, when I’m casual, I’m hip-hop. If you see me with my hat back and just a T-shirt, you’re going to see hip-hop.”
Post-paralysis, Chill applies the same logic with his disability and all of its presuppositions. (He’s got a chip on his shoulder, will ask for favoritism, or will call in sick every three days.) In essence, don’t roll in talking about your disability or in any way pointing attention to it. Roll in talking about the show you are casting for and the role you are about to get.
‘It’s not your physical appearance, it’s your mind.’
His attitude is playful, but he is dead serious about the work. “I’m not going in there with a script in my hand,” he says, “I’m going in there ready. I never come in the room as a disabled actor, I come in the room as an actor. Because I know they are going to look at me crazy. But when I leave, no matter how they looked at me, they’re going to say, ‘He was prepared.’”
Chill experiences the same obstacles anyone in a wheelchair experiences. He just spins them differently. He refuses to be denied. His manager, he says, taught him a powerful word: No. Meaning, “No, you ain’t gonna lock me out of this audition.”
He talks about the time, for instance, where he got to a casting session and was staring at a long staircase he could never get up. Many a disabled actor would be offended and leave. Chill called the casting person up and convinced him to come down and sit in his car and listen to his reading. “I wasn’t asking too much,” he says. “I told the guy, ‘Hey, what are we going to do?’” Just by being persistent, not to mention not shaming the guy, he had already left an impression.
From the beginning of his acting days, Chill insisted on being considered for mainstream projects, not just the occasional black-centric ones. He told his then-manager: “I know they are going to treat me differently, but you go to war for me and when I get in that room, I’ll take over.” This kind of chutzpah is almost a job requirement in Hollywood. There’s a fine line, though, between being engaging and entertaining or being obnoxious and overbearing. Given his track record, Chill can apparently walk that line pretty skillfully.
‘Go in there and change their damn minds.’
In life as in acting, Chill often displaces awkwardness with antics. That’s the “vibe” others feel in that first 10 seconds. “I never audition at an audition,” he says. “I show up for work. I go in and say, ‘Let’s get this part over, when’s the press junket?’”
“Oh, my God,” they think, “This is the attitude we like.” The joke in the room is that press junkets are tedious affairs, everyone hates answering the same question 50 times, and it’s best to get them over with as soon as possible and get back to the real fun of acting. The line cracks casting people up, plus implants the thought, “This is what we want — an eager beaver!”
None of this is secret sauce, Chill is quick to point out. It’s merely learning to adapt your approach to fit the environment rather than try to alter the environment — and the whole social structure — to fit your needs.
‘When I show up, they know it’s going to be a party.’
He carries the same mindset into every situation. “When they called me to come to NCIS: New Orleans, brother, I came onto that stage like I was the chief, the man in command. I run this whole operation: ‘Man, he comes in here like he runs the place!’ The open-plan set is such that he can move around freely in the chair he dubs “The Triple P Mobile.”
“They loved the energy. This is what they wanted. When I show up, they know it’s going to be a party!”
Which doesn’t mean, when the cameras roll, his character, Patton Plame, is just a joke-meister. In an episode entitled “Broken Hearted,” Plame must deal with the painful death of a fellow computer coder whose heart transplant doesn’t take. “If you’re a fan of Patton Plame,” exclaimed one fan site, “this episode is definitely a must see.”
Just being around someone in a chair, says Chill, has had an effect on the NCIS crew. “They pay attention to things
‘I speak three languages.’
Chill is, if anything, an expert in how to maneuver in foreign territory and be consciously aware of, and practiced in, the art of winning people over. “I speak three languages,” he says. “I speak Ebonics,” or street language. “I speak Caucasian,” or mainstream English. “And I speak Disabled,” the language with which people with disabilities, and fellow travelers, speak with each other.
You wouldn’t speak French to a room full of Germans, right? Then why speak Ebonics or Disabled to a room full of casting agents and producers who only care about finding the perfect actor for the part. These are by and large white, nondisabled men and women who are way more interested in their success while using you than in your success while using them. Speaking different languages to different audiences is not devious. It’s smart.
By the way, Chill is a minority outreach spokesperson for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, among other such efforts. He also created the Daryl Mitchell Foundation to help minorities find their way after an SCI. Black people, he notes, are rarely included in discussions about disabilities.
‘Be kind to people, be respectful.’
Chill definitely had a leg up in show business after his accident. He’d already been an actor for 15 years, had a very savvy manager of long standing, Jenny Delaney, and had some famous friends to go to bat for him. He says he feels guilty about this sometimes, as if his past has given him an unfair advantage and thus, to the nondisabled, makes life in a chair look like a breeze. Then he thinks: “Wait, I earned that past. And I’ve used it. I took a social handicap, being black, and transferred that fight to a physical disability. But this time I got ammunition!”
“Respect” is a big part of that arsenal. You may hate the script, but respect the scriptwriters. Doing so, they may just listen to your ideas. Any form of disrespect will register with anyone you work with, or more important, you work for. It sounds simple, but isn’t. Especially in a place like Hollywood where people will trash someone if they think it earns them points with someone else, or just feeds their bottomless ego, being respectful to all is a learned response. And it’s also why many doors were opened for Chill after his injury.
‘I don’t care what you believe in, you better believe in something.’
Something deeper than Chill’s genuine kindness or his bag of tricks helps him keep moving forward. Growing up in New York, his father drove a bus and his mother, who worked in a civil service job, was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Without proselytizing or reiterating a rehearsed spiel, Chill is steeped in religion but passes no judgments. He simply says, ”I don’t care what you believe in, you better believe in something.”
With Chill, that’s prayer and meditation. He remembers when he first hit it big in Hollywood — fancy car, big house, the works — he still felt like he needed “to come home.” “Home,” in this sense, meant both returning to some kind of spiritual foundation and also back to the home he shares with his wife and his three almost-adult children in Sugar Hill, Georgia. He bought the home there 19 years ago because he wanted to be near the burgeoning Atlanta hip-hop scene. Doing TV series, he has spent a good deal of his time in Los Angeles. In his words, “We rolled like gypsies in my children’s youth so they are well-adjusted to the rhythm.” One of Chill’s sons is autistic, goes to a university in Florida studying video game design, lives alone, and according to his dad, “manages quite well.”
Chill fell in love with northern Georgia and now spends much more time there. NCIS: New Orleans is a double blessing. It’s both a great job and a five-hour car ride from home.
In his spiritual leanings, he never questions God. “I know why I’m still here. He gave me the strength to endure. He gave me a place to go and sit quietly and focus.” And the results, he says, are powerful.
“I can now focus on the promise and stop focusing on the pain. I see better days ahead.”
Finally, how does Chill Mitchell deal with the inevitable sadness and depression that comes with paralysis?
“I won’t allow myself to get down. I won’t allow those things to creep into my brain. Uh-uh, I ain’t going there. That may be denial, but the way I see it, I got plenty of time to cry later on.”
“Right now, I got to go to war!”
Catch up on seasons 1 and 2 of NCIS: New Orleans here.