Q&A: Dexter Darden
A Camden native’s unlikely rise to fame
By Terri Akman

Photo: Ted Sun

With the country attuned to race relations, politics and a pandemic, actor Dexter Darden, 29, feels a responsibility to be a leader in the roles he chooses and the opinions he shares. Though the upbeat, polite actor with the megawatt smile may be best known for portraying Frypan in “The Maze Runner” franchise, recent roles include civil rights leader John Lewis in the movie “Son of the South” and Kelvin in “Burden,” a film about the KKK. Darden is also enjoying the lighter side of acting too, currently portraying Devante in the “Saved by the Bell” reboot on Peacock.

Growing up in Camden, Sicklerville and Williamstown, Darden’s wildest dreams never included being discovered by Paul Newman or sharing a screen with Forest Whitaker. The actor, singer and dancer credits his mother, his church and a Sickle Cell Anemia diagnosis for putting him on the road to success.

Q: What was it like to film “Burden,” a movie that focuses on racism in the South, at this moment in our history?

We shot it in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected. It was a controversial time to be shooting a movie about race and the KKK. I wanted to make a project about a story I think people need to be told. With “Burden” telling the story about a black reverend and his family in South Carolina who take in a member of the KKK and how love can conquer all, that was something I really wanted to be part of. There’s so much division and hate now, and it seems negativity thrives more than love. I think the movie proves the opposite.

Q: How do you feel about sharing your personal views on politics and social justice?

I feel like it’s my responsibility. For a long time, you’re told to be careful what you say and do because you may not be hired. But I don’t want to work with anybody who is afraid of me having freedom of speech. Now, with such a strong and strange political climate, being an African American male, it’s not only important that I advocate for myself but also for others who look like me and are being treated unjustly.

Q: In “Son of the South” you play the late Congressman John Lewis. How did you approach this role?

I knew I wanted to play somebody who was politically driven and prominent in the civil rights movement. When I auditioned, I was extremely nervous because I’m a tall guy, I’m 6′ 1″. John Lewis is historically known as someone who was tiny. So when I read with the director, I made it a point to sit down so as not to show how big I am. John Lewis has a very specific tone when he talks, so I showed what I had done with the character, studying his vocal inflections. I wanted to get the nuance of what it was like to be John Lewis, one of the youngest members of the civil rights movement. Before he passed, I got the chance to speak with him on the phone and get his approval. That meant a lot to me.

We featured Dexter Darden as a Kid to Watch in 2009. (That’s him on the cover.)

Q: Your role as Devante in “Saved By the Bell” is so different from the serious parts you’ve played in movies. Tell us about Devante and what it’s like to shoot during the pandemic.

I was a big fan of watching the reruns of the original “Saved By the Bell.” I’m on the set now, as we speak, and I can’t say a lot about Devante because he’s the one secret character who will be a surprise. What I can say is that he’s the character who is closest to myself. We were blessed to be one of the first shows to go back. We shot 7 episodes before we shut down for Covid so we had to come back in August to finish our season. There are things that are different – the meal catering, our contact with people. We get tested every single day, 6 days a week. Sundays are our day off. We make sure the production is done efficiently but also safely.

Q: What was it like to be at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp when you were a kid?

I have a blood disease called Sickle Cell Anemia, a chronic illness. Instead of my blood cells being shaped like a cylinder they are shaped like sickles, crescent shaped. I was 7 years old and my father passed away, and I was in and out of the hospital that year. My hematologist at Children’s Hospital told my mom that maybe I just needed to get away for a bit to reset. He thought the camp (for seriously ill kids) would be a great opportunity to just be a kid. While I was there I transformed. At their talent show I did a Michael Jackson impersonation.

Q: What do you love about South Jersey?

That friendly, loving, happy-go-lucky, have a conversation and not be afraid to speak your mind mentality that we have has really served me well in California. People aren’t used to just hearing it straight up, but that’s what we do back home. It’s helped me to have that foundation and be grounded. I come back a few times each year to see my mom and my best friend from childhood. He’s the offensive coordinator at Pennsauken High School so I try to come back to see one of his games. I love to go bowling and to the Jersey shore and watch my Philly sports.

December 2020
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