Cedric Yarbrough’s ‘Speechless’ Character Is a “Role of a Lifetime”
Comedy fans best know Cedric Yarbrough from his role as Deputy S. Jones on Reno 911! But as an actor he has appeared in numerous TV shows and films like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, The Goldbergs, 40 Year Old Virgin, and the upcoming Amy Poehler/Will Ferrell flick The House. He’s “that guy,” one of those familiar faces who seems to pop everywhere. Or, as he puts it in his Twitter bio, “Yup, I’m in everything.” When I caught up with Yarbrough he was wrapping up a table read for the new ABC sitcom Speechless, a series that has already caught the attention of critics and audiences alike. In the show Yarbrough plays Kenneth, a high school groundskeeper hired to serve as an aide to a teen with cerebral palsy. I talked in depth with Yarbrough about his role on Speechless, White Hollywood vs. Black Hollywood, and how you don’t have to be a dick to get ahead in show business.
How has your experience been working on Speechless?
It’s been a whirlwind. We’re so busy. It’s the role of a lifetime. I’m having an amazing time. It’s an outstanding cast to work with. Scott Silveri is a really great head writer helming this beast of a show.
One word that comes up when people are discussing the show is “groundbreaking.” We’re seeing a slice of life that is not typically explored on TV. Do you feel a sense of responsibility in your role, knowing that this is a new world for a lot of viewers?
Yes, in a way. I feel more responsible to the character of Kenneth, making sure I don’t get too in my head about it. I feel protective in doing the best interpretation of what I think this guy is. He’s very genuine in his care of J.J. and the family. You said groundbreaking and it reminds me of when I talk to old black people about the 50s and 60s. One person would have one television set and they would call everyone to come over because James Brown was going to be on television that night on Ed Sullivan. Everyone would show up because James Brown — a black person — was on TV. He was amazing, really great at this job, and brilliant. That’s what I’m feeling when I get comments from families with disabilities. “We are finally being represented on television.” And it’s really good television. That makes me feel really good.
So often in comedic television shows characters with disabilities fall into the same kind of tropes. Often, the most accurate representations of people and families with disabilities are seen in dramatic series. Speechless is fun and funny, while still handling disability respectfully.
I think you’re right about that, Isaac. That’s the job of the show that we signed up for. We wanted the show to be funny foremost. We want to make people laugh and enjoy themselves…and one of the characters happens to have cerebral palsy. I like that we can make you laugh and while you’re laughing you’re open and then we can throw some heart in there every once in awhile. But not too much. We don’t want to be the disability show. We want people to just like the show. We don’t want the label of “after school special disability show.”
Do you have any life experiences that you were able to draw from in preparing for this role?
I didn’t know a lot of people with cerebral palsy. I knew a kid in high school. But right before I booked the role I was able to meet with a woman named Eva Sweeney, who is a really great writer. She has cerebral palsy and is also nonverbal. She has an aid, much like Kenneth and J.J.’s relationship. I got to spend some time with her and man, she was an open book for me. She let me ask anything about drugs, sex, racism. She really let me in. I asked her about racism in the disability community and she said, “Yeah. Yeah, definitely.” She said there are people who are like, “I can’t walk, but at least I’m white.” We are humans. We are flawed and in the disability community there’s no difference. It also made me think that sometimes we the able-bodied see people in wheelchairs and look past them or through them or feel ashamed to try to communicate. We have all these misconceptions about someone in a wheelchair. Because of that chair we class them in a certain way. It’s definitely been eye-opening for me.
I heard you were at an awards show this morning. What was that for?
SAG-AFTRA gave an award to Scott Silveri for disability awareness for his writing on Speechless. It’s amazing that we are six episodes in and already winning awards. When I signed up for this I just loved the pilot so much. It was not about winning awards. It was about bringing some kind of truth into the world while still being funny. It’s been really humbling how the community has accepted the show so much.
What would you say is the most fun you’ve ever had on set?
I’ll give you one instance where I was having a really fantastic time, where I couldn’t believe I was having that much fun with that particular person. I was doing Meet the Fockers. I had a small role as a cop, but I got to hang out with Dustin Hoffman for a couple of days. Dustin Hoffman and I got along right away. He was like the granddad I never had. He’s fucking with me, poking me, messing with me right before our lines. It reaffirmed a lot of what I always thought about Dustin Hoffman. He’s a cool guy, a really cool dude. Also, you don’t have to be a dick in Hollywood to get things done. I’ve worked with some people — I won’t name names — but some people just aren’t cool to work with. You respect them when you see them on TV and film, then you get to work with them and you’re like, “Oh, no. You’re awful. You’re not fun at all.” I can’t say that about Dustin Hoffman. He was fantastic.
What is a role that you’ve done that you’re not that well-known for and you wish more people knew about?
That’s a great question because it goes hand-in-hand with Hollywood vs. Black Hollywood. A lot of things that I’ve been known for have been “White Hollywood,” produced by and mostly with white audiences and white casts. It’s hard for me to break into some black shows, frankly. It’s hard for me to be seen in a black magazine. You might not see me in Essence, JET, or Ebony because that’s another spectrum of Hollywood that I’m still trying to break into. A lot of the African-American community was high on The Boondocks, but because it’s an animated show they don’t know that I was a part of that show, that I was one of the lead characters and did a bunch of other characters.
I was looking at some old interviews that you’ve done. I found one from 2008 where you said that every day you think about giving up acting. That was eight years ago, but is it still something that occurs to you every once in awhile?
Wow, I wonder what context that was in. That doesn’t sound like something I would have said, but maybe I did. Maybe I was in a weird place.
You were talking about when you first moved to Hollywood, waiting tables, trying to make ends meet, and dealing with that feeling of being up for a role and the disappointment of not getting it. The interviewer asked if you ever thought about quitting and you said you think about it every day.
When you describe it that way I can see why I would say something like that. I was probably being pretty real with that person, like, “This shit is hard, man.” This industry is really difficult. I know a lot of people who are amazing actors and aren’t on anything. They’re struggling. In 2008 I don’t know if I was struggling, but I’m sure I was up for a couple of things that didn’t pan out. As an actor you care. You’re trying to be as truthful as you can, so you put a lot into it. You care about the role. You care about a particular character’s feelings and all that stuff. Then you go in and expose yourself to people who may not know what it takes to muster up getting out of bed and auditioning for them and opening up yourself. A lot of times, hell, 99.9% of the time you don’t get the role. This industry is heartbreaking and wonderful at the same time. That’s probably what I was thinking then. I’m definitely at a different place now. I’m really happy about this show and what it’s doing for the disability community and frankly, for my wallet. It’s pretty good. I can pay some bills. I can pay my mama’s bills. I got my mom a car. That’s a great thing that this industry can do. You can care for the people who have cared for you for so long and have dreamed with you as well. That part of it definitely feels good.