LOS ANGELES — Daniel Ezra understands why some see his playing a standout high school football player from South Crenshaw High in the new CW series All American as a little strange. The British export stresses there is nobody who is more aware he’s not American than he is.
“That just meant I had to work a little harder,” Ezra says. “I stayed in the American accent longer and carried the football around with me. I spent as much time as possible in South Central L.A. to make the performance as authentic as possible.
“This is one of the most demanding jobs I have ever had. It has been extremely demanding but in the most fun and demanding ways.”
All the effort goes into playing Spencer James, a promising player who is given the opportunity to leave Crenshaw and go to Beverly High School. He’s convinced to make the big move by his mother (Karimah Westbrook) and his best friend (Bre-Z) to take the offer from BHS football coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs). The decision means James must find a way to deal with living in two worlds: the South Side neighbourhood he knows and the affluent Beverly Hills world.
The series was inspired by the life of NFL player Spencer Paysinger. When he was high school age, Beverly Hills High School had a multicultural program every year that would allow as many as 30 students to attend. Both Paysinger and his brothers were part of the program.
Because Ezra didn’t grow up watching American football, he needed a crash course before filming started. He arrived in Los Angeles long before filming started to be able to learn what to do on the field. The athleticism of the role wasn’t as big a problem because Ezra’s father is a fitness coach and had his son on a strict diet and exercise program.
Ezra was so interested in playing basketball and soccer when he was young, the interest in acting didn’t hit him until he was 18. A drama teacher put him on stage and the experience was so much fun he decided to take drama classes and eventually theatre school.
Making the shift from sports to acting felt natural to Ezra.
“The entertainment industry and the sports industry are synonymous in a way. Both are very hard to get into,” Ezra says. “I know what it is like to be a kid with a very unrealistic dream in the same way Spencer dreamed of getting to the NFL.
“To have all that background noise of people saying you need to have a backup, you need to have fallback plan, you have to be able to put the blinkers on and power right through that.”
Once Ezra had landed the role, he realized all his acting training could also be used in on-field. All the football plays were designed in such a specific pattern it felt like choreography. The actors start working on the football scenes a week before the filming of a new episode starts, which gives them a chance to make sure every step is exactly the same each time.
He was already prepared to do an American accent because there are more opportunities to land TV and film roles in the United States, so most of the acting schools in the United Kingdom will devote a semester to teaching the accent. Ezra says it’s in an actor’s best interest to have an American accent ready.
Ezra had no problem landing roles before All American with theatre credits like Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and Trouble in Mind. His TV work includes Vera and Prime Suspect 1973, while his film credits include Blood Cells and The Village.
Ezra’s father told him he was happy he landed the role on All American because he knows this is the best of both worlds. Ezra is getting to do the acting he loves but must all stay in shape to be able to handle the athletic demands.
His father hasn’t come around to liking American football more than soccer. Ezra is a little hesitant to say which of the two sports he prefers.
“I don’t want to get in trouble with any of my British friends, but I am beginning to fall in love with American football,” Ezra says. “I have a new appreciation for American football. Whether it beats soccer, you will have to ask me at the end of the season.”