The Belize-born actor is enjoying his current success on the OWN show, where he portrays the younger brother of his real-life friend
Actor Arlen Escarpeta is in a unique position – he gets to play both the comedy relief and a dramatic role in the OWN series David Makes Man. The Belize-born actor plays JG, David (Kwame Patterson)’s younger brother who takes the journey with him from childhood to adulthood as characterized in the show, which began its first season with child actors in roles now played by adults.
Though the second season ends this week, the show, created by Oscar-winning Moonlight scriptwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney and produced by Michael B. Jordan, is available on-demand on OWN. There has been no third season announcement yet, though reviews have been good.
Escarpeta has had several credits prior to David Makes Man, including in The Oath on Crackle and portraying Bobby Brown in the Lifetime movie Whitney, alongside Yaya DaCosta. He is good friends in real life with Patterson, who plays the adult David. He’s also in a relationship with LaToya Tonodeo, who landed the role as Diana Tejeda on Power Book II: Ghost on Starz.
So it’s fair to say Escarpeta’s in a good place in his life. theGrio talked to him recently about the show, Black love and even his recipe for the avid cook’s go-to Belizean dish.
theGrio: You were born in Belize but grew up in Los Angeles. How did you get bit by the acting bug?
Escarpeta: In fifth grade, I got moved from a regular elementary school to a gifted magnet program. At the time, I was the only Black kid in my entire school and they put me in the Black teacher’s class. God bless you, Miss Allen. I haven’t been able to find her, but our class got picked to do the school play and she picked Hamlet. I didn’t know who Shakespeare was, never heard of Hamlet or anything like that.
I thought we were going to get to pick who we wanted to play, so I was looking for the character with the least amount of lines. Might have a little sword fight here, there, and be cool. Have fun. That wasn’t Miss Allen’s plan. Instead, she started calling her names of who was going to play what. So all the small roles that I thought I was perfectly right for, she gave to other people, and then she said, ‘Arlen Escarpeta is going to be playing Hamlet.’ And I was like, ‘OK, what? No way.’
She and I had a good relationship because I was the only Black kid in my class and I was always getting in trouble. So she and my mother had a good rapport already. I tried to convince her that I wasn’t right for this role, that she should give it to someone else who could really bring this character to life.
She had a real heart to heart with me about why I was in her class and what her job was to be for me. She said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you don’t want to play the role, great. But that means I’m going to call your mother and we’re going to talk,’ about something that I don’t even remember what it was that I did. So I went for the latter. I will try to do this role. Do not call my mother. I don’t want to get in trouble.
I was the last person to get off book. She pulled me to the side again about three days before we went on stage. She said, ‘I want you to notice that everyone else has an understudy except for you. That means if you decide not to do this work, you’re going to be the only person on stage with a piece of paper. Your mother is going to be there. The school is going to be there. You’re going to see the repercussions of your choices. You’re going to embarrass yourself. So it’s up to you.’
And so the next couple of days, I crammed and that’s how I learned that I have a photographic memory. I was so proud of myself. I didn’t think I could do anything like this. And I just felt really, really good. I never felt that feeling before, even playing sports, which I love. I told my mom when I finished and we got a standing ovation, ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘I’m going to do this again.’ And so from then on, I went to a performing arts junior high school, a performing arts high school. It just made me feel good about myself and took over from there.
theGrio: That sounds like a superhero origin story! Tell me about who you play on David Makes Man this season.
Escarpeta: Man, I play Jonathan Greg, David’s little brother. I love JG because he’s like me. His glass is always half full. While David was forced to grow up so fast, JG was able to really just kind of be a kid. You just referenced superheroes. I think he definitely wants to be the superhero. Superheroes are the good guys.
I think that’s how JG has coped with everything that’s happened between he and David and their mother, Gloria. While David is now finally trying to go to therapy and stuff like that, JG has been coping in his own way. You know, he became a cop. There are reasons why certain people become police officers, and I think for JG there’s a lot more there than meets the eye.
Arlen Escarpeta as JG, Kwame Patterson as David in “David Makes Man” (OWN)
theGrio: It must have made it easier that you and Kwame Patterson are real-life friends. Are you for-real friends or just celebrity friends?
Escarpeta: That’s my dude. I’ve known Kwame for almost 14 or 15 years now. We were hanging out before we even booked this role together. We both found out about [it] the same time that we got it. He called when I was out shopping. And he was like, ‘OK, so, I’m your brother. And I was like, ‘yeah, you’re my brother.’
And he’s like, ‘No, I’m your brother.’ I was like, ‘wait a minute. You got it?’ He was like, ‘yeah, I got it.’ I was on the other end just going crazy because it’s one thing to book a job. It’s another thing to book a job with someone that is family, that you know, that you’re about to mix it up with and really get to cooking [with] for the art.
theGrio: You’re in love, doing the Black love thing. What do you want to tell us about that?
Escarpeta: I am in love with a beautiful, wonderful, amazing woman. She challenges me in the best way possible. She pushes me to be better than I was the day before, whether I like it or not. It’s what I need. It’s what I want. It’s special. I implore anyone and everyone to look for people in your lives, whether it’s a romantic relationship or your family, that will always want and push for the best for you, regardless of whatever the situation is.
LaToya Tonodeo and Arlen Escarpeta at Sony Crackle’s “The Oath” Season 2 screening on Feb. 20, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
theGrio: What’s next for you?
Escarpeta: I want to keep challenging myself. If we get to do a season three of “David Makes Man,” that would be amazing to continue to go down this road of JG and figuring out all the conundrums he’s put himself into. I think that that would be very, very special. I would love to work with Tarell (McCraney) on anything that he’s doing because his work is just top tier.
Tarell Alvin McCraney during the “David Makes Man” premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Festival on June 19, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival)
I’ve got Barry Jenkins on my vision board. Oprah [Winfrey], come on. Let’s keep going. I want to work with people that are willing to push the envelope and continuing to do things for the culture and really just put myself in a position to be challenged where I can continue to grow. So whichever way that comes in, I’m ready.
Escarpeta is an avid cook and he exclusively shared his recipe for his take on the Belizean dish, stew beans. See below.
Arlen Escarpeta’s Belizean stew beans
Take one bag of dried kidney beans. Rinse, sort & pour into the crock pot. Pour one can of coconut milk into the crockpot. I then use the empty can of coconut milk to add water to the crock pot until there is about an inch & a half of liquid above the beans.
Dealers choice on what kind of meat, if any, you would like to add. I use smoked turkey. Other people use pork or salted beef (if the latter is used, then minimal salt will be needed as the meat carries more than enough salt).
Season the beans with black pepper, 3-6 spice seeds (allspice), 2-3 Bay leaves, onion powder, garlic powder and chopped fresh cilantro.
NOTE: never add salt till after the beans are done cooking. Adding salt early will keep your beans hard and not allow them to soften completely.
(Adobe stock photo)
In a small skillet, add coconut oil and about half a chopped onion. Sauté for a few minutes and then add the entire mixture into the crockpot.
Set the crockpot to 4-6 hours on high or 6-8 hours on medium.
By the time you wake up, the beans should be soft. Remove the bay leaves and spice seeds from the crockpot.
In a large pot on the stove, add coconut oil and the other half of your onion (chopped). Sauté and then spoon the entire contents of the crockpot into your large pot on the stove.
NOTE: dealer’s choice on removing the smoked meat this point. If the meat is fatty, I prefer to remove.
Adjust the heat to low/simmer. Add thyme, basil and oregano. Salt to taste and stir. If you prefer a bit more gravy in your beans, add about a half cup more water, (but remember to add a bit more seasoning). The extra water can dilute your flavor. Stir and allow to simmer for at least 15 minutes (allowing the newly added spices to flavor the beans).
Serve with white rice, brown rice, quinoa, cauliflower rice, or grain of choice. Enjoy!
(Interview edited for length and clarity)
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