Actor Sekou Laidlow Brings Hip-Hop Knowledge to VH1’s ‘The Breaks’
As a kid growing up in Baltimore, Sekou Laidlow found himself in the sweet spot of the hip-hop revolution, just as break dancing began to cede the stage to a new wave of poetic MCs. Perfect, then, that Laidlow, a Juilliard-trained actor with Broadway (“Airline Highway”) and television credits (“Better Off Single,” “The Good Wife”), is in VH1’s new series, “The Breaks.”
“The Breaks” follows a group of New Yorkers navigating the hip-hop scene of the 1990s. We spoke with Laidlow about the dances he loved growing up and how he uses movement in his performances both onstage and onscreen.
Dance.Com: You trained at the Juilliard School in New York. Is dance a part of the basic curriculum there?
Sekou Laidlow: “Oh, yeah. We took ballroom dancing, salsa — there were like five different dances we had training in, and then we competed. We have it in our first semester of our first year.”
You grew up in Baltimore in the 1980 and ’90s. Were you into hip-hop?
Absolutely. It was everything. We pulled out the cardboard, we were break-dancing, pop-locking, the whole nine. I was completely immersed in the dance part of it, because the dance part was at its height in the early ’80s.
Was there a particular dance you loved growing up?
The centipede and the windmill.
Were you good?
I was good at the centipede. I was challenged at the windmill.
Sekou Laidlow in ‘The Breaks’ on VH1VH1
What were the other big dances in Baltimore at the time? Did the city have its own unique scene?
I don’t know if it was unique. I kind of grew up in New York, too, because I was in New York in the summers. We would have dance parties, and we would take all those dances back to Baltimore. My sister and me would be the first ones to know about it. So we came back and we were like the go-to people for new hip-hop moves. The biggest one I can think of was the Wop. That was the big dance we took back and everybody loved.
Your character in ‘The Breaks’ is a journalist. What was the significance of journalism in the evolving story of hip-hop?
It was the most exciting story at the time. I want people to appreciate the fight and the journey that it took to create this phenomenon that we know as hip-hop, and to appreciate the ups and downs leading to what we have now, a billion-dollar enterprise. These are people who genuinely loved the art and the craft. They fought to have voice and create an identity for themselves.
You started as a stage actor, and now you’re getting more screen work. What’s been the difference in terms of how you move, and how it affects your performance?
“In TV, there’s less space than in theater, unless they’re doing a wide shot. But when they’re just shooting you and your scene partner, there’s no space to move at all. For a particular scene, where there’s a lot going on between you and the other character, you use movement to physically get into the scene and to warm yourself up so that it registers as active, like there’s life going on. I get moving before I even shoot.”
When you’re shooting a TV show, how physically close are you to another actor?
Oftentimes, it looks normal in terms of space from the viewer’s perspective, but we are much closer in reality. If you look at people, like, walking down a hallway, we are often touching or even overlapping. Doing that movement work before you get in there, because you are often confined to those small spaces, is important, particularly if it’s an emotional scene.
And in the theater, you have more space to build a performance?
No question. And that’s why the stage works for me, because I am a physical actor. To go back to Juilliard, Suzuki [an acting technique, developed by the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, focusing on physicality to build discipline and focus] and movement class were key in training myself to tap into my core, to be fully emotionally available. The physicality kind of leads me there.