The first feature film is a tremendous step for any actor. For Justin Dobies, it was even bigger, as he’s begun by playing Gabe in Justin Simien’s critically acclaimed satire Dear White People. We connected with Justin on Friday to discuss what it was like for him to land his first film role, where he goes from here, and his many talents that Hollywood has yet to discover.
As the story goes, winding up in the same movie with Tyler James Williams and Dennis Haysbert was something of a fortuitous twist of fate. “I was pretty much doing classical theater in New York. And then I was visiting my family in Minnesota,” Justin explained. “I was going to be there for a couple of weeks and I just wanted to check out casting in the area.”
He walked into a local casting agency on a Friday, auditioned for the movie the following Monday, and had the part of Gabe by Thursday. “I literally was in the right place at the right time,” he continued. “I was very lucky in that the role was something I was very comfortable with.”
“Reading the script, the script was incredible,” Justin enthused, knowing he’d found something special even though he wasn’t sure how it would play with audiences “because of the satire. Anything with satire depends so heavily on its execution, and it was kind of a gamble there. But it was something that meant a lot to me as a story and something I wanted to be a part of.”
Dear White People, inspired by writer-director Simien’s experiences as an African-American college student, tells the story of an Ivy League college that becomes the scene of tension after white students throw an ‘African-American’ themed party.
The film focuses on four African-American students in the midst of the debacle, with Justin playing the clandestine love interest of Samantha ‘Sam’ White (Gotham Award nominee Tessa Thompson). It’s a small movie with something big to say, and that’s a high bar to set for someone’s first time out.
“I was really worried that I would be way over the top or something, coming from theater,” Justin reflected. “I remember being very nervous. [But] Justin was very comfortable with who he cast, and he kind of just let us do our thing.”
Though he might have been nervous during production, that uncertainty has abated now that the film has been released. “It was a really weird experience because I actually wasn’t that nervous. I saw it and I was like ‘I really liked that movie,'” he told us. “We shot it over a year ago. At this point, there’s nothing I can do to harm or help the movie. As opposed to when you’re doing a play, you’re in the headspace every night.”
It’s certainly a distinctive piece of work to make your presence known with. At the same time, the supporting part should bring more eyeballs to an actor who’s been treading the boards and a whole lot more for a long time now.
A Yale graduate and trained in London, Justin has already lived a pretty full life and built a versatile skill set while waiting for his big break. In addition to acting, he is also a filmmaker, writer, and stunt coordinator whose previous works include a documentary about sex trafficking in South Africa and Zimbabwe during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
When he’s not working on great stories, he’s living them himself, such as when he spent 42 days rafting the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans with his younger brother. “I would make wisecracks about it,” he told us, “and then as I was graduating, my brother found this grant and was like ‘Hey, this might be what you were looking for.'”
The brothers won the grant, bought and rebuilt a pontoon boat, and set off on a multi-state adventure. It sounds like the stuff of movies – fitting for an actor.
It’s also an anecdote that illustrates the kind of person Justin is off-screen. Though he loves his work, describing himself as “a total workaholic,” he’s even more committed to his family and to not letting business get in the way of experiencing life.
“I’ve worked on honing my craft, but I’m a real person before I am an actor,” he explained. “I love making movies. I love telling stories. [And] there are other causes and things in the world that are of interest to me.”
So as he looks forward toward what should be a bright film career, it’s not surprising that the kind of material he’s attracted to comes with meaning. “It’s almost always the things that are going to kick me in the gut somehow,” he said. “The stuff I love is the stuff that grabs me in some way or haunts me or that I carry with me in life.”
And then, of course, there’s the stuff that “seems like it’d be really fun to do…Anything involving space, I’m interested.”
He might just get there. Between his solid performance in Dear White People, the wide variety of skills that he brings to the table, and the way he’s proactively seeking out what the world has to offer, there’s no reason that anything should be out of reach once this bright young actor’s career takes off.
Dear White People is in theaters now. You can find out more about the film by visiting its website (dearwhitepeoplemovie.com).