Since age three, Gary LeRoi Gray has been entertaining and commanding audiences from their television screens.
He made his on screen debut as Nelson Tibideaux on “The Cosby Show” in 1991 and has since appeared in a variety of TV shows and films including “Even Stevens,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters,” “Bring it On: All or Nothing,” “Slappy and the Stinkers,” “7th Heaven,” and “CSI: Miami” among others. He also has an accomplished voice acting resume with roles such as Charley on “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” Sam on “Rocket Power,” and AJ on the long running series “The Fairly OddParents,” which will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary next week.
Now, at thirty-four, Gary continues to passionately pursue his craft. He currently has a new detective-thriller series in the works called “Trace,” which will be premiering later this year. In addition, he’s recently joined forces with GS Acting Workshops to help new actors develop their skills and knowledge of the entertainment industry.
Andrew got to speak with Gary about his experiences growing up as a child actor, the longevity of The Fairly OddParents, and his current projects and ambitions.
Check it out below!
You started working professionally young. How did you discover you had a talent for acting?
I was actually doing print modelling. My mom and dad were pretty much just tired of me at that point [laughs]. I was already reading and writing by the age of three so I was just one of those kids who was all over the house all the time. I was always getting into something and constantly questioning things. They were like, “We have to put him in school because he can’t be here all day.” So they tried to see if I would be able to last in Kindergarten, which I did. I was already in school and everything and basically showing my personality. They said, “He should be doing print modelling or something.” I ended up taking some pictures locally and I went to a charm school out in Chicago called Cleo Johnson’s. They set up a lot of inner city youth for careers in modelling and runway. I was actually doing a runway show in New York for Guess and one of the producers from “The Cosby Show” was also a producer for the fashion show. That was how that link-up happened. Oddly enough, they told my mom there at the show that they were considering me and she didn’t believe them until we flew back to Chicago and they called us. They ended up flying us back and that’s how it all started.
Growing up on the sets of popular shows like “The Cosby Show” & “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” did you have an awareness that you were doing something that is not a typical childhood experience?
I did. My parents very much let me know that it was a separate thing. It was a job – you can have fun doing it, but it’s still a job. There are people whose lives depend on this set running smoothly. As a child, you almost have to do extra work to be accepted on set. My parents very much did the right thing as far as teaching me that I was working for the most part and helping me understand that concept. I still had a lot of fun, but there was definitely a noticeable difference. My parents also made sure I had as much of a normal experience as possible so I went to school and did a lot of activities there. I think I had a fairly normalized acting experience compared to most of my peers who didn’t go to school or were sheltered inside of entertainment.
Is there a project from your early career that you think of as a most valuable learning experience?
I feel like it’s probably “The Cosby Show,” just because the first time you work as a kid, you’re not really quite understanding things. I think because it was such an iconic show, that’s what got me into this mood of knowing, “I’m at work. I can have fun at work, but I’m still at work.” Being on “The Cosby Show,” you had Phylicia Rashad and Bill and all of those people who are very much elder statesmen of the crew who were able to teach me and mold me in a way where I was able to instantly jump into other sets. I went from there to do “Fresh Prince” and “Living Single,” and “Family Matters,” so it was preparation for the rest of my career for sure.
One of your early films that is somewhat of a hidden gem is “Slappy and the Stinkers.” Do you have any stories you can share from that?
So many! That was my first feature film ever so I was just super excited. That was a cast that actually had real kids, which is pretty rare when it comes to kid or teen movies these days. We did our own stunts and went to a sea lion camp for a couple weeks before we started shooting which was awesome. We were there training just like how you see people do at theme parks. We were learning how to do tricks and how to feed them properly and etiquette as far as greeting them and showing respect to them. They were larger animals so there was still some danger there, but they weren’t aggressive. They’re super fun animals. Just that alone, to be working with a live animal on your first film, was a blast.
I remember watching it all the time as a kid. I actually had no idea until recently that it underperformed at the box office.
It found legs WAY after its release. I remember when it first released, we were sort of supposed to be billed as the “New Little Rascals” and of course it didn’t happen. I think it was because around that time, “Little Rascals” was re-released so it was just one of those things where it wasn’t the right time. Later, I kept hearing people going, “Wow, you were in Slappy and the Stinkers!” I’m like, “How have you seen this? This was not watched.” What I’ve found, and I actually just recently tweeted about this, is that a lot of black families really had that in their VHS repertoire. A lot of kids said that this was the movie their parents bought because they couldn’t afford “Little Rascals.” “Slappy and the Stinkers” was on sale. They were probably like, “This looks fine, let’s just get this!” and that’s how a lot of kids ended up watching it over and over again.
How did you become part of the Nickelodeon family?
I originally became a part of it doing “Rocket Power.” I had initially been looking for a new agent at the time. With agent finding, it’s a lot of interviewing basically. You just go and see how the feel is with people, so that’s what we did with Arlene Thornton Associates, who became my agent. We were looking into being there for commercial and general on camera work, but what happened was when we were interviewing, she actually handed me a copy of “Rocket Power” just to gage my talent as far as where I was at with voice over. She ended up sending it in because she thought it was really good and I booked it. Basically, it was sort of a marriage that had to happen because she was like, “Hey, you booked this! What’s it look like as far as us representing you?” It was just one of those things that was really cool as far as how it happened. “Rocket Power” was on for five years and that was another project that featured real kids, which is especially rare in voice over, so that was a lot of fun. That was my start in voice over and from there, I went on to do “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “Fillmore!” and “Fairly Odd” and it was a really fun time.
In both “Rocket Power” and “The Fairly OddParents,” you were stepping in to replace other actors. Was it strange at first to come into a role that was originated by someone else?
You know, what’s funny is that both times I actually knew the people I was replacing so it wasn’t as strange as you would think. It was weird because I guess having experience with these people sort of led me to nail the roles a little bit better. I would think that the casting directors were looking for some parts of those actors because they ended up booking it in the first place. So I think because of my experience with both of those actors, I had a little bit of them in my performance and it helped as far as that chemistry was concerned.
Do you have a favorite memory of working on “The Fairly OddParents?”
Our Jimmy Neutron crossover was great. We would usually record with about three or four of us at a time. The Jimmy Neutron crossover was one of those things where you think about Spongebob or Jimmy Neutron or bigger cartoons than the one that you’re in, but then when it happens and you see these people, you’re like “Wow, I can’t believe we’re actually doing this!” Just having everyone from Jimmy Neutron there was great because we actually had them in the booth which again is a rare occasion for voice over. That’s one fun memory, but I grew up on that show. I mean, I’ve had birthdays in the booth, I’ve had graduation. They’ve seen me go through a lot!
You’ve said before that AJ is one of the characters you’ve played that’s been most influential to you. What was it about playing him that has resonated the most?
I just feel that in animation, when it comes to black boys, the representation was really meek. Especially at that time. Most of the time, especially kids, we get animated as these boisterous characters. I think AJ was solely unique because he was a genius, he was wealthy, his parents were in his life. Butch Hartman just did a great job of not leaning into what he thought people wanted to see and just creating good characters. I think that’s what really stuck with me. AJ’s just a great character. It has nothing to do with what Butch said in his head as far as putting a black kid in that position. I think seeing us just exist in those roles without pushing in the mind that “Hey, this is a black kid!” is even better because it shows that sort of normalcy and that African Americans can be in the same sort of realm as every other role.
It’s rare for a show to have the kind of run that “The Fairly OddParents” has had. How do you think it managed to outlast so many cartoons that started in that era?
As all longevity happens, it starts with great writing. Even with actors, the groundwork is always going to be the thing that keeps you in the game the longest. I think Butch just had such a great grasp on the times. He’s a comedian. I think that when you have that natural funniness and you’re writing a cartoon for kids, you’re always going to have that sort of panache for lasting long. You look at the great comedians of today, they’re still here. You look at the Steve Martin’s, the Eddie Murphy’s – they’ll release content and it’ll be just as relevant as their twenty year old content. I think that Butch is one of those people. People sometimes don’t realize that animation creators are those kinds of greats as well. When we look at how many episodes we’ve kept close to our heart or in our mind and say, “This is so hilarious and I’ll always remember this.” That’s what you do with comedians, right? You look at their stand-ups and you remember that one part that always makes you laugh and Butch has done that with “Fairly Odd.” It was on for eighteen years which is an incredible feat. That’s “Simpsons” territory and to even say that is already an accomplishment.
Onto your current projects, you’ve been working on a new show called “Trace.” Can you speak a little about the premise of the show and how you became involved with it?
“Trace” actually came to me through Anthony Bawn, who’s a friend of mine. Anthony creates great content for his own streaming network called BawnTv. They are LGBTQ focused, but not only, and they do very good work as far as doing shorts, features and television with that voice in mind. I had previously done a project with him called “Conframa,” which is a web series on his site, and after that we just developed a friendship. He approached me about this last year and said he had written this role with me in mind and was trying to see how I felt about it. I read the script and was just like, “Yes. Let’s get it started!”
“Trace” has been really great. We’ve had some challenges obviously because learning how to shoot in Covid and the pandemic has been challenging, especially on the independent front. It’s a little bit different, but the project is great. It’s a thriller, or I guess you could call it a “detective thriller.” It’s based in modern times, but has a noir feel so we decided to really give it its own sort of world. It’s actually based off of a true story of some murders that happened in San Francisco. There was a serial killer called the Doodler who would leave these drawings at his victim’s death sights. It’s based on that and does a riff to those times, but puts it in a modern age. It’s a great story.
Do you know when it will be released?
We’re looking to aim for fall of this year, I believe. I think at first they said spring, but I know we’re sort of scaling that because of the pandemic. It looks like we’re definitely going to hit by summer or fall.
This is the first time you’ve done on camera work in several years. Why did you decide to step back from it?
I had been with an agent, and I won’t name them because I’m not into badmouthing or anything like that, but they had been representing me for a while and I had gotten an offer for “Blackbird,” which was an LGBTQ film from a director named Patrik-Ian Polk. He had done a property called “Noah’s Arc,” which was very huge and he ended up bringing me along for the film. After that, he approached me for “Blackbird” and I loved the story and he said that he was going to offer me the role. So I called my agent and said, “Hey, I got a job,” and they said they’d call me back. They called me and they were just like, “We don’t really think you should do this. It’s another LGBTQ role and we don’t want you to get pigeonholed.” I’m just like, “Well, number one: This is only my second LGBTQ role so that’s weird. But two: I’ve played a nerd like eight times under your guys’ tutelage. At no time did you guys say ‘Hey, you think you might wanna not take this role because you might get stereotyped?’” It was very discriminatory and odd, the way they came at me. At the time, I was only eighteen and just sort of finding my way as far as choices for my career. I had just gotten to a time where I was able to pick and choose. Getting offers isn’t something that comes to every actor so to do that and have that privilege, I really wanted to take the time and care. They were sort of just trying to get me to brush it under the rug and I was just like, “I don’t know, I really wanna do this,” and I’m so thankful that I did. I got to work with Oscar winner Mo’Nique and do a really great film that changed a lot of people’s lives. I get letters every day from people who say that role is vital to their survival.
So with taking that role, I left my agent. I just said, “If this is not something you guys want me to do, we don’t have to work together.” I stayed that way, theatrical agent-less, for about seven years and was just working off of offers. But that was the reason. It really just doesn’t work out sometimes when you have that difference in opinion. For my life, especially now in my career, I’ve done everything that I can possibly want to do and now it’s about speaking to people so I’m going to take roles that I feel will do that. Whether that’s playing five LGBTQ roles in a row or playing a nerd again for eight years, I’m only going to take projects that will speak to people. Now I have a theatrical agent who accepts that. It’s actually Arlene, who has been my voice over and commercial agent for the past twenty years.
You’ve recently been coaching online acting workshops. How did that opportunity come about for you?
At first, I had been teaching my own little courses and I had those out for a little while. I’d done private coaching for years, but I had never done a class because I’ve always been sort of against the class structure and the things that happen after a class for actors. Especially actors who just get here to California and are really looking to break in. Classes tend to steer them in a direction that might be unnecessary or cost a lot of money or they end up in a big class where you don’t get a lot of care. I always strayed away from them, but Giovonnie Samuels, who was in “Bring it On: All or Nothing” with me, moved to Atlanta from LA and opened up her own acting school. It opened pre-pandemic, but as the pandemic happened of course she got shut down and everything went virtual. Through that, she kept getting requests for voice over and she was not in that world and didn’t know too many people in it. She called me and said, “I know how you feel about teaching, but this is kind of my mission. I want to be the anti-class. I want to be the company that says to people that what we’ve been doing is wrong. We are looking to change this.”
Her message spoke to me and knowing her and being close to someone and being in business with them in that way is so refreshing and relaxing. When you go into business with a stranger or a company, you don’t know where they can take it. But I know Gio and I just know that she’s never gonna steer her students in a way that’s unsavory. I decided to sign on with them. We’re at gsactingworkshops.com. We have everything from dramatic acting to comedy classes. I’m the head of the voice over department. We do private lessons and we have workshops. The workshops are basically for you guys to have experience and also exposure. We did one not too long ago for pilot season and it did amazing. We’re having another one for kids where we’ll focus on ages 6-17, which me and Gio are obviously experts on [laughs].
I imagine you’ve seen the entertainment industry change a lot in the last few decades. How different is it for someone navigating the industry today for the first time compared to when you started in the 90s?
Social media is number one. I say it all the time – back in the day, everything was so personal. I hate to sound like an old head because I was one of those people who always told people about technology. People were all, “Oh, technology makes us not be connected.” I’m like, “No, it actually does help us connect in other ways that you might not think.” But in the sense of acting, it definitely takes down the personal-ness of it. In the day, we had to gather together and go have lunch and dinner as a cast to get to know each other. Rehearsals happened. You had sitcoms that were way more prevalent back then and sitcoms had a format where you literally rehearsed with everybody on set for the whole week and then taped in front of a live studio audience on friday. That format alone gets you to be personal with these people. I think social media and technology has taken that away, especially now that we’re in the pandemic where everything has increased tenfold when it comes to the technology wall that we have. That’s the biggest thing for sure, as well as the approach and how people market themselves. Marketing for me was the work. You didn’t know I was an actor until you saw my acting. Now, you know someone’s an actor from ten miles away because they’re shouting it on social media.
I think the approach is so different. We didn’t have this stuff to market ourselves back then. I always say, “Man, if we did…” Back in that day, television was at a fever pitch – it is now, but it’s in a different way. Now, people are frothing at the mouth for television that comes to them versus back in my age we were frothing at the mouth for television we had to chase. You had to be home at 7:30 to watch “Family Matters” or you missed it and there was no DVR [laughs]. You just had to hope for a rerun months down the line. There was a lot more pursuing. The person that watched you sort of had to do a lot more. They wanted you more and requested you more whereas now you’re sort of just showing up to them.
Are there any other projects you’re currently working on?
I’ve been hard at work painting. I sort of had that happen as a hobby when I got into a bad car accident three years ago. I was bed ridden for a couple of months and had to do something to keep me going. I had always been into art, but never really took it seriously. I finally started taking it seriously and it’s turned into somewhat of a business. My brand is Art by GLG and it’s been really rewarding. I’m looking to expand that into other things. I’m hard at work recording a poetry album as well. I’ve been doing this for quite sometime and people have been requesting that I actually release something. That’s on the horizon and will probably be done by the summer. I also have a huge project that I can’t really talk about right now, but it’s really big – probably one of the bigger things I’ve done in my life. I can’t say much about it, but I can assure that people will enjoy it and love it.