Recognized Worldwide, Theatre Alumnus Got His Start at MSU

Bernard WhiteTheatre alumnus Bernard White is recognizable worldwide from having performed extensively on stage, TV and film. The veteran actor has had a long and successful career, spanning more than 30 years, which can be traced back to his time as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University.

It was at MSU where he took his first acting class, performed in his first play, and decided to pursue acting as a career.

“There’s something beautiful for an actor to go back to where it began,” White said during a recent visit to MSU. “This is where I really decided to be an actor. I would not be an actor today if it were not for this place.”

With a lengthy list of credits to his name, White’s career has taken him all around the world. One of his most memorable roles was playing opposite Keanu Reeves as Rama-Kandra in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.

This is where I really decided to be an actor. I would not be an actor today if it were not for this place.

He has appeared in more than 30 feature films, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier with Chris Evans and Samuel Jackson; City of Angels with Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage; Pay It Forward with Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey; Raising Helen with Kate Hudson and John Corbett; Wim Wender's Land of Plenty with Michelle Williams; and Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's It's Kind of a Funny Story with Zach Galifianakis.

A familiar face to TV viewers, White has recurred on some of television’s most popular series including 24, Castle, JAG, L.A. Law and Knots Landing.

He recently finished filming for Showtime’s Homeland, where he will appear in three episodes in 2017 as Farhad Nafisi, and for season four of HBO’s critically acclaimed Silicon Valley, also airing in 2017. Appearing in each of Silicon Valley's four seasons, White plays the spiritual advisor, Denpok.

An acclaimed stage actor, White has acted on stages across North America and around the world as well as in several Off-Broadway shows, including The Tempest (NYSF in Central Park), Blood and Gifts (Lincoln Center Theater), Landscape of the Body (Signature Theatre), and The Death of Garcia Lorca (The Public Theatre).

Becoming a Theatre Major

It was White’s sister, Ivy, an actress herself, who encouraged him to pursue acting. However, he wasn’t convinced at first, and came to MSU as a no preference major. That changed after he took his first acting class his third semester of college.

I thought I would stay a no preference major, but after that Intro to Acting class, I immediately changed my major.

“I thought I would stay a no preference major, but after that Intro to Acting class, I immediately changed my major,” White said.

With a newly declared major going into his sophomore year, White began performing in Department of Theatre plays. As a sophomore, he was cast in one of the principal roles in the American premiere of the Indian play Sakharam Binder at MSU’s Arena Theatre, to which he received glowing reviews.

Bernard White teaching at Michigan State University


Leading Roles

More than 20 years after his Sakharam Binder performance at MSU, White received a call telling him that a director wanted to meet him to play the lead in “an American premiere of a play called Sakharam Binder” for New York’s The Play Company, to which he replied: “an American premiere, I did that play at Michigan State University.”

“But this was a big deal,” White said. “They were celebrating the living legend VJ Tendulkar, the Arthur Miller of India, with a festival in New York and this play was the centerpiece of the festival, and VJ Tendulkar was in town and involved. The New York Times gave me the best review. I don’t think I could have gotten a better review had I wrote it myself.”

It was at MSU in 1979 during his junior year when White had his fist leading role. He was given the role as the result of another actor’s misfortune.

I don’t think I could have gotten a better review had I wrote it myself.

“I was cast as Jonathan Harker in Dracula, but Philip Horn, the grad student playing Dracula, broke his ankle. The director, George Schuttler, took a chance and gave me the part,” White said. “I got horrible reviews from the Lansing State Journal and The State News. One of the reviews that rang true to me called me Dracula Junior, like I didn’t have the gravitas. There also was another Dracula going on at the BoarsHead Theatre at the same time and they had a professional actor playing it, so they compared me.

“That review came out shortly after I received good reviews for Sakharam Binder. So the first time I was ever reviewed was for Sakharam Binder and it was really inflating, and then Dracula was deflating. But for some reason, I didn’t give it too much weight. It really hurt my feelings, but how it helped me is it humbled me.”

Breaking Into the Business

After graduating from MSU in 1982 with a B.A. in Theatre, White moved to Los Angeles and didn’t stop his education. He got into acting classes, kept doing little plays, and people started to take notice. He landed his first television role in 1983 on the soap opera Days of Our Lives

"I broke into the business just by doing what I love,” White said. “I just kept doing it. I think if you’re serious enough and you love it enough, people start to notice.”

White said he approaches each new character with “love, respect and the spirit of service. That it’s not about me. It’s about serving a play, a character. I get the privilege of bringing this thing off the page to life and it’s a huge responsibility. I want to be able to be an advocate for this person in this story and then serve the director and the writer.”

I broke into the business just by doing what I love.

Besides acting, White has directed, founded three theatre companies in L.A. – The Franklin Field, plymouth and Silent H – and has written screenplays.

“I’ve had three plays produced, but I’ve written about 10, and workshopped one at Oregon Shakespeare festival last year,” White said. “I want to develop them more and get my plays out there and find homes for them. I’d also like to write a TV series. I like the solitude of writing and I think I want to turn more and more to writing.”

Coming Back to Where It All Began

White spent a week at MSU in October meeting with faculty and speaking to undergraduate and graduate acting classes, holding a one-on-one monologue workshop, and sharing advice.

“I want students to know that this is life, right here. That it’s not about what happens after graduation. It’s not about what they’re going to get in the future. Because the future is never promised, and the future it’s not even real,” White said. “So notice the face of the guy whose running the lawn mower on campus. Notice the trees changing, just be here because they’re going to miss it when they’re not. If they cultivate that practice of presence, it’s going to serve them well and help them the rest of their lives.”

I want students to know that this is life, right here. That it’s not about what happens after graduation.

White said the campus visit reminded him of “how fortunate I was to be here and what perfect faculty I was under. All of them taught me that acting and theatre is a serious, sacred business.”

One of those faculty members was Artist in Residence John Goodlin.

“He taught me so much,” White said. “He played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and just to be able to observe him backstage and how he got ready and prepared. It’s stuck with me to this day and it’s helped me so much.”

White called his recent campus visit “renewing and inspiring.” “It’s just been such a profound gift and so meaningful for me. It’s humbling to see people 35 years younger than me with the fear in the eyes and their whole lives ahead. They’re giving me way more than I’m giving them. Their passions and their fears. They are my own and they are pure, and I get to gather that up and go.”