When he burst onto the small screen in 1994, on TV’s sci-fi semiclassic Earth 2, Rockmond Dunbar was just a wide-eyed, fresh-faced kid from Northern California who was happy to be working in Hollywood. Dunbar was a rather green 21-year-old who shared the screen with other young notables (Rebecca Gayheart and Antonio Sabato Jr., to name two), but he caught the attention of fans—and Tinseltown insiders—right from the start. Today, fans know the 39-year-old Dunbar best for his iconic characters from acclaimed series—Kenny Chadway on Soul Food, C-Note Franklin on Prison Break, Pookie on The Game, Jalen on Girlfriends, Detective Mark Gustafson on Terriers, and his latest turn, as Lt. Eli Roosevelt of the sheriff’s department, the rare “good” guy on FX’s outlaw biker drama, Sons of Anarchy. With fame came an increasing presence as an activist, for gay rights (after appearing in the gay-themed film Punks and on gay TV series Noah’s Arc), African-American visibility in Hollywood, and HIV awareness. For years he’s been one of the few celebrities who has used his fame to push for more HIV testing among black men—with the Black AIDS Institute’s Greater Than AIDS campaign—and he’s taken on roles that show that people with HIV are not stock characters. He played a closeted married man with HIV on Private Practice and the conflicted brother of an HIV-positive man (played by Hill Harper) on Soul Food. Dunbar, who was named one of Television’s 50 Sexiest Stars of All Time by TV Guide, took a few moments on the set of Sons of Anarchy (which returns for its fifth season September 11) to talk about his iconic roles, what it will take to stop HIV, and how a DNA test changed his life.
HIV Plus: Your Sons of Anarchy character, Sheriff Eli, upends TV tradition. Too often when we have black men on-screen, they’re the criminals, not the cops. How do you see the character of Eli? Rockmond Dunbar: Not only a groundbreaking role in general, but he is another representation of a positive African-American male character in a stable, powerful, and impactful job. Sheriff Eli is acknowledged as being the greatest nemesis for the lead characters to date on the show.
There’s a scene on Sons where Jax, who the show centers around, is reading his dad’s journals about his motorcycle club. One line is “A true outlaw finds the balance between the passion in his heart and the reason in his mind. The outcome is the balance of might and right.” Do you think Eli has found the balance between the passion in his heart and the reason in his mind? Yes, he has. In the last episode, when Eli gives Juice [the bikers’ intelligence officer] back his case file he tells him, “You are a criminal, you do bad shit. I’m a police officer, I try to stop you.” This to me clearly demonstrates that Eli knows who he is and what he is really willing to do to bring righteousness and justice to his part of the world. Finding, knowing, and living that balance.