Former college basketball player Rafael V. DeLeon got the introduction of a lifetime during NBA All-Star Weekend in 2015 when he met famed film director Spike Lee. He promised himself that he’d grind until he got the chance to work on a film with Lee.
That promise was fulfilled when DeLeon was cast in Lee’s newest project with Netflix, She’s Gotta Have It, a 10-episode dramedy that follows a young woman, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), who dates three very different men in current-day Brooklyn, New York.
The series is a reworking of the 1986 film of the same name that launched Lee’s career. Besides directing, he also starred in it as the character Mars Blackmon, an aspiring rapper and one of Darling’s love interests. In an interview with The New York Times in 1986, Lee described the film as being about a woman “leading her life like a man, in control, with three men dangling at her fingertips.”
In the series, DeLeon plays Manny Garciela, the best friend to Blackmon (Anthony Ramos).
DeLeon played for Temple University, where he started out as a walk-on and worked his way up to an athletic scholarship. After earning his degree in business administration and marketing, he landed a job working for the mayor of Washington, D.C., in the Executive Office of Boards and Commissions. The actor has also appeared in House of Cards, The Americans and The Breaks.
The Undefeated spoke with DeLeon about working with Lee, why Will Smith from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was his childhood hero and lessons he’s learned growing up black and Puerto Rican in America.
What do you hope viewers take from the Netflix series?
When Spike did the original film in ’86, he was already in uncharted territory on what was commonplace in cinema at the time. Since then, a lot has changed in culture as it relates to marriage and equality. Spike touches on some of that content from the original film, but with this remake, there’s a strong focus on black women, their liberation and being the captain of their own fate.
How was it working with Lee?
Spike is awesome! On set we were deciding on certain dance moves, and he asked me to do the worm at one point. He’s so collaborative and asks questions that really brings the best out of actors. It was a dream come true to work with him.
How did you get into playing basketball at the collegiate level?
I was always taller than my classmates as a kid, and pretty skinny and lanky too. I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which had a strong reputation for hoopers, so I gravitated toward basketball and made use of my height. I played collegiately at Averett University in Danville, Virginia, my freshman year. I knew that I wanted to play at the highest level, so the summer going into my sophomore year I sent some of my [game] tapes to the assistant coaching staff at Temple. I knew that Temple’s basketball program was in transition, so I thought if there was ever an opportunity to get a fresh start with the new coaching staff and program, then would be the time. I started off as a walk-on and made the team.
If you could be any athlete dead or alive, who would it be?
Muhammad Ali. Being stripped of his title in the middle of his prime and having the self-confidence to stare the unknown down while also maintaining his sense of self is something that I aspire to. Second would be LeBron James. I admire his athletic greatness. For players to navigate the world, especially in this current climate, is a fine art. LeBron does a phenomenal job both on and off the court.
After college graduation, what drew you to working in politics?
I have a strong passion for social activism and justice. When I graduated from college, it was 2010 and President Barack Obama was in office. One of my focus areas was outreach and helping move the conversation along in actionable way. I felt like politics was the quickest and most impactful way to make change, both on the systemic and personal level.
What have you learned from working in politics as a man of color?
There are a lot of variables in play in the political space. Some of it works contrary to what the perceived greater good is, and vice versa. As a biracial man of color in America, there have been things that I recognized from an early age. As a kid, I would get asked about why my father looked the way he did. Being in an African-American-dominated county, my father being Puerto Rican stood out. I was aware of how I was perceived at a very young age … when you add on to that the layers of middle-class America and how that looks to white America, I began to kind of see different levels of it play out at different stages. In college I studied business administration, and in my upper-level classes there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. I witnessed and experienced little trickle-down effects of just how deeply entrenched certain societal mechanisms were.
Who was your childhood hero?
Will from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When you look back, you see that the entire premise of the show was watching Will try to assimilate to a completely different culture and norm based on socioeconomic status. That in itself is like … whoa! The level of comedy and topics discussed was done so tactfully. It had a lasting effect on me and laid the groundwork and planted the seeds for where I am today, as far as being aware and identifying different things in life and culture.
What lessons have you learned from basketball that you’ve transferred to your acting career?
Making the team and the successes that we had as a team at Temple really showed me how it takes courage to take a leap of faith. If you keep doing that, good things will happen — shoutout to [Redskins quarterback] Kirk Cousins who said that — and you can chart your own course. I’ve always been interested in film and the arts, so when I told my parents about pursuing acting, they were really supportive. I had a track record at that point for leaving something that was secure for something that wasn’t and making it work.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
‘Never get too high. Never get too low.’ My dad told me that. Especially as an actor in New York, the highs are extremely high and the lows are pretty low, as far as when you’re in between jobs or casting says, ‘No, thanks.’ Maintaining that center of balance and not allowing too much success get to your head, and not beating yourself up too much when things aren’t going your way, have been extremely valuable in all elements of my life.