Friday, 6 May 2016

LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU: Breakout star Desmond Dennis gets a thrill out of putting on a show, growing as an artist

WATCH ME NOW: The Clarendon-bred actor shares how the arts transformed his life.

When Desmond Dennis was younger he read Ben Carson’s international bestseller Gifted Hands. He was so inspired by the book that he wanted to become a neurosurgeon when he grew up. Trouble is, Dennis never expected to fall in love with the arts, an intrusive tyrant that now practically defines his life. “Acting, for me, was just to see my friends laugh. So when I started out, it was just for their entertainment. It wasn’t anything I took seriously,” shares the graduate of the UWI Mona Dramatic Arts Society (UDAS), where the acting bug bit hard and friends saw a future star. “They were the ones who saw my talent and encouraged me to take it seriously.”

He took their advice to heart. Today, barely in his twenties, Dennis has landed among the cohort of rising stars in Jamaican theatre, specifically the vanguard of promising young leading men (Brian Johnson, Jomo Dixon) who are making their presence felt.

Audiences who’ve seen Dahlia Harris’ laugh riot Same Difference, Joan Belfon’s Man Talk and last year’s superfunny Ole Fyah Stick got a glimpse of Dennis’ spiky gift for comedy, not to mention his dramatic flair. Lucky for the up-and-coming thespian, he’s never lacked for inspiration. “I look up to them because I grew up watching them,” he says, referring to Oliver Samuels and Volier Johnson, who are among his favourites from over the years. “So the fact that I’m here breathing life into these characters, it’s very nice for me as a young actor to have them as guides.”

But Dennis’ star nearly didn’t rise at all. Turns out this Ben Carson fan was a bit of a science buff back in high school (Clarendon’s Glenmuir High), who went on to enroll in science-related studies at UWI before Fate intervened. “Once I became so heavily involved in the performing arts at UWI I stopped loving the sciences as much,” confesses the actor, who then upped and switched his major to Science, Media and Communication, a degree programme he completed last year.

Now, with the likes of Harris and a host of other theatre-based aunties and uncles helping him develop his craft, Dennis is pressing the accelerator on his acting ambitions. “It’s so overwhelming to have the veterans support my growth. You’d expect [them] to be hyped and stuck-up but it’s quite the opposite. They were really supportive from the get-go,” says Dennis, who enjoys the family-like vibe that working on a show like Same Difference (with icons Volier Johnson and Deon Silvera) brings. “Even when Auntie Dahlia would direct me, [they] would give me pointers. Everyone from the acting family has been basically guiding me along. And it’s encouraging to get their support.”

Desmond Dennis, a country boy at heart, hails from “cool, calm” Vernamfield in Clarendon, where his relatives were somewhat divided over his decision to venture into the performing arts. “At first, only a part of the family was supportive. My siblings were cool, but the older ones were a bit shocked. But after they saw me performing they came around,” he tells TALLAWAH. The first of four kids for his dad and the last of five for his mother, Dennis says there’s no royal treatment now that he’s hit ‘the big leagues’. But, when all is said and done, having the support of his folks means the world to him. “They haven’t seen [Same Difference] yet, but they’ve come to my other shows,” he tells us. “It’s nice to have the family interested in what I do.”

Back at Mona, Dennis served two consecutive terms as President of UDAS. Impressing the judges with outstanding performances in the Philip Sherlock Centre-hosted Tallawah competition, he’s picked up trophies for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, commendation awards for his scripts, and directed a few of his peers to Best Actress and supporting-actor honours. Pooling their ideas and resources, in 2015 he and an armful of friends started Apeiron Digital Pro, a production company that will release projects like short films in the near future.

And he wants to put his media degree to effective use. “I see myself being one of those young persons to sort of herald a positive change in Jamaican media. Even though I love the theatre, I want to grow more in media,” says Dennis. “I believe there is much more to the culture and to the country than we always see presented, so a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on has to do with showing the other side.”

Throughout it all, as he looks to spread his wings and bring to the stage more colourful characters like Same Difference’s impossible ghetto nerd Ivor, Desmond Dennis vows to remain true to who he really is: a born entertainer. “I get a lot of enjoyment out of the fact that people enjoy seeing me work. I always try to find the core of the character,” the 24-year-old notes, “and in playing the character’s truth I bring people enjoyment. And that encourages me to keep going.” 

 “It’s so overwhelming to have the veterans support my growth.”

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