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Showbiz vet Dutton takes 'Time' to Lifetime

2/26/2009, 9:38 a.m.

In the made-for-TV movie “Racing for Time,” which debuted Feb. 16 on Lifetime, veteran actor Charles S. Dutton plays Cleveland “Stack” Stackhouse, a guard at a youth prison who has a positive impact on the lives of the young offenders in his charge by forming a track team. Co-starring Elizabeth Peña (“Lone Star”) as the prison superintendent and a truly impressive Yaya DaCosta (“Take the Lead”) as a young woman learning to trust herself instead of the bad influences in her life, the gritty, hard-edged “Time” — based on a true story — presents a very different look for a network famous for its “women in jeopardy” TV movies.

Dutton, who also directed, knows all about gritty and hard-edged. In a career spanning more than 20 years, he has acted in, produced and directed a number of works looking at life from a street-level view — a view acquired, in part, through his serving 7-1/2 years in prison. It was there that Dutton discovered his love for theater, which ultimately led him to attend Yale School of Drama.

From the Emmy-winning “The Corner,” an unflinching look at the Baltimore drug that he directed for HBO, to his own nuanced 1990s sitcom “Roc,” to his Tony Award-nominated work with playwright August Wilson on Broadway, Dutton has proven to be a keen observer of the African American experience.

The Banner recently caught up with the 57-year-old Maryland native to chat about “Racing for Time,” his love of the theater and his reputation as a serious, socially conscious performer.

Yaya DaCosta, who plays Vanessa (the lead in “Racing for Time”), is impressive, both fierce and vulnerable as a teen caught between the streets and the harder, better path. Where did you find her?

She’s something else, isn’t she? I did a movie … called “Honeydripper” and Yaya was in that film, and as I watched her work I said, “My God, this girl is great.” She’s an absolute, total natural.

You’ve done a lot of work with HBO and Showtime — had you done anything with Lifetime before?

It’s funny you should ask, because at first when I was approached, I said flatly, “I’m not interested. A Lifetime movie — are you kidding? I don’t do Lifetime.” And then I got the script. The script was really bad originally, but then I went to have a meeting with the producers and they told me the real story. I got a chance to visit the institution in California and talk with the real prison guard, and then I got jazzed up about it. Admittedly, they weren’t HBO or Showtime so you could only go so far, but I was assured by Lifetime that they wanted to do something different, get a younger audience and be a little hipper and a little more graphic.

Why did you choose to shoot the film in New Orleans?

Like any other thing that’s shot in New Orleans, it’s always about how cheap it is. It wasn’t my choice.
People in the community must have been grateful for it, though.

Yeah, but you get down there and it’s still the “good ol’ boy” system and it’s fraught with all of its fraudulences. And then you’re shooting post-Katrina and you get upset that you’re still seeing areas that haven’t been cleaned up, and you hear the awful things that the government and FEMA did to people, and are still doing to people. So it’s just extremely taxing if you’re conscientious.

Although you’ve appeared in comedies and lighter fare in film and television, people generally associate you with socially conscious projects. Is that by design?

Part of it is, but then at the same time, it’s also the fickleness of the industry. The minute you do something dramatic, they forget you know how to do comedy. The minute you get accolades and notoriety as a comic, they forget that you know how to do drama. When I won an Emmy award for “The Corner,” I didn’t get an acting offer for almost a year. It was all directing offers. So it just fell that way, and that’s okay. I like this kind of stuff, but at the same time I would’ve loved to have done a broad, zany, nonsensical, no-message comedy. (laughs)

What will you do next?

I’m going to try and start doing more [theater] now. I’m at an age where I can now play King Lear and really play it. I plan to do a production of “Death of a Salesman” at the Yale Repertory Theatre in the fall.

For more information on “Racing for Time,” including upcoming air dates, visit www.mylifetime.com.

Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic at the Boston Globe.