By Kimberly Mortson – If you talk to Antoine McKay for even five minutes there’s no question he’s a great actor. Why? Because his genuine “nice guy” personality overpowers the fictionalized “thug” persona he’s portrayed in two of his most recent acting roles including the hit FOX series, Empire, and an upcoming short dramatic film, made in Detroit, called 24/7.
McKay, 44, is a shining star amongst his family and friends that are proud to see a local kid make it in show business. Although he didn’t move far (he now resides in Illinois) he credits the hardworking nature of the place he still refers to as “home” – Michigan – with the success he’s achieved, and the accolades he’s received.
“It’s just the way people are when they’re from Michigan. Hard working. All of my friends from Wayne and the people there – they were just so cool and nice and creative – that all became a part of me, of who I am. I loved Wayne. I’ve been blessed to travel all over the world but the city and the people there are just great,” said McKay.
A 1988 graduate of Wayne Memorial High School, McKay was raised in Inkster and attended Franklin Junior High School. He remembers his very first acting role fondly. “I played the innkeeper [The Nativity Story] at my church when I was in kindergarten. I continued to do little skits in my church after that.”
Once in high school, McKay was involved in both the choir and a variety of school plays and musicals. I performed in Pippin my senior year,” he recalls. After graduation he attended Eastern Michigan University (EMU) in Ypsilanti and immersed himself in the forensics program and the theater. He excelled in the activity and even won the national championship title for the National Speech & Debate Association of the National Forensics League. Participating in speech and debate competitions undoubtedly helped him to hone his public speaking skills. “It was a really great learning experience,” added McKay.
It was after the theater arts program at EMU that McKay studied under famed acting coach Uta Hagen, a two-time Tony-award winning actor and renowned acting teacher. The takeaway for all of Hagen’s students was her belief in “realism and truth” in acting – encouraging her students to interject their own personal experiences and emotions into their characters. “It was such a privilege to learn from, and work with her,” said McKay.
Although McKay was classically trained in the theater at Eastern, it was his comedic side that he explored in his next big acting opportunity in the early 1990’s – being on the Main Stages of Second City in Detroit and then Chicago. “That was life changing,” said McKay. “I remember after I left Michigan and I was sent to Chicago I was freaking out. It was my first night on stage and I was in the dressing room by myself. The door opens and Mike Myers walks in. It was insane. He was so nice and told me I was going to be great. I realized then I made it. I belonged there.”
When asked how long McKay worked at Second City he recalls the dates as fast as he would important life milestones, “July 30, 1997 to April 24, 2006.” It’s not hard for McKay to remember the timeframe and savor the memories when he had the privilege to work in the company of such alumni as Myers, Keegan-Michael Key, Marc Evan Jackson, Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert.
In addition to Second City his credits include starring roles in commercials and television appearances on programs including Detroit 187 (ABC), ER (NBC), Prison Break (FOX), Sports Action Team (NBC).
McKay has appeared in such feature films as The Weatherman, with Nicholas Cage, Someone to Eat Cheese With, alongside Jeff Garland, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and Osso Bucco, with Mike Starr. His most recent appearances in FOX’s breakout show Empire and Comedy Central’s Review, starring Andy Daly, speak to not only his adaptability as an actor, but his love of the game.
“I love working,” said McKay.
Admittedly it’s the “thug” role he auditioned for in Empire, a dramatic series that centers on a family and their hip hop and music entertainment company that has put him on the map.
McKay said his agent called him about auditioning for a Lee Daniels project that was going to be filmed in Chicago. “Of course I said yes.” The Inkster native learned his ultimate character fate after reading the script for the first time – the character Marcus “Bunkie” Williams was killed in the pilot episode by leading actor Terrance Howard who portrays hip-hop mogul “Lucious.”
“I read it and I liked it. By the God’s grace I had a great rapport with all the actors and crew on set.” Director Daniels told McKay, “I hate that we’re doing this to you (killing his character in the pilot episode).” But McKay said he was willing to “take one for the team” considering his death became a recurring memory throughout the season. His character also made an appearance as the first season drew to a close and he returned as a ghost of himself. When asked if fans can expect to see him in the second season of Empire that begins filming in June, McKay admits he can’t say much. “Unfortunately I can’t disclose that at this time.”
Understandable but Empire fans know after watching the season finale – there’s a good chance he’ll reprise his ghost role again.
McKay has an empire of his own that keeps him just as busy as his acting career – being a husband and father to six children. “It’s crazy time in my house and on top of that my wife and I own a small business,” said McKay.
Rebecca, his wife of 10 years, has been his manager since day one. “I was living in Chicago and was looking for someone to help me. I opened my door and there she was. That was it for me. We were married three months later. She makes me better and makes me want to be better. She’s so sweet and such an amazing mom and wife.”
McKay said together they run McKay Arts Management, a privately owned theater company and they’re in the works to establish a second company that provides corporate education using improvisational techniques.
The father of six said three of his children are involved in acting, one is a writer and two are athletes (including a basketball player and a gymnast). “They’re all so talented and a real blessing.” McKay said he’s really looking forward to the chance he’ll get this summer to act with one of his son’s. “We’re doing a movie together, He Sends Rain, and my son has a leading role in the movie. I play a counselor/pastor.” “He’s really talented. He’s making me step-up my game.”
McKay is currently in Atlanta shooting a role for an upcoming movie “Keeping Up with the Joneses” starring Zach Galifianakis, but said he’ll be returning to the Detroit area in a week to visit family and attend the wedding of his cousin. “It’s always great to come back, especially to Detroit. Michigan in general has a whole different mentality. People work hard work hard and then they go up north and chill. They work hard to earn it.”
Detroit is also glad to have McKay back anytime he comes home. In April, the Detroit City Council gave him a 2015 Spirit of Detroit Award. “That was really a great honor.”
Whether he’s in a serious role about the drug trade in Detroit (24/7), an unscrupulous troublemaker in the TV show Empire, or he’s hamming it up on the big screen in the company of comedic greats Galifianakis and Jon Hamm – Antoine McKay is genuinely talented. He’s undeniably found success by balancing the hardworking virtues instilled in him by his parents, together with his theatrical training over a career that spans more than 20 years. “I’m definitely a product of my environment and I’m proud of it,” said McKay. A sense of gratification that he shows both in his love of his hometown, and the craft he calls a career.