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TALKING TO GENE ANTHONY RAY By Kay Anderson
A day's filming on Fame is full, strenuous and busy. There is little time to take breaks - indeed, it's hard to have any concept of time at all, especially if you try to rely on that round clock you may have seen mounted on the wall of one of the school corridor sets. I saw one or two people snatch hopeful glances at it when it said 12.42, then I realised an amusing fact: that clock always reads 12.42. It doesn't work! It was really only 11.30 a.m., and the tired, hungry actors and dancers had been working hard since 7.30 that morning.
The scene I was watching being filmed involved a small boy who had attached himself to Leroy and followed him to school. Miss Sherwood, the English teacher, has spotted him at the drinking fountain, noticed that he's far too young to be a pupil at the School Of The Arts, and is making enquiries about him. She asks Leroy if he's seen the boy and gets suspicious when she hears his evasive answers. She realises that Leroy's tough attitude is only a protective shell which he's built up to help him survive all on his own in the big city, with his mother working far away in another town and an ex-convict brother who is never around.
Miss Sherwood knows he's got a soft heart under his aggressive exterior and that if anyone has taken that little boy under his wing, it's Leroy.
I looked on as Gene Anthony Ray acted his part in the scene to perfection. Leroy doesn't want to lie to Miss Sherwood, so he mumbles instead and won't give a direct answer. As the shot ends, you can see that they're angry with each other. Well, Miss Sherwood and Leroy are. But as for the real-life people, Carol Mayo Jenkins and Gene Anthony Ray, they relax with each other the moment the camera is off them, and stand there laughing and chatting between shots. It's extremely interesting to watch them turn back into their characters the minute the director calls, "Action!", then back into themselves again as soon as he calls, "Cut!"
Carol Mayo Jenkins is a beautiful woman who looks years younger and much less tired than Miss Sherwood. That's what good acting skills can do! Gene Anthony Ray is a lot more easygoing than Leroy ever is. He's got a fabulous smile and displays it far more frequently when he's not being Leroy. In fact, as a person, Gene is very friendly and outgoing and has a wave and a smile for everyone.
The cast often have to make swift changes of clothes during a day's filming. When I'd first seen Gene that day, he'd been wearing a rehearsal or dance class outfit of red satin basketball shorts over grey sweat pants and sweatshirt. Now he was looking very sexy in a buckskin coloured velour jogging suit.
Many actors don't like being spoken to between the different shots of a scene as it disturbs their concentration but Gene says it doesn't bother him. Although we only had a few minutes to talk, he ushered me into the school cafeteria set for a quick sit down while the crew were setting up the next shot. The one I'd just seen them do was filmed from Miss Sherwood's point of view, looking at Leroy. Now they were moving the camera and resetting the lights, to shoot Leroy's eyeview of Miss Sherwood.
We sat at one of the long lunch tables, beneath a poster all about nutrition and the seven basic food groups, which was pasted onto the dingy wall. Although the sets are only a few months old, they manage to reproduce perfectly that familiar look of an ageing, budget-pinched, much used school building.
The first thing I noticed about Gene which surprised me, was that he was taller than I'd expected. Dancers tend to be of medium height and I had assumed Gene to be shorter than the five feet ten inches or so that he measures. I studied his hands as he rested them on the table; they were large and strong-looking and he didn't fidget with them in the nervous way so many actors do, continually fiddling with something, or moving them about.
His eyes are large and dark, with incredible long, thick lashes. One of the most distinctive things about his appearance is his hairstyle, which consists of those small, close-against-the-scalp braids known as corn-rows.
"If Leroy lives alone," I asked jokingly, "who does his hair for him?"
"His girlfriend, does!" Gene replied instantly. It's obvious that he's thought a lot about his character and could answer most questions about his life and background. Most black guys, if they wear their hair like this, have it fixed by their sisters or girlfriends. But what about Gene himself?
"What do you look like when your hair's not in corn-rows?" I asked him.
He looked thoughtful for a moment, then admitted, "I don't even remember. I've worn it this way for so long, about five years or so. Nobody here has ever seen me with my hair any other way. My family mightn't even know me!"
It turns out that, when Gene is filming over on this side of the States, in Hollywood, his famous hairdo is looked after by Eartha Robinson, one of the dancers who also plays a pupil at the School Of The Arts. She's done some stunning dance routines in some of the episodes in the second series. Naturally, a burning question was on my lips and I asked Gene if Eartha was his girlfriend. But he just smiled and winked, and told me, "She's part of my family. Everyone on the show is family."
It turns out that Gene misses his real-life family very much indeed. They live in New York - and ironically just as Leroy lives alone in New York, so Gene lives alone in Los Angeles, though in better circumstances than Leroy's!
Earlier, I'd overheard Gene talking to the mother of the little boy, Chris Lewis, who was playing his self-appointed brother in the episode. Chris and his mother had come over from New York City to do the filming and Gene had been asking them what the weather had been like when they left his home town. In a few days, he'd be there himself, though only very briefly. The Fame kids had been invited to appear in a Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. They were to leave late on the Wednesday night and be up the next day at 5.30 a.m. to prepare for their part in the parade, and return to Los Angeles the following Sunday to resume Fame filming on the Monday.
"I'll sure be glad to see my family," Gene told me. "I've got a twenty-five year old sister named Pearl and a little brother called Nairobi, just like the city in Africa. He's eleven. My mother's name is Jean. In fact, at home I'm called Tony, but most people out here call me Gene."
It's easy to see why folks at home call him Tony. They could hardly have a Jean and a Gene in the same household; things would get far too complicated!
His face lights up in a soft, wistful smile when he talks about home. "I'll be glad to see my dog, too. He's a German Shepherd named Ghenzi," he added.
Gene was born in New York City on May 24th, 1962 and grew up there. Right from an early age his exuberant personality and musical skills marked him out for show-business and so as soon as he was old enough he entered the High School for the Performing Arts in New York. He was studying there when MGM came to hold auditions for the Fame movie, and he immediately won the role of Leroy. A good deal of Leroy's complex personality comes from Gene, drawn from himself and from other people he's observed. One mark of a good actor is that they always watch and listen closely to other people, in the hope of picking up mannerisms, voice reflections and other points of characterisation which could be useful to them in the future.
I asked Gene what, of all things, he liked to do best.
"Dance," he replied at once. He's always danced, from the time he could stand up. Play some music and he'll improvise a dance routine, any time, any place. His dancing in the Fame movie was so electrifying that it was hard to believe the publicity releases which said he'd never had any formal dance training before attending High School.
"I like swimming, too," he added. "And travelling. I really love to travel."
I commented that he'd be getting a chance to do some over Christmas, when the Fame troupe visited Britain.
"I've been to England before, but I'll go again any time I have the chance," he told me. "I love the people there."
Before he could say any more, he was told that shooting was about to resume, and he had to go back to work. But before he did, he walked me to the exit of the soundstage, opened the heavy, insulated doors for me, and thanked me for talking to him. As I was walking up the studio street, I heard the sound of the doors being opened again. Looking round, I saw Gene sticking his head out.
"Be sure and mention how much I love my mother!" he called after me. Mrs. Ray, you've really got a fantastic son!
This interview was provided to me by Stuart Farrell.
The article above is from the Official Fame Magazines from 1983. The OFFICIAL FAME MAGAZINE was published by Beat Publications Ltd. and the interviews are copyright MGM/UA Entertainment Co.