Demarcus Tillman Is the Best Thing to Happen to ‘American Vandal’
We spoke to actor Melvin Gregg about how his unique story added a layer of believability to the beloved character.
Melvin Gregg as DeMarcus Tillman | Image courtesy of Netflix.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Actor Melvin Gregg didn’t immediately know that he was about to star in a Netflix series about poop. “I didn’t even know it was going to be about poop,” he tells me as I hold myself together at the sound of poop. “I just knew that it [American Vandal] was coming from a season about dicks, so I knew that it was about to be something ridiculous straight off the bat.”
And yeah, it was ridiculous. That’s been a long-running deceptiveness of American Vandal—the guise of the self-serious true crime vignette: ultra grievous expressions decked out with murky lights and multi-angled stare downs. With that blend of high school life and the social pranks that came with it—tainted lemonade leading to involuntary pooping in season 2—asking who did it and why did they do it?
In the case of the former Vine star and current social media influencer, there’s a certain metaness to his character DeMarcus Tillman, one of a few accused of being the “turd burglar” in question. From a fictional standpoint, DeMarcus is your everyday ball-is-life celebrity athlete of a character with a personality created by the idea of clout. He speaks with Gregg’s same Virginian dialect, commands attention, and is honest to a fault—a source of his stupidly innocent humor. But through his fame, issues of alienation, race, and athletic favoritism are addressed. Gregg commands attention in a similar way. He’s used his popularity to become an actor through his daily skits and Vine grind. Now, he’s navigating through a home-grown fame that he admits can present its own alienating issues in its own right.
While I’ll forever see Gregg first for his Vine past and deadass good Denzel Washington impersonations, he’s on an entirely different ride right now, one that may be perfectly suited for him. I reached out to the young talent to talk about that same come up and how his unique background assisted in making this American Vandal character so necessary.
Before we get into American Vandal, I know your work from Vine and YouTube—your rise was unconventional. So tell me about your journey for those that may think you had it easy.
Well, initially I moved out here to LA to act and that went on for about two years from commercials, indie films, and to student films. Just whatever I could do to get in front of a camera. After about two years, things moved slowly so I looked for an agent but they wouldn’t vet me without PD (professional development) credits and the issue with that is that you can’t get a PD audition without an agent. It’s a catch-22. From there, I noticed one person in particular who I followed online finding work constantly, and I blamed his success on his follower count. In my head, I thought that if I could amass a large audience, then people would have no choice but to pay attention to what I was doing and eventually give me an opportunity to showcase what I could do.
I’m assuming Vine played a big role from there?
I saw Vine moving up and I noticed the extra potential from social media in having that growing audience, so I pretty much quit acting, put it to the side, and zeroed in on creating my own content. Comedy wasn’t something I did before, so it was about me observing what was working from the Vine platform and reverse engineering what I found funny while implementing that with my life, tastes and my personal experiences. The storyboarding and self-taught video editing came next. When Vine became a real player, it came with that particular audience, you know, the suburban white kids who aren’t from where I’m from. My roots were completely opposite to that audience. It became about reaching my own peers and quote on quote... my people, the folks I grew up around, were friends with, and the general audiences like myself. Everything else jumped from there.
I’m curious, given that you came from that whole Vine culture of the six-second video, what did you take away from that comedically in terms of how comedy can change over longer periods?
What I learned was the format of a joke. There’s a set up and then there’s a punch line. That’s really important to know. A lot of people transition to longer formats not knowing about the dead time in their bits because they didn’t have to deal with that right off the bat. They were given longer times so that meant more talking where you can kind of lose the audience, so I took time to learn that format which emphasizes how important the punch of the joke is. Going forward, if a joke didn’t have to extend to a minute, I wouldn’t bother forcing a joke into a minute stretch because the story has to build. The build up needs to be continual before rising to a climax and then boom, that’s the payoff. It can never be a lot of unnecessary words. On Vine, we didn’t have time for the unnecessary. We had to cut everything out to the point where it became a science. Even with more time, you learn how to cut out the fat.
So your come up aside, with American Vandal, the most obvious question that I've got to ask is what was it really like to know that you were gonna be in a mockumentary about poop?
[laughs] When we first started I didn’t even know it was going to be about poop. Listen, I just knew that it was coming from a season about dicks, so I knew it was about to be something ridiculous right off the bat. But I’ve played around with this type of concept before. I did this video in 2015 that stemmed from everyone saying that Vine was about to die and how Viners had nothing to do. So I played off of that. I imagined myself as a homeless guy on the street and it became this story about some guy becoming too big as a Viner, losing it all, and becoming a drug addict and a whole stretch of mess like on some Bobby Brown stuff [laughs]. So this format with interviews and playing it one hundred percent serious isn’t new to me. It’s just a bigger scale with so many more resources and creative minds that can let me focus on the actual content as far as who my character is.
I could really imagine how damn fun the format would be on set, but that has got to be hard for all of you guys knowing that it’s satirical but serious. Was it hard to keep a straight face with a line like “I look down on people with love”?
It wasn’t difficult at all really. The people around me made that easy because everyone pretty much took it as seriously as it pretty much looked in season two. Tyler Alvarez was super serious from the beginning to the end. This man never broke character, so him being my interviewer made it that much easier for all of us to stay in this character. And honestly, I know that it all seemed ridiculous on the surface, but in reality I’m playing this top-ranked athlete where something as simple as poop can still be considered a crime in the way that could damage those around him and this fictional career of his. To the outside world, that would sound like someone’s entire career and life being on the line. Getting my mindset around that made it easy to take it pretty seriously.
It’s always great in how much the series maintains a relationship to real-life, even with the fake The Ringer story around your character DeMarcus Tillman, and that poop video which people still think is real. What’s it like to be a part of a project that just gets how social media works.
Oh man, it was cool. Like a breath of fresh air. I’ve come across a lot of projects that are oblivious to this younger generation in the world that we live in today, and a lot of that stuff feels old and dated. It’s frustrating. Me being conscious of what’s going on in today’s society and youth, but this project handled that differently. Everyone knew what was going on out there. They were in touch. The creators and writers, we’re all the same general age so it’s not like we were so far removed from the world today. We live in it and we’re actively a part of it. We’re millennials.
In knowing that you’re in touch, what did you bring to DeMarcus Tillman to make him your own. I’ve seen your skits and he seems like a product of your making.
With a project like this, all of my reaction and choices needed to feel natural as opposed to predetermined. You had no room to be fake because the whole concept was based on it feeling real. It came down to trying to figure out what could make me understand who he was. I wasn’t that guy in high school. I wasn’t a basketball athlete, I played Tennis and slept most of the time [laughs]. I wasn’t the popular guy and didn’t go to prom or any of that mess. So I couldn’t understand him as far as who I was in high school; I had to understand him through my actual life where I had a similar fame and clout.
Hmm, that’s interesting. You say you didn’t have a life like DeMarcus Tillman but you guys still experienced similar vulnerabilities with a certain kind of fame.
Yeah, sort of. When I got on social media, I felt like I had got fame before I ever accomplished anything. I’d just be who I was and people would seek to take something. There were always people around who weren’t really there for you but would just feel like they could take something and benefit from your come up. In that sense yeah, I can completely relate to DeMarcus. I also felt alone at the top as I looked down at some people. As for the rest, what he said, the way he talked, that was just my play on the comedic side of this guy. A lot of things he’d say, you’d view as surface level and dumb, but if you really thought about his statements, they made a lot of sense, just with a different perspective.
I feel like a lot of athletes feel as if people look at them as if they are dumb because they talk and think differently. When they say unconventional things, like the earth is flat, you really have to dive into why it’s being said, and you’d understand that it’s an attempt to look at something with a different perspective outside of what society teaches. It’s about challenging the norm. Implementing that into DeMarcus made him more interesting and much more real.
But going back to what you said earlier—I find it interesting how DaMarcus is made so much more relatable. That constant need to perform can feel alienating. Expand on that on your end as a celeb.
It’s just different for me because I live in Hollywood. The culture out here is just different. Everyone wants to be famous so it’s really different in comparison to anywhere else in the world as opposed to St. Bernadines where DeMarcus is from. It’s still a school with kids who look up to him I guess... fangirls and fanboys. But LA is all about people trying to come up and find their place in the entertainment world. With that comes piggybacking off of people with clout. I won’t say that it’s all frustrating in my case, but it’s just something that you've got to be aware of so that you can move through it. When I started getting fame, I wasn’t any kid. Hell, if I was 16 or 17, I would have went crazy. No, I was an adult already. I had been to college and I already moved to LA on my own. I had a different sense of maturity, independence, and confidence, to where it didn’t affect me as much. But I was mature enough to be conscious of it so that I could move through it rather then letting it move me.
How do you feel about the way things ended with your character and what he brought to the show. To me, he felt like the most interesting part.
Man, I thought it was all dope. I love the way it all turned out. I never really had any doubts though because of the creatives that were around. I just trusted that the project would be the best that it could be because everyone was open for everything. If I had a suggestion that was better than what was on paper, the team was completely for it. Just the fact that people in general really love Demarcus and that they could compare him to a person that they went to school with, but also see he’s just a person with the same insecurities is dope. It’s a great opportunity to be able to paint a more vivid picture of that archetype.
So the most difficult question. So far we’ve had poop and dicks. What’s your version of the ultimate American Vandal.
Hmm, well I definitely would want it to take place in the digital world, just because it’s so interesting and relatable. Hmm, damn man, I really don’t know because they pack so much stuff in this show. I was previously thinking that maybe someone sent around some hacks and you’d have these leaks going on, but damn that just happened. I guess you've got to go big man, you've got to get bigger dicks on shows and shit pranks. Maybe they should investigate the whole Trump and Russian scandal and put some unfortunate emojis around that. The whole world was pranked by Donald Trump.
Side question: I’m a Denzel Washington stan, so did he ever see those skits of yours?
I have no idea [laughs]. With people in the industry, I’ll get the word like, Jamie Foxx is watching your stuff and he loves you, so I’m pretty sure someone might have sent Denzel a clip to check out, and you know Denzel is set to the ground. He likes to play like he doesn’t know what’s going on but you already know he knows what’s up. You try to quiz my man on Cardi B and he’s coming in with the lyrics. He’s conscious and he’s fought to not let things go past him. But hey, I don’t know, maybe he has [laughs].
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Interview has been edited for length and clarity.