This is not the life Donovan Carter envisioned for himself when he was a star defensive lineman at UCLA from 2008-2012.
Wait, scratch that.
This is sort of the life Carter envisioned for himself back then, the life of a NFL star.
Only Carter is not one himself. He just plays one on TV: Vernon Littlefield in the HBO hit show Ballers, which just concluded its second season and was renewed for a third. The show stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as NFL-star-turned-financial-advisor Spencer Strasmore and Rob Corddry as his business partner, Joe Krutel, with fictitious NFL clients that include Carter’s Littlefield — a star young defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys — and Ricky Jerret, played by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington and a former college football player himself.
Aimless after he went undrafted and was cut by the Oakland Raiders, Carter was unsure of his path. He broke down and went to chat with his former UCLA coaches, asking them for some career counseling. He was put in touch with a commercial agency, and cut his teeth with one- or two-line auditions, just praying for a role.
When he got an email regarding a casting call for former athletes, he almost dismissed it.
It would turn into the role of his young, budding career.
I covered Carter and the UCLA football team back then for the Los Angeles Daily News, and Carter was the spitting image of the player he portrays on television: humble, unassuming, allured by the trappings of stardom but not bewildered by them.
Talking to him now, he doesn’t sound much different.
All22.com: When you first auditioned for Ballers, did you have any idea the kind of role it might lead to?
Donovan Carter: “I really didn’t know too much about the show, just knew that it was a football show. It was so early — I didn’t know it’d be what it is today. I didn’t take any acting classes at that point, I didn’t really ask actors what to do, I just got the email, memorized the lines and went in as myself. I’ve found out that whatever part you get, they get you for you. You might take on characters and parts, but the way you get a job is that they like you. I was scared at first. Never did anything like it. I was doing like one-sentence auditions. To have a full-on dialogue, it was scary. I talked to my dad, and he was uplifting me to go. I thought it was a small deal. I wasn’t even going to go. At the time, I had nothing planned, and he said you’ve got nothing to lose, don’t eliminate yourself from the opportunity. But it’s a great first role for me to do. I am literally just myself. I’m learning about dealing with co-stars, dealing with actors. A lot of them, that doesn’t turn off for them. It’s not like they’re taking on wacky characters, everyone I work with is a lot how they are in life.”
All22: You’re a naturally humble guy, and you bring a lot of that reserved confidence to your role as Vernon; did you tailor your performance to your own natural behavior?
Carter: “We have amazing writers, directors, producers, and they gave us the freedom to do what we want to do. That’s the type of guy Vernon is — we’re similar, not a flashy guy, all about ball, a regular down-to-earth guy. Super blessed, and he does football for a living. That’s the beauty of the show. It just shows there are everyday guys who do football for a living. Everything they do is just so heightened and magnified.”
All22: This is a life that you so passionately wanted to live, the life of a NFL player. Is it bittersweet to be portraying a NFL player instead of being one?
Carter: “I don’t believe in coincidence, but it’s really just ironic, crazy that I’m playing what I always wanted to be. That was my goal since Birmingham (High School, in Lake Balboa, Calif.). I definitely wanted to get drafted, make a good amount of money, play a long time. That was my dream. For that to not happen, but to play it on TV, yeah it’s bittersweet. But I love it. I love this more than football. Acting was a dream growing up, and I had no idea what to do with it. There are a lot of athletes who could do this, who want to do it, but that fear steps in. It’s one in a million, but you can be that one.”
All22: So few people have the instant career success that you had with this role but you’re still a young actor, still on the grind. Does it feel like you’ve got some experience now, or are you still wide-eyed about the profession?
Carter: “It’s both for me — I feel like now I’m a little seasoned, it’s not like when I was a freshman. You had something to prove to everyone, new guy on campus, trying to hold your own weight. I’m not the new guy anymore. I’ve been on sets. I’m more confident in myself, but I have that young actor’s grind mentality. My plan is to get another role. I went into it backwards — the way I did it is not how everybody does it. Go to school, class, agent, manager, then maybe get a role. I got the role first, and now I’m learning about this business. My teacher tells me it takes 20 years to be a good actor. You’re constantly learning more about yourself as a person. I still have that hunger, and I know it comes and goes so quick in this business.”
All22: I was just watching a scene in which your character gets off the hook for injuring himself, and you and Dwayne Johnson share a hug. That’s The Rock. Does that ever just blow you away?
Carter: “I used to watch him when I was 10 years old. For me to hug him, get to kick it with him? Talk about life? That’s crazy. Everyone has these perceptions about people, just like they have about athletes. He’s a regular guy, everyday guy. It lets me know too that I belong. It’s not awkward, even though he’s at a certain level compared to me. He’s so humble, so cool. I didn’t know anything about the business, and I saw him, and the stardom he has, and you don’t have to act like that. Some of these people are ridiculous. It’s crazy — the people who are the main stars are the most humble. The people who have one line think they just won an Emmy. It was one of my first days working and it just hit me, like everything — at first I was pretty chill. I played football, and when the lights turn on, I’m good. But when I got there, my first scene I was OK, but it just hit me like, damn I’m doing a TV show. I literally just went blank. No line popped up in my head. The lights got to me. (Johnson) could tell I was tripping. He took me to the side and said you’re good, if we didn’t believe in you, we wouldn’t have you in this role. It was like when you’re a freshman and you have an upperclassman take you by the shoulder and calm you down.”
All22: So here you are, hanging with The Rock, doing a show; has the red carpet life, that behind-the-curtains look at things been a shock? Or because you played football at a glamour school like UCLA, you were used to it?
Carter: “I’ve been to places, I’m from L.A., I’ve been to parties, and I’m used to that attention a little bit. Now it’s different when I see someone I look up to, I’m a big fan of. Then I’m like, ‘I love your work,’ and they’re like, ‘Damn, I love your work, too.’ It just puts me in a place to keep going. Everything has been amazing, people telling me they love the show. Will Smith, he was cool. He watches the show — a lot of musicians and rappers. I was sitting at a basketball game and I saw Chris Paul, and someone was shooting a free throw, and he was lined up and like, ‘Ain’t you the guy from Ballers?’ I was like, man I’m a big fan! I was like you need to get on the show! A lot of athletes want to be actors, actors want to be athletes. You just have respect for people who are doing big things, and for me, anyone who’s doing anything, I’ve got to give them props. I have to show love because I know it was a process to get there.”
All22: You’ve gotten this early taste of the business, but everyone knows how fickle the industry can be. Has this start to your career made you more interested in the craft of acting as well?
Carter: “That’s been very important to me. I think about it every day. How can I get better? How can I take this and make it something else? I don’t want to be that guy — he was so great in this show, what happened to him? You’ve got to put the work in. Put the time in. I’m serious about this craft, about this business, because I love it. What I was wishing for when I got cut from the Raiders was to find something I loved. When I got on set, I felt like this is it. I felt like a crackhead. I want this for the rest of my life. It was love at first sight. I was ignorant when I played football. I knew there would be a time it came to an end. Now I’m older, wiser, I know there is going to be a time when it’s over. I do my best not to worry, stress, I go to work, go to acting class, and it’s one of those businesses where you learn something new every day. I can’t just go and act right now in anything I want. I can’t just go do a play — you have to know the right people and the right people have to know you.
“They always said the first job is hard, but it’s the second job that’s really tough. I’m gonna fight and claw, I’m gonna make it in this business. I know I belong. It wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t an accident.”