RJ Cyler speaks on stage at a Special Screening and Q&A of 'The Book of Clarence'
Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for Sony Pictures

RJ Cyler Has Mastered Playing His Position—Now He's Ready to Lead

After co-starring in 'The Book of Clarence,' the actor is plotting the next phase of his career

RJ Cyler hasn’t run out of things to pray for, but he’s hoping God can do some redistribution. Calling in for an early December Zoom interview, the 28-year-old actor reflects on a fruitful career he hopes can level up his friends, too. “If everybody isn't eating at the same time, then what's the real reason for getting it?” he says, his incredulous eyes penetrating the camera lens. 

For his latest film, The Book of Clarence (in theaters Jan. 12), RJ is feasting alongside star LaKeith Stanfield and writer/director/composer Jeymes Samuel. As Elijah, RJ plays sidekick to Stanfield’s Clarence, an opportunistic grifter who capitalizes on the popularity of Jesus of Nazareth to earn his own religious following—and dig himself out of a deadly debt. It’s a lucrative journey, but along the way, Clarence finds redemption and an unconventional route to faith.

Related: How Jeymes Samuel Made a Black Biblical Classic

An idea nearly two decades in the making, Samuel’s film can be as heartening as it is hilarious—a modern proverb rendered through a melanated lens. After developing synergy and rapport in the filming of 2021’s The Harder They Fall, RJ and Samuel are now clicking like ’Bron and Anthony Davis in the Bubble. 

“We just alike—his hair is just better than mine,” says RJ, a regular on Rap Sh!t and the since-concluded Black Lightning. “I speak Jeymes' language without him having to speak. He trusts me, and I trust him with my vulnerability of being an actor.”

Vulnerability is prominent on RJ’s vision board, just one facet of the personal and professional future he looks to secure in a career that has only just begun to sniff its full potential. (He's also hoping to manifest a role depicting DC superhero Static Shock in a live-action reboot.) The Jacksonville-born thespian sat down with LEVEL to discuss the ingredients in his five-year plan—and why he's so intent on uplifting his inner circle.

I feel like the world is starting to get a taste for who RJ is, 'cause I've been at it for a while. Now they're starting to feel my energy. This is my transition point. More weight is being given to me to handle because people are starting to see that I can handle those types of roles—multifaceted versions of every character. It makes me relatable to more than just one audience. When it comes to me and my craft, I don't just want to be someone that can touch and/or move people of my community. I want to be able to touch and move the next community, because all of our problems are mutual. We all can find an understanding of triumph, struggle, wanting something, getting these things, having ambitions.

Sometimes as artists, we get stuck in our comfort zone rather than exploring the fun of the craft. I'm in a space where that comes with more fulfillment and also more consequence, which makes it worth it. I try to make sure I don't stick to a certain specific genre or stereotypical role for my chocolatey tone. That made the craft that much more fun. Play the things that don't come easy—things I have to really dig into. Create people rather than just characters.

"Elijah was the first role that required so much from a physical, emotional, and spiritual standpoint. I want roles that show my diversity of craftsmanship."

I want to be in more leading-man roles. I want to carry the ship. I feel like those roles are risky because they require so much. I'm liking the fact that Elijah was the first role that required so much from a physical, emotional, and spiritual standpoint. All of these things were tested. I want roles that really show people my diversity of craftsmanship.

Related: LaKeith Stanfield’s Toughest Role of All Is Himself

In my career, I’ve learned it’s important to make your yeses scarce, especially from a creative standpoint. If you want to really understand the full craft, you got to be able to say no to yourself sometimes and then yes to someone else, or yes to yourself and no to others. And it sometimes feels like I'm giving up on my vision. That's the point. A film is created by multiple people, so it's not just a one-duty thing. Of course that means our own ambitions got to move to the side sometimes so that the project can become a whole.

I also want to let people hear my musical voice. I started out as a musician. That's always been a goal of mine: to DJ or tour as an artist. I make really good music, but I don't release this good music because—I don't know. That's something we are starting to turn the wheels on; you'll see that start to pop soon. I just have to get rid of my fear of stepping into the new. This used to be new to me. Sometimes I'll freak myself out and say, "Nah, you can't be that good at multiple things.” And every time I think about it, God is always like, "Well, who told you these rules?"

I've always wanted to be strong in my prayer life. I don't really ask for too much for myself. God has done his thing in my life. I want to get more potent in the prayer life that I have for my friends. To me, success is my brothers reaching their goals. When the team’s winning, it's not just a dream that's being fulfilled; it's a vision. —As told to Peter A. Berry