If you ever wondered whatever happened to the high-waisted pants-wearing super nerd Steve Urkel on ABC’s TGIF staple Family Matters, Jaleel White is back. Sure he’s made appearances on numerous TV series and even had a role in the 2006 hit Dream Girls, but he’s back on the map here at Hulu as star of his own web series Fake It Til You Make It. White wrote, produced and stars in the show, which chronicles Reggie Culkin (White), a former child star-turned-image consultant, who tries to help three Hollywood wannabes find the fame they always dreamed of. The eight-episode series promises to entertain with what Culkin calls “naughty” moments (more on that below) as the gang explores the thin veneers of Los Angeles. To launch the show on Hulu — the first three episodes are available now; more coming weekly — White came to the Hulu offices to tell us more about Fake It, Internet death rumors, and Twitter wars.
Hulu: What prompted you to do a web series?
Jaleel White: I was asked to do a web series last year. It was called “Road to the Altar.” I loved the filmmakers — the girls were so energetic, they were just ridiculous. It had a real female slant to it, and my manager wanted me to do it. Great experience, though. It took me back to the roots of being in film school. We were shooting in people’s houses, and the girls were literally just calling in favors. I knew right then and there that I had to come back and do this bigger and better, because it’s time for people to see that I’m a full-fledged filmmaker.
Development has turned into hell. It’s groupthink mentality, where it takes 10 people to write a joke, 10 people to develop a project. That’s just not how projects gain their special quality. I’ve been in development for the past 10 years at different places, like Imagine Entertainment, Disney Channel. I was even a staff writer on a bilingual cartoon on PBS called Maya & Miguel. I wanted to bite my wrist off after one episode.
But I saw the freedom that those girls enjoyed last year, so we raised our money and I found a great director — my favorite web series director, Todd Pellegrino, who did “Mayne Street” for ESPN. We started this relationship with a five-month writing process that ended in January. We set the shoot day for April, after awards season. That was strategic, because that’s when this town is a little dead. We didn’t factor in pilot season. We have a great cast because, fortunately, people don’t realize that pilot season usually turns into an offer season. So you have all these talented people coming out here from Arkansas, North Dakota, whatever, trying to get discovered, and they don’t really understand that they’re going to lose that job to somebody that has a bigger name. We had to juggle some of our days to accommodate some of these people because they had to audition, but it gave us a great cast and some great guest stars like Debbie Allen, Wayne Brady, [the UFC’s] Rashad Evans. I’ve got a bunch of soap opera actors — Blake Gibbons [General Hospital] kills in the second episode.
The show’s naughty — but there’s a difference between naughty and crude. The show’s naughty because it talks about LA for what it is: a 30-something -year-old actress with one credit who thinks she still has a shot. People who want to be famous but they don’t want to do anything. They have no credentials, no background. You have a character like mine. I’m a baller, out of control with no explanation of any kind. I never drive the same car twice — that was completely by design. It was absolute hell swapping out my cars every day.
I was going to ask how you pulled that off. You must have called in a lot of favors.
Yeah, I called in a lot of favors. It would be like 5 o’clock in the morning, 6 o’clock in the morning — no joke — and I’m outside Michael Strahan’s house with a cup of hot chocolate saying “You said I could have the keys.” Some of the stuff I got, too, I didn’t completely ask permission for. We’ll have to see how that plays, too. As long as the material is good, I think those people are gonna accept my apology.
On paper, your character, Reggie Culkin, sounds an awful like you: former child star, in LA …
Yes and no. Just to take it back, when I did Steve Urkel [on Family Matters], all you saw was a 12-year-old kid impersonation of Ed Grimley and Pee Wee Herman. That’s really what it is! If the impersonation didn’t work out, then I created my own character in essence. I’m essentially doing the same thing here, except I’m taking parts of R&B artists, people in general who may not be rocking the charts, but every time you see these people, they’re just doing it so big. I don’t want to throw out any specific names because I think it’d be more fun to see people tell me who they think I was inspired by, because I was probably inspired by three or four guys who are actually out there, that I kind of blended together.
Now that you’re writing, producing and starring in this series, have you faced any challenges keeping everything going?
My mind is just a Lego set. It can just take different shapes anytime it needs to. I think about one particular episode: midnight negotiation, we were shooting in a suite at this hotel, and at the twelfth hour — there really is a twelfth hour — my other producing partner looked at me and said “Five minutes. Time and a half.” We were nowhere near finished. I’m trying to act in this scene. We’re rushed. My director was totally rushed. I basically know we’re not going to finish anyway, but I asked her to crunch some numbers because the actor in me is like “No, just keep going. Go, go, go.” She finally came back [and whispered the cost to me] and it was “OK, everybody get off the set. Now.” It literally was just like that: “We’re done. We’re done. Everybody go home.” The numbers were just not cool. I learned a very valuable lesson about producing that I would share with anybody: Even if you don’t make your day, do not force it. Stop and regroup. They set those 12-hour rules for a reason. We were a union project, a SAG project. We actually were able to come in an hour early of our call time the next day. We finished and got everything we needed. That was just how God wanted it. Never, never, never, never force it. You’ll probably just be working with a beat-out crew who wants to go home, anyway. They were definitely staring daggers at me.
What kind of exploits will we get to see with this series?
The series is basically about passing trains. In LA, people tend to know each other for as long as they need each other. It’s not really a cool culture, but at least you can laugh at it if you really stop to pay attention to it. [Reggie] met this guy, Jack, in a very weird way. A business card was exchanged and Jack really feels like he made a business contact. I kind of laugh at these people that feel like they make business contacts late at night at Drai’s [nightclub]. That whole culture is what drove me to making these. I’ve had this idea in my think tank for a while. I go out to these parties with friends, someone has a table somewhere, and I come home with six business cards. None of these business cards add up — there’s P.O. boxes on them, some of them are made from cheap stationery. It’s ridiculous. The cheesiest business cards generally feature a picture of the person on the card. That culture in itself is really what started it.
Passing trains. I meet Jack at a party, Jack gets my business card, Jack thinks he’s made a legitimate connection. I go have breakfast with this guy. Jack’s car is not working, so he gets his neighbor, Kathy, to take him. She’s this aspiring actress and probably just wants to be nosy, anyway. He has another friend who basically sleeps on his couch all the time, but purportedly has his own apartment. But for whatever reason, Kernin is always on his couch. So, he was just there that morning and he tags along. When Jack’s pitch meeting starts to go south, the friend who sleeps on his couch reaches under his chair and pulls out this script, like “Yo, I’m repping this project if you’re not doing what he just pitched.” He just stepped on his boy to try to get ahead. Laughs
So really, the first part of this series is just about them trying to sell this movie called Bite Flight that quote “has Matthew McConaughey attached.” There are a couple scenarios where Bite Flight comes into play, but in our own development, we started to realize that people liked it when we dabbled in what the business is, but they wanted us to get more into the interactional level of LA.
Yeah, that’s what makes Entourage so popular.
So we touch on trying to sell Bite Flight, but ultimately it’s just about people using each other for big promises. Another theme is that [the character] Kathy Buttram really overestimates her own worth. She has no concept of how much she’s worth as an actress. She’s SAG, she has a credit, she’s done some commercials, but she just doesn’t really get it. I don’t think we see Kathy make more than $50 as an actress.
You mentioned some guest stars.
Wayne [Brady] is the only person who’s playing himself. I hate cheesy cameos. I had friends who told me I needed to load this thing up with cameos. I don’t want cheesy cameos. If you see somebody and they’re really famous and they’re playing a role, I want you to say, “Hey, that’s so-and-so.” That’s exactly the reaction I’m looking for.
The Wayne Brady thing was such a great cameo, though, because of the subject matter. We’re really kind of clowning Twitter. I’ve had a slow process with becoming a part of the Net because people pronounced me dead several years ago. That was really jacked up. My phone blew up; I had to change my phone number, you know, and it was just something that I had to deal with. Finally, I had a bunch of friends that were telling me I had to get on Twitter. So I jump on Twitter and I found I had an impersonator — a guy who was already there, saying he was me, and had like a couple hundred followers. He picked the most unflattering picture of me. I knew where I was that night, so I wondered how he even got this picture. You know it’s somebody who knows you, or has touched you, or has come in contact with you somehow, but you never know. The guy called himself “Real Jaleel” and I had like a two-month-long war with this SOB. Finally, a friend told me to just Tweet a picture of myself. I did it, and then another friend helped me get verified. So I had fun with this episode, it’s really about Wayne confronting a Twitter impersonator.
Do you watch anything on Hulu?
Dorm Life. That was actually one of the things that led me to believe that Hulu might be interested in my show –it’s not on NBC. I enjoyed it; there’s some funny stuff in there. It also let me kind of see what the bar was in terms of creative content. They don’t tell many stories, but they do some funny shit, though. What else? There’s always the SNL stuff that you missed on Saturday.
Thanks, Jaleel. Can’t wait to see how the series unfolds this summer.