Conversations Magazine, Special Edition 2021

Conversations Magazine, Special Edition 2021

Sunday, April 11, 2021

COLUMBUS SHORT: Living (and Loving) Life on His Own Terms

by Cyrus Webb

There is nothing like living a life of purpose. 

For Columbus Short*,  he has had the privilege of living many lives, both in front and behind the camera, doing work that he loves and building a fan-base around the world in the process. A true renaissance man, he is an accomplished actor, producer, choreographer and recording artist. In 2020 he added another title to his list of accomplishments: that of author. His book SHORT STORIES: The Autobiography of Columbus Short allows him to tell his story in his own words and on his own terms. 

We discussed the journey that led to where he is today in this fascinating conversation. 

Columbus, thank you for the time. One of the big takeaways for me is how through the book people really get to know who you are. Have you found that to be the thing that people who even think they know Columbus Short is that this book gives them a whole different view.

Absolutely. And that was the original reason for doing the book. I kept my life private as possible, being an old Hollywood kind of guy where I still believe in mystique. The less they know about me, the more they'll believe whatever characters I'm playing. They would dive into the roles that I play. What I think tends to happen now in Hollywood and the world is we're so inside everybody's world. We know everything about people. The public wants to know everything: when you're dating, when you're pregnant, etc. So when you see them in a movie, you're kind of seeing just that person. You're not seeing the character that they're portraying.

I just felt like for all of my career I did such a good job of that until, you know, headlines kind of created a narrative, and that was all they got. That's what they were left with. This book was not only a process of healing, it was also Columbus the man writing for Columbus the child that went through a lot. 

It kind of spoke to everything. It lends to that I am human, that I am fallible... I am all of the things that people kind of think actors or people in the limelight or celebrities aren't, you know?

 How did you get to a place, though, Columbus where you could share and let us into not just the makings of the man, but also the events that kind of impacted the man?

I love that, 'the makings of a man.' It's part of the journey, I guess. I think everything that I was going through in the moment I wasn't ready for and it kind of sends you reeling. And I think I got to a place where it was like, I lost myself. When you lose your keys, for example, I was always told that you retrace your steps. Like, how did I get here? I started retracing my steps, doing the hard work on yourself with therapy and things where you really can dive into...Some things that you really never paid attention to. Life just kind of goes by and you bury certain things and block them away and you never deal with them, but they will rear their ugly head unexpectedly. So I think that's it right there.

You share an interesting story for those who have the print edition of the book it's in Chapter 7. There you talk about a plane ride that stayed with you where you were with Aaron Sorkin. We sometimes look at events in our lives and the impact they make on us. How did that plane ride impact you moving forward?

I was on Studio 60 at the time in Los Angeles, but I traveled to New York to promote Stomp the Yard, which was the movie that put me on the map. I was traveling doing a press junket for that. I was on the plane back from New York to get back to work for the next episode of Studio 60 (written and created by Aaron Sorkin). Aaron, just Shonda, never gives you the script until the table read. I don't think they're even done with the script until the day of . It's hot off the presses when we get them. We never know what's happening the next week.

I'm on the plane, and I sit down and Aaron Sorkin's next to me. He's like 'What the heck are you doing here, Columbus?' 'I'm coming back to work,' I say. We chatted for a bit, and as soon as it was time for take off he was in the zone. He opened up his draft on his computer, and he had nothing written on the page. To myself I said he hasn't written the episode, and we got a table read tomorrow. I went to sleep, and by the time we were landing he was ending the episode. Literally he was writing end episode. I was like, no way.

In that moment I realized...  This is how a pianist sits down in front of his piano and can play a chart down, same as with any musician. To be a literary mind, a literary master is something. It's a true gift to sit down and really write a screenplay, or a television episode, a teleplay or anything... And as a writer, I always wanted to have that flow. Like I was just like 'How is he thinking about his dialogue? He's just flowing. He just had a flow. It just flows like butter.'

That's when I knew I wanted to do that. I'm going to do that, and I'm going to get really good at doing that.


There are some light moments like that, Columbus, that you share, but there's also some more reflective moments and even darker ones, too. I think one of the most powerful chapters in the book for me is chapter 14, EXORCISING LITTLE WALTER.

I  learned a lot about you in this particular chapter.  One of the big things I think that you do that has made you who you are, is being able to not only to read, but to embrace a character...to become that character. And even after cut, not letting that character go.

Talk to us about the blessing and the curse of that, embracing the character but also the complexity of living the character.

It's crazy. I watched something Denzel said about this too late. I wish I would've known it before... How we are opening up our vessels, right, to embody characters. Especially when you're playing dark characters. It's a dangerous place to go. And if you're not an actor, you don't understand that, because we really go there. Most actors, if they really are worth their salt, go completely dumb to and open to the manifestation, embodiment and a possession of a character. 

And so in building that and being with a character so long... It takes 21 days to make a habit, right? If I'm walking and I'm talking like a certain way for 21 days.. I'm drinking---I never was a drinker ever---but I was drinking. I got to the point where I was drinking like it was water. It was like nothing to me, and I'm smoking cigarettes. And I was slick-talking. I was enamored by that, because that wasn't me. I very much loved it and the freedom to be that. 

If I was just this way in the streets, people would say "This is crazy." But on, and under the context (of the film), they're like, 'Wow. He's a genius." 

So when it was over with, I didn't properly cleanse my spirit of Little Walter and those habits that I acquired during that process. I didn't properly detox my mind, my body, and my spirit and clean my slate. So I just kind of just kept it. And I think those things, as wonderful as it was, I paid for. I paid a price for it: emotionally and spiritually for sure. Holyfield always tells me, 'My mama says if you don't ever pick nothing up, you don't ever have to put it down.'  That's why he never drank, never smoked. Never did any of that. I'm grateful for that learning process.

And then there was an insecurity to why I never broke character. I didn't want to lose it. I knew when I tapped in, I knew I was in and I never wanted to come out and not be able to get back in. That was  my worst fear. As I've grown so much as an actor in the game I know how to come in, and I know how to get out. That's one of the things I learned through all that, throughout that process, but it was an amazing process. One I wouldn't change for the world.


And I think it has definitely gotten you to where you are. We talk a lot about personal success.  People would look at your career: singer, songwriter, actor, producer, choreographer... You've done all these things and worked with all these amazing people, Does it feel for you that you have gotten what you wanted? It seems like along the journey that you have been searching for something or seeking something. Do you think you have found what you were looking for?

That's a really great question, Cyrus. I like this question. 

You know how in the corporate world there's upward mobility, right? If I, let's say, wanted to be a banker, I may have started in the mail room and worked my way up. My real goal is to get to that table to get to that upper, top floor office.

 I think I've looked at my career that way. Coming from the bottom as that boy from Kansas City. I got into the business, and I knew I was at the bottom. I knew I had to do guest starring roles before I could be the star. 

Everything has been like stepping stones. I'm always like 'Okay, what's next?' I'm always thinking about what's the next proper step, because I never wanted to fast-track myself or try to cut a corner. I wanted to do everything the right way. 

And I was like, 'I can do this. I know I can assemble and acquire a slate of great material, continue and be a job creator and be a creator, because I am a creator. I've been a creative my whole life. I wanted to be on the front lines of bringing great content and telling great stories. Not just African-American stories. Stories to audiences around the world. And so I think that was always my goal.  I was paying my dues, and there were times that I got impatient. If I would've just been a little bit more patient at the time, my day was coming. Right before my day came, I had a fall...but the fall is just part of the story.

I also think the fall is part of the test to see what I was really made of. It was never going be that easy. I can a voice in my head saying 'You thought you were going to get here like that? You thought you were going to just walk up in here and take over the game?' I think this was the test. What am I built of? What am I made of? Can I be an example? Can I be a leader? 

If I can't produce my life, how can I produce a movie? So once I realized I got to produce my life first then I realized I can now produce whatever I want. That is where I am now.

Stay connected with Columbus on Instagram at www.instagram.com/officialcshort and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ColumbusShort1

* All photos of Columbus Short by Erik Johnson

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