For almost a decade, Gary Dourdan set young hearts aflutter as forensic analyst Warrick Brown on hit crime show CSI; as he lay dying on celluloid in the arms of his on-screen mentor in 2008, a collective cry went out from female fans everywhere. But for Dourdan, the move couldn’t have come sooner. ‘I was hitting the ceiling there and pushing so much just for the right dialogue,’ he rants during his chat with Time Out. ‘The bad stigma lasts longer than the money, so if I’m saying something that I don’t believe in, it’s going to come out like s***. People watching aren’t going to go, “Yo, the directing is really bad on that show,” or “The writing is just terrible.” They’ll go, “That actor sucks!” I changed every word of my lines, so it got to a point where it was an artistic struggle. After just under a decade of being at a job, you want to move forward with your life and work with like-minded people.’
Real life soon mirrored reel life, however, when his much-discussed departure wasn’t as celebratory as he’d hoped. ‘I went into a small slump afterwards; 24 hours after I filmed my death scene I was in jail for a night [for possession of controlled substances] – it was just a fiasco for me. I went into a little bit of a low period for a second. But it only lasted like a week,’ he laughs, ‘because it was something that I was gearing up to do.’
It transpires he was gearing up to regroup The Bell Café Band, with whom he played long before he became an on-screen investigator. Dourdan, an accomplished musician (he plays bass, guitar, piano and sax) is a founding member of the New York five-piece, named after the café in NYC where they played Sunday night jam sessions as long ago as 1994. ‘They’re fantastic players; I’m really happy to be getting them back together to do a couple more shows,’ he enthuses. Talented bunch that they are, The Bell Café Band’s sound is just as varied as their heritage. The African-American, Danish and Indian members use instruments including flute, tabla and vocals to create their unique sound.
We’re confused, though. Is Dourdan an actor or a musician? ‘Well, it’s not really a choice between the two. Where I come from you have to do everything that you have any talent in, just to survive as an artist,’ he explains. And looking at all the crossover artists in Hollywood, it seems like an idea that many others share – it’s hard to tell now who started where. ‘LL Cool J is doing a series and Will Smith continues to come out with hip-hop jams every now and then, as well as doing blockbuster movies, so there’s no division in the arts.’
But surely he faces some flak from people who don’t know he used to be a musician? Judging by his reaction, we seem to have touched a nerve. ‘Yeah, I do sometimes in the States,’ he admits. ‘People try to put you in a box because they’re threatened by your talent. I remember when Lenny [Kravitz] first came out, people used to talk a lot of trash about him. And kids now don’t remember, but people used to trash Prince. They’d say the worst s*** about him as an artist, and now he’s revered.’
But it’s not all bad. ‘In Europe they’ve been very supportive of me as a musician and a DJ, and I’m hoping to keep on getting in stride here [in the Middle East] because of the strong support system that I have.’ Which brings us to Bell Café Band’s pre-Halloween performance in Dubai. When asked what we can expect from the gig, he answers cryptically. ‘Some good music, definitely, and some high-jinx and adventures. I love Halloween and I’m a bit of a clown, so I might do a little dressing up.’
Doula by day
Here’s something that most don’t know about Gary Dourdan: he is a vocal supporter of natural births. We won’t go into too much detail, but Gary and his sister are doulas, aka ‘birthing assistants’ – they travel around the US speaking to people about natural births and breastfeeding. ‘You know, women have always been helping women get those kids out into the world, but for the past 60 years or so men have also been birthing babies and offering support,’ he says.
The Bell Café Band play The Cavalli Club, Oct 30, free.