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Q&A with ‘Potatoe Salad’s Jaleel White

Jaleel White has certainly grown up since playing the nerd Urkel on the hit TV show Family Matters. He’s now starring in the comedy Who Made the Potatoe Salad? (yes, it’s deliberately misspelled) about a police officer who meets his fiancée’s dysfunctional family for the first time over Thanksgiving—and nothing can prepare him for what her family is about to serve up. Hollywood.com chatted with White about potato salad, Thanksgiving–and moving on from being a child star.

Hollywood.com: Well, my goodness, Potatoe Salad looked like a ball of fun!

Jaleel White: [Laughs] I have to tell ya, it was a hellish shoot. Shot it in about two and half weeks and we did the thing two years ago. I just found out distribution and everything had been worked out couple months back. And I just kinda had to laugh to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding!” [Laughs] But yeah, it was fun. Bottom line, if something is funny, that’s my criteria, right there. Very rare that I read a project that’s actually funny. Beyond that, I do what my manager tells me because I’ve got a lot of respect for him. Seriously, sometimes you just got to make it easy in life and find somebody whose tastes you like.

HW: How did you get involved?
JW: I knew the writer/director [Damon “Coke” Daniels]. He gave the script a while before he cast the project. And I really wasn’t keen on acting at that particular time. So I did the polite thing where I stuck it on the left side of my desk, saying, “I’m gonna get to that.” One or two months went by and my manager called me and said he found a project he wanted me to do called Who Made the Potatoe Salad? I was like, “You mean Damon’s project?” So I picked up the script and realized Damon had written something really funny. Eddie Griffin was doing and Clifton Powell Jr., they were two actors I knew especially, so I was like, “Hey, two, two and half weeks or not, let’s do it!”

HW: But the shoot was particularly grueling?
Oh man, gruuuuuuuuuueling!

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HW: How much potato salad did you have to eat?
Not much because the potato salad on the table was spoiled. [Laughs] That’s a true inside Hollywood story for ya. The prop guy let it sit out all night and we couldn’t eat the damn thing!

HW: Ewww. I’ve often wonder how it works with food in scenes, knowing the actors have to do the takes over and over again. How does that work?
JW: Babe, let me tell you something. If you ain’t working on a major studio picture, you don’t want no food in your shot. Because I’m telling ya, that food has been sitting there for a lot longer than that camera knows.

HW: Does your family have a secret recipe for potato salad?
Well, the whole point of the movie is you never ask who made the potato salad. But all the women in my family, my mom and my sisters, all make great soul food. But you don’t ask, you just don’t do it.

HW: Is Thanksgiving your favorite holiday?
Hands down. Also my birthday is Nov. 27 and sometimes it lands right on my birthday. So either way, it’s just a festive time of year for me. It’s the time of year where I don’t have to feel like a chauvinistic pig waiting for all the women to cook. You get to watch football. You’re suppose to eat three or four times a day, if you can. It’s just the ultimate guy holiday, as far as I’m concerned. It’s more stressful for the ladies, though, having to do all the cooking. The griping up until [the meal], let’s just say, they let it be known.

HW: Have you ever met a girlfriend’s family as dysfunctional as the one in the movie?
It’s funny. When you’re famous, people tend to put on their best behavior around you. When you visit people’s homes, you know? I would suspect there were some more deviant characters in the house that they weren’t letting on, but nobody as outright rude and off the charts as [Potatoe Salad’s] individuals.

HW: What has the experience been like going from being a child actor to now?
For me, it’s always been about the work. Even when I was younger, it was about the work. I did 215 episodes of a show that was successful. On some nights, not to stroke myself, I put the show on my back and other nights, it was more of a team effort. So you pick up a very serious work ethic and you live that experience. I almost see celebrity as a side effect of what I do. Like, OK, if I do this well enough, it might be tough to walk the streets for the next couple of months. That’s how I’ve always seen it. I’ve never been a red carpet hound, the guy at the hottest clubs all the time. I just love the work. You just want to put together the hits and that’s [pause], that’s just tough to do in this town. You need certain moon, stars and dust to line up to allow that to happen.

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HW: Why do you think things go so badly for some of these former child actors?
JW: That’s just bad family stuff, it’s that simple. It’s sad. I wish I could offer you a very sophisticated answer, but fame and money and the illusion of power, it’s all very corrupting stuff. It’s not like some of these individuals–not even MY family, for example–get a crash course in how to deal with fame and who to let in your life and who not to let in. It’s trial and error. So if you already have a pretty dysfunctional family going into it, it’s only going to be more dysfunctional going out.

HW: Have you ever secretly cursed Urkel’s very existence?
JW: I think I did a bit when I was a teenager. Because, at times when I was a teenager, I wanted to feel cool as a person. I had all these NBA friends and had a very different private life. But at this point, looking back on it, there’s no cursing at all. That guy has taken extremely good care of me. And more importantly, I have more fame than infamy. I just think over time, it’s going to take shape. I remember when Jamie Foxx won his Oscar, I was sitting there on the couch, going, “This is Wanda!” Because those of us on the comedy side have known him for all the comedy work he’s done over the years. It’s just funny to us to have someone look at one of our friends so differently now. You know what? That’s a testament to his ability and also a testament to time. Do good work, good things should happen.

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