BET’s hit-drama series The Quad, which is set on the campus of the fictional Georgia A&M University, takes an engaging look into a historically black college/university (HBCU). While most television shows about college life follow the everyday experiences of the student body, The Quad displays the lives of pupils and faculty alike, seamlessly documenting the issues occurring in the lives of adults (and the grown-ish adults, too).
Now entering its second season on the network, The Quad promises to grab audience attention once more. While Season 1 dealt with issues ranging from relationships and rape to suicide and terminal illness, Season 2 promises there won’t be any shortage of compelling, dramatic storylines.
Actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson portrays Cecil Diamond, the ambitious bandleader of the Georgia A&M Marching Mountain Cats. Besides working with the band to create incredible performances, Diamond has his fair share of personal ups-and-downs in Season One. Santiago-Hudson himself is no stranger to the industry, having appeared in numerous television shows, films and productions throughout his career such as Law & Order, The Devil’s Advocate and Selma.
VIBE caught up with the actor ahead of The Quad’s Season 2 premiere to discuss what to expect, as well as what it’s like playing such a complex character.
VIBE: In Season 1, Cecil had a couple of tumultuous moments in terms of his health. How is he able to use those stressors as fuel, in order to be the best band leader he can be in Season 2?
Ruben Santiago-Hudson: Well I think anytime you have a trauma in your life, particularly something that deals with your mortality, it makes you revalue your place in the world, your place in life, your place in other people’s lives, and I think you get a different perspective of things, and things become a little more urgent. Obviously dealing with cancer, Cecil’s mortality, he’s been having to think about things he has to fix or do better.
Besides dealing with his illness, how do we see him evolve as a character in Season 2?
I get to show more of my relationships, particularly with [Carlton] Pettiway (E. Roger Mitchell), Noni [Williams] (Zoe Renee). I don’t get to show a whole lot more with Dr. Fletcher (Anika Noni Rose), but I do have moments where I expose her to things that are inside myself that she hasn’t seen– sometimes in the room with her, sometime in the room she’s not in when I’m commenting on [her]. We get to see more of Cecil’s humanity in that respect. But it’s a development of relationships and how things present themselves in Season 2 to show you real, personal, intimate moments with each character.
Do you think things are getting better or worse between him and Dr. Fletcher?
Better. Better because Cecil is not driven — that is not his ultimate goal to drive her out anymore. His ultimate goal is to get revenge, to get his integrity back as a band leader, to continue to train and build and fortify the students, and prepare them for this big a** world out here, that’s going to be kicking them in the butt with malice. I want to kick them in the butt with love. So shaping them, making them hard, well-rounded citizens is what Cecil does, but he does it in his own way. He’s a tough man. He’s a hard man, and he does it in the ways that he’s been — his character — has been thrown in different fields, so he throws that upon his students. Whether it’s fair or unfair, he prepares them for the harshness of the world.
I feel like we need more teachers like that. Some of my professors that I came across with back in college were not as tough-love as Cecil.
You know, my mother used to say sometimes when she used to make me mad, or when she would have to punish me or draw the line on me, she’d say ‘I’mma hit you with the ugly stick, but at least you can get up off the ground from my ugly stick. Sometimes the world will hit you with a stick much bigger than this, and you can’t get up off the ground.’”
What sort of characteristics do you think you have in common with your character?
All I’m doing is magnifying parts of myself, good and bad and ugly, beautiful and sensitive and formidable. I have one set of emotions, in the best of me, I want to give to you. For me to separate myself from Cecil Diamond would be untrue. But for me to magnify those aspects of my personality, my persona, whether I like that part of myself or not at times is not important. What’s important is that I give you a truth, a Ruben truth, a real human truth. I bring all those sensitivities and strengths to my portrayal of Cecil Diamond.
That’s just my style. Every actor is different. I’ve been doing it 50 years, and that’s what I found to work for me because I don’t want to fake you out. I want you to find something real in my moments. So, how do you find something real if I give you something phony? What is real is Ruben Santiago-Hudson and his sense of emotion, his sense of realism, his experiences about life.
You always give that slice of humanity.
That’s real. When I cry, something hurts. When I laugh, that was funny. I don’t say, ‘oh I have to laugh, let me think of an old joke I heard 14 years ago.’ No. I listen to what you just said and find humor in it. Or if there’s pain, I take the storyline in that arc and find that pain, or that bucket of gold at the end of the rainbow. Keep following it. You’ll get there and you’ll be that kind of actor.
For the first season of the show, everything was falling into place. You were getting to know the characters in the show and everything. Does this new season feel more organic for the cast as a whole?
I think the writers know us better. We know our characters better. We feel freer. I feel freer, let me speak for me. I feel free and more empowered to enable my character and my acting process to reveal a lot more about Cecil Diamond because I’m much more in touch with him. I own him now.
[In] the first season, the writers own him. They invent him, they thrust him upon you, they own him, and a seasoned actor such as myself snatches that ownership somewhere within the rules and confines of the Bible, the script. The second season, they understand that I own him and they give me challenges and a journey, but also give me the steering wheel, let me steer a little bit. I’m not writing the storylines, but I do have much more ownership as far as the complexities that I can bring, the levels I can bring, to the character.
You’ve worked on many shows, plays, and movies. What is it about ‘The Quad’ that keeps you coming back?
It’s the wholeness of the African-American people. I love that Felicia D. Henderson demands that each writer finds a complete journey for their characters, a wholeness. We’re not playing fragments of human beings, we’re playing whole human beings. And at different times in the series, we get to highlight those aspects of our wholeness that sometimes get hidden if we’re on a different platform, if we’re in a white show, for instance.
I’ve done a lot of shows. This is my first time working on a show that has a black showrunner, a black writing staff, black directors. This is just for the most part. 90 percent of the time, a black crew, a black wardrobe department, a black makeup department. I look around and say ‘I’m safe,’ you know? They get me. They get my complexities. The dichotomy of who I am, the good, the bad and the evil. The wonderful, the beautiful parts of me. They’re not afraid to see my beautiful, they’re not afraid to see me be totally angry, or loud because they’ve seen, noticed or experienced. They are me. They are Cecil Diamond. That’s their uncle, that’s their friend, that’s the uncle, that’s them.
Other people are like, “Oh my God, Cecil Diamond is a villain.” White people say that to me and I say, “No, he’s not. He’s a complex man. He’s firm man. He’s a hard man. But he’s not a villain.” I don’t play villains. I play human beings that have different sides, different parts of their personalities. I show ‘stronger’ at different times. They allow that on The Quad. But just to see that many people of color in every department…I love. And then I love the community, the family of actors that we have, writers that we have, directors that we have. Directors that we bring on, including myself. I’ve directed Episode 4.
Oh, excellent. I can’t wait to see that one.
Yeah, we had a great time.
What are three words you’d use to describe this upcoming season?
Exciting, complex, and integrity. It’s exciting because of all the different levels and the conflicts that actually come face to face. It’s exciting when people run into rooms and smash their ideas and their attitudes and their feelings together. That’s exciting. Complex is because we not only get to show how we feel in a professional realm, but we also get to show how we feel in a private, personal realm as characters. Integrity, we all, every character on this show, stands for something. I’ll leave it at that. We all stand for something. And what we stand for, there’s a certain mobility and cause in the way that we approach and believe and defend that cause.
Oh, I can’t wait to see this tonight!
Ooohh, “it’s going to be lit,” as my son would say. It’s going to be lit tonight.
The Quad premieres on BET tonight (Jan. 23) at 10 pm EST.