Dulé Hill on the "powerful" value of artists and why "The West Wing" "still rings true today"

Hill discusses his PBS artists series "The Express Way," meeting his wife on "Ballers" and why showbiz is like jazz

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 29, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Dule Hill (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Dule Hill (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Actor Dulé Hill's big break was in 1999 on Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing," where he played Charlie Young, the personal aide to President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. The show inspired a generation of political hopefuls and helped shape modern politics. For Hill, the award-winning show launched a 25-year multifaceted career in TV, films and Broadway.

Hill was an artist long before "The West Wing" came along. He started tap dancing at three years old and was cast in the national tour of the Broadway show, "The Tap Dance Kid," with fellow tap dancing great Savion Glover. I talked to Hill on "Salon Talks" about his ability to transform into different characters. He shared, “I don't really have a step-by-step plan. It's really a spiritual thing, an emotional thing." He continued, “I say, ‘Who is this dude? Why is this person the way they are?’” Hill continued, “That's really the first question I ask."

Hill's latest project, "The Express Way with Dulé Hill" on PBS, taps into those early creative roots and aims to shine a light on the localized power of art. Over the course of the series, Hill meets artists from all walks of life across America. Hill stops in San Francisco, Chicago, Texas and Appalachia. “When you take the time to travel the vast lands of this country," Hill explained, "You realize we're all pretty much seeking after the same thing. We want to be seen. We want to add value to the world around us.” 

Much like Hill's experiences as a young dancer, many of the artists featured in the show are happiest when they are lost in their art. The idea of going big or making it is not often the goal. “You get caught up in the celebrity of it and the magnitude of it.” Hill said, talking about Hollywood. “But the people that I met were trying to affect where they are right there like, 'I'm passionate about this. This is my square. This is my circle of influence, and I'm trying to give all of myself to influence my circle.'"

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Dulé Hill here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about "The Express Way with Dulé Hill," the colorful way he balances family life as a working artist, his transition from actor to host and learn why his love story with his wife actor Jazmyn Simon is so special.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I love “The Express Way with Dulé Hill.” I learned a lot. How did it come about?

The show came about because Chris Howard and Josh Jacobs, who are two exec producers on the show, came to my wife, Jazmyn Simon and I with this nugget of an idea of: how does dance affect culture? 

I'm a tap dancer, so they knew I was passionate about dance. Then thankfully we were able to connect with Danny Lee and the team over at Calico. Danny had a magnificent idea of expanding the lens beyond dance to include all forms of expression, all forms of art. That's when we realized we had something special, that, if we can take an expressway throughout the country, meeting people who are using their art, their gifts, their creative forms of expression to make the world a better place, to empower their communities and to find their voice, then maybe there might be an interesting and inspiring story to be told.

You've done theater, you've done film, you've done television. What is it like making the shift to host?

That was different. I believe on life's journey, you got to always stay open to something new. I think if you keep just doing what's familiar to you, then it can get redundant. To me, you're not living to the fullest at that point. The idea of stepping into hosting was a new challenge and a new genre that I had not experienced before. 

I'm not really somebody who likes to get up and talk in front of people, but I am somebody who's always interested in people. As I went on this journey, that's the thing that I really enjoyed was connecting with people along the way and hearing their story. I think oftentimes in life and especially in this country, we don't lean in and listen to each other enough. I want to tell you so much about me, but I don't want to sit back and lean in and listen to you. When you take the time to do that, you actually learn so much if you're curious about people. 

Not with looking at them with the judgment in your eyes, but really if you're just listening, it's like, "I want to know about you." That along this journey was the thing that I really enjoyed the most. 

"I'm not really somebody who likes to get up and talk in front of people, but I am somebody who's always interested in people."

Going on “The Express Way,” it was really just listening to people's stories, and the stories throughout this country are so powerful. You would think, OK, being in California, they don't really have anything that connects them to Appalachia, or Appalachia doesn't have anything that connects them to Chicago. Chicago definitely doesn't have anything that connects themselves to Texas. 

But when you take the time to travel the vast lands of this country and you get a chance to hear about the vast stories and the diverse journeys that we go on, you realize we're all pretty much seeking after the same thing. We want to be seen. We want to add value to the world around us. We want to know that our existence means something. That we're not just here by happenchance, and we want to know that we're powerful. There's a gift that's inside of us. There's something that's always burning inside of us. I think when we realize that if we honor that and we share that we can actually make this world a better place, we can make our communities a better place. We can make each other better just by doing that.

We have so much in common, but we're taught to act like we're so different. We're sold these ideas that we're different, and I think you made the world smaller with this.

That's what I got to say I love that about the show. Because even myself, we were filming in Knox County [and] Hazard County in Pennsylvania. For myself, you would think there's nothing here for me that's going to . . . for me. I'm not going to be welcome here. There's nothing that I can learn from this place, but it touched me so much. 

Then when you realize that if you get away from the macro and you lean in, it's like, "No. No. No, me and you can connect right here. I get you and you get me, and actually understand you and like you a lot. I can connect to your passion and connect to your struggles." I think we need to do that more often. For example, going to Chicago, I would think that, yeah, I would understand this, but then I realized I understood them both, and you're very similar. Maybe if we can keep talking more as a nation as a whole, starting with individuals and then in our communities and then the nation as a whole, then maybe we can bridge this gap that's been going on for so long.

Being from East Baltimore, I would never think directly about what's happening Appalachia, but when you talk about addiction and pain and families who don't want to see their family members suffer, I understand that. I think you bring it all together because you're highlighting the transformative power of art. Do you remember the first time you put a pair of tap shoes on?

I don't know if I remember the first time, but I remember early on when I had to do my first little performance at my dance school in Jersey. I went to Marie Wildey's School of Dance in East Orange, New Jersey. It was time to dance in front of I guess the class and the parents and everything, and I didn't want to do it. I was about three years old. I went to the dance teacher's office, Marie Wildey, and I hid under the table. I was back there. I was like, "I'm not doing it." I remember my mom and I called her Aunt Marie had to bribe me with a Blow Pop. You giving a kid some sweets, he going to do anything.

Just you saying "Blow Pop" makes my teeth hurt.

I remember going out there doing a tap, tap, step. Then I remember at a young age performing at North Symphony Hall for the dance recital. I do remember when I got a chance to work with Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers and Hinton Battle and seeing what they were doing. I remember that inspiration that came to me of, wow, I didn't realize that this dance had such a vast history and it can reach those levels. When I was about 10 years old on the national tour of "The Tap Dance Kid," we did a night where we watched all of the Nicholas Brothers' old films.

I'm sitting right there next to Harold, and he's telling me about the history of it and this and that. It blew my mind that here goes Harold, who I know as Harold, and he's on this screen doing these magnificent feats of artistry. To realize that we can do that. Really, this is a Black man who looks like me who did that. Then Gregory, I met Gregory Hines during that time and realized that's a Black man who looks like me who can do all this. "White Nights" was coming out and everything like that. Seeing Hinton Battle who's a Black man, who looks like me — that started to allow me to believe that, understand that I can do that too.

You performed with Savion Glover. He made it look so cool.

He always makes it look cool. It's funny because Savion and I pretty much started together in “The Tap Dance Kid,” but seeing what he does with his feet, it truly amazes me. Every time I get a chance to see him dance, I'm always like, "You are just on another level of genius." I think I'm a good tap dancer, I would not consider myself a great tap dancer, but Savion is a phenomenally wonderful tap dancer. He's a tap master. Dormeshia Sumbry[-Edwards] and Jason Samuels Smith too.

If you battled another tap dancer, how would you do?

I mean, I'mma cut you a little bit. I don't know if I'm going to win. If it's like Jared Grimes and me, Jared Grimes is probably going to get me. Ayodele Casel, she's probably going to get me. Michelle Dorrance is probably going to get me, but I'm going to slice you a little bit.

You mentioned tap dancing having a strong Black legacy. Are the kids still tapping?

Yeah. It's not as popular as it was in terms of pop culture, but if you go throughout the country and go throughout the world, it's spreading so far and wide. I'm really amazed at how much dance is out there and how much tap is living and thriving. These young cats are good too. What they can do with their feet really blows me away.

As an actor, you’ve been working consistently since you were young. What did you learn from the artists in the show and what do you think aspiring artists will take away from the show?

Well, here's the thing, on this show, I'm actually not really talking to folks who are looking to go to some other height. I think the people on the show, they're passionate about what they're doing. For me, it actually reminded me of why I'm an artist in the first place because as you get into television and film, you get caught up in the celebrity of it and the magnitude of it. But the people that I met were trying to affect where they are right there like, "I'm passionate about this. This is my square. This is my circle of influence, and I'm trying to give all of myself to influence my circle. I'm not trying to be over there and be George Clooney or Denzel or even James Brown to somebody. I'm trying to do this.”

There was some artists out there who obviously would . . . Wherever it goes it goes. But the majority of the people who I met were just trying to express themselves and influence, I guess, their community.

The reward should be in the art. Maybe it's the dirty little capitalist inside of me that's always thinking like, "You got to eat."

I feel you though. Again, for me it was a lovely reminder of why you're an artist. Because I get caught up in it too. It's like doing the things that are splashy and out there and going to have the farthest reach, but I appreciated I guess that recalibration to be like, "Why do you do what you do?" 

"I think in show business, you have to approach it like jazz. There's no definitives. You have to be malleable."

People who are aspiring, I think that what they would take from the show is that you have to be passionate about what you do. If you're not passionate about it, it doesn't matter. That is the driving force beyond anything. Being passionate in your pursuit of what you want to accomplish, that's what's going to be the wind in your sails. That's what's going to propel you forward.

Where do you want to go next? Is Season 2 even in the conversation yet?

There is that conversation happening. The country is so vast. I think we can go anywhere. I think you can flip the pages of the map of the country and put your fingers here and say let's go there. You’re going to find a dynamic artist who is using their gift to create space. I would love to be able to go down to New Orleans just because of the history there. I would love to be able to go to Alaska to see what's going on there. I'd love to be able to go to Hawaii. I would love to be able to go to say the Dakotas somewhere. There's so many stories to be told. If we could go into any of those places, I would be thrilled.

Something I did not know is that there’s an intense spoken word community in the Dakotas.

In Season 2, if you see us in Dakota getting down with some spoken word artists out there, then you will know where it started from because that's the thing you wouldn't normally think of that. That's what I love about the show is taking these things that you wouldn't normally think go together. You wouldn't normally think a senior citizen's burlesque group in Chinatown. You'd be like, “What?" You wouldn't think about a deaf dancer like Shaheem Sanchez.

He was fire.

You wouldn't think about a blind painter down in Texas. You wouldn't think about recovering drug addicts making stringed instruments in Appalachia. Then these instruments are making the music of the region. You'd be like . . .  You know my man, Bassel Almadani up there in Chicago. He's a first-generation Syrian-American and he plays funk and soul. He used that music to highlight the plight of the Syrian people and the tragedies that are going on there.

I love the dichotomy of things where say, this doesn't go with this.

When it comes to your artistry and craft, in “Ballers,” you play a hard-nosed football coach, which seems like he would never be in a situation to meet a guy like Gus from “Psych” or Alex Williams on “Suits.” Some of these characters are bossy while remaining ambitious or what could even be considered cutthroat. Where do you meet your characters? What do you do artistically to transform into these people?

That's a good question. A lot of times I just walk around with the idea of who this person is. I don't really have a step-by-step plan. It's really a spiritual thing, an emotional thing. I say, "Who is this dude? Why is this person the way they are?" That's really the first question I ask, "Why are they the way that they are? Why is Gus the way that he is? Why is Alex Williams the way that he is? Why is Larry Seifert the way that he is?" 

Once I started tapping into that, I can understand him a little bit. I played a character in this movie “Slight” years ago. I had to understand why is he like that? Because it goes back to leaning in and listening because if I understand why you are the way that you are then I can understand you. Once I can say for a character, once I can understand why I am the way that I am and I can understand me, then I can play him in any scenario because I understand the lens in which he looks through life.

It seems like there are some deeper conversations that are happening with the writers to get those backstories, perhaps.

There's definitely deeper conversations. Trying to do research on my own in terms of general manager stories, say for “Ballers.” Knowing some of the histories of different general managers. Knowing some of the stats out there. How many Black general managers are out there? Knowing some of that history because that will inform a lot.

That seemed like a fun show to work on.

It was a fun show. I love the show because I met my wife on the show, Jazmyn Simon. She played Julie Greane on the show. She was married to Omar Benson Miller.

I didn't know you guys actually met on that show.

A funny thing about that, we met on the pilot. I don't believe in coincidences, but I am always in awe of how pieces come together to make something happen. She was doing the pilot. She was only supposed to be there for a couple of days filming her stuff in the beginning and then go back to LA. She got there. The days went long, so they had to push her stuff to near the end of the pilot. She was there for two weeks and wasn't doing anything. 

"I don't believe in coincidences, but I am always in awe of how pieces come together to make something happen."

I was doing a show on Broadway at the time, and I only had one day off of work a week, which is Monday. I flew down Sunday, I was going to work this Monday on the pilot and then fly back to go hit “After Midnight.”

Jazmyn was so tired of just hanging around in the hotel room, not knowing anybody down there in Miami that she called production and said, "Can somebody pick me up to bring me to set so I can have lunch with the cast? Because I'm really getting cabin fever here." She came, she sat down. Of course I knew Omar Benson Miller already. She knew Omar. She came and sat down. I was like, "Wow. You're Jazmyn. Yeah." We have a mutual friend in Saladin Patterson. Then I took a picture of her to send to Saladin to be like, "Look who I met." He was like, "She's a nice girl. Stay away from her." [Laughs]

If she had done her work at the beginning and went back to LA, I never would've met her because we didn't have any scenes together. We knew each other at a distance for those first six months, then we were friends for a year before we started dating. If I was in Miami or in LA or New York or vice versa, we would go out and we would have dinner, we would talk. From the time I met her to a year and a half later we started dating, and then the rest is history. Our son Levi, I call him a true “Ballers” baby because without all these things happening, I don't know if you come into existence.


It's truly amazing.

When I met my wife, I met her at a ridiculous nightclub. It's called Medusa now. It was called Mirage back then. Funny thing about it is one of the first things we did when we really started kicking it was we watched “Ballers.”

Dig it, man. I hear that.

I'm happy I had HBO.

You see what I'm saying? “Ballers” bringing people together.

You and your wife both act, how do you guys handle the family, work, life balance?

I think in show business, you have to approach it like jazz. There's no definitives. You have to be malleable. With jazz, there's certain structures, but then there's a lot of room . . . Depending on what you feel in the moment, that's where you go. I think that's how we approach our life. We have our structure. We have our home. But if you get a job next week, then we'll make it work. If I get a job next week, we'll make it work. We’re both passionate artists. We both want to create space. We both want to use our art to just affect the world, so when the opportunities come that can work, we make it work. Simple as that.

It takes optimism.

You have to because otherwise you can look at the complications of everything and say, "That can't happen. I can't." The last two seasons when I was doing with “The Wonder Years,” our daughter, Kennedy, was in the senior year of high school. Levi was just starting to go to preschool. How do you make it work? Well, for me, it was like, "OK. I can make this work, but I need to be able to get on a plane every Friday." For her, it's a give and take too because I'm going to do this. Obviously that's going to be more responsibility on her during the week, but that's what teamwork is.

That's what it's about.

I know that I couldn't do what I do without her and vice versa. I think we collaborate very well. We're always willing to lean in and support each other along the way, and I think that's what you have to keep doing.

Last thing I wanted to ask you is about your big breakout role as Charlie on “West Wing,” playing opposite Martin Sheen. You were putting in work before that, but so many people met you on “West Wing.” Our country has flipped in so many different ways politically since that show aired. What do you think of that role and its influence on politics and culture now just looking back?

With “The West Wing” as a whole, I always say I wish it didn't resonate so much today. Unfortunately, it does. I wish that we could look at “The West Wing” and say and feel that it is very archaic and the themes are so yesterday, but unfortunately it doesn't. It still rings true today, which also tells me we have not moved that much forward. I think that is not a good thing for our country. I think we need to challenge ourselves to go further and expand and grow. 

I feel the character and the show as a whole allowed people to take a different perspective of government and how

"Martin, especially, showed me through action how to approach this business, to never lose my humanity."

things move. To realize that these are, one, just people. They're people who are like you and me. They're just passionate about our country, and they're really just trying to make the best choices. At least that's what it should be. That's what “The West Wing” at least inspired inside of us. I think it helped inspire hope for our nation to set a bar of what we could be. I think obviously we've not hit that over quite some time. I think hopefully one day we will, but I was truly honored to be a part of the show. 

Working with that cast and Martin especially. Martin, especially, showed me through action how to approach this business, to never lose my humanity, to always see the value in everyone that I come across. This business can really allow you to turn everything inwards and “it's all about me.” Martin is the exact opposite of that. He's, at least from the time I've met him, always been that. That has been very inspirational for me over the course of my career.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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