Actor Cedric Yarbrough has a cool, calm, collected vibe about him. He seems genuinely grateful for being able to do what he expresses so much passion for. When talking about his family and especially his mama, their warm pride of his endeavors is felt through his words. It’s refreshing to see that he goes beyond the script, from doing more research of characters he takes on, to being open to an organic improvisation, bring more authenticity to a scene.
Yarbrough is a good conversationalist, roots for the good guy, and enjoys a good laugh. And he knows a thing or two about comedy! Since making his way to LA in 2000, he’s nabbed coveted TV roles in Comedy Centrals’ Reno 911!, Arrested Development, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and The Goldbergs. He’s also made his mark on the big screen in Meet the Fockers, Black Dynamite, and The Boss, plus others. ABILITY caught up with the actor to talk about his path to acting and his current role as kind-hearted Kenneth on ABC’s Speechless, starring Minnie Driver as the mother of a son with cerebral palsy. If you’ve caught the show, you have seen the adventures these characters go on sprinkled with plenty of relatable scenarios!
Lia Martirosyan: What got you into acting?
Cedric Yarbrough: I was always interested in acting, but in my high school sports was the cool thing to be part of, and I was still very into being cool. So I played a lot of basketball and football. But I always had that want to be in theater and to be a part of theater arts. But in my school, it was just a really nerdy thing to be a part of. Everyone in my school wore bowler hats—they were always on, always acting, and all so big. I was like, “I can’t be that, even though I wanted to be.
Martirosyan: What high school did you go to?
Yarbrough: This was in Minnesota at Burnsville High School. When I graduated, I was able to go to a community college where they didn’t have any sports and none of my peers were there, none of my friends, so I could really get into acting.
Martirosyan: So you didn’t feel any pressure or judgment?
Yarbrough: No. So I was able to wear bowler hats and be as big and stupid as I possibly could, and then from there I got a scholarship and went to Minnesota State University, where I really got into it.
Martirosyan: So you got a scholarship in theater? Nice!
Martirosyan: What was the first production you took part in there?
Yarbrough: The first production I ever did was A Streetcar Named Desire. I did that and really fell in love with language and scripts and Tennessee Williams and how you just transport people into this whole world by watching other people doing it. That really sat well with me. My mother is really big into musical theater—The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. She would wake us up in the middle of the night to watch these old musicals.
Martirosyan: That’s a nice memory
Yarbrough: She would make popcorn or mac and cheese or cereal or something, and wake us up. “Get on up! Sound of Music is on!” You know, that was before we had VCRs and all that kind of stuff. So that really fueled my first love of acting and theater and music. When I finally got to college, I was able to try it.
Martirosyan: Where did the comedy come in to your life?
Yarbrough: My family is hilarious. They’re really funny.
Yarbrough: Accidental, on purpose, all of it! They’re really goofy. We played tricks on each other all the time. That was always kind of an innate thing. We were always joking. We were always trying to one-up each other, including my mother. That was kind of just a thing we always had, and I’ve been able to incorporate what I’ve always known into what I love to do.
Chet Cooper: Lia actually crazy-glued the couch. She thought that was funny.
Cooper: —you’re stuck!
Yarbrough: Oh, that’s it? Well, I’m here forever.
Martirosyan: Is anyone else in your family in entertainment?
Yarbrough: No one else has gone into this crazy business. But I remember my mother telling me a story about when she used to sing, really sing. She grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. One day Barry Gordy from Motown was looking for singers, and she wanted to audition, but she never did.
Yarbrough: She never had the courage to really try it. So that’s always been in the back of my head. A lot of times you tell yourself no with things, a lot of times you discourage yourself.
Martirosyan: You get in your own way.
Yarbrough: Yeah. I’ve tried not to do that to myself. I mean, I edited myself all the time, but I’ve told myself yes more than no, and with those yeses, I’ve been able to actually have a career.
Cooper: Do you sing?
Yarbrough: Oh, yeah. I sing. I’ve done a lot of musical theater. A lot of music in different shows. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a really great show right now with a lot of music, and I guest-starred last year. They didn’t have a song for me, but I knew they did a lot of music. I was like, “I’m not doing the show and not singing a song.” So I improvised a song, and they put it in the show.
Martirosyan: Seize the moment.
Yarbrough: I think a lot of actors, especially actors with a theater background, have a musical ear. A lot of actors just want to be musicians anyway, and a lot of musicians want to be actors. I sing, so I dabble in that.
Martirosyan: When did you make the big move to
Yarbrough: I moved out here July 4, 2000. I had my U-Haul. I came in. It was night. The fireworks were going off. I’m like, “Hey, this is the city for me, right here.”
Martirosyan: That was all set up for your arrival!
Yarbrough: “They’ve already welcomed me here!”
Cooper: And you got nine eleven?
Yarbrough: Reno 911!
Cooper: What did I say?
Martirosyan: (laughs) You said nine eleven.
Cooper: Isn’t that the same?
Yarbrough: Well, you’ve got the same numbers in there!
A lot of people do that. You’ve got the right numbers, yes, but a different connotation.
Cooper: That was your first major show, right?
Yarbrough: That was the first big series I was able to be a regular on. I came out here in July, and I met the Reno 911! guys in October of that year. The show was sketch comedy at the time. It was entitled Ugly Americans, and it was just a sketch show for Fox.
Cooper: I did not know that.
Yarbrough: And Fox thought it was a little too similar to Mad TV, their sketch comedy show at the time, so they scrapped that idea and came up with this COPS-like show. COPS was on their network at the time, so they thought it would be kind of cool to have it on at 8:00 on Saturday nights and Reno 911! at 8:30, as a funny show. And Fox did not like that idea at all. So it sat on the shelf for two years. We all went our separate ways, and one day I get a call from Tom Lennon, who played Lieutenant Dangle on the show. He said, “Yeah, I think Comedy Central wants to do a pilot.” So we did a pilot, and they really loved it.
Cooper: With the same cast?
Yarbrough: Yes. It was mostly the same cast. We hired one more person and got rid of one person.
Cooper: Same cast as Ugly Americans?
Yarbrough: Yes. We all came from sketch comedy, and we all came up with these characters, wrote these individual cops, and away we went. It was a fun show. A lot of people really liked it because it felt different. It felt new.
Cooper: I liked it a lot. I couldn’t believe it went off the air.
Yarbrough: It felt authentically itself, and I think it was because of the actors. We really put a lot of time into our individual characters, and because it was also an improvised show. Like we’re having this conversation right now, it felt natural and real. That’s why people really resonated with the show.
Cooper: This is all a sketch for us.
Yarbrough: Oh, you guys have written this whole thing up? You should have let me know. But it was a fun show. We had a great time, a great cast, and guest stars who have gone on to do really great things—Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Nick Swardson, the Key and Peele boys, who’ve done some really great things, too. And our core cast was spectacular, too.
Cooper: Maybe this is totally off, but did you have any connection with Super Troopers?
Yarbrough: That had nothing to do with us. Those guys had a whole other thing going on. But we had cops on the mind. I don’t even know who came first. I think ours came out before theirs came out.
Cooper: And Tom Lennon, is he producing @midnight?
Yarbrough: Oh, yes. Tom Lennon and Ben Garant
produce @midnight right now.
Cooper: At 11:30.
Yarbrough: Yeah. And they’ve done all the Night at the Museum movies, too. They’ve done some really cool stuff with—
Cooper: You should have been one of those!
Yarbrough: Tell them!
Cooper: Are you going to be on @midnight at some point?
Yarbrough: It would be nice. They haven’t invited me!
Cooper: When I first watched it, I thought everyone was just improvising. But I keep seeing them look at the screen, so I think they’ve been given some material to begin with.
Yarbrough: They’re able to prepare. They’re given the questions. As comics, you’re able to write down some material. It’s material the comics have written. There are a lot of questions, though, so it’s hard to remember all that. But nothing has been prepared for them—they’ve prepared for themselves.
Martirosyan: That was a good question. I was wondering how every single one of them can be so quick?
Yarbrough: A lot of times it is that they’re lightning-fast.
Cooper: You could do it, Lia.
Martirosyan: (laughs) Oh, yeah! Right on the spot! I could faint on the spot! That’ll work.
Cooper: It won’t get you any points.
Martirosyan: I want to get into building up to Speechless. When you read the script, and got to know your character. What did you think?
Yarbrough: When I first read it, I thought it was wonderful. The characters were very well-defined. As an actor, that’s what you really want—to know that whoever is in charge, whoever is writing this, has a clear-cut point of view. That way you can fill in the other things, too. But also, where is this character coming from? And I could see that with every character in the pilot, not just mine, but the whole show just seemed so well-written and very authentic. Especially if you could get a kid who has cerebral palsy (CP) and a mother who really cares so much that she will break the world for that child.
Then to have a relationship with this child, to have this guy come out of nowhere who has nothing to do with the family, but who genuinely cares for that kid, would be a cool thing to do. I wanted to put my stamp on it. I went in and told them my ideas, and they were really receptive. As I recall, I was the first one cast, the first guy they wanted. They said, “OK, let’s roll with you as Kenneth.” It was cool, because I was able to audition with other people for the mother’s role, to have a “chemistry” read. That was pretty interesting, too.
Martirosyan: Were you able to draw from real life or on any experiences you’d had?
Yarbrough: I didn’t know too many people with CP. I knew a couple of kids in high school. As an actor, you’re kind of aware of everything, or you try to be, so you take in certain habits or find certain things, such as how someone sits or how demure they are. You get those things about everybody. So I was very observant of that community. But I didn’t know very many people.
So I booked the role, and I was able to meet with someone who is nonverbal, who has an aide and also uses a laser to point out what she wants to say. I found that really helpful.
Cooper: How did you find her?
Yarbrough: Scott Silveri is the head writer and creator of the show. He got in contact with her—her name is Eva Sweeney. I said, “Please, let’s have a meeting.” She was extremely gracious!
Eva advised on the show as well. She’s really open, as was her aide, Tim. We were able to talk and hang out. I wanted to be more educated than my character, because he goes in not knowing a whole lot, but I didn’t want to be as dumb as he was. (laughs) I wanted to meet with her, and we talked about anything and everything. It was cool. She’s an excellent writer, too!
Cooper: And she’s local?
Yarbrough: Yes. We worked diligently and hand in hand with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF). They advised us and, of course, we’re going to get things wrong, but I think we’re getting things right more than not. Scott Silveri has a brother who’s nonverbal, so he comes from an authentic place for the show. He was kind of tired of seeing shows that were always sad and maudlin with families with disabilities or someone with autism or someone who has CP, and he just wanted to make a really funny comedy with a character who has cerebral palsy.
Martirosyan: And it works!
Yarbrough: I think so. I think people are really finding it funny and not a waste of their time. They feel good about watching the show, and that feels good, too.
Martirosyan: I think one of the funnier scenes was when you left without him in the car.
Martirosyan: And you were like, “I’m not gonna lie, that sucked!”
Yarbrough: Yeah! That was one of the first conversations we had that I didn’t want my character coming in all-knowing and omniscient and being able to save this family—as if they need saving anyway! But I didn’t want to come in like—you know, there’s a phrase we say in the African-American community, “the magical Negro,” who comes in and can solve everything, like The Legend of Bagger Vance. You’ve seen that movie? That’s with Will Smith and Matt Damon. Smith plays a golf pro, and out of nowhere he cares for this white guy, for no reason, and then he disappears. So I didn’t want to be that guy!
Cooper: Oh, you don’t play golf.
Yarbrough: (laughs) Yeah, right! I wanted my character to be a part of the family but also have flaws, yet be very genuine in that he cares for the kid. And I think we’re finding that balance of fun, humor, and making mistakes but solving them as well.
Cooper: In the disability arena, there is something similar called the “super-crip” stereotype, where the media only goes toward, “Oh, my gosh, he’s blind, and he climbed a mountain!”
Cooper: People go for that. They don’t see it as part of the fabric of life. They push it to a different level.
Yarbrough: And we address that issue in a later episode with inspiration porn.
Martirosyan: Exactly what I was thinking.
Yarbrough: And then the magical Negro and they’re relating somehow. I think they’re cousins—
Yarbrough: —in some regard. So we address both of these issues in an upcoming episode that I’m excited for people to see.
Martirosyan: Looking forward to it.
Cooper: I like the episode where you kind of lost it.
Yarbrough: Yeah, he wasn’t used to all this attention and it went to his head, but that’s another thing that was fun to show, his flaws. It went way too far.
Cooper: Or not far enough!
Yarbrough: Yeah, maybe he could have gone to the White House or something. What I love about working on the show is that Scott Silveri and the writers are open to hearing our ideas when it comes to the show and our characters. Our show is very different in that we’re poised to do certain stories that no other show can do. That’s something I’m happy about.
Martirosyan: Do you and Micah Fowler find yourselves not able to contain your laughter?
Yarbrough: Oh, we have a great time. Micah is my bud. He’s a brother now, which I’ve wanted from the very beginning. I felt like first and foremost he and I should be friends, good friends, and that would translate to the screen.
He’s a spirited, funny, hard-working kid who’s not new to the business, but new to these hours. These are long hours, sometimes 12-, sometimes 16-hour days. I’m always checking in on him on how he’s doing. He’s really gung-ho. We have a lot of fun on the set.
Martirosyan: How was your experience with the Media Access Awards?
Yarbrough: Oh, it was great! It was a phenomenal experience. It’s so funny, because you are in a bubble of sorts working, working, working, and you don’t want to receive too many good and bad comments, because then you have to believe it all. So you try to stay in this Speechless cocoon. It was nice to meet a lot of people who enjoy the show, who are affected by it and who accept it. And also to give Scott Silveri a Media Access award, when we’ve aired six or seven episodes, is just crazy. It’s not what we’ve been going for. We’ve just been trying to make a really funny show, and for people to embrace it that way is amazing.
Martirosyan: What does your mom think?
Yarbrough: Oh, wow! She can’t be stopped!
I went home for Thanksgiving, and I had to meet all the neighbors and all the people she works with.
Martirosyan: Ten new cousins!
Yarbrough: Yeah, the new family that we apparently have. But she’s proud and happy with the show. She’s of course very biased, but I’m the best one. But she loves the show. So does the family. And my family hates everything, so I’m excited they like the show, too.
Martirosyan: Oh, good! What elements do you find your family pointing out most about the show, besides you?
Yarbrough: Besides me? I think they connect mostly with J.J. and Kenneth’s friendship. “They,” meaning not just my family. Some of the people I’ve spoken with really like seeing the adventure they go on. Even in Kenneth’s eyes, watching him do his teenage years again and how he’s also watching that process. And then they ask about my own personal process with the show, because it’s a kind of schizophrenic way of acting. I’m doing both J.J.’s line and my own lines, since I’m reading his board. I’m also doing his dialogue. So a lot of times it’s just a long monologue of me speaking, if you’ve noticed. A lot of people don’t. They say, “So when he says—” and I’m like, “Did you noticed that it’s actually me speaking?” I’m doing a lot of dialogue within myself with J.J. It’s an interesting way of acting, but it seems to be working.
Martirosyan: There’s no cheat sheet on that laser board?
Yarbrough: No. That’s the thing also, he’s supposed to be—I probably shouldn’t be telling you all the ins and outs of Hollywood, but—
Yarbrough: —let’s say he’s not always spelling out what he’s supposed to be spelling out.
And then there are times I’m not saying what I’m supposed to be saying. They let me improvise and do all kinds of stuff with the show. That’s fun.
Martirosyan: Cool! [To Cooper] Do you have anything?
Cooper: Yes, I have 22 questions.
Yarbrough: I can only do 21.
Cooper: Do you have any organizations that you’ve worked with over the years, such as nonprofits and charitable work?
Yarbrough: Most of the stuff that I’ve done has been with the Los Angeles Police Department. With Reno 911!, we did a lot of fundraising and citizens’ awareness about what the police do and what the police should be aware of when interacting with citizens.
Cooper: This is pre-‘Black Lives Matter’?
Yarbrough: Yes, this is pre-Black Lives Matter. It’s an interesting thing. I was just thinking about it. We’ve always wanted to do a Reno 911! reunion, but everyone’s busy doing other things. It’d be a little hard to do it in that there must be a balance. Why that show worked so well is because the cops were bad at their jobs. But we have a society to balance that off of. If things aren’t aboveboard in real life, then you can’t have the funny, you can’t have the fantasy, you can’t have the silliness when it’s actually true.
Cooper: Jeff Ross went in and roasted the police, and he was able to. What he did was brilliant. It’s really hard, though.
Yarbrough: Yeah, it’s definitely very hard to roast cops. But I remember at the time we were doing the show, the police had a great time because they found it the most realistic depiction of police life. It’s not like CSI, where, “Oh, there’s a pube. Perfect! I know exactly who this is!”
It’s not that. It’s the day-to-day funniness that actually happens, when somebody calls the cops on themselves or some of the weirdness that may happen. I would love to get to a point where people do trust the police and the police trust the citizens, and there is a harmonious way of living. It’s rough out there. I’ve seen it. I’ve been part of it. I’m hoping for the best.
Martirosyan: I was curious, when you were talking about working with charities and building awareness around police and community interaction, did they ever simulate interactions between people with disabilities and the police? With mental illness and deafness—conditions that aren’t immediately visible—result in bad scenarios.
Yarbrough: No, I’m not aware of any, but that kind of program would be very interesting. I can’t speak for the police because I never had that training. And I’m glad I didn’t, because it’s a whole other thing. My job was to be funny, to be satirical.
Martirosyan: That’d be tough.
Yarbrough: Yeah. It’s a hard job. A lot of those decisions have to be split-second decisions. You’re put in a hard position. But it’s also a job people choose to do, so if this is what they want, they have to also know they need training in these things.
Cooper: Definitely a hard job, but they want to go into it, like you said. It’s like being a doctor and saying, “I don’t like blood.”
Yarbrough: Yeah. That’s part of the job!