In this year’s array of Hallmark Christmas movies, I kept my eyes peeled for known and unknown faces, and it just so happens, Darlene Cooke was one of those “unfamiliar” faces. I noticed her in the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries production of A Song For Christmas, and as I researched her credits, I discovered she had appeared on the inaugural episode of one of my favorite shows–Designated Survivor. I couldn’t have been more pleased when Darlene decided to grant me an interview, and as you will soon observe, we covered a substantial portion of her acting career and more.
RH: Please tell us briefly about your journey to becoming an actor.
DC: Growing up in a household of eight children–eight very loud, opinionated and outspoken children–you were not heard unless you expressed yourself in a way that was different from all others. For me, I was not like other little girls. My dreams were bigger, brasher, riskier and different from my friends. Growing up on an army base and then a small town in southern Ontario, I would dream about owning beautiful clothing that was my very own and being recognized as being very unique and very special. I had a passion for the horses that grazed in the fields around our home. I knew in my heart that there was no one like me. I grew up very “self-aware”. My Mother called me “contrary”. I have “quirks” and imperfections that make me a very real individual, living as authentic a life as I could while living in a very controlled environment. I have no fear to try what others say cannot be done.
When my family moved to Toronto, I began modeling school and was picked up by a modeling agent. I didn’t like not being able to eat what I wanted and as much as I wanted. I also didn’t like to be told what I could do or what I couldn’t do. I’m extremely independent and was expected to marry and have children and live a quiet life. I am not a quiet person. I was a cheerleader in high school, very active in gymnastics, basketball and a big track and field athlete. I loved the attention.
When I began flying as a flight attendant after I graduated from high school, I began modern jazz and ballet dance with Lenny Gibson and studied voice with Amanda Ambrose, who later wanted me to move to New York and continue my studies but I had other dreams.
During my twelve years as a flight attendant, I would often do “a one-woman show” in the Upper Deck Lounge of one of the 747’s. I loved hearing the passengers laughter and watching the expressions on their faces. I loved how I felt inside when I discovered how my words and my humor could get such a strong response from complete strangers….(with a little bit of alcohol inside them.) They were my captive audience at 35,000 feet.
A few years later, on a dare, I got up on stage at Yuk Yuk’s on Amateur Night and slayed them. They asked me to come back and when I did, I was absolutely horrible. I wanted to die right then and there. They suggested that I come back and watch the pros do their thing. This is where I learned how to identify with my audience. An agent heard that I did not have any representation and said that she wanted to represent me. I explained that I didn’t want to be a comedian, but that I would love to shoot a commercial or two and see where that could lead. Within six months of signing with this agent, I was a part of ACTRA. From that moment on, a bigger agency and then another prestigious agency signed me up. I grew as an individual, as a performer and as an actor, learning my craft by the skin of my teeth. The riskier, the better. I was delighted and joyful as I went from one audition to another. I fell into this business completely by accident and the moment I landed my first “gig”, I knew that I had found my home.
What was your first official role in the business? Any special memories of it?
My very first official ACTRA series role was STREET LEGAL in 1993, where I played the JURY FOREPERSON. The episode was in Season 3, Episode 19, called “Feared by the Bad, Loved by the Good” and it aired December 10, 1993.
You can’t imagine my excitement and thrill to be cast on such a number one Canadian production, which featured our city of Toronto. The show was extremely popular at that time, and I was a very new actor and couldn’t believe that I was cast. I was very pumped to be in the same episode with Cynthia Dale and Eric Peterson. The rest of the jury and members of the courtroom audience were all background performers and it was then that I realized the importance of strong background talent. They made the scene come to life and gave it substance and balance. I loved the act of being “miked” for the scene. I soaked in all the hustle and bustle that was going on around me. I enjoyed the special treatment in hair, makeup and wardrobe. The entire experience was a blast. Street Legal aired from 1987 to 1994 and I was so grateful that I was able to participate before it aired its final season.
My very first ACTRA commercial was a Canadian National for Bell Canada, which was Canada’s only telephone system at the time. It was a big deal and it was set in the country on a farm. A young man was going off to University and leaving his family and friends behind. We were seeing him off. My (commercial husband and son) and I were there along with this young character’s siblings, parents, and his dog. I do remember it was a long, hot day and I learned how important it was to get a particular shot when the light was right. The commercial ran for quite a while and that is when I first began to appreciate residuals. I believe I shot that in 1991 or thereabouts. It was an SOC (silent on camera) commercial for all the principal performer actors, with an announcer later doing a voice over. Beautiful music, scenery and real emotion from all the performers. Great work. We were all very proud of the final product when it aired. Keeping things small and believable was something I was learning to develop with more ease. Learning…… always learning and storing away anything that I could use in my future bookings.
There is a real camaraderie among actors and I was getting to appreciate it more and more.
What was interesting about my work on DOC was that I auditioned for a role in the pilot. I wasn’t booked, but they liked what I offered them, so when the series was given the green light for future episodes, they offered me the recurring role of the ER Doctor without auditioning again. Happiness! I was also asked to play the hospital staff neonatologist on a couple of episodes. By covering my lower face with a surgical mask and a pair of my glasses plus a surgical cap, I was just another specialist in surgery.
Working with Billy Ray Cyrus was a dream. Not only was he a joy to look at, he is a kind, gentle spirit who was always peaceful, smiling and supportive. I absolutely loved working on the set. On occasion, little Miley was on set. Full of beans and deeply adoring of her Dad. The DOC cast and crew were exceptional, happy, talented and the entire experience felt like you were an important member of a tight family. It was cast by Clare Walker and I will be forever grateful to her and the DOC producers for casting me.
As an actor, we face rejection every day, but in this instance, this initial rejection in the pilot opened the door for a recurring role that allowed other directors and producers to see me in another way. From the moment I worked on DOC, opportunities for roles as a doctor in both film and commercials continued to come in.
You had a role in the pilot of Designated Survivor. How did you get involved with that show and what was it like being a part of that show right from its inception? Any possibility that your character may return at some point?
My uncle was a criminal attorney and later a judge for the Ontario Court of Justice. On many, many occasions, I would sit in his courtroom and watch proceedings. I would study his attitude in the courtroom and the diverse attorneys that stood before him. Over the years, a couple of the female judges gave me some of their old robes that I could use for auditions, as I was now being called in and booked as the judge for various films and commercials. So after auditioning for Designated Survivor and later being offered the role as the DC Appellate Court Justice, I knew I would be working with Kiefer Sutherland. I have watched and admired his work for years, as we all have. His legendary role on 24 will never leave my memory. I wanted to be excellent for him. I knew that Kiefer is hands-on with all of his projects. He is a perfectionist and knows exactly what he wants for each and every scene.
When I finally met Kiefer and the beautiful British actor who played his wife, Natascha McElhone, along with Adan Canto, the actor who plays President Tom Kirkman’s chief of staff. I was blown away. We all met at the blocking. I knew in my heart how this scene that involved my character, the DC appellate judge who swears in Kiefer’s character as the next president of the United States should be played. In my mind, it was clear. Somehow I needed Kiefer to know that I have given this a lot of thought and research. I don’t know what got into me, except that I was passionate about giving my very best to Kiefer and this production.
Your first Hallmark movie was in the recent Christmas film, A Song for Christmas. How did you land that role? What was that experience like? What did you enjoy about working for Hallmark and do you hope to do more with this network?
Yes, Ruth, this was my very first Hallmark film and landing this role was another fluke. “What’s for you…..will come to you.”
Hallmark productions are warm and cozy. They have a small town feel to them and seem to feature good people, who have the salt-of-the-earth kind of personas. Their storylines surround characters that may have lost their way for a while, but somehow find their way back to the goodness that was always there. That is what describes, North Bay and the surrounding small towns and villages in the area. Hallmark is committed to bringing opportunity, work, production, exposure and promotion to an area of Northern Ontario that was for such a long time forgotten. The talent, technical crews, camera people, hair/makeup and wardrobe professionals and the locals are eager to participate in this industry. There is enough work to go around, so being part of a Hallmark production is a good thing.
What is most interesting is…..I was born in Sudbury, which is an old nickel town, one and a half hours north of North Bay. I don’t know what it was like to live there as my family moved to Base Borden shortly after I was born. So going North to shoot this Hallmark movie A Song for Christmas was personally very attractive. The role of Bev was originally awarded to an individual who lived in the North Bay area. The goal of Hallmark was to use as much of the talent and crews from the North as possible. Unfortunately, the woman who was originally cast was not up to the task of the role and they needed to re-cast. I auditioned for the Los Angeles Director, Rich Newey in Toronto, and was booked, to my delight. It was a long four-hour drive up to North Bay from Toronto, but it gave me an opportunity to really see the country, the people, the homes and absorb the feel of a small town again. I cherished this opportunity. The production had taken over a Northern country lodge and I stayed for three days shooting the film and welcoming each day.
The cast was warm and friendly starring Becca Tobin from Glee and Kevin McGarry, both talented singers and actors and direction was clear and on point. I appreciated the gentle direction from Rich, who still allows his actors to put their own spin, however subtle, on a scene. I saw the film and was very happy about the choices that were made and how it was edited. This is a film that a family could watch together and not fear that their children were going to see something that they shouldn’t. Everyone learns something when watching a Hallmark film. It’s not life-changing, but it’s “food for the soul” kind of entertainment.
The word among actors is…..if you do a Hallmark film and they like you, you’ll do more and more. I’m hoping that this is how they saw my work. Of course, I would love to have a more prominent role as either a lead or a guest-starring role, where I could tell a story in beautiful country and be able to somehow bring horses into the picture. Horses are my solace and the crystals in my life. I would like to be able to show the growth of an individual and redeem the essence of the character.
Any other upcoming roles you can mention?
This question is rather painful because I am always joyful when I am working. Yes, I am working on a feature film of which I have been sworn to secrecy. I am not allowed to speak on it except to say……NO COMMENT! Please stay tuned as in time you will see. I’m happy and regretful at the same time.
Since you have children, how has that impacted your career? Have you found it difficult to have this career and still be a mother? Any secrets to share with us about how you can manage your personal and professional time?
Wow, Ruth…..now this is a HUGE question and one that has taught me a very important lesson. First, I need you to know that I have two adult sons that I have raised and loved and scolded and nurtured on my own. I have never married; I chose not to. I had opportunities, but the idea of marrying for convenience and not because of a blissful love was something that I would never consider doing.
I was blessed to experience an amazing and successful single parent adoption of a three-month-old baby boy and also give birth to another healthy full-term baby boy. My sons are my everything, but at times I made career decisions from a mother’s point of view. I never traveled without my sons and I vowed to never work in a different city from where my sons attended school and where we lived. I always tried to put my sons first. I’ve had to do other jobs around my work as an actor to ensure that the mortgage was paid and that our refrigerator was always full. I’ve worked as a private investigator, a catering supervisor, a driver examiner and a background/stand-in actor.
I became an expert with juggling time, but always knew that my boys were the crystal balls in my life that needed to be caught and given a soft landing. Other things in my life had to take a backseat. There was a time when an incredible director, someone that I respected with absolute adoration, offered me a role that I felt I had to turn down because I had promised my younger son a trip to New York City during March break. I couldn’t let him down. He had just recuperated after undergoing a couple of surgeries. This director was Jim Sheridan. The movie was Dream House. I would have been working opposite Daniel Craig, who by the way, has the bluest eyes I have ever seen. Jim had offered to fly both my son and I to and from New York after the completion of the film. With the extra money, I could have taken both of my sons to Cuba for Christmas and still have money in the bank.
I had made the decision of turning down the film because I thought I was being a good mother. About a year later, I found out from my son, that if given the choice, he would have chosen the Cuba option, with New York City happening whenever. I learned that kids are resilient; they adjust and are tougher than we think. I learned that I could have made the decision to do the film and still not disappoint my son. I should have stopped for a moment and thought it through. Instead, I turned down the most generous opportunity of my career in an instant. So, if I could offer advice to other actors with family and children, before making huge decisions that could really affect your career, slow down and think. Consider the pros and cons and come to the decision that really makes the most sense for everyone as a family. Today, I wished that I had taken the movie and had given myself time to figure it out.
Lesson learned. Slow down. Sleep on it. The answers will come.
What do you enjoy the most at Christmastime?
Reflection. I find the Christmas season is the time that I look back at the previous year and reflect. I love that things slow down and strangers smile at you and the comforts of home become a real priority. Long, cozy evenings and time with family and friends are precious moments and this time of year gives us the opportunity to create special memories. Yummy foods and really good wine become a staple and the season is gone too soon. It’s hectic up to Christmas Day and then the entire celebration seems to be over before you know it. We reminisce about our time together and promise to get together with those we care about, but before we know it, another year has taken over and we are dancing as fast as we can in the race of life again.
I don’t have any grandchildren as of yet and my sons are grown adults with lives of their own, so getting everyone together is a particularly difficult balancing act in relation to the individual schedules and personal holiday plans of all involved.
Perhaps, this would be the ideal time for me to write.
If you could shadow one person in show business for one day, whom would you choose. Why?
I would absolutely love, love, love to be able to shadow Shonda Rhimes for a day. Now, this is a woman I can relate to and more importantly learn from. Her reputation for excellence in writing, directing and producing precedes her. Anyone who works with her adores her and thanks her for the opportunity. Shonda is considered to be the most loving and generous of bosses. She offers her talent the opportunity to enhance their characters, to direct episodes and to exec produce projects. She is an all-inclusive woman. She strives for diversity in casting roles, be it male or female. She feels, just as I do, that the story does not have to be about our black skin. We know that we are black–we get that. However, we are not limited by our color. Being black is not the entirety of our human experience in this world.
Shonda, like me, never wants to marry. We feel complete in our individual space. We both love men, but choose to live independently of a man. She has adopted two children and had another via a surrogate mother. I adopted one baby boy and had another on my own. She came from a large family, as I did, but she focused her attention on education and getting her B.A. from Dartmouth and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television. She knew what she wanted to do from the very beginning. I, on the other hand, just fell happily into my career as an actor completely by accident. Perhaps there are no accidents, just fate, coming together in its own time. I can only pray that my fate leads me to be involved in a project that was touched by the hands, mind, and intellect of Shonda Rhimes.
Could you not just dream of all that I could soak up from this woman? We all, regardless of our color, our sex, our dreams or our fears, could learn so very much from Shonda Rhimes. Yes, that’s my girl!
First of all, because of my ethnicity, many are startled to discover that I am a champion of diversity. In fact, I always have been. So in the case of Darlene, when I saw that she was appearing in a Hallmark film, I was ecstatic before I even realized I had previously seen her in another show. I applaud the network for seeking to diversify their casts on every level (not just race), and they do it in their quiet, simple, but classy and professional manner. I simply adore the fact that Darlene has been included in the Christmas programming this year, and I sincerely hope that the network will continue to utilize her myriad of gifts in future productions. I find her a delightful addition to the cast of A Song For Christmas, and she has more than proven her skills as well as her eagerness to work as a team. She does not ask to be handed things because of her race or gender; she proactively labors to be the best she can be in her profession and in her life in general. Perhaps she does not announce her accomplishments from the rooftops, but I find that a redeeming quality as well, for it points to her sincere humility. I genuinely believe any movie set associated with any network or studio would be blessed to have her join their team, and fingers crossed that the “Darlene Cooke” phenomenon will catch on.
As we await Darlene’s next offering from the entertainment world, please take a moment and look up some of her past works, including the aforementioned Christmas film and network show. Moreover, please check out the link below for even more of her wonderful credits throughout the years, for it is possible you have seen her work without even realizing it. I appreciate her forthrightness and honesty in everything she shared, and as she continues to remain true to who she is and celebrate the God-given talent with which she has been bequeathed, I can only hope and pray incredible things are headed her way in the months and years to come!