Coby Bell Interview: Busy Actor Juggles Time Between 'Burn Notice' and 'The Game'
Coby Bell plays Jesse Porter, the quick talking counter intelligence agent opposite Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell and Sharon Gless in USA network’s hit series Burn Notice.
The actor also stars as Jason Pitts, an NFL player and unfaithful husband to blonde trophy wife Brittany Daniels on The Game, the comedy/drama shown on BET (Black Entertainment Television).
"The life of an actor can really be sort of a gypsy life. You’re kind of all over the place, so if you’re lucky enough to get on a show that stays on the air, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do three or four times now, it’s a good thing for raising a family."
As the son of Broadway veteran Michel Bell, the California native was exposed to the acting world at just three years old. He has appeared in The Parent 'Hood, ER, L.A. Doctors and scored his first major role in the NBC drama Third Watch portraying Officer Tyrone Davis.
The family man is married to Aviss Pinkney-Bell and has two sets of twins; seven-year-old girls (Serrae and Jaena) and a two-year-old boy and girl (Eli and Quinn).
Season five of Burn Notice returns to the air November 3.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Coby, Burn Notice is quite a phenomenon. What do you think makes the show so successful and popular with fans?
Coby Bell: Burn Notice … Burn Notice … I’ve heard of the show Burn Notice (laughs). You know what, I think it has something for everyone. Matt Nix has done a great job in creating this blend of action, drama and comedy, and it all flows together pretty seamlessly. Then you’ve got Miami, which is just a beautiful location, and I think people all over the world find it to be a nice escape from their everyday lives. And then there are the explosions of course.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Of course (laughs). There was already an ensemble in place and one that worked very well. Did you feel like an outsider when you joined the cast?
Coby Bell: I wouldn’t say an outsider. They did a really good job of making me feel welcome. But, it was my first time coming on to a show when a show was already up and running and successful. Every other show I’ve been on from the beginning, so this is my first time trying to play catch up. That was a challenge as far as finding out where I fit in with the tone of the show and all that. That kind of took a while, in my opinion, for me to figure that out, but they made me feel welcome right from the beginning.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You commute to Miami?
Coby Bell: I commute from Long Beach to Miami every week. It’s pretty crazy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you auditioned for the role of Jesse, what were you told about the character?
Coby Bell: Well, I had come really close to getting one of the lead roles in Matt’s other show that he had last year. It was called The Good Guys. It came down to Colin Hanks and me and I think a couple of other dudes. He ended up giving it to Colin, but Matt said he really wanted to work with me. I thought that was cool because I really loved his writing.
People say in Hollywood all of the time, “I really want to work with you.” But, a month or two later I got the call from my agent about this character on Burn Notice, and the character sounded just like me. In the breakdown, it was down to him being multi-racial. I mean, it was everything!
I was like, “Wait a minute. Maybe Matt’s setting it up for me so that it’ll get stacked in my favor.” It turns out that I think he was doing that. I still had to audition with a bunch of other people, but I think that was his attempt to get me on the show, and luckily it worked out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jesse seems like a no-nonsense type of guy.
Coby Bell: I think last season he was so no-nonsense because his whole life had crumbled and fallen apart, and he was trying to get to the bottom of it and was pretty pissed off for the majority of the season. This season I think he has lightened up a lot and the more he gets comfortable with his new life and new friends … I think we’ve seen the lighter side of him coming through this season, and it’s only going to keep going in that direction.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you perform any stunts?
Coby Bell: Some of them. They do some pretty crazy stunts on that show. When you see Jesse jumping off the top of a building, that’s not me. Or when you see Jesse inside of an explosion, that’s not me either.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The show is filmed in Florida with swamps and wooded areas. Have you ever been hurt or attacked by any creatures?
Coby Bell: Florida, if anything, is chock full of creatures (laughs). Man, Florida has some creatures! I’ve gotten my fair share of mosquito bites. They really love me. But, I’ve avoided any other kind of attacks. I’ve never really hurt myself.
During my first or second episode out there I tossed my back out, but it was one of those things where I was shooting a machine gun and walking on an uneven lawn. It was on someone’s front lawn, and there was a little dip in the lawn, and I just kind of stepped wrong. It was just one of those silly things. The crazy thing is during those first couple of episodes, I was doing a lot of my own stunts like jumping over walls and stuff and didn’t hurt myself. I ended up hurting my back just walking.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sam (Bruce Campbell) wears his trademark Tommy Bahama shirts. Will Jesse come up with his own signature clothing?
Coby Bell: I don’t think so. Jesse’s pretty meat and potatoes when it comes to fashion. This year he’s wearing suits when he’s either coming from or going to his actual job, which is a private security firm. So, he’s been wearing more suits this season. Other than that, it’s just jeans and a shirt. He’s not really a fashion guy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jesse and Fiona flirted in the beginning. Will the writers revisit that?
Coby Bell: I don’t think so. When I had the first brick thrown through my window from an angry fan … I’m joking! That did not happen (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There can be some serious fans out there.
Coby Bell: Yeah, there are some hardcore Burn Notice fans and they pay attention to every little detail of the show. But, no, you’ve got Michael Weston as Superman and Fiona as Lois Lane (albeit a more badass Lois Lane) so you can’t have Aquaman come in and try to flirt with Lois Lane. That just doesn’t work, you know?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I interviewed Sharon Gless (Madeline Weston) last year. She is such a talented actress with a great sense of humor.
Coby Bell: Sharon is hilarious! Everyone has a great sense of humor. We have a lot of fun and lots of laughs. When we’re not too hot and sweaty, we have lots of laughs. Gabrielle is funny. Bruce is one of the funniest dudes I’ve ever met. Many people don’t know this, but Jeffrey is really a funny guy too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Part Two of Season Five starts November 3. Any interesting guest stars?
Coby Bell: They’ve already seen The Big Show, when Jesse and Sam had to wrestle with The Big Show, that giant wrestler. I don’t want to spoil anything, so there’s nothing else I can reveal.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve got double duty, appearing also on The Game. Is this the final season?
Coby Bell: I don’t think so. Last season was the fourth season of the show, but it was the first season on BET (Black Entertainment Television), and it did extremely well for them, so I can’t imagine it ending anytime soon.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How are you handling juggling the two shows?
Coby Bell: So far it hasn’t been too bad because when Burn Notice ended last season, The Game started. This season there is a couple of weeks overlap, and I’ll just see what I can work out schedule wise. But, of course, my obligation is to Burn Notice. I’m a series regular on Burn Notice. When The Game got cancelled it was over, and I hopped on to Burn Notice. Then as soon as I hopped on to Burn Notice, The game came back.
I’m technically a recurring on The Game or special guest star. I don’t know what they’re calling it. So, it hasn’t been that bad. The only problem is that The Game shoots in Atlanta now, so I go straight from flying back and forth every week from Miami to flying back and forth to Atlanta. My kids aren’t too crazy about that, but I’ve got to do what I can do while I can do it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Coby, it was interesting to find out that your dad (Michel Bell) played with the 5th Dimension in the 70s.
Coby Bell: Absolutely, yeah. He was classically trained, and then right when he got out of college in the late 60s he got into the whole pop and R&B stuff. He was in the 5th Dimension for a while, and then he got back into opera and did that for a number of years touring around the world. In the 90s he ended up on Broadway and did really well there. He was nominated for a Tony. My dad’s the real deal. He has an amazing voice.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You found your interest in the arts because of him?
Coby Bell: I definitely got the music bug from him. We were always making up silly songs, and I was always around him when he was working on tunes. When I was growing up, the two things I really loved doing was acting and making music all the way up to college. After college the acting took off first, so music became a hobby.
Just being around my dad and seeing that being in the entertainment business was an actual way to make a living was always a reality to me. It wasn’t like some crazy dream. It was something I had seen done, so he had a major influence on my career path.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How does your busy schedule affect your home life?
Coby Bell: I would say that the way I’m doing it, which is a crazy amount of flying, I spend as much time with my kids as any other working parent. I talk to the crew members of Burn Notice and complain about how I don’t get to see my kids during the week, and they tell me they don’t get to see their kids either. Before their kids wake up they come and do their jobs on set and spend long hours, then they’re home after their kids go to bed. They only see them on the weekends, so I’m actually luckier.
Sometimes I’ll have a Friday off or even a Monday and a Tuesday off where I’ll have a four-day weekend, and I’m only in Miami for three days. We’ve gotten used to it, but I do miss them. My kids are everything to me. It’s rough that I have to miss little things throughout the week, but when I’m here I just spend time with them the whole time except for right now while I’m doing this interview (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a favorite thing to do together as a family?
Coby Bell: We do everything together. We’re really tight. Every Sunday when I’m home or on the weekends I let my wife sleep in, and I take my four kids to breakfast in this little restaurant in Long Beach. That’s like our little routine. It’s nice because they’ll have our table ready. It’s a little breakfast place. Sometimes when the energy is kind of low in the house we’ll blow up a bunch of balloons, put on some music, and just bop them around and dance to the music. The kids love that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Coby, has there ever been talk of a Third Watch reunion?
Coby Bell: No, I’ve never heard mention of that. I think it would be cool though. I’d love to be part of something like that. I’m still really tight with Skipp Sudduth who played Sully and Anthony Ruivivar is still one of my best friends … and Mike Beach. We still hang out.
Third Watch was a great experience for me because I learned so much. I was just out of college, so I got a lot of experience in front of a camera and just learned that whole side of the craft, and I made lifelong friends. I would love to see a Third Watch reunion. That would be fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you ever like to do a film?
Coby Bell: I just kind of go with the flow. I just want to keep working. Television has always been really good to me and is as close as you’re going to get to a 9 to 5 in this business, especially if you’re doing a sitcom. During the first few years of doing The Game, I had a schedule. I’d go to work at a certain time and come home at a certain time, and it was great.
The life of an actor can really be sort of a gypsy life. You’re kind of all over the place, so if you’re lucky enough to get on a show that stays on the air, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do three or four times now, it’s a good thing for raising a family.
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