Dante Brown on the Importance of Happiness in ‘Dash & Lily’

(Featured image courtesy of Leigh Keily)

Every year, the winter holidays bring feelings of joy, excitement, and wonder to millions around the world. However, to millions others, they can bring disappointment, anxiety, and loneliness. The holidays are all about connection, sharing special moments with family and loved ones, but when you don’t have anyone to connect with, the constant messages of cheer and unity can become a drag. Especially as we near this year’s holiday season, our new age of isolated households and distanced friend groups has brought these feelings to more of the population than ever before.

That’s why Netflix’s latest, Dash & Lily, is the perfect show for 2020. When teen Lily’s parents go on vacation over Christmas break and her madly-in-love brother’s romance forces her out of the apartment daily, she decides it’s time to spark a connection. But just like the old soul she is, she won’t find what she’s looking for on Tinder or Hinge. She’s a romantic, an adventure-seeker, an eternal optimist, and above all, a lover of Christmas. So, she leaves an inconspicuous red notebook in a bookstore with a scavenger hunt and a dare, waiting to be picked up by a teenage boy. Luckily, it is, but maybe not the one she was hoping for. Dash has also been largely left behind by the people in his life this holiday season, but he’s been left with a very different mindset than Lily’s. His opening monologue describes “the most detestable time of the year,” decrying the forced smiles and frenzy that accompanies every Christmas. As the two begin to communicate through the book, sending dares to learn more about each other, they each begin to develop a better understanding of what it means to be connected. It’s a perfect story for our current time, both an acknowledgement of loneliness and a beacon of hope for what this season can bring.

Accompanying Dash on his side of the story is Boomer, a bright and charismatic pizza parlor employee who helps encourage both protagonists to continue their adventure. TV Wasteland had the opportunity to sit down with Dante Brown to talk about his background in the industry, the new young adult series, and how Boomer is so different from every other African American kid on TV.

(Courtesy of Leigh Keily)

Brown first broke out at five years old as a performer on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and his career has only grown since then. His appearance on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was a significant one for him, and he related how he “dived really deep into that role.” A Law & Order role is a sort of rite of passage that most young actors go through, and Brown wanted to maximize that space with method acting, “trying to make sure that it came across as authentic as possible.” With any project, he tries to read the material over and over again with the goal of “understanding who I’ve met in life that acts that type of way.” He often doesn’t even imagine the characters as himself, but rather his cousin or his friend, someone he can draw from that reminds him of what he wants his role to be. But at the end of the day, it all comes back to that script. While acting is very instinctual at times, Dante emphasized the importance of repeatedly poring over those words, making notes, doing research, and understanding all of the background and influences to best translate from page to screen.

Perhaps Brown’s most significant role to date has been that of RJ Murtaugh on Fox’s Lethal Weapon. Dante took on the role inspired by Damon Hines’ 1987 character to accompany Damon Wayans through three seasons of the buddy cop series, and he had only praise for the “non-stop learning experience” that the project brought him. There were some episodes where he had to carry the younger characters’ storyline, and that level of responsibility “prepared me for the actual work.” He described Keesha Sharp as his “second mom” who would even sometimes bring sugar-free snacks to set, and the whole rest of the cast kept him sharp and always on the lookout for a way to shift the scene. “Even if I was doing something dramatic, I would keep myself on my toes comedically” as Wayans would throw him jokes to make sure he was prepared. “You never know what they might cut out of those different moments,” and it can all come down to the glances and line deliveries that may seem small at the time but can make a world of difference to the viewer and how they connect with the story on screen.

Brown featured in the 2019 horror film Ma alongside Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who also always kept him on his toes and made sure that he did the best work he could do. A pattern has emerged where Dante consistently ends up as the youngest person on set, and while he’s always seen it as a learning opportunity, he gained a lot of new understanding of the industry while working on Ma. Spencer was always working on various financial and production-related affairs, and she took the initiative of looking “at the dailies a week before to tell us what we did last week and what we can do better.” After a decade of prominence in the business, it’s surprising to hear that the thriller was Spencer’s first leading role, but Brown emphasized that she was more than up to the task, especially highlighting how motivating she was for the rest of the cast to up their game at every possible opportunity. “And that to be an African American lead role for a horror movie was phenomenal. She killed it.”

Dash & Lily is like something I’ve never played in before… I had to partake in a lot of things, and do a lot of things to get myself in the mode and get my energy right.” None of his previous projects have really been targeted for a young adult audience, especially with such a romance-centric story, so Boomer provided both an opportunity and a challenge for him. The character has already been beloved by YA readers for a decade, so Brown made sure to calibrate his performance in just the right way to stay true to everything behind that role. “Anything I do, I make sure it’s authentic.”

Brown’s most memorable moment on set was meeting Nick Jonas, producer and guest star. “Me and Nick and Fred Savage [director of the second half of the series], we are all watch dogs, so we just sat in the circle almost like cavemen, talking about each others’ watches.” But when it came to filming, his favorite day came with one of Dash’s first (and most fun) dares in episode two. “Seeing Austin [Abrams] go through the maze of trying to get Santa’s hat with me trying to distract the elf, that was so hilarious.” Ironically enough, Boomer’s whole distraction is centered around him being impressed by the department store worker’s Law & Order credit. The writers hadn’t known about Dante’s own guest role on the series, “so they resurfaced it and looked it up, and everybody was laughing about it.”

Dash is a very cynical character, rarely ever buying into other people’s happiness or actively pushing for his own, but even more than Lily, Boomer is the one who pushes him to find the joy and the wonder in the world around him. His energy is infectious, and even in the pilot, he can turn a simple attempt at seeing Lily’s face into an exciting “sting operation” that amps up Dash’s naturally blasé attitude. “I think this is the first time I’ve seen an African American kid on TV be as happy and carefree to live his life, but also to find happiness in other people and show other people that they can be happy as well… I really enjoyed making that come to life.” While Dante himself is usually very chill and calm, he found that spending so much time with Boomer really brought out all of that energy within himself as well.

However, acting is far from the only artistic endeavor Brown has been pursuing. For years, he’s been releasing music under the moniker DanteThePoet, and he’s been working on writing an animated TV series as well. All of that, combined with his other interests in dance and fashion, it seems there’s no limits to what Dante can do, and that’s exactly what he wants to prove. “I just want to show kids that they can do anything in the world. You don’t have to be confined to certain things.” Specifically with his animated series, he wants to show that “there can be a strong African American animation lead.” With every project, he wants to “pay homage” to his hometown of Chicago and string together all parts of his background and create something fresh that younger people can hopefully look up to. “I just want to reach my goals and continue being happy and spreading happiness.”

Between all of the iconic projects and series that have transformed his life, he always tried to replicate that authenticity and dig as deep as he could into every role, “no matter what position I was in.” He described his experience in the industry as a “once in a lifetime experience” that he can only try to appreciate every day.

If you’re looking for some holiday cheer in these unfamiliar times, you’re not alone, and you can find some of that much-needed joy in Dash & Lily, streaming right now, only on Netflix.

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