Warren Egypt Franklin Talks the Exploration of Mental Health on ‘Grown-ish’

(Featured image courtesy of Annette Tanner)

Anyone over the age of eighteen will likely be familiar with the feeling of being a half-adult. Sure, you make your own doctor’s appointments, live on your own, or even pay your own bills, but do you really feel… grown? Grown-ish knows that feeling, and it knows it well. The Freeform series spun off of the highly successful Black-ish in 2018 to follow Yara Shahidi’s fan favorite Zoey Johnson during her time in college. A handful of seasons later, Zoey and a diverse cast of other almost-adults are still addressing the problems of growing up, along with a host of other contemporary social issues. One of the new characters sure to shake the Cal U table in the recently-premiered fourth season is Des, a track star whose openness about his sexuality and struggles with mental health are sure to be an inspiration to audiences but may develop to hold some surprises for his peers on screen.

TV Wasteland had the opportunity to talk with Warren Egypt Franklin, who plays Des, about his experience touring with the most iconic show of our time, why his character on Grown-ish is special for the show and for audiences, and how grown-ish viewers looking to jumpstart their own careers can navigate the industry.

As a high school theater major, Franklin became familiar with the stage from a young age. Bypassing the usual makeshift gym and auditorium sets known to most drama kids, he was able to perform in the downtown Cleveland theater, on the same stage that countless national tours had passed through before. He booked the leading part of Ren McCormack in Footloose as a freshman, and “to have a lead role at fourteen for a week of shows to be seen by a thousand people in the audience” was nerve-wracking to be sure, but Warren was confident he was up to the task. At the time, he’d been splitting his afternoons and evenings between theater and sports, but it wasn’t until he’d brought those thousand people to their feet for a week of performances that he realized the impact his work on stage could have. Inspired to also join the art club and dive into whatever creative endeavors possible, he ended up “in just about everything you could be in at school for the arts,” he explained. “It meant a lot to me.”

Two weeks prior to graduating from Baldwin Wallace University, Franklin got the opportunity to audition for the hottest musical of our time: Hamilton. He found out on his graduation day that he’d booked a callback, prompting him to tell his agent that he wanted to get back to the city as soon as possible. After almost skipping graduation in excitement, Warren made it back to the audition room, where he was told how it normally takes twelve to fifteen meetings to be cast in the show. Naturally, once they’d seen him again, he was hired within two weeks. “I only lived in New York for two weeks, and then I was on the road with Hamilton” in the dual roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. The show was already so well-established at that point that audience hype and expectations were through the roof, placing even more pressure on an already-quick rehearsal process, but Franklin felt as if both his parts came with ease. “Everyone was so supportive… and it all came to be very crazy how fast everything came together.” On his debut night, he felt as if “I blinked, and then it was over… I remember everything and nothing from that night at the same time.”

One of Hamilton’s most unique aspects is its double turntable, which is used to rotate sets and actors throughout the show, matching the energy of the songs and reflecting the cyclical themes of the story. On the tour’s opening night in Nashville on New Year’s Eve, the turntable just wouldn’t stop rotating. Some technical issue had left the two circles spinning around and around during one of the first numbers of the show, the rousing anthem “My Shot.” Having settled into a routine of eight shows a week with each rehearsed down to the second, the sudden change threw everyone off, but Franklin praised his fellow cast members for “rolling with the punches and creating [a] new number based on what the stage was giving us… Not every show or every cast would be able to do that in the moment.” According to one of his friends who’d been watching that night, no one in the audience could even tell that the choreography had been changed on the spot. “That’s the best thing about theater; you’ve got to deal with what happens in the moment,” even if it means an accident creating an opportunity for the team to rally together and build a totally unique experience for that night’s audience. Luckily, no one was hurt, but Warren joked that because of the timing of the malfunction, “we probably should have known 2020 was going to be a bad year.”

When asked about what may have been lost in the lack of live theater during the past year, Franklin highlighted how in our celebrity-focused culture, “you quickly forget about [the people] who make the magic happen behind the scenes.” For every leading lady, there’s fifty crew members and ushers and producers who were also out of jobs when the theaters closed. However, ultimately Warren took a more optimistic point of view to discuss what was gained. “Art got us through the pandemic.” The majority of people used their time inside to binge shows they wouldn’t have had time to check out otherwise, to finally make it through that stack of books on their bedside table, or to expand their musical horizons. These kinds of communal experiences allowed people to come together in more ways than just the physical, nurturing stronger appreciation for the environments that do foster artistic consumption as a group activity. “As theater comes back, it’s so much more magical now,” because now people understand why it’s missed and why it’s needed. “Without theater and without art, the world does not go around.” While he isn’t thankful for COVID, Franklin emphasized that he is thankful for the opportunity creatives had to show everyone the healing power of art and build “a new theater world, a different theater world where there is no racism, there is no ageism… [where] we all come back as family.”

Like a true artist, Franklin didn’t let the pandemic stop his passion. He quickly booked a role on the newest season of Grown-ish, joining the Cal U world as track star Des. A character who finds himself at the crossroads between supporting his athletic career and preserving his mental health, Des and his story reflects the current global conversation sparked by athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who have recently used their platforms to speak out on how competition affects their own emotional well-being. The role reminded Warren of the words of one of his heroes, LeBron James: “I am more than an athlete.” In the currently airing fourth season, Des meets Jazz (Chloe Bailey) and opens up a dialogue about his own struggles and how “mental health is number one.”

Franklin is also particularly excited for audiences to see a pansexual man who is so open about his sexuality, mainly because that sort of fluidity isn’t very common in male characters. “[Audiences] have so many questions about what [pansexual people] are and how they move and how they can be, and I think we’ll see that… people are people.” Ultimately, “representation matters. There are so many athletes out there who are queer-identifying and on the spectrum and trying to find out their sexuality, but it has nothing to do with your athleticism and what you bring to the table.” Especially after men like Carl Nassib and Luke Prokop have made history as the first openly gay men in their respective sports, Warren is excited for this new movement of athletes becoming increasingly open about their identities to really cement the fact that success and acclaim should be more about talent and work ethic than image. The college backdrop of Grown-ish is also the perfect setting for this kind of story. “That’s the first time for a lot of people that they’re away from home life… finally able to do things for them,” and viewers who discovered their own sexuality and fluidity during that time (or are doing so right now) will see themselves or deeply relate in Des’ arc.

Even though he’ll be appearing in nearly half a dozen episodes this season, Warren didn’t have the opportunity to meet Yara Shahidi until they were both almost done with shooting. Due to the pandemic, most episodes and scenes were shot out of order, and with set often being limited to only essential cast and crew, the two weren’t even called on the same days until the end of filming. “She’s such a special, unique, amazing, kind woman, and it was so great to meet her.” The two bonded over their shared love of Hamilton, and the day Shahidi brought her mother to visit ended up being one of Franklin’s favorites.

There’s no lack of young adult content out there, with every network and streaming service seemingly trying to get a piece of the teen market. However, Grown-ish has still carved out a unique place for itself in the ever-growing lineup, and a lot of that is thanks to its predominantly Black and non-white cast. “Even our production staff and our creators are all people of color, and that’s really unheard of.” Franklin emphasized how incredibly thankful he feels to have worked with such a diverse group of people that have all ventured to tell stories with “real issues.” Beyond sexuality and mental health, this season will touch upon police brutality, workplace issues, adult relationships, and the terrifying post-graduation world. “Grown-ish is a real show, and so many people in the audience can identify with it… there aren’t too many shows out there right now that get to [that] realism and what we are experiencing right now.”

Currently, Franklin is working on his own television pilot, which he likened to Grown-ish and HBO’s Insecure. “It’s a very real, raw show. It talks about discovering life and discovering yourself.” Knowing that there are already lots of shows set in high school and in college, Warren wanted to focus on the period of time after college where most people ask themselves, “Damn, what’s next? What do we do now?” He’s been shaping the project with some friends and colleagues, and he’s excited for all the possible futures of this new series (and we are too). He’s also been working on his music career, with his first single coming soon and an EP set to release by the end of the year. Somewhere in the middle of his “crazy” schedule, he’d also like to be able to shoot his first movie and even produce his own acting projects further down the line (much like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who he looks up to).

To students and young people hoping to kickstart their own careers on the stage or screen, Warren says, “As long as you continue to be yourself, nobody can be you the way you’re going to be you.” He underscored the importance of not overthinking rejection, as it’s usually more about the director and their goals or visions more than your own ability. “That doesn’t make you less than… It’s a no and a yes to something else.”

Warren Egypt Franklin is definitely a name to keep track of, but we’re sure it won’t be hard, as this rapidly rising star is set to dominate your screens, your Playbills, and your Spotify playlists in no time at all. Until then, make sure you catch up for the fourth season of Grown-ish, currently airing Thursday nights on Freeform.

(Special thanks to Alena Nguyen for conducting this interview.)

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