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<i>Altar</i> Boy: Jaleel White on his New Web Series, and the Long Shadow of Urkel

Jaleel White wants six minutes of your time. That's all it takes to watch a single episode of his new Web series, Road to the Altar, in which he plays half of an interracial couple who are slowly descending into madness while trying to plan their wedding, all under the watchful eye of a reality TV camera crew. To millions of Americans, White will always be remembered for playing "Steve Urkel" on Family Matters, but in this show he's more like Stefan, Steve's smooth-talking alter ego, as he tries to coax his fiancee Rochelle off a series of emotional cliffs and keep the wedding on track over the course of ten short Webisodes. We talked to him about the rigors of shooting a Web series, Urkel's legacy and the advice he got from Laurence Fishburne.

How did you get involved with Road to the Altar?
I was asked to be in it by the creators, my co-star Leyna Weber and the director Annie Lukowski. There were a couple of other opportunities -- one I wouldn't even call an opportunity, it was just a screen test for a pilot in New York that was being done by Lifetime, and I was like "Lifetime doesn't do comedy! [Laughs.] What the heck is that?" And I read these chicks' script, and it was funny! It was definitely funny in a real estrogen way, but it was undeniably funny. And I saw some stuff that Annie had shot, and I looked at my manager, and he said, "Jaleel, I want you to do this." And I'm like, "All right." I have a simple rule: if my manager wants me to do something... This was a rare, SAG-authorized Web project, and that told me a lot.

How would you describe your character, Simon?
You know, I do more reacting than acting in this particular piece, and I don't mind that, because there's some characters in it. The video blogs are hysterical. I'm kind of jealous of some of these guys, because certain characters get to do blogs that are just great. But their characters are more over-the-top; I gotta play the straight guy here, and react to the fact that my fiancee Rochelle is slowly but surely unraveling during this process. I won't call her a Bridezilla, but it's definitely bringing out all of her neuroses. So after a while, you see me just trying to stay out of trouble. My challenge as an actor was I wanted to do this without looking like a henpecked man. That was important to me. I needed to make sense of the fact that, if she's so nit-picky over this detail or that detail, why would he be marrying this girl?

These episodes are short, only 6 or 7 minutes long. What was the shoot like?
Man, we shot these things in seven days. Hectic schedule. I'm talking about up at four in the morning, getting into somebody's steakhouse, and shooting from 5 AM until it's time to start prepping for lunch and they kick us out. [Laughs.] I wish there was a glamorous Hollywood side to this, but there wasn't. I felt like I was back in film school, running around with crews, grabbing shots. It felt fun though, it felt right.

Did you get to do a lot of improvisation in this series?
That was the thing I had to really get used to. These girls are fresh out of improv school, and when you're away from it the way I've been away from it, you don't necessarily have your sea legs, you know? Literally, I'm showing up on the set, and it's like "Okay, hi, nice to meet you, here's 16 pages of dialogue, we're gonna shoot the rehearsal, and... action!" It took me at least a couple of days before I could start to feel comfortable. But it was controlled improv; they clearly had stories they wanted to tell, and Annie's favorite thing is, "Give it to me three different ways." It was something I had to get into the flow of, but I love movies like Best in Show, I love this new YouTube, mockumentary style of comedy, and this is my first chance to do some of it myself.

What do you think of the Webisode format?
I've been telling everybody it really feels like the future. Everything that I find funny, somebody's either forwarding me, or I'm finding myself, pasting and forwarding on to my friends. And we have to be honest with ourselves, the attention span has come down. Basically, you have about 3-6 minutes to tell somebody whether or not you've got something and whether they should keep watching. Sitting down and watching an entire television program is almost asking a lot out of an individual now. They need to be sold on it a lot before they do even that. Last night, at the screening, it got a really good reaction, and afterwards one of the actors looked at me and said, "Well, it's the ground floor of something!" [Laughs.] So that's what I feel like: It's the ground floor of something.

Barack Obama read comic books as a kid and loves Star Trek -- do you think Urkel helped pave the way for America's first Black nerd president?
I'm such a huge Obama fan, and I'll admit that I kind of stayed away from the campaign trail, because I saw that they blasted him pretty badly when he wore those tight jeans and big-ass helmet on that bike. I didn't want him to have that shot standing next to me. I would like to meet him at some point, now that the deed is done. But the character I played definitely ushered in an iconic intellectual strain, that clearly they associated with him at one point, just by his dress. That's about all I can say about it. I'm a big fan, I hope to meet him, but I knew to stay away from him on the campaign trail; he didn't need that.

You were worried people would compare him to Urkel?
Yeah, because it's a character, you know? The whole thing about my life and my career is that it's a trajectory. I'm 33 years old, and I'll share one of my favorite stories with you, that should really tell you how I feel about my own character. So, I was at a party one time, and Laurence Fishburne came up to me. We connected instantly; great guy, cool actor, man. And he said -- and this was right after "Hello" -- "You know, I did a movie when I was younger called Cornbread and Earl, and everywhere I went people called me 'Cornbread.' A few years passed me by, and I did another movie called The Matrix. Now I can't get on a subway or get in a taxi cab without somebody calling me 'Morpheus'." And he patted me on the shoulder and said, "You just keep doing what you're doing." I've never really shared that story with anybody else before now, but when people ask me, "How do you feel about your past," I always jump back to that. It's a journey. Morpheus used to be on Pee-Wee's Playhouse. It's a journey.

Did you ever take any flak for cross-dressing as Myrtle Urkel? Tyler Perry has built an empire on cross-dressing today.
Right? How times have changed! What's really funny there is that my dad went to the producers and told them that I wouldn't be playing the character again after we did it the first time. And the reason why is that I was very much a jock growing up, but I was a dedicated actor, and I would never tank a scene. So even though I played that character, I cried that night in my dressing room. And the producers came back to my dressing room, and they were like "Why are you crying? You did such a great job!" I was like "Screw you guys, man, the boys at school are gonna make so much fun of me." It was actually quite the opposite, but my father told them after that particular episode, "You're not gonna do this one anymore." So people who are die-hard fans of the show will notice that there's a huge lag time between the first episode I ever played Myrtle, which is in the first season, and the next time I did it, which is like the sixth or seventh season. I was about 18, 19, and I just walked into the writer's room, feeling the spark, and I said, "We can do Myrtle again if you guys want to." And a big cheer came out of the writers' room. Ironically, I probably take more shit for the nerd aspect of the character than for any of that girl stuff I did as Myrtle. That's just perceived as good work.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar recently did a whole interview with Jimmy Fallon in character as Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell. Would you ever do that?
I don't know how pretty it would be at this point -- I look quite different, man -- but I'll never say never, because I did see Ron Howard reincarnate Opie and Richie Cunningham for the Obama campaign, I think we all forwarded that to each other; I thought that was pretty cool. If there's any kind of groundswell... I doubt I'll do it just to be on Jimmy Fallon right now [laughs] but I'll never say never.

So do we see Simon and Rochelle's wedding at the end of Road to the Altar?
They don't show the actual wedding. -- I'm gonna chalk that up to budget. It was really more about the preparation. In an optimal world, you'd tell it through all the way to the wedding and the honeymoon. Because the whole point was that we were selling our impending nuptials as a reality show so we could get the free honeymoon. So, for me, I would have liked to see that darn honeymoon! [Laughs.] I may have to ask Annie about that. I'm imagining this free honeymoon they were promised is pretty bootleg, though.

Watch a new episode of the series every Monday at RoadToTheAltar.com, and check out the trailer below!

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