Meet McKinley Belcher III

Meet the Artist

Actor McKinley Belcher III

McKinley Belcher IIIBy Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

McKinley Belcher III is an actor on the rise. Belcher, one of the stars of the upcoming PBS Civil War drama series, Mercy Street, will now be tackling the role of Sam in the world premiere of Rear Window, adapted for the stage by Keith Reddin and directed by Darko Tresnjak.

Belcher is quickly building an impressive resume of stage, film and television credits, including Twelfth Night at Hartford Stage; Romeo & Juliet (Classic Stage Company); John Sayles’ independent feature film Go for Sisters, and the HBO mini-series Show Me a Hero. Belcher is currently filming the second season of Mercy Street, where he portrays Samuel Diggs, a black laborer harboring a secret knowledge and ability in medicine.

Belcher’s first foray into acting was as a freshman at Belmont University in Nashville. The actor, who hails from Georgia, recalls seeing a number of plays and musicals on elementary school or middle school field trips but mostly just found them amusing. It was Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun that made a true impact. A college friend of Belcher’s encouraged him to audition for a role in the play. Belcher had no prior acting experience and declined trying out for the lead. He found himself cast in the role of the educated and wealthy George Murchison.

“I was so nervous during our first read-through. I could barely get any of the words out without stuttering. But that slowly went away. It was thrilling being on stage and learning,” Belcher said. “I remember sitting in the wings watching the play from backstage every night. I knew what was going to happen each night, but I was excited on some deep level by watching it all play out. I also was thrilled at how things changed each night – the same words but yet I felt different sometimes.”

Belcher never forgot how thrilling his first experience on stage was. However, he did not pursue acting as an undergraduate, nor did he have any intention of continuing his theatrical excursions. But he remembers how the film Antwone Fisher, starring Denzel Washington and Derek Luke, helped shift his career focus. Belcher’s mom sent him a copy of the film, specifically because the lead character reminded her of him. He watched the film and cried. He watched it again and made a life-changing realization.

“Denzel Washington played a huge role in shaping my idea of what a good actor is and dispelling any myths as to how far I could aspire to go. I’ve probably seen just about every movie he’s ever made,” Belcher recalls. “I’d watched tons of movies and enjoyed performances – even sometimes been intrigued by the mystery of it all. But this was the first time I watched something and had the thought, ‘I could do that.’

“Something about the alchemy of who this young guy was, where I was in my life, how I felt that day. I don’t know – but I had a really strong conviction that I could do exactly what I was watching,” Belcher continued. “Denzel Washington also directed the film. That night, a mental door opened for me. I suppose I owe Mr. Washington huge thanks for that, among other things. I’ve observed his career from afar. The fact that he started on the stage, his choice to train at ACT in San Francisco, choice in roles, etc., have all deeply impacted how I began and what seemed like a suitable path.” 

After graduating from Belmont with a Bachelor’s of Art Degree in Communications and Political Science, Belcher earned an MFA in acting from the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts, where he was the recipient of the Ava Greenwald Memorial Award. He, along with his cast mates, also received a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Ensemble, Resident Play, for The Studio Theatre’s production of Invisible Man in 2012.

McKinley Belcher III and Joe Paulik in Twelfth Night. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
McKinley Belcher III and Joe Paulik in Twelfth Night. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Rear Window marks Belcher’s return to Hartford Stage. He previously played Antonio in Twelfth Night, also directed by Darko Tresnjak, during the 2012-13 season. Belcher has fond memories of working with Tresnjak.

“I love Darko. Especially with Shakespeare, it’s really helpful to have someone who knows their stuff. Darko has done so much Shakespeare that I learned a lot through the rehearsal process,” Belcher said. “I also like that he’s not excessive with notes. But when he does give you something, it opens a door or at least raises a question that will lead you somewhere. Darko is really generous with his energy, and that’s infectious in a rehearsal room. You want to be around someone who is excited to jump in and play. I suppose that’s what excites me about him most; he cares a lot about the work, but there is always a spirit of play in the rehearsal room.”

Belcher plays Sam in Keith Reddin’s adaptation of the Cornell Woolrich short story “Rear Window.” Many who are familiar with the classic Alfred Hitchcock film will be surprised to find that the home care nurse portrayed by Thelma Ritter onscreen is nowhere to be found in the play. Rather, it is Sam who spends the most time with the wheelchair-bound Jeffries. Belcher has not yet seen the film and doesn’t intend on watching it until rehearsals are well underway.

“I’d love for my choices to be based in the play that Keith Reddin so brilliantly wrote and with the other actors in the rehearsal room with me,” he explained. “That being said, I’m a Hitchcock fan, so I look forward to seeing it. I’d venture to say their (hers and Sam’s) world views and life experiences are likely very different, but they might be drawn to similar things in Jeffries.” 

Originating and inhabiting the role of an unfamiliar character in a world premiere play might seem like a daunting task to many, but Belcher is relishing the challenges that portraying Sam will bring. He notes that the only pressure he feels in bringing the character of Sam to life on stage is that there is no template for him to work from. Generating a new character feels “liberating” to Belcher, and he wants to do justice to the source material.

“We meet Sam on his sojourn to New York. He’s in search of something. I suppose that exposes a deep need…for what, I’m not sure yet. But, I’ll be searching for that through rehearsal. It’s clear that need is strong enough to uproot him from his North Carolina home and that need also draws him to Jeffries,” Belcher explains. “I’m intrigued by his fascination with Jeffries and how that relationship develops. There seems to be a lot of ambiguity surrounding it, and that seems really dangerous especially for 1947. So, I’m excited about finding that. Also I’m a Southerner, and I rarely actually get to play men from the South. So, on a superficial level, the place I’ll be speaking from feels something like home. The accent comes naturally to me.” 

With the recent influx of stage and screen roles coming his way, Belcher has been keeping busy. In addition to shooting the second season of Mercy Street, he’ll soon be playing “Fish” in Lincoln Center’s upcoming off-Broadway production of The Royale, loosely based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson. Belcher will also be shooting a film short called Unorganized.

Shalita Grant and McKinley Belcher III in the upcoming PBS series Mercy Street.
Shalita Grant and McKinley Belcher III in the upcoming PBS series Mercy Street.

Some of his favorite roles to-date include Ras from the stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking novel Invisible Man and Samuel Diggs from Mercy Street. Invisible Man was one of the first novels Belcher read that was written by an African-American man. He notes that “finding Ras (a passionate West Indian black nationalist) in me was really exciting and surprisingly therapeutic. It made me confront a lot of my personal baggage in regards to race, finding pride in blackness, dealing with shame I’d absorbed as a kid around being a dark-skinned black man, and having the courage to have an opinion and ‘sound my barbaric YAWP.’” He includes Samuel from Mercy Street (airing in January 2016) as a favorite character “because he’s a young black man in 1860s Virginia who is expected to be powerless and submit to the status quo. I’m intrigued by his intelligence and his will to defy what is expected of him. I also love the opportunity for a more artful use of language in period dramas. And it doesn’t hurt that the writing is really good.”

Even with his increasing presence in the film and television genres, Belcher says his first love will always be the stage. Although he enjoys the opportunity for intimacy that being in front of a camera brings, he admits that he loves the immediacy of theatre and that the energy on a stage – sharing an experience with a live audience – is both palpable and thrilling.

“I love language, and I get more opportunities to wrestle with that on stage,” Belcher explains. “I also love the idea of stepping into the continuum. Being in a theatre links me to so many others who have been on that stage, inhabited that role, done that play, thought those thoughts, etc. Being connected in that way is exciting.”