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’30 Rock’: How Playing Toofer Changed Keith Powell’s Life Forever

One of the beloved sitcom's legacies, according to the actor, was changing the concept of a nerdy black man from a joke to a confident character.

Keith Powell in "Keith Broke His Leg."

Keith Powell in “Keith Broke His Leg.”

In the years since “30 Rock” went off the air, Keith Powell has been keeping busy. Beyond making notable appearances on series including “About a Boy” and “The Newsroom,” the man you might know best as “Toofer” has been stretching his creative wings, making his own original digital series “Keith Broke His Leg” and pursuing a career in directing for television.

READ MORE: Keith Powell Might Be the Ultimate Emmys Underdog, But He Just Wants His Voice Heard

When Powell was cast in the “30 Rock” pilot as a “TGS” writer whose nickname came from the fact that he was both black and a Harvard graduate, he lacked experience as an actor, and he freely admitted that the show’s seven seasons were “the very best doctoral program” he could ask for not just as an actor but as a director.

Directing is a realm he’s continuing to explore — in fact, when IndieWire got Powell on the phone, he was on the set of the sitcom “Superstore,” thanks to the NBC Emerging Directors Program. “There were some executives that I became friends with over the years,” he said, “And then I was like, oh yeah, this sounds like a fun opportunity.”

But while he might be hanging out with the “Superstore” folks, “30 Rock” still comes up regularly. In fact, while the show is over, 10 years after its premiere “30 Rock’s” legacy still has a massive impact on Powell’s life, especially the way the character changed the way a smart black man might be seen on television.

It all began on relatively uncertain ground, though — after all, in 2005, “30 Rock” wasn’t considered the safest of bets. Powell explains why, and more, below.

What does it mean to you at this point to be a part of the NBC family? Was that something that came right from the beginning of “30 Rock,” or is that something that grew as the show went on?

It grew. I didn’t think that the show was really going to get picked up because “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was the hot property and our show was too similar to it and it was the same network. When I got cast on the pilot, I just thought it was a really great one-off job. I never really expected it to grow and build into the juggernaut that it was. You kind of, especially as an actor, as a young actor, they’re always just thinking that the other shoe is going to drop. You never think about, oh now I’m on a hit. You always think, oh God, when are we going to get canceled? Or, when am I going to get fired?

Was there ever a point where you relaxed over the course of the show?

Probably around year four or five. Probably halfway through the process, it was a relaxing enterprise, but you know, I got cast on that show. I was really green and I was learning a lot. It was always just a constant evolution of me as an actor, as a performer, as a professional. That’s really all I could ever focus on.

What was one big thing you had to learn right away?

A lot of people don’t understand that acting is walking, chewing gum, juggling, breathing and learning your lines at the exact same time. I had a conversation the other day with a friend of mine who did his first acting gig and he’s like, “I had a near meltdown when they asked me to switch the hand that I was holding my coffee cup in — because all of a sudden everything felt so weird and foreign.”

Working in television, working in front of a camera, you get a note from the sound department, a note from the director, a note from the writer and a note from the camera guy and a note from the EP about not standing in this particular light. Then your fellow actors need to make sure that you’re not stepping on their lines. There’s a lot of those notes that one gets when you’re young and you don’t know what you’re doing.

Just to function on camera, that was the first major lesson that I learned. It was fairly easy to learn it but you just had to get into the rhythm of it, you know what I mean?

Absolutely. What was it like for you, essentially growing up with the show?

You know, there were a lot of more peaks and valleys. There were a lot of growing pains. Everybody became my family. Tina became our den mother, or my den mother at least. A lot of the fears and insecurities that I had, there was a patience for it to go away. I had time for it, for me to become a confident performer and that was invaluable.

I met a million people that I’m still friends with today. The cast, I’m still completely in love with. They’re like my family. I was very much treated like a little brother on set because I was so young and green. I appreciated that because it allowed me to become a strong and confident artist. It was a very welcoming environment.

READ MORE: ’30 Rock’: The Fake Shows That Would Do Well on TV Today

Do you feel like it kind of helped you figure out what your own voice was?

Yeah. “Keith Broke His Leg” is, I feel, like a direct result of all the things that I learned at “30 Rock.” Doing that show was a tremendous step forward for me to embrace my uniqueness and understand what my voice. Also the technical aspects of how to get your voice across in the cleanest and most professional and most responsible way. It was the very best doctorate program I could have ever gone to.

In the years since, what has it been like, moving onto these roles on other shows?

Right after “30 Rock” ended, I was really depressed because I didn’t think that I was ever going to work again. I threw myself into work of my own that I created. Then out of the blue, I got an offer to do “About a Boy,” which had some of the best people that I’ve ever been on a set with. They kind of helped me breathe and see that there is a career, there is a life outside of “30 Rock.”

I did “About a Boy” for two years and really was given a tremendous amount of creative freedom that I don’t think that I would have had if it weren’t for my time on “30 Rock.” By the time “The Newsroom” came around and I did two episodes of that, I really felt like, okay, I’m an actor and I have something to offer the world and not just my little family back in New York. I actually do have something valuable to give.

That’s why I also transitioned into directing, because it helps me really realize that I am, that my talent is valuable and worth sharing.

As a director, what kind of impact did “30 Rock” have on you?

I find myself on set, every day, saying “When we were on ’30 Rock,’ we did blah, blah, blah blah…” I worry that I’m annoying some of the people on “Superstore.” It’s affected my life in so many little ways that I can’t even imagine.

The directors on “30 Rock,” many of whom actually now work on “Superstore,” many of whom I met and became close friends with as a result of “30 Rock” — a lot of those directors are the people that kind of helped me hone my voice over the years. I was the guy, on the set of “30 Rock,” who would always run to Video Village after a take to see what they were talking about at Video Village.

I got my degree in directing and it was that part of my brain that was being stimulated. Acting engages your heart and directing engages your mind, and I wanted to do a little bit of both.

For you, what is the legacy of “30 Rock”? How much is it still a part of your life? How much does it still get brought up?

It’s revered. Everybody I know has seen the show says it’s one of the best shows they’ve ever seen. I think that “30 Rock” really redefined modern comedy. Also, I don’t know if you remember, but 10 years ago, people, there were large discussions in major publications about are women funny. I don’t know if … People forget that. “30 Rock” is the reason why we have so much female centered comedy today. It really broke down the barriers and really made comedy the place for strong independent women to show themselves and no one was having those conversations 10 years ago.

I think that “30 Rock” was revolutionary and I have a lot of people who I’ve talked to recognize how crucial kind of “30 Rock” was in terms of the modern way of telling a joke. I mean, for instance, Mark McKinney, who is on “Superstore,” is obsessed with “30 Rock” and loves to talk to me almost daily about particular episodes. It still lives on, really, to a lot of people.

Do you get called Toofer on the street?

I get recognized now almost daily, but people think that they know me from somewhere. I now just play along with that: “No, I don’t know where you might have seen me.” I just play along now.

I do get called Toofer occasionally but for the most part, they have some vague recollection that they know me from somewhere.

READ MORE: The 56 Most Important Characters of ’30 Rock,’ Ranked

Remembering the origins of the name Toofer — “30 Rock” was a show that talked about race in a new way.

Again, what I’m especially proud of is that at the time, it was a joke to have a smart nerdy black man on television. It was considered a joke. To be intelligent and black and be proud of your intelligence and to be proud of your blackness all at the same time was an oxymoron in some ways.

Now, that’s not so much of a stigma or a taboo. I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of how we changed the narrative in some way.

And over the course of the series, there was so much interesting stuff done on the topic.

Exactly. What I’m especially proud of Toofer for, and what I feel like I brought to Toofer, is he was very proud to be black and he was very confident that you could be black and smart. I feel like it gave a lot of smart black people in the country confidence to show that they were black and smart. That touched me. His confidence is what I hope I brought to the character.

What’s the one thing you will never forget about being on “30 Rock”?

Tracy Morgan. I love that man and my love for him grew deeper every day. He’s been an unforgettable human being in my life. I could never forget Tracy. Just because of how eccentric he was, how open-hearted and positive-spirited he is. I just love him. He’s just such a lovable person.

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