Because the Not safe ‘Kendrick Sampson, storytelling isn’t just entertainment; it’s about cultural transformation.
When I started a Zoom call with the Houston native — who appeared on How to get away with murder? and Diary of a vampire before playing Nathan on Issa Rae’s beloved HBO series — I was immediately captivated by his genuine laugh, Southern charm, and heart-melting smile. However, it quickly became clear that his passion for real and lasting systematic change as bright as his striking hazel eyes.
It’s the last season of Not safe revealed, Sampson spoke to ELLE.com about behind-the-scenes moments, his relentless drive to celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement, and the urgent need to reimagine safety in Hollywood.
What is filming culture? Not safe as?
Issa [Rae] and Prentice [Penny] establish a culture that is shared, supportive, and inclusive of those who often do not have these opportunities, even in our own communities. Culture is formed from good values. Issa is new to the industry, so she doesn’t carry a lot of baggage the industry can throw at you. She sees it as an advantage instead of a hindrance.
Whatever it is, it’s a great recipe for a great culture. It’s like a family reunion. But you know what comes with family reunions, right? I’m not saying it’s perfect! It’s not perfect, but it’s like a family. It feels good and supportive.
Everyone who participates in this program can ride or die. Each of them took to the field during the protest in [the summer of] 2020. The entire cast, crew, producer, everyone is involved [Black Lives Matter] move. They donated, took to the streets and personally supported me when I needed it. These people are truly invested in Black futures and our values are universal in that sense.
How to play Nathan? In what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
Nathan and I are similar in that he is from Houston Texas, which is my hometown. He addresses a bipolar diagnosis, which my brother also addresses. I have a lot of mental health issues running in my family. So I had the advantage when Nathan had a lot of conversations that I had!
But, we differ in our approach to conflict. I am the complete opposite of him. I don’t have many filters. When I think things over, most of the time they come out of my mouth.
Nathan has a medical diagnosis that affects the way he reacts to things. It’s overwhelming, and I know many people who say, “Oh, I’m overwhelmed too!” But with bipolar disorder or other mental health problems, it’s a lot more intense and can be physically damaging. Your brain and thoughts can cause your body to react in unhealthy ways.
So Nathan gets into extra trouble and extra hurdles in solving the problem, which makes complete sense. I don’t deal with that, so I can’t rate him. I am at the other extreme of an error, where I say, “Is there a conflict? Let’s get over it! Let’s learn it! ” I have excited about finding solutions and turning obstacles into advantages. I think that’s really the essence of great communication.
You were very active in the Black Lives Matter protest in 2020. How do you think this movement has impacted the entertainment industry over the past year?
The consciousness of Hollywood has grown exponentially. It was forced. I’m grateful for our nonprofit, BLD PWR, is a big part of that.
At the same time, the power structures are the same. They are changing and becoming more corporatist and capitalist, and that’s not good for art.
We have a must-have calculation in Hollywood. We had a serious safety issue on set. Halyna Hutchins die due to unsafe conditions. If the members of the filming team could protest and then a few hours later, one of them is harmed, injured or even die, we have a much deeper problem that we really have to evaluate as an industry. Halyna’s tragic passing underscores the urgent need to address safety issues on set.
Put safety is not just physical safety. It includes a culture of phobias, an anti-black culture, a culture of taciturnity, and even fair pay. All of That’s part of the conversation about safety. We need to make sure we focus on what safety really is and re-imagine safety in Hollywood.
How has your nonprofit, BLD PWR, helped reimagine safety in Hollywood?
We put out a letter to Black Hollywood asking us to quit the police. Finally, we want to honor the Black Lives Matter movement, the Black Movement, and the abolitionists across the country who have called on the police to kill and destroy.
The thing is, if you remove the police from the set, you have to admit that they didn’t really keep us safe in the first place. The only things the police have to do on set is keep people from stealing trailers, redirecting traffic, etc. Community members can do that! You can hire Blacks and Browns to do it! Because if that can happen internally, it means we have to protect ourselves from the toxic culture we have in Hollywood.
At BLD PWR, we are asking: What keeps Blacks safe? What keeps transgender people safe? What keeps the natives safe? What keeps the undocumented safe? People with different appearances, what keeps them safe? It’s about safety from the toxic culture that was born in Hollywood and has been perpetuated in many ways. If we started by asking ourselves who are the most disadvantaged and what they need, we’d be in a much better place.
What was your favorite behind-the-scenes moment while filming this season?
There’s so much to choose from! We were complete kids when we came together. Especially me and Issa. We are straight kids. All I will say is that Issa runs very, very fast. If she’s running somewhere, follow her!
My favorite time on set is when there’s a lot of people there and we’re just enjoying the music. We’ve got these pods and masks and everything, but we’re always looking for ways to keep each other entertained, even though we have to do it from our little shell.
There was a great argument between Nathan and Lawrence. Do you think your character deserves to play with Issa?
It really depends on Issa! If she decides that she wants to navigate a relationship with him, I don’t think he’s done something so serious that she can’t try him one more time. Personally, I tend to give everyone at least two chances. But I’m not the right woman for Issa so I can’t really call her on whether or not he’s worthy of her. I think they can navigate the relationship in a healthy way, because the best part of them is being great together.
What projects do you look forward to working on in the future?
I’m building a production company! I’m very excited about doing that. I’m trying to get furniture for this lovely house. This is the first time in my life that I own a TV. I’m working on my career. And I’m trying to be the best Kendrick I can be, because let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy lately!
I am also very excited about the work we are doing at the PWR Board of Directors. I’m very excited about my next job, whether it’s acting, producing, whatever it is. At the end of the day, I love to tell stories and I love who I am.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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