The second season of the hit TV show “Empire,” which premiered last month before 16.7 million viewers, features Al Sharpton’s slicked-back pompadour and the larger-than-large élan of black fashionista Andre Leon Talley.
They’re the vanguard of a procession of odd and quirky celebrity cameos that have marked (many social media pundits might say marred) the enterprise’s second act.
But what the casual viewer sees only from afar, Austin native Johnny Westmoreland, an actor and motivational speaker who resides in Oak Park, experienced up close.
The club scene that includes Sharpton and Talley — the two are at a benefit concert for jailed rap mogul Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) — was filmed in suburban River Forest this summer.
Westmoreland was hired as an extra during the shooting and got a chance to see the humans behind the digital and televisual abstractions most everybody else knows them to be.
“It was electrifying, because I was right there by the stage,” Westmoreland said during a recent interview. “They filmed in River Forest over two days and then on the West Side of Chicago. I had to a chance to chat with Andre and Al. It was all good. They’re down-to-earth people.”
For the last few years, Westmoreland has been on something of a ride. He’s followed the “Empire” excitement with a titillating part as an investigative reporter in a drama series called “Ebola.”
The show is currently filming in Richmond, Indiana, and explores the interactions of people who have been forced into quarantine after authorities suspect they’ve been exposed to the disease.
Westmoreland says the show will be seen in several languages and that its producers are in talks with networks that are interested in picking it up.
Not long before he was picked up for the “Ebola” job, Westmoreland did a barbershop scene with Samuel L. Jackson. The scene was filmed in Englewood for Spike Lee’s controversial film “Chiraq,” which is scheduled for release next year.
In 2008, the state enacted a film production tax credit, which shaves 30 percent off the costs of making movies in order to lure filmmakers here. Since then, the Chicago area has experienced something of a cinematic renaissance. It has worked to the benefit of people like Westmoreland, who seems to be feeling something of a resurgence himself.
“Things are picking up more now, but it was hard,” said the full-time actor and speaker who, two years ago, didn’t even have an agent.
The difficulties were compounded last October, when his 11-year-old daughter — who also acts, sings, dances and is involved in gymnastics — moved seven hours away to Missouri with her mother. Before that point, he and his daughter’s mother had been co-parenting.
“My daughter cried and I cried,” Westmoreland recalled. “But one thing my daughter told me — this 11-year-old girl — she said, ‘Daddy, whatever you do, work hard at what you do and you are going to be all right.'”
His daughter’s confidence seems to have been vindicated. Not long after that tearful separation, Westmoreland signed a two-year contract with an agent in North Carolina, who books most of his jobs in Atlanta.
“It was challenging at first, but I’ve sowed a lot of seeds,” Westmorland said. “I’ve sent in a lot of headshots and video auditions. Now that I have a reel, it makes getting jobs easier. So, if they’re interested in me, they already have my information. They can just book me and fly me down [to wherever the filming is].”
Westmoreland said he landed the “Ebola” part after auditioning for the producer on Skype. And in the upcoming weeks, he’ll be flying out to Miami to shoot an alcohol and beverage commercial — which he landed through the same process.
When he isn’t acting, Westmoreland keeps busy as a radio personality, community activist and motivational speaker — the latter of which he believes to be his deeper calling. He’s spoken to elementary students in schools throughout the West Side and suburbs, and has hosted various community events at local senior citizen homes. And when he’s on set, he said, the generosity carries over.
During breaks in filming, Westmoreland said he sometimes finds himself the center of a crowd of interested observers. He speaks about his past growing up in Austin, his father, his mother and his religion.
“When I go to these sets I find myself talking about spirituality and about the goodness of God and how it’s a blessing to be on the set,” he said.
“I look up and I sometimes have 15 people around me who want me to let them know what acting is really about. You’re not doing it for yourself, but for God’s kingdom. It’s all about helping.”
And when he comes back to his old stomping grounds in Austin, he’s no different.
“It’s a lot going on in Austin with the violence and the drugs and, you know, the kids wearing their pants down off their butts,” he said.
“But these kids respect you according to how you respect them. When I’m out there, I jump out of my car and ask them how they’re doing. Then I may say, ‘Man, you know you ain’t right. Pull those pants up, man.’ You see, it’s the approach you have. They respond, ‘Okay, okay, big bro.’ When I see them again it’s, ‘How are you doing, sir?’ Or, ‘Here come ‘Westmo.’ They give me that respect, because they see I’m righteous and my light is shining.”