20th Annual Pollak Prizes for Excellence in the Arts
D.L. Hopkins first realized his place was in front of an audience at the tender age of 4, when he watched his father box in downtown Richmond. On the nights when Hopkins’ seven-time state champion father knew he was fighting someone he considered a “pushover,” he would allow his young son to sit with his mother in the crowd. “My father would knock a guy out and then bring me into the ring,” the now 49-year-old Hopkins, whose initials stand for Donnell Leroy, recalls. “I would hold my hands up and walk around the ring, and the audience would cheer. I became addicted to the sound of a crowd.”
In his last year of high school, he started performing at the Richmond Comedy Club, a once-popular Shockoe Bottom spot. He traveled a bit as a comic, quickly learning that he hated clubs, and then he stumbled upon Janet Rogers’ Meisner acting technique class, one of the first classes offered at the then-fledgling Firehouse Theatre. For Hopkins, it changed everything. He went to an audition at Young Writers for the Theatre, a professional, not-for-profit performing arts organization that used to operate within the Leslie Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “I auditioned for this guy, and I thought it went well,” says Hopkins. “But afterward he asked me to come onstage and told me that I was awful. The man was the late Ernie McClintock, and Ernie is the reason I am on stage today.” Hopkins learned McClintock’s jazz acting technique, a process that allows actors to contribute to a production in the same way a musician contributes to a jazz ensemble, and together the two founded the Jazz Actors Theatre. After the two men parted ways, Hopkins acted and directed at the Firehouse Theatre and Virginia Repertory, and then became artistic director of the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia.
His earliest experience in feature films was as an extra or, as he remembers it, “House servant No. 7 kind of stuff.” One day, he says, “I was in a field with a sack full of cotton, and it dawned on me that this was BS. I didn’t have to do this. That was my last day as an extra.” He started auditioning for larger roles in films, and that was when he met Kevin R. Hershberger of LionHeart FilmWorks. “I told him that if I were to play a slave, it would have to be a slave who was escaping and was actually successful at escaping, and I wouldn’t do any picking.” A number of documentaries and television series directed by Hershberger followed, the most recent of which was the Fox series, “Legends and Lies,” in which Hopkins plays Bass Reeves, the “real Lone Ranger.” Hopkins’ long list of film and television credits includes this year’s Academy Award-nominated “Loving,” “Swedish Auto,” “Beast of Burden,” Showtime’s “Linc’s,” and HBO’s “The Wire.” The University of Richmond has appointed him artist-in-residence four times.
Early in his career, Hopkins decided to move to Los Angeles, but then he met a young lady and things changed. “I am glad I chose to stay,” he says. “I can’t express enough how much I love Richmond, and I have been all around the world. I am Southern at heart, and I like this slow progressive pace.”
As for the future, Hopkins says he is working on a marriage of theater and film in a groundbreaking project that he intends to debut in Richmond.