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Marlon Wayans on "Respect" and "You Know What It Is"

Redefining Marlon Wayans

With a starring role in Respect and a new HBO Max comedy special, Wayans has found versatility through his vulnerability

The real-life character of Ted White couldn’t get out of his own way. That’s not a problem that actor Marlon Wayans has in the new Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect. Starring opposite powerhouse Jennifer Hudson, Wayans brings a well-roundedness and depth to the role of Franklin’s troubled, abusive first husband and manager. “I just try to be vulnerable,” he says. “I allow myself to feel empathy for people and, when you see something horrible in a person, also see that something is salvageable.”

To prepare for his role in Respect, the 49-year-old actor spoke with Franklin’s family members and studied interviews with White to learn his cadence, but ultimately built the character around a much bigger picture. “You always see the abuse,” he says. “You never see how two people fell in love or how complex a relationship is,” he explains. “I wanted the audience to love him, to hate him and to feel bad for him because they want him to do better. I wanted people to feel what it’s like to get rid of a toxic relationship and how hard it is.”

Wayans is both realistic and passionate as he speaks about White’s role in Franklin’s legacy and how important it was to present the tumultuous journey that led them to each other. “The guy that gets a great woman like Aretha to fall in love has to be charming, funny and smart,” he says. “He was a great catalyst in her life and career, but he couldn’t take her all the way there and he couldn’t fix his damage.”

Simultaneously, Wayans’ new stand-up special, You Know What It Is, premieres August 19 on HBO Max, in which he explores family, trust, sexuality and acceptance. Despite the hilariously nostalgic references to his past work in The Wayans Bros. and White Chicks, the special is rooted in emotional real-life experiences. “I think it was important for me to be completely transparent,” says Wayans. “The most respectful thing you can do is be honest and be real.” With dramatic portrayals and authenticity, Wayans is bringing his natural comedic instincts to multifaceted performances on both the screen and stage.