GRIT & GRIND: Local actor: From South Oak Cliff to the big screen

C D Piper   American Crime
C D Piper American Crime

The Dallas Examiner

For Christopher Dontrell Piper, known for his roles in The Long Road Home and Queen of the South, acting is more than just a career. It’s a calling – one that he found early on.

“I think it was at Faith Family Academy of Oak Cliff. A theater teacher took us – it was me and two other friends of mine – and we went to The Lion King at Dallas Summer Musicals,” Piper reflected. “Watching that show, it set something off in me. It set a fire off in me to aspire to be like that on stage. Just completely at ease with oneself and able to tell a story in the best way possible.”

From that moment on, FAA would play a huge role in his development as an actor, laying the foundation for what has been quite an impressive career so far.

“Ever since then, I started acting in all of the school plays,” Piper said. “I went to college at Trinity Valley Community College and had great professors there and met a lot of great people. It was just an immersion of really good souls with a desire to be great at a craft.”

Following the completion of his studies at Trinity Valley Community College, Piper returned to Dallas with hopes of kickstarting his professional acting career. Before long, he would find himself performing in his professional debut, a 2008 version of A Lesson Before Dying at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth, where he has since appeared in plays such as Knock Me A Kiss, Black Boy Fly and Sunset Baby.

“Ever since then, I’ve had this hunger in me to just continue striving for greatness in this craft. I take it very seriously,” continued Piper. “I’d say anybody coming into the profession needs to take it seriously. It’s very rewarding. Not just monetary wise, but soul-wise too.

“And it’s not just about being seen. It’s not just about being grandiose and egomaniacal. It’s about telling stories and being applauded and thanked for it because you were able to do a very brave thing. I think a lot of people outside of the profession take it for granted … they see it as a hobby or just a plaything, but this is a serious, serious profession. So, it’s heartwarming to get that kind of feedback from the audience at a live performance, when you know you put everything into it 100 percent.”

But acting doesn’t always make for heartwarming experiences, even for someone with the variety of success Piper has had. Despite his notable work and fairly recent success on the stage, throughout film and TV, and even in the anime niche, he seems to still be in tune with the beast that is show business.

Piper admitted acting is a tough business and one in which a person must grow constantly.

“Just stay the course. As an actor, it’s really challenging,” he offered. “There are a lot of dark days with the industry. There are days that you question why you’re still a part of it. But at the end of the day, it was in a book that I was reading. It’s a really good book called The Actor Uncovered by Michael Howard,” Piper explained. “He said that the world needs us, and by us he means actors. It’s true. I think that’s why we stay in the profession … because we love to tell stories.”

He went on to say that sometimes actors get into their own way of success.

“The main thing that I would say to a person starting out in the business is have a growth mindset. It’s not all about you and whatever problems you see that you have, fix them. You can be your own worst enemy, and you can say everybody wants me to fail, but they don’t want you to fail. They want you to succeed. The only person who wants you to fail is your mind and that’s the ego,” Piper explained. “What I’ve learned over the years is to just block out the ego and try to suppress it, even though it’s very difficult. The ego is telling you that you have to be perfect in the moment, every moment. That you have to do this right, get this right … but you don’t. You just have to trust from your experience that all will be well. To me, it’s just living in the moment and really exercising that reservoir before I hit the stage so that I can trust it’ll be there when I need it.

“You already know the craft, you already know the point of the scene, you already know the character. What is it that you’re worried about? That’s a common language that we all share as performers and artists. We want to be perfect and that’s not going to happen. You can’t be afraid to fail.”

Piper described failure as a matter of perspectives and stated that it was more important to have fun with each role, be creative and use acting to tell stories.

“You just have to trust yourself that that stuff will be there in the moment and you just have to let it go. Just go out there, just be great, and just perform,” he said.

It wasn’t always so easygoing and fun for Piper though. Making it this far took a lot of hard work, grit, discipline and trusting in himself, alongside support from loved ones.

“My grit, I would like to attribute that to my mom. She’s everything to me, man, and I love her dearly. I think my moxie and my grit comes from her. Actually, I know it does because she’s a fiery little lady. I love her to pieces,” he said.

Piper stated that his experience in the industry has also enabled him to give back by teaching acting classes of his own.

“I do come from a low-income demographic. I come from South Oak Cliff, where I was raised in a single-parent home and my father was not around,” he reflected. “What I want to say, especially to young people, is accept it for what it is. And if you want to make an effort to reach out to someone who you feel has wronged you, then you should do that. And if you choose not to do that, stand by your decision, but just know that you should never lean on that as an excuse not to be great.

“A lot of people like to get sucked into, and I hate to say it like this, a victim mentality. ‘Oh, I didn’t have anyone to push me.’ No. No, no … You know how to push yourself and you do have people to push you. There are people all around you. You are not alone. Use them… for good.”

On top of the many things it takes to make a living as an actor, some of the most important are establishing a growth mindset, utilizing effective practice methods, and networking as much as you can, he advised.

“They have to be sure that they really want to do it. That’s having that fire in them, but once they know, they’ll know,” Piper said. “Reach out to directors via email, hang out with people who are in the know, so that you can be in the know and network. I would also say you need to learn how to accept rejection because that’s 99 percent of the game. Everybody’s not going to like you, everybody’s not going to think you’re talented, but you have to have a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset.

“That’s what I’ve been teaching the kids that I work with on a daily basis. To have a growth mindset. So that instead of saying that you can’t do something, you can say, ‘Well, I probably can’t do it right now, but if I practice and work at it, I will get better at doing it.’ That’s why I said what I said. You know, for people that are coming from a low-income demographic, there’s always hope.”

Piper’s wide-range and variable talent can be seen through his work in Garo: Vanishing Line and Radiant, as well as his voice work with Funimation projects, such as Dragon Ball Super, Aquarion Logos, Kino’s Journey – the Beautiful World, The Ancient Magus’ Bride and the novel, Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

Through diversifying his acting portfolio, however, Piper has noted some of the inevitable issues that plague actors of color today.

“I think typecasting is a really big hurdle that every actor of color is trying to overcome today. Thing is, every great actor wants to strive for versatility. When a lot of people see you do one thing and they see you do it well, they’ll continue to put you in that one thing over and over and over and over again.” Piper explained. “The goal is always to show variety. That’s the stuff of life.”

“And I’ve been very blessed to be in the position that I’ve been in. I think the anxiety for me is just seeing how far I can go with it.”

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