Detroit native Damon Gupton counts his many blessings as an actor/musician


by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Even though he’s played a lawyer twice, actor Damon Gupton has yet to make an oral argument – something he’d like to do very badly.

“I think of Al Pacino in …And Justice for All – ‘You’re out of order!’” said Gupton, 45, of Los Angeles, referring to the 1979 courtroom drama’s famous scene between Judge Rayford (Jack Warden) and attorney Arthur Kirkland (Pacino).

Gupton has made his career playing lawyers and cops. He’s played Adam Page on The Divide and Leonard Letts on Goliath – both attorneys. He’s played Det. Gearhardt on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Det. Velerio on Prime Suspect, Det. Cal Brown on The Player, SSA Stephen Walker on Criminal Minds, and Inspector Henderson on Black Lightning.

He explained how he differentiated each role from one another so they didn’t feel redundant, comparing and contrasting the two attorneys he played.   “Each character is different. They have different motivations, drives and relationships,” said Gupton. “Take Adam and Leonard – Adam I feel was way more ambitious than Leonard, more connected to a cultural community and identity, closer to his family. Leonard was a meaner guy in my mind – colder, more willing to do not-so-good things, entrenched in a very formal system. He also curses more. Both guys have their own confusions and consciousness though. And I think both are risk-takers, and pay interesting prices for their choices.”

He continued, “But with Adam, I loved the fact that he was a man who really was out to do the right thing, but ended up having to make a conflicted and difficult choice. And in that lay the idea of things not always being black and white when difficult choices are made. I thought that was interesting, along with working with (creators) Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) and Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) who bring a wealth of knowledge, experience, and heart.”

The Divide, which aired on WE television in 2014, was different than most legal dramas currently airing. Gupton expressed his disappointment at its premature cancellation.

“It was dealing with social justice in a way that hadn’t been seen. It presented different layers of wrongful convictions that were/are timely. It brought the work of the Innocence Project to the small screen. It was dealing with family in an interesting way also,” he explained. “The cancellation of that show remains the biggest disappointment of my professional career. That show was good. And it deserved another season and a fair and legitimate ending. I think it was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think if we had made that show a year or two later, we would still be on the air given the current climate and appetite for social justice and reform… Yeah, we had more work to do, and we would have done it brilliantly, too, if allowed.”

Gupton jumped at the opportunity to play Letts on Amazon’s Goliath, which was co-created by David E. Kelley (L.A. Law) and starred Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and Oscar winner William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Goliath reunited Gupton with Maria Bello, his Prime Suspect co-star.

“I was honored to join that incredible cast and team,” he said. “I received an offer to play this snarky, intelligent, not-so-good dude Leonard Letts on a show that starred [Hur]) and [Thornton]. I mean, come on man – was I going to turn that chance down? I've been dying to play a bad guy. I get nice cats all the time, but Leonard was a step in the other direction, even though he  all that bad in the end.”

A Detroit native, Gupton attended the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. Upon graduation, he earned his undergraduate degree in music education from the University of Michigan. From there, he earned his graduate degree in drama from the Juilliard School in New York City. Gupton studied conducting at the Aspen Music Festival & School in Colorado and the National Conducting Institute in Washington, D.C. At the latter, Gupton studied under composer Leonard Slatkin before he came to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

“Speaking of the DSO, I’ve been fortunate to have conducted for them numerous times in education and outdoor events, and I take a truly personal and special pride in standing before them, especially since some of the musicians in that orchestra were some of the first symphony orchestra musicians I had ever seen live. A lot of folks just don’t know how great an ensemble the hometown orchestra truly is,” he said.
Gupton starred in plays at U-M, citing August Wilson as one of his favorite playwrights. After failing to get into U-M’s graduate program in conducting, Gupton switched gears and went into acting. 

“It was a good rejection. I learned a lot about myself and it taught me valuable things. It also gave me some fire and a chip on my shoulder. Sometimes, one needs these things. I believe in good, motivating chips on the shoulder. The constructive ones. And I’ve definitely got a few. They definitely add spice, but they also educate,” he said. “So, anyways, after music school, I decided to try to pursue drama and use a different part of my voice for a while, be a part of story-telling in a different way. Now I’m fortunate to have a presence in both worlds as a professional. Blessings counted.”

He made his first television appearance, guest-starring on a 1999 episode of Law & Order, where he met creator Dick Wolf. Wolf cast Gupton in his first regular role as Charles Foster on 2000-01’s Deadline, a short-lived L&O spin-off about the New York Ledger, a fictional daily newspaper seen in Wolf’s L&O shows modeled after the New York Post.

“I’ll always be grateful (to Wolf),” Gupton said. “His empire is legendary.”

Another notable role was Dr. Gregg Edwards from 2016-17 on Bates Motel, a contemporary prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the seminal 1960 film based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel. Freddie Highmore (The Good Doctor) won an Emmy for his portrayal of murderer Norman Bates.

“How many people can say they played Norman Bates’s shrink? Definitely another one of my favorites,” he said. “[Highmore is] fantastic. Just fantastic. What a marvelous actor. And most of the work I did on the show involved these long two-person scenes with just me and him, and it was a treat every time. Couldn’t have asked for a better scene partner. Couldn’t be happier for his success on The Good Doctor right now on ABC, but all those folks need to watch him on Bates Motel because he kills it, pun intended… That dude is tremendous.”

Currently, Gupton plays Henderson on The CW’s Black Lightning – based on the DC Comics character of the same name – a role he was reluctant to take after playing a cop on several shows. However, the opportunity to work with prominent African-American show-runner Salim Akil and his wife Mara Brock Akil intrigued him.

“I knew that this show would be trying to talk about issues within the African-American community and not just relying on a basic super-hero premise. It was an opportunity to examine playing a black cop in a time where it is not popular to be a police officer,” explained Gupton. “And for me, it intrigues me to delve deeper into the law enforcement world where some of your community consider you a sellout because you are the police. That’s juicy. Here’s a man who wants to do what is right, truly believes in protecting and serving, and yet his community doesn’t support him. I was interested in fleshing out that perspective. So that’s what got me interested.”

Cress Williams (Prison Break) plays the titular character who has the power to harness electricity. His alter-ego is Jefferson Pierce, principal of an inner-city high school whose superhero days are long behind him; but once his two daughters are kidnapped, he comes out of retirement to rescue them and decides to continue as Black Lightning.

So far, Black Lightning, with its predominantly African-American cast, has received critical acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes has given it a 100 percent approval rating. The series has also been praised for making TV history by introducing the first black lesbian super-hero Thunder a.k.a. daughter Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams, Code Black).

According to Gupton, Black Lightning is different from other super-hero shows due to “the way it deals with themes of African-American existence in today’s society. The fact that it presents themes of community and family in a way not always represented. The fact that it’s a retired super-hero coming back to do what he feels is right. The fact that you have a black lesbian super-hero – it's definitely different. I think that’s part of why it’s been a nice hit.”