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RonReaco Lee talks 'Survivor's Remorse,' LeBron & 'Sister, Sister'

RonReaco Lee from "Survivor's Remorse" recommends spending a day with LeBron James: "It was something to see."

Acclimating to new wealth and young celebrity is a complicated process, not that you'd know it watching a show like "Entourage."

"Survivor's Remorse," on the other hand, has no reluctance chronicling and poking fun at that process. Now in its second season, the Starz comedy about a high-profile NBA player and his family gladly embraces the public-relations nuances and embarrassments of a star player under the spotlight.

It is the show's smaller moments, though, that actually make larger points about money and family and the power dynamic therein. The breadwinner is Cam Calloway (played by Jessie Usher as a star athlete both astute and petulant), who lives with his outspoken mother (Tichina Arnold), his formidably ridiculous sister (Erica Ash, who gives her character a vulnerable undercurrent) and his knucklehead uncle (Mike Epps).

They all have their heads in the clouds, with the exception of Cam's cousin — who is also his manager — played by RonReaco Lee with a sense of business savvy that's not always cut out for the big leagues. The character is never so real as when you see a pained incredulousness wash across his face when forced to placate tantrums from not only his family but the team ownership as well.

A native of Decatur, Lee spent the latter part of his childhood in Atlanta, which is where he and his wife now reside — and where "Survivor's Remorse" also films. LeBron James and his business partner Maverick Carter are executive producers on the show (created by actor-turned-writer Mike O'Malley), and a certain amount of of their real-world experiences have been filtered through series.

Earlier this week it was renewed for a third season.

Q: Is it just a coincidence that "Survivor's Remorse" shoots in the city where you live, or did you move there for the show?

A: It's a coincidence. When I bought the house out here, it really was just to give me some peace of mind. The grind in LA can be really taxing. Mentally, it just became a little too much. I thought if I could have a place where I could get away and decompress, then I could go back to LA just to audition, and I thought I would be able to deal with it a lot better. So we bought in Atlanta a few years ago — and then all the work, all these TV shows and movies, started coming here.

A lot of my castmates, on Friday night they're going out. And I'm like, "I'm going home, I'm gonna catch up on some sleep and spend some time with my son." My little boy hadn't even made 1 yet when we were shooting the first season, and my wife had her hands full because she went back to work around that time. So we were juggling a lot.

I think the next gig I get that shoots outside of Atlanta is probably going to be really difficult for me, to be away from home. I really cherish shows that shoot almost in my backyard. That makes going to work a lot easier. I know I've been spoiled.

Q: Your character Reggie is not only Cam's manager but also his cousin and his best friend. Some people would tell you to never go into business with family.

A: Oh, absolutely. I would tell you that!

Q: On the other hand, people who represent big stars can seem so mercenary. Who else is looking out for your interests better than people who love you? It's probably hard to know which play is smarter.

A: Listen, I remember when it was announced that LeBron was leaving his agency and he was bringing on his childhood friends Rich Paul (as his agent) and Maverick Carter (as his business partner), and I thought, "Wow, that's cool." And I remember thinking, I hope this works out for them because if it doesn't …

Q: When it comes to business, sometimes things can get contentious. So the fear is that it bleeds over into your personal relationship, which one of the subtle tensions in the show.

A: When it's not family, you normally don't see your manager or your agent once the doors are closed. But with Cam and Reggie, what happens between business hours is going to carry over into after-hours. It makes for great drama and it makes for great comedy.

Q: Did you talk to LeBron James about his life to help you prep for the show?

A: The first season, we didn't meet LeBron until the show premiered. This year, he co-stars in Episode 9, and we flew up to Cleveland and it was probably one of the most amazing experiences.

I was able to sit back and observe what it's like to be LeBron James. My character on the show is based on Maverick Carter's relationship with LeBron and I was telling him it was some of the best homework that I could do as an actor. Because you get to see the energy that surrounds an individual like LeBron. It's something to witness. If you're ever fortunate enough to get that close to somebody of his level — he's just moving from point A to point B, but that energy gets up and it moves with him.

Also I was able to check out his entourage, which included this guy named Randy, who is a really nice guy. So as an actor, I was able to see that Reggie is a combination of Maverick Carter and Randy.

I pitched for next season (as part of the preparation) for Jessie to hang with LeBron for a day and for me to hang with Maverick, just to shadow them to watch how they interact with people.

Q: This is a TV show about a black family; the show creator, Mike O'Malley (best known as an actor on "Yes, Dear" and "Glee") is white. Was there ever a discussion that this might create a disconnect, that the show should have a black showrunner?

A: We have a very diverse writers room — women, men, black, white, other — it's not like Mike is sitting there writing each script by himself.

But I've been on sets before where every writer in the room was African-American and I was saying, "Hey man, I don't get this joke," or "I don't think this works." That's just the nature of writing — at times, because writers have so many voices to keep track of, they might miss something every now and then. And hopefully you're on a show where they welcome input, because I've been on sets where that wasn't the case.

I did a pilot with Judd Apatow years ago and it was the first time that I realized that the best writers do rely on the actors to give it that final vote — does this work? Is this right?

Q: Apatow is famous for creating space for his actors to improvise.

A: That whole pilot was improv. Literally. It was called "Life on Parole" for Fox (in 2003). Did not see the light of day. But it was a great experience for me.

We went to a soundstage in Hollywood, it was me and this guy Dave Herman (Michael Bolton in "Office Space"), great actor, funny guy. We would do these elaborate improvs and Judd Apatow had a guy in the corner videotaping the whole thing. Afterwards that guy would go home, transcribe everything we said and then Judd would create the script based on that improv.

Sometimes he would ask me to pitch jokes and I would be like, "Judd, look, I'm not comedian, I'm not a writer! All I do is look at my lines and that's what I do." But later I realized, the times are changing. To stay relevant, you have to be able to do this.

That pilot was directed by Jon Favreau and the character worked at Arby's, so I enlisted the help of a really good friend to go into an Arby's — I don't know how she did it — but she was able to get me an Arby's shirt, and I wore it to my final screen test. It was one of those things where it was like, will they notice? And they did. This great writer Brent Forrester (whose credits include "The Simpsons" and "The Office"), he called it out, he was like, "I'd like everybody to notice that RonReaco is wearing an Arby's shirt."

Q: Have you ever done something similar at an audition?

A: Um, no. As you get older and more seasoned, you start to rely more on your ability to act. Because it could be seen as gimmicky, you know?

Listen, I was at an audition and there was a dude who came in with a bat, a half a mannequin and a ukulele, and he brought all this stuff into the audition and everybody in that waiting room was looking at him like, "This is crazy." He didn't get the part. But somewhere in his preparation he said, "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to bring in some props and I'm going to get this part!"

Q: You're the first RonReaco that I've met. Is there a story behind your first name?

A: Not one. Well, not a good one. I wish it was, because people ask me all the time.

There was a popular rum back in the day called Ronrico, and my mother loved the name but wanted to change the spelling. She was always adamant about the second "R" being capitalized. So when I started acting, that was the big thing: The second "R" has to be capitalized, and there's no space. My mother was adamant about how my name was spelled.

People are curious about where it came from. I've gotten the question: "Are you Latin?" No, not at all. "Are your parents black?" I get that question a lot when people see my name. My mother just wanted to do something different.

It's funny, when my wife and I found out we were having a little boy, my mother wanted him to be RonReaco Jr. and I was like, "Ma, listen: I went through all of school and then as a performer constantly having to tell people how my name is spelled. I don't want my son to have those problems." I think there's still some disappointment there from her that the name won't live on!

So there's just going to be the one RonReaco. I don't think you'll ever meet another.

Q: What did you name your son?

A: Our son is Bryson, and we call him Bry for short.

We're actually expecting another one any day now! Another little boy, and he will be Jaxson.

Q: You got your start on the late-'90s sitcom "Sister, Sister," what was that like?

A: I was really fortunate to book that show my first year in LA.

Then I went back to Illinois for Thanksgiving for the annual Turkey Tourney (in Decatur). It was just a given that me and my cousins would go and check out the basketball game. I'll never forget it, I walked into the game and by halftime there were so many people surrounding me, it was overwhelming. From that point on, things were really different for me.

I was probably 19 or 20 at the time.

I remember a security guard came over because he thought someone was fighting — there was that many people — and I thought he was going to help me out but he was like, "Oh, you're the dude from 'Sister, Sister'!" and I ended up taking a picture with him. I hadn't been on the show long, maybe two episodes had aired at that point.

I've worked over a decade since, on other television shows, and people still come up and say, "Hey, you're the dude from 'Sister, Sister.'" And it's like, "Yeah, I'm that dude." I can't get away from it, with syndication and the Disney Channel picking it up. You know, to a lot of people, especially a younger generation, they think this show is brand new and that we're still in the studio making these shows!

Listen, we bought a house in the sticks. There's a horse ranch up the street from me and an alpaca farm across the street from that. That's how I like to do it. But I can't tell you how many times I run into fans in my local grocery store and they'll say, "What are you doing out here?"

Q: Teyonah Parris plays your wife on "Survivor's Remorse." She was in Chicago earlier this summer starring in Spike Lee's "Chi-raq."

A: She's really great. It's funny, we vacation every year in Chicago. My wife grew up in Decatur and then moved into the city on the South Side, so when we started dating, she was my introduction to the city. We usually take a week or week-and-a-half and fly in and spend some time in Decatur and Chicago. I have to stop at Potbelly, it's my favorite place, best sandwich shop in the world. I'm trying to figure out how to get a Potbelly in Georgia. I know where all the Potbelly sandwich shops are in Chicago. There's one right outside O'Hare that I go to first.

This year, they were filming "Chi-raq" when we were there, but I didn't get a chance to go visit the set. Teyonah sent me this great video message from a couple girls in wardrobe that I had worked with on a previous show. I'm very excited to see this movie, I hope it does phenomenal things for her career — she's the lead. The storyline and the plot seem amazing. And that's on my bucket list, to work with Spike Lee, so when I saw her a few weeks ago I was like, "Tell me everything! What is he like to work with? How does he give notes?" I wanted to know everything about Spike Lee.

Q: You mentioned your wife is from Decatur. Did you know each other as little kids?

A: We did. Her name is Sheana. I was at her first or second birthday — there's a picture of me that her mother loves to show. I wasn't aware that this was going to be a birthday party for her; in my mind this was a birthday party for me, and when I realized it wasn't, I just look so mad in this picture. Nobody told me this wasn't my birthday party!

I have vivid memories of growing up and her family and my family all hanging out, spending time together. Then my family moved to Atlanta, but we ran into each other at the Turkey Tourney when I was probably 16.

And then in 2005, I was visiting another good friend of mine in Chicago, and I was in a restaurant crossing to the bar and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and it was her. I hadn't seen her in probably 10 years, since that Turkey Tourney, and recognized her immediately. And long story short, we started dating long-distance. I would commute back and forth to see her and I eventually talked her into moving to LA and we got married in 2010.

It's pretty crazy when you think about it.

nmetz@tribpub.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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