Romany Malco Loses Himself in His YouTube Alter Ego
TJ lays down some wisdom.
Romany Malco's publicist calls L.A. Weekly the day after our interview with her client to tell us that he may have, you know, stretched the truth a bit. He didn't mean to, she says. The 44-year-old actor, who plays a hotel concierge in this weekend's Last Vegas and is best known for his roles in The 40-Year Old Virgin, Weeds and Think Like a Man, just gets a little confused sometimes about where his true self ends and where Tijuana Jackson begins.
But who is Tijuana Jackson, exactly?
For young men in need of guidance, TJ is a straight-talking ex-con who provides tough love on YouTube and, if you text or call the number on the screen, might spend hours on end motivating you one-on-one to stay clean, stop cutting yourself or get a job.
"Procrastination is another way of saying you failure's bitch," Jackson says in one video.
For Malco, playing TJ is the ultimate passion project, a chance to directly help people in need while letting loose and writing material that won't be censored by corporate overlords.
For Malco's Hollywood handlers, however, Tijuana Jackson seems like a headache.
In the past five years or so, as stars have asserted greater control over their personal brands through social media and lower-budget digital content, the job of a Hollywood PR person has become increasingly difficult. Instagrams and Vines don't get notes from studio heads. An off-the-cuff tweet from Rihanna can become news before her team even knows what is happening. Celebs might prematurely announce projects, as Jeff Daniels did this past summer when he confirmed on Twitter there would be a third season of The Newsroom before HBO made it official.
And when your client regularly posts content online as a fictional character, things can get complicated rather quickly.
Back in July, the Huffington Post published a piece about Trayvon Martin ostensibly written by Malco.
Addressing "young black people specifically," he argues that what's keeping many African Americans from achieving economic and social equality is not racism from those in power but the community's own glorification of destructive behavior:
If we really wanted to ensure Trayvon Martin's killing was not in vain, we'd stop perpetuating negative images that are now synonymous with black men in America. We'd stop rapping about selling drugs and killing niggas.
The post went viral, accruing over 130,000 Facebook likes.
In our interview, however, Malco tells L.A. Weekly that he'd written the piece not as himself but in character. HuffPo found the text on a Tijuana Jackson website, he says, lifted it in full and published the story under his name "without my consent... without my approval."
But as his publicist calls to say and as the Huffington Post later confirms, Malco did write the story as himself and did approve it for publication. So why would a famous actor try to disavow his own viral op-ed?
Sure, black celebrities like Bill Cosby and Barack Obama have come under some fire in the past for chastising absentee fathers and condemning gun violence in the African-American community. University of Chicago graduate student and Black Youth Project blogger Aaron Talley criticized Malco's HuffPo piece for "Black on Black shaming," saying its argument is "intellectually lazy, relies on myths of Black deficiency, and ignores the necessary context of how racism has operated and continues to operate in this country."
Did Malco blame the Huffington Post and try to hide behind his alter ego because he regretted creating a controversy that could hurt his brand? Because he feels safer sharing his real opinion from behind fake Billy Bob teeth, sunglasses and a lit cigarette? Or have all of those hours pretending to be someone else caused him to really lose track of his own identity?
A former Marine and rapper, Malco invented Tijuana Jackson long before he became a professional actor. He'd use TJ to make his friends laugh, parroting the voices of the men his father used to gamble and shoot the shit with on days when he took Malco out of middle school to hang out in Brooklyn and Queens parking lots.
"Those guys would be drinking, 12 o'clock in the afternoon outside of a store, whistling at women with their wives at work," he recalls.
Malco has been releasing Tijuana Jackson's "Prison Logic" videos online for about six years, through MySpace, FunnyOrDie, iTunes, PrisonLogic.TV and most recently through the YouTube-sponsored LOUD channel, which has nearly 200,000 subscribers and is known for the hit reality show K-Town.
"This is not a comedy show. This is an online correctional facility," Jackson barks at the camera. "I advise you to keep your smart phones close cause when I get to spitting that Niggamund Freud on your ass, you need to be tweeting them quotes with the hashtag #PrisonLogic."
Although the delivery is more A$AP Rocky than Aesop, Jackson's stories about using ketchup as lubricant to jerk off or his uncle hiding crack in his diaper impart real lessons about hard work and self esteem. That's what makes the line between Malco and Jackson so blurry: the character is both satirical and sincere, a joke about hypocritical motivational speakers wrapped around carefully researched advice from Malcolm Gladwell, Andrew Napolitano, Ayn Rand and Eckhart Tolle. Malco calls the approach "edutainment" and says regular acting feels as mindless as "stamping envelopes" in comparison.
"I'm sorry, it's just more fulfilling than anything I've ever done in my life as far as Hollywood goes," he says.
When he's between movie sets, Malco says he spends between six and sixteen hours a week counseling young men who think Jackson is a real person, over text and video-chat. He claims only 40 percent of TJ fans know that the character is being played by an actor. (His publicist disputes this number.)
"Here's the funniest thing to me," Malco says. "People wanting to talk to TJ, and then other fans wanting to talk to me about Weeds watching the people who think TJ's a real person divulge like the most personal shit."
Malco embraces the confusion, citing as inspiration longtime L.A. radio host Phil Hendrie, who famously trolls listeners by changing his voice to play offensive characters.
If a "True Story!!!" falls in the forest and only Romany Malco hears it, did it actually happen?
Malco claims Will Smith and Jimmy Kimmel are big Tijuana Jackson fans. He claims that in the next year TJ will release a book, a reality TV show, an album, a one-man show and, of course, a feature film.
"When you find out who's financially backing this, you're gonna be shocked out your ass," he says, adding that he plans to co-own the character, to maintain creative control. "Some of the most influential people, I'm talking about in our media, have all reached out, and said I need to talk to Romany Malco about making a movie with this character."
But his publicist tells me she spoke to Malco's agent and his manager, and they want to withdraw all of Malco's comments about any future Tijuana Jackson projects after his series of ten-minute videos for LOUD ended in October. "It's all just hyperbole right now," she says. "It's all talk. Nothing is confirmed."
This isn't the first time the actor and his handlers don't seem to be on the same page over the TJ character. After Malco first posted a Tijuana Jackson video on MySpace, back in 2007, he says he got a call from Lionsgate saying they wanted to feature the character on break.com, an early web video portal.
"I called my managers, and they were like, 'What is Tijuana Jackson?'" Malco says. He explained, but his team was not happy with their client's profanity-laden, advertiser-unfriendly videos. "They were like, 'Take all of that stuff down. We need to have a conversation.'"
Because stars now have unmediated access to their fans on the web, Hollywood PR guru and vice chairman of Reputation.com Howard Bragman says publicists need to put in a lot more effort keep clients, managers and agents on the same page. In an ideal situation, he says, the content a star posts online will be consistent with the image presented in interviews and other work. However, it doesn't always work out this way.
"A lot of things can go wrong," Bragman says. "It used to be we had some measure of control. Now the best we can do is manage, and any concept of control is kind of a mess."
Malco meticulously runs both his own and Tijuana Jackson's social media accounts. As Romany Malco, he posts photos from his vacation in Belize and responds "LOLZ!" to compliments. As Tijuana Jackson, he says that he's surprised Miss America contestants are "so thick" and that he doesn't think it takes courage to launch drone strikes.
Ironically, the Malco accounts seem indignant about fans confusing him with his more famous characters. His Twitter bio begins, "Actor who's REAL name is not #ConradFromWeeds, #TheBlackGuyFrom40YrOldVirgin or #Zeke from #ThinkLikeAMan," and his Facebook "About" section says something similar.
It is a source of eternal frustration to Malco that his face is famous enough to be recognized on the street but his name is not famous enough to ring a bell or draw an audience on its own.
"You know what my curse is?" he says. "Nobody knows my name. Nobody knows me at all, but they call me by the character of the last movie that I was in."
Back in the day, Malco might have let his agent, his publicist and his manager figure out how to help him jump a rung on the fame ladder.
But in 2013, he does what Tijuana Jackson teaches; he puts his head down and works for it himself. He tweets. He studies Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Millionaire Mind. He writes his rants and records them at his private studio in Redondo Beach. He networks with his more famous friends to get advice and funding.
Because even if Romany Malco never becomes a household name, Tijuana Jackson might still have a chance.
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