When Justin Cornwell was cast as Detective Kyle Craig, the trainee cop on CBS’s television adaptation of Antoine Fuqua‘s Oscar-winning film, he was still living in Chicago, working in theater, doing commercials and bit-parts on television shows filming in the area. Once the pilot was picked up as a 13-episode series, he moved out to L.A., and signed with a stellar team. Then, at the end of February, Cornwell’s co-star Bill Paxton unexpectedly passed away. “Bill Paxton was my mentor, friend and a damn fine man. … There will never be another, but he lives on through his family and through the many people [whose] lives were changed,” the actor wrote in a public post. “It’s definitely something that is teaching me a lot,” he reflects over the phone.
Though it seems unlikely that Training Day will continue past a first season without Paxton, Cornwell won’t be returning to Chicago. Next month, he’ll begin an indie film in Los Angeles. “It’s a really great script,” he says. “I can’t talk about it just yet, but it’s going to be a fun project.” The Kentucky- and Cleveland-raised actor is also a singer, and is working on producing more music.
BOUNCING AROUND: I was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, but before I was one year old, my mother moved in with my grandmother in a little town called Elyria just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. I was there till I was about eight or nine. Then I moved to Louisville in the fourth grade.
I think that was the first time I became isolated. I missed my friends. My father and my mother got divorced before I was one year old, so I grew up with my mother and my grandmother before my mother got remarried, which is what took her out to Louisville.
FILM STUDIES: In Cleveland, my parents and grandparents ran this video store. They had every single possible type of movie you could imagine, and they also had video games. We were the most popular family on the block and all the kids came over to play games. It’s why I had so many friends in Cleveland. For as strict as my mother was, she let us watch basically everything that she would watch, and she would watch some of the crazier stuff. I was exposed to crazy movies—the depths of depravity of what movies can go to. Just the whole gamut of what movies are. They even had porn, too. Those old video stores, sometimes the porn section was the only thing keeping them afloat. [laughs] They were just really high up so the kids couldn’t get to them, but I accidentally got into some of that, so that was unfortunate. [laughs] Or was it? Who knows? I’ve said too much…
STAGE DEBUT: I guess I had a lot of energy and didn’t really know how to direct it, and I enjoyed reading, so they put a script in front of me. I was about 12 years old, and so I said, “Okay.” I got the lead role as the first thing. There’s another kid who wanted it, too, and he was a whiner, so to make his parents happy, they gave me the leading role for the first half of the show, and for the second half of the show, he would be the leading role. It was called Lagoon, and I had to play Captain Butterworth.
AN ACTOR WITHOUT AN OUTLET: If I had the opportunity to be a theater kid, I would have, but my middle school never did another play. After I was in middle school, I ended up working on computers—it was a computer magnet school middle school, and then I also went to a computer magnet high school. They only had one play my freshman year of high school, so I did that as well and had a really great role. Then they cut all of the theater stuff for the entirety of the time I was there. I was forced to find theater where it was living, so I went to the drama club, and lucky for me, because they had cut all the funding, the only people who would do it were the diehard people who wanted to tell stories. We also did mock trial, and one day, my teacher said, “You’re just a great actor.” I was like, “Dang it! The world will never know because they cut all the theater.” I was also doing music and singing and traveling the world and on choir, and all that other stuff with art, you know, just trying to figure out what I was missing. When I was going to college, I decided to become a theater major and went to school for theater.
COLLEGE YEARS: I think my whole thing was, “Where can I afford to go?” I didn’t have any scholarships, but I had tuition reimbursement [from my stepfather’s job], and if your GPA was above a certain amount [and you stayed in state], Kentucky would give you money. It was called the KEES program. I went to the University of Louisville, and I ended up becoming a favorite of the theater department. I got used in a really big play and a couple of other plays. They really loved me there, and some of the best teachers I’ve had were in college. They taught me how to be serious about the craft, but not take yourself so seriously. My teachers were amazing: Russel Vandenbrouke and Laura Early—all these people who were helping me out because they really believed that I was a good actor. I was there for two and a half years, and then my stepfather died. When he died, I lost my tuition reimbursements. In order to continue my studies, I would have had to take out a loan, and I didn’t want to do that. I think my mother was upset that I didn’t do it, but I told her that future-Justin wouldn’t want them taking money out of his pocket. I just know how demanding it is, crawling out of the hole of student loans, and I just didn’t want to find myself with that kind of pressure going into something as flimsy as an arts career. As much as you romanticize about finding art and beauty in the world, it’s hard to make it in a way that’s sustainable. It becomes a gig mentality.
THE NEXT STEP: I ended up working odd jobs: ladies’ shoes, kids’ shoes, different bars as a bouncer. I got a job as an on-the-phone wholesale cars guy, so I did ten Cadillacs at a time to the dealerships and stuff like that. I made a lot of money doing that and I decided to go to Chicago and continue to do theater. I chose Chicago because of logistics: I could put all my stuff in the back of the car, drive to Chicago, and if I fell flat on my face, I could run back home to my mother. [laughs] They had a great theater scene and some commercial work and film and television work out there.
SETTLING INTO CHICAGO: The first six months, I was booking theater gigs and I got commercials and I had voiceover work for video games. I got my real estate license and was selling apartments, and I met this woman who was a SAG actress. She gave me the list of these services that place people in featured extra roles and things like that—it was all on Facebook, actually. So I emailed them, and they gave me a job and told me to show up at this time at the Bears’ Stadium, Soldier Field. It was in the Bears’ locker room, and Jay Cutler came out, the biggest quarterback, and I realized that it was an NFL commercial—they just wanted guys who were big and looked like they could be in the NFL. That was the first paid gig I had. Then that same agency gave me another thing where I played basketball with Derrick Rose. By the second year, I was on TV shows and had an in-town agent that was really great.
JOINING THE TRAINING DAY CAST: I think it was one of those situations where they had somebody they were going to go with, and then he wasn’t available anymore, and they had to recast the role. I think they were struggling to get the right pinpoint for this guy’s attitude, but when they saw me, they said it was an instant thing. It was quick, but they went ahead and decided to film the pilot with me. CBS loved the pilot and went ahead and gave us 13 episodes. I think there was a month or a month and a half between filming the pilot and finding out it was going to go to series. I think it was stressful, but I think it also wasn’t so much because I finally had enough money to pay my rent. I paid all my rent, and literally all of my problems went away that I had in Chicago. The problems I had were small—parking-ticket small. So I just felt like, “Oh my gosh, I can breathe. Let me take my friends out for a beer! Let me go see that great show I’ve been wanting to see.”
WORKING WITH YOUR IDOLS: I didn’t feel out of place [on Training Day], [but] I felt intimidated in the way of, “Antoine Fuqua, this guy got Denzel his most notable Oscar!” Now I’m just talking to him like a regular person. [laughs] I think I was just happy to be in league with these people I admired so much. It was intimidating, but it was the same thing as when they cast me as a football player: “Justin, you belong up here with us,” and I’m like, [in a silly voice] “Yeah! Thank you.”
THE MUHAMMAD ALI CONNECTION: He’s my hero. I played him in a play produced by his foundation in Louisville, where he’s from. I got to meet him—I had dinner with him.
IN AN IDEAL WORLD: I used to think about this sometimes, and I used to have everyone else’s answer. Everyone always says, especially if you’re an African American, “I want to be Denzel.” Then if you’re a character actor you want to be Jeffrey Wright or someone like that. But for me, I’ve watched a lot of actors’ careers. I’ve seen the career of Bill Paxton, and I wouldn’t say that I want his career, but I want to be able to do what he has done, and what other people like him have done—people like Johnny Depp—where he’s able to play a lot of different characters and still carry a lot of weight with those different perspectives, and be trusted to go into these different directions. I just want to have an unconventional career.
A MUSICIAN IIN THE MAKING: I love making music and I love performing as well. When you make art or music or anything, there’s a long gestation period where it’s just not any good. For some people, they’re great, but for a lot of people, there’s a long period where you’re working ideas out and working who you are and what you want to be doing. And I felt like that for a long time with my music. I still feel like that with my music, but I feel like it’s more me than it’s ever been before, and it’s definitely something I want to share.
SEASON ONE OF TRAINING DAY AIRS SATURDAY NIGHTS ON CBS.