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Alaska-grown actor Cedric Sanders talks successes, hard times, and tenacity

Laurel Andrews
Alaska-grown actor Cedric Sanders speaks to students at East High School, where he graduated. Feb. 13, 2014 Loren Holmes photo

Alaska-grown actor Cedric Sanders has been chasing his dreams since he was 15 years old. Born and raised in Anchorage and currently residing in Los Angeles, Sanders, 31, has landed a leading role in a new ABC television pilot “Mind Games,” alongside actors Christian Slater and Steve Zahn, which debuts Tuesday evening. He touched down in Anchorage in mid-February to visit his newly-born niece and promote the show, stopping by the Alaska Dispatch office to discuss his successes and hard times, offer advice for aspiring artists, and hint at what’s next for his career.

The early years

Relaxed and unassuming in a blue plaid shirt, Sanders spoke fondly of his childhood, family and community of Anchorage. He comes from middle-class roots, he said; his father worked for the post office and his mother was a preacher at the Antioch church of God and Christ, where Sanders started out singing in the choir.

“I always had a love for music, at least from the age of 9,” he said. His biography says he “was going to be like Usher or somebody,” before he became interested in acting.

From an early age, his family backed his artistic pursuits. “I’m lucky to have them -- they’re so supportive,” Sanders said. He comes from a musical family, with a brother who drums, and a sister who is “the best singer I know,” Sanders said.

He got his first taste of acting during his sophomore year at East High School, when the drama teacher approached him about auditioning for the school musical after she had seen him sing the national anthem. During that first audition, “I just fell in love with acting right then,” he said. He scored a role in the musical “The Me Nobody Knows.”

That summer, Sanders attended the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival in the Interior Alaska community, an annual arts camp that brings students from around the world to participate in music, theater and visual arts. “It was just amazing,” Sanders said of the camp. “That was like, the summer I had my epiphany.” He knew then: He wanted to be an actor.

A few years later, Sanders headed to Howard University in Washington D.C., where he got his Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater. During his senior year, he saw an audition in New York for a Broadway showing of “The Me Nobody Knows” -- the same play that he had acted in as a high school sophomore.

“Here I am, 21 or 22, and I got the same role” in his very first play, Sanders laughed. He was cast as the character of Clorox.

The show didn’t end up going to Broadway, but during an off-Broadway presentation, several agents attended, and he signed with one of them before officially relocating to New York in 2005.

After that, the rollercoaster began. Sanders said he was thrown into auditions for all kinds of productions -- big films, indie films and TV roles. Rejections started rolling in, one after the other, “and then finally it was a yes here, and a yes there,” Sanders said.

Busy years and crickets

His first big break was a guest role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” in 2007, followed by a supporting role in the movie “American Gangster," starring Denzel Washington, that same year. Thanks to that movie, folks in L.A. started to take notice of Sanders, and he decided to relocate once again. Once settled on the West Coast, he got his first lead role just 5 months later, in the indie film “The Least Among You.”

“Lucky for me, the director happened to see me in a play in L.A.,” Sanders said, and called him in to audition.

Although the film didn’t blow up the way that Sanders had hoped, it “gave me experience as how to develop a character and carry a movie,” Sanders said. Being the lead actor was a whole new realm of responsibility, Sanders said. “You’re in almost every scene. If what your character wants isn’t clear, people aren’t going to follow you.”

After a whirlwind year in 2007, “I was thinking, like, oh my god, I just did this movie, I made it,” Sanders said.

And then, in 2008: “Nothing. Crickets, crickets, crickets. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

He continued to audition for roles an average of two to three times a week, and used his savings to get by, borrowing some money from his family along the way. At the end of the year, he scored a national AT&T commercial, which paid him a good chunk of change and allowed him to continue pursuing acting.

Then 2009 came, and he landed another lead in the indie film “Rock Steady.”

In 2010, he scored a part in the movie “All Things Fall Apart” with prominent hip hop artist and actor 50 Cent. While Sanders was initially nervous to work alongside the artist, he turned out to be “one of the kindest people ever,” Sanders said. That movie, played over and over on television networks, is one of the works he is most recognized for, he said.

His role in a controversial episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” in 2011 also scored him major recognition, as the show is watched by millions of people every week. In the episode, Sanders' character rapes a woman in broad daylight. “It was disturbing for some people to see. My mother was a little disturbed by it,” he said.

Even Sanders thought that he would have a hard time getting himself into that role, but once the camera started rolling things just fell into place. “It’s crazy that thing that happens to an actor. You just go in there.”

When people ask how he slips into a villain role, he tells them “acting is an imitation of life, and, it’s about telling other people’s stories. There’s good people, there’s bad people.”

That role got a lot of mileage, Sanders said. Then, 2012 rolled around, and “it was quiet again -- crickets again.”

After scoring successes, followed by quiet times when the phone wasn't ringing, did he wonder whether he was on the right path?

“We all have our moments like that,” Sanders said. He questioned how long he should be working at it, not wanting to be “40 and alone,” without a family -- one aspect of his life that he values dearly.

Yet those quieter years seemed to serve a different purpose. During slow periods, “I had to figure out what makes me happy ... I had to come to the realization that I may not always be acting to the level that I want to, but I still have to remain a happy person, ‘cause otherwise, it’s just going to drive me crazy.”

During those slower years, Sanders learned to focus his energy. He learned to take better care of his body and health. “I did hikes and discovered yoga. That was important to me,” he said. He also took time to start dating, and it was during a slower period of 2010 when he got together with his current girlfriend.

Tenacity pays off

In 2013, the tides turned again. “Every year actors go: This is my year, this is my year,” Sanders said. And 2013 seemed to be that for Sanders. During pilot season early in the year, when hordes of actors descend on production studios to audition for the pilots of new shows, Sanders auditioned for a part in “Mind Games.”

He didn’t get the role. But he told his manager, “I am right for that,” and made another tape, trying his lines in a different way. His manager sent it back in to producers, and asked them to take a second look.

That tactic “could have backfired,” Sanders said. But instead, producers liked what they saw, and called him in for screen testing. Screen testing -- when there’s only a few actors left in the running -- is the last step before scoring a role. And this time, he landed it. A few weeks later, he was packing his bags.

“Next thing I know I’m in Chicago, shooting the pilot,” Sanders said.

Every year hundreds of shows are pitched to television studios, and only a small percentage are written. Even fewer are actually filmed. And then, even fewer are picked up by a network. When Sanders heard “Mind Games” was picked up, he was thrilled.

Now “people need to watch it,” he laughed. The first few episodes will run on ABC before the station decides whether to keep the show on air.

For actors who score a hit show that plays season after season, “it’s like winning the lottery,” Sanders said. “Statistically, it’s not going to happen.”

In “Mind Games,” Sanders’ character, Latrell, is the accountant for the business Edwards and Associates. He’s the “math guy” and “moral center,” holding the two brothers -- stars Christian Slater and Steve Zahn -- together as they work to make “their client’s dreams come true and their nightmares go away,” according to ABC.

Advice and future endeavors

Sanders has now left Chicago and is back in L.A. where he continues auditioning several times a week, alongside the fierce L.A. competition. In the last few years, he’s developed a new strategy for how he approaches auditions. He and his girlfriend don’t call it “auditioning,” but rather, going to work. His girlfriend came up with the idea, telling Sanders “If you think about it as going to work, you’ll have a whole different energy.”

That mentality helps, Sanders said. Regardless of whether he gets the part, “I get to be a character for those 2, 3, 4 minutes in the room. I get to create that. I’m still acting. I feel lucky getting to do that every day.”

His advice to those interested in pursuing the arts?

“The only one who can stop you from doing anything is you,” he said. “You just have to see it as a reality, because it is. If it’s something you really love doing, really learn the craft, and exercise the craft, and just try. All you have to do is try.”

And the Internet has only enabled aspiring artists, he said. “Get a camera. It’s so easy now, there’s so many outlets. Put your own work out there.”

Sanders will know in April whether Mind Games will be picked up for a second season. His next goal is land another movie role. He’s also writing a screenplay that he hopes to have completed by this time next year. He was sparse on details, but divulged that the manuscript will likely be based on events that happened in Alaska.

“The community of Anchorage, Alaska, has really played a part in all of this,” Sanders said, “a big part in the person that I am and the journey I’ve been on.”

Mind Games premieres on ABC on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 9 p.m. Alaska time.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews