“… You know, we slept in our truck, but it was still that thing of keeping faith… I would never let my parents see homelessness again. I will never let my parents be hungry. I will never let my parents walk to anything…”
By Christina Ying
Photography by Shanna Fisher
When asked if there was one item that he could take on stage that would crack everyone up, actor RJ Cyler had the perfect answer, “It would have to be a really big stage, but I would have to say a Prius.” Yes, you read that correctly. He said a Toyota Prius. As off-kilter as the answer seems, Cyler only puts it like this, “I literally could make a story out of anything.”
Cyler indeed has created an incredible story out of his career, beginning in Jacksonville, Florida. In 2013, his family decided to make a move to California, selling their house and belongings so that Cyler could have a shot at an acting career. “When we moved to LA like five years ago, it was just like okay. We are all we got. Cuz we left everything that we had in Florida, and we left family and friends, and just decided that we were just trying to start a new life.”
As he prepares for his role on Showtime’s new television series, I’m Dying Up Here, Cyler has immersed himself in the psyche of a broke up-and-coming stand-up comic named Adam determined, desperate for money, and will do anything to survive. “It was cool that I was able to step into a character that I could relate to so much,” he says. “Just some of the thinking patterns of Adam, you know, it’s just really, really, cool to just be able to be so honest in this role.” The show takes place in 1973, during an emerging stand-up comedy scene in Los Angeles. The show is a slight adaptation of William Knoedelseder’s 2010 book I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy’s Golden Age, about the history of Los Angeles’ Comedy Store, and its antics of sex, drugs, and stardom.
Cyler’s narrative came with its challenges, as he recalls his family’s struggle with homelessness during their transitional move to California. “Well I mean, it was rough on the family of course. We had to split up for a year because my papa had to stay back in Jacksonville with my brother so that he could sell our house. So when we first moved out here it was just me and my mom,” he says. When Cyler’s father finally made it to California, the family still faced hard times but remained close-knit throughout the whole process with an unshakeable belief in their son’s success. “Me and my momma and papa were all homeless together. You know, we slept in our truck, but it was still that thing of keeping faith because we knew that God wouldn’t have moved us out to California for no reason.”
The investment and sacrifice have paid off. At 21, Cyler has already collected honors varying from Forbes “30 under 30” and The Hollywood Reporter’s “Hollywood’s Rising Stars 35 and Under.” The acceleration started in 2015 when he landed his first movie role, in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s teen dramatic comedy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance, and after receiving accolades for his performance, he landed a recurring role on HBO’s Vice Principals.
This year he has two major film releases, Netflix’s War Machine with Brad Pitt and the much-anticipated Power Rangers reboot as the Blue Ranger. Despite the incredible career streak that he’s had recently, his family still keeps him grounded throughout the whole process. “I never left earth cuz mostly it’s just where I come from you know? Hollywood is a new thing to my mom and my dad, and they just moved and let me have a chance at this dream.” The transition from playing a teen hero to acerbic and foul-mouthed comedian has positioned Cyler as a performer who commands our attention.
In the past few years, he’s been back and forth for auditions and filming. “Yeah I’m just trying to make a mark on the little industry of my craziness,” he says. “During War Machine I came back to shoot the pilot for I’m Dying Up Here. And then, I came right back to Abu Dhabi to finish War Machine and then after that we went to Vancouver to shoot Power Rangers and then I’m Dying Up Here got picked up while we were shooting Power Rangers. Yeah. No sleep nowadays.”
Cyler’s performances contain a gravitational pull even when he’s not saying anything. He’s also positioned himself to be in the right place at the right time, where the industry needed fresh faces. “We started this audition process like a hot little minute ago,” he says. “Me and my manager we drove around LA for a good three months, just doing auditions and meetings and stuff.” He’s always positive in interviews, though candid about his family’s struggle to get to Hollywood. “My parents really raised me and my brother to take pride in what we love doing and also not losing ourselves when we do start to move forward in life. Just by the grace of God, you know? Just keeping faith in him, that’s the only thing that keeps me sane. ”
Perhaps, it’s this spiritual grounding that’s allowed him to succeed thus far. Many young Hollywood stars are left to their own devices without their parents once they make it big, but Cyler’s trajectory toward success remains a team effort. “It’s mainly just my parents that keep me grounded and the people that I keep around you know that’s mainly what defines who a person is like—the company that they keep… I would never let my parents see homelessness again. I will never let my parents be hungry. I will never let my parents walk to anything.”
The constant hustle of his life hasn’t left much room to discuss anything else. He doesn’t want to talk about politics or anything extraneous, and it’s factor that’s helped him stay steadfast on his career rise. As he just puts it, “Me worrying about that doesn’t make sure that my parents can eat the next day. So that’s just the way to approach everything now, and it just works.”
photography by Shannon Fisher
stylist Alison Brooks
location Hotel Covell california
Mason Margiela navy sweater
H&M button down shirt and red chinos
Rag and Bone hat
Haider Ackermann long tee
Freecity cargo pant
Vivienne Westwood suit
John Varvatos white dress shirt