They broke the mold with veteran actor Marcus LaVoi, currently starring in the Netflix horror/thriller, “Chambers,” about a Native American girl in New Mexico who gets a heart transplant — a haunted heart, as it turns out; LaVoi plays her gruff, kindly uncle.
This is not a cliché: The mold really was broken. An American Indian — Ojibwe, from northern Minnesota — LaVoi's a former Marine, San Diego cop and corrections officer who worked in Super Max for the California Department of Corrections.
LaVoi doesn't just play tough guys (most recently in “Den of Thieves"). He is a tough guy.
Also a nice guy, and talented too. We spoke recently on the phone about his singular career:
I say in my intro that the mold was broken with you — besides acting, you're a stuntman, martial arts and weapons expert, and oh, you also produce plays with Christian themes. Is there anyone in Hollywood even remotely like you?
It's been a crazy journey but I give all credit to God. So many times I shouldn't be here anymore, but here I am. It's been a heck of journey. When I was in the Department of Corrections, they nicknamed me Batman — not the caped crusader but because I was good with the baton. And now, fast-forward, I'm staging plays with Christian themes for inmates in prisons. Funny thing, circle of life.
You're from the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, What was it like growing up?
I left when I was ten or twelve — my parents divorced and my mother and I went to California and more or less lost touch with my family; I got to my early 30s without knowing much about my heritage. Much later, my wife (Chandra) for my birthday hired a private detective (to find) my father. I was indignant at first — I don't need a father now! — but then he and I started to work things out and we're the best of friends now. I have a brother and two sisters back there and I'm now learning about my culture.
After the Marines and Camp Pendleton, you end up in the corrections world. There must be a story there.
The odds and numbers are stacked against you. It's a culture in and of itself and the average person on the street has no idea. It's a different world — the guards know it and the prisoners know it. You better get hold of it real quick or you're in trouble … You better learn how to be fair, how to walk the walk, talk the talk real quick … It was a difficult job (but) any law enforcement job is difficult. You're always dealing with the negative and never called out for something good. It's constantly dealing with something negative.
Well, it's fascinating to me because I'm a TV critic and pasty-faced wimp. I can't imagine what it must've been like.
(Laughs). Well, we all have our roles in life, brother.
Ever get hurt?
Yeah. I broke every knuckle on both hands fighting. I've been injured.
How'd you make the transition from super max officer to Hollywood star?
I was doing security at a (San Diego-based) studio and every now and then, they'd go — hey, you want to jump in here and do a role? I ended up getting an agent and because I had accrued a lot of sick leave (as a cop in the San Diego Sheriff's office) I would drive up (to L.A.) the night before an audition, find the location then sleep in the truck. The next day I'd clean up at some gas station, then go do the audition. I did that for years and years.
This is one of those historic moments in TV when roles for people of color have finally opened up. But series about, for and by American Indians still seem scarce. True?
Yes, and I have to say I'm honored to be at Netflix right now because it is cutting edge and spearheading this whole paradigm shift in terms of cultural diversity and awareness. Take 'Chambers,' where Native Americans finally get a show where we're represented, and not just running around on horses and shooting arrows into people — just normal everyday people living our lives (albeit) in some very strange circumstances.
That other unique role you have — working for Eastern Sky Theatre. What's that about?
There are different skits we do, and plays, performed in live theaters across the country, from little venues to prisons to churches. And we have one feature film under our belts — 'The Last Appeal,' about five inmates on death row. It's a message of redemption, of hope, of second chances and of forgiveness. I've got to tell you, it's a project I'm most proud to have been a part of.