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He played a bad guy in the film The Blind Side, but IronE Singleton is anything but bad. The actor grew up in the Atlanta projects, where guns, drugs, and hopelessness were pervasive. Yet he found his way out, graduating from the University of Georgia, where he played football.
He plays T-Dog on AMC's hit The Walking Dead, a zombie apocalypse series. Married with children, the 37-year-old is very spiritual. The Walking Dead returns to AMC on Sunday, Feb. 12, at 9 p.m.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: What prompted you to change your name from "Robert" to "IronE"?
A: The thing that happened was my life. (Laughs). "IronE" stands for an eagle in flight with an unbroken spirit. I coined that term because it is indicative of my life story and the fact that I'm out of the inner city. Statistics state that as a young black male from the inner city, I would be either in prison or dead or, more than likely, hanging out on a street corner selling drugs or something like that. So once I graduated from college, and right before I moved to L.A., God just put it in my heart. There was this overwhelming desire to come up with a name that served as an icebreaker. "IronE" was it.
Q: So how did you find your way out of the projects and a situation so many see as hopeless?
A: Speaking metaphysically, there is just this overwhelming power, this supreme being in my life. It was bigger, way larger than life. I refer to it as God. I always had a relationship with God as early as 8 years old.
I visited my paternal grandmother and saw that the life that she lived totally contrasted with the life that I had lived in the projects. So it inspired me to want more out of life. It made me more ambitious because before that I didn't know that anything else really existed except on the TV.
Q: Other than your grandmother, did you use anyone as a role model?
A: I used pretty much anybody I could. My coaches, my uncle (he was major). One of my uncles, who lived with us, was very instrumental in serving as an influence in my life. Whenever he had an opportunity, he would impart some wisdom. It was street wisdom, but it was the wisdom I needed at the time to survive. Even people who were living negatively, I would say, "OK, so this is how I should not do it." I would have to say to everybody that God had in my life served a major purpose.
Q: The underlying theme of Walking Dead is never give up, and it seems that is something you have always embraced in your life.
A: That is exactly it. You survive by any means necessary. There were a lot of moments in my life where I could have died or I could have ended up serving 20 years to life in prison. I overcame those things, those obstacles, because I listened and I obeyed that higher power that was speaking to me at the crucial moments in my life when it really counted. A lot of my friends didn't, and they ended up either going to prison and serving life terms or dying.
Q: Do you think everyone has that other voice you are describing, but they just ignore it?
A: I think so. I think we, as human beings, have the inner voice. Some people may refer to it as a conscience. Some have done so much wrong in this life (and I can attest to it because I was in that category). When you've done so much wrong, there is so much dirt that is piled on your conscience it takes a lot for you to hear it. Over time I worked to get all that dirt, that negativity, off my conscience to the point where it got louder and louder, and the messages became clearer and clearer. So yes, it exists in everybody. It is just a matter of whether we choose to obey.
Q: Were you in trouble with the law growing up?
A: You know, I was never arrested. There were times I could have been in trouble with the law. I carried a gun -- I carried a pistol -- I sold drugs. They were survival instincts. I got a gun, for one, that was the thing to do in the inner city. It served as protection. If you didn't have a gun, more people would be prone to "try you."
For me, that was a thing I didn't have to worry about that much because there were a lot of men in my family. My grandmother was the matriarch. I was the youngest of all the men in my family, so I kind of used them as examples and kind of emulated what I saw them do. So I didn't have to deal with a lot of bullying because we had a lot of backup, so to speak.
Q: How much do you reach back into your own life when you are doing scenes in movies like Blind Side, but particularly for Walking Dead?
A: All the time, Patricia. That part of my life weighs on me so heavily. You know it has such an influence on me. There are so many graphic images, so many things to pull from, so I use that as my motivation. I just look at where I used to be compared to where I am now, and I get overwhelmed with emotion.
Q: When you are doing a scene where you confront a racist, is your reaction instinctual, and it requires less acting?
A: (Laughs) For a lot of people it would maybe be more instinctive, but it's all acting. It is instinctive, too. That is part of the craft, but I have learned to take in the entire process of acting. So a combination of both and that is with anything, not just confronting a racist character.