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Miami sports superfan Sheaun McKinney was going to be a cop before he caught the acting bug

‘The Neighborhood’ actor on working with Cedric the Entertainer, his new movie ‘Boss Level’ and his embarrassing audition

When you grew up in a household where your mother was a prison corrections officer, you knew you couldn’t get away with too much. “Oh, mama didn’t play any games,” laughs actor and Miami native Sheaun McKinney, a regular on the hit CBS sitcom The Neighborhood who is also set to appear in the Aug. 16 time-loop sci-fi movie Boss Level. “My dad never had to discipline me because my mom did it all. When we got older, I started to understand her job more. There was a time or two where she’d say, ‘I saw your friend today.’ And when she said that, I knew that somebody I ran with ended up in jail. I can’t believe how my parents raised three boys to all be successful, levelheaded men.”

If you [are] a true kid from Miami, especially from the inner city, you are a Miami Hurricanes fan before anything else.”

At one point McKinney thought he would follow in his no-nonsense mother’s footsteps and become a policeman. But then he caught the proverbial acting bug at Miami Dade College, and he hasn’t looked back. McKinney is what the showbiz contingent calls a scene-stealer. This is no small feat when you have appeared in shows starring the hilarious likes of Danny McBride (HBO’s Vice Principals) and Andrea Martin (NBC’s Great News).

But it’s his work on the Norman Lear-ish throwback comedy The Neighborhood, headlined by Cedric the Entertainer, which has garnered serious buzz for McKinney. The sitcom, renewed for a second season, is about a white family (Max Greenfield from New Girl and 2 Broke Girls’ Beth Behrs) that moves into a predominantly black section of Los Angeles and becomes neighbors with the Butlers. This presents an embarrassment of comedic riches because McKinney’s peacekeeping mother on the show is played by Martin and Everybody Hates Chris favorite Tichina Arnold, while Cedric, who plays his cranky, prejudiced father, is one of the Original Kings of Comedy. And this summer, McKinney will appear in Boss Level with another legend (albeit much more in the controversial, former scandal-ridden vein). He is set to star alongside Mel Gibson, as well as Frank Grillo, Naomi Watts and Michelle Yeoh. What a ride.

You finished your first season of The Neighborhood with Cedric the Entertainer and Tichina Arnold. How hard is it for you to keep a straight face every day on set?

We were shooting a scene where our family on the show was looking at a phone and reacting to what was happening. Marcel Spears, who plays Marty, pulled up my favorite episode of Martin, where Tichina, Tisha Campbell-Martin and Martin Lawrence were fighting that giant rat. Nobody else could see what we were watching, and we were dying laughing.

I tell people all the time that it’s a surreal thing every single day to be working with Tichina and Ced. I’ve been watching them since I was a kid. They are better people than they are artists. For us, it’s an opportunity to just learn from them every single day.

Is it fair to call The Neighborhood the black All in the Family with Cedric channeling Archie Bunker?

I think The Neighborhood is in the lexicon of the Norman Lear structure. It recalls those shows, but it’s so modern. There’s a very telling aspect of what’s going on in society and how much we haven’t changed when it comes to racial progression. So yeah, Ced is kind of like a black Archie Bunker. He’s reacting to a white family moving into a black neighborhood.

You were all set to go to the police academy and become a cop, but somehow you became an actor. Did you lose a bet?

(Laughs) I was born and raised in Miami, and my mom was a corrections officer for 35 years. I come from a blue-collar background where both my mom and dad worked. I felt like I knew my community well, which is a large part of the problem when it comes to the police and everything that’s going on. I never saw acting as a real job. But God had other plans for me.

When did you start taking acting seriously?

Honestly, I tried to walk away from acting as much as I could. I went back home, I trained to be a policeman, and I was waiting for the call to see if I could get sponsored into an academy. I came back to L.A. for what I thought was going to be a weekend, and I haven’t left.

Okay, Dolphins or Heat fan?

See, I’m an ’80s baby. So when I was a kid, the Miami Heat didn’t exist, so naturally I was a Dolphins fan first, then I later became a Heat fan. But if you a true kid from Miami, especially from the inner city, you are a Miami Hurricanes fan before anything else. So I am a die-hard fan of The U.

What was your most embarrassing audition?

So I had an audition for a network show for what’s called a chemistry read. I won’t say who it was with, but this person already had the role in the show I was reading for. Now keep in mind, I had just done Vice Principals for HBO, which was a very high-end cable comedy, so there’s a lot of improvisation. After coming off of two seasons of that show, I just knew I could get a script, walk in a room and do what I wanted, so I’m feeling myself a little bit. So I walk in, I drop the script and I just start ad-libbing.

How bold of you …

And this dude is looking at me like I kicked him in the face! (laughs) He’s not responding to anything I’m saying at all. Less than two minutes after I walk out, my phone rang, and it was my manager. And he goes, ‘So what did we learn today?’ Well, I didn’t get the part, so I learned that. I also learned that with cable and network, there’s different ways you have to react to the material as an actor.

What’s the best suit you have ever worn?

I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet. And I love fashion. I will say I think I’ve done pretty well on every red carpet I’ve been here. I’m definitely swag, but I haven’t found that one suit yet.

“Yeah, Ced is kind of like a black Archie Bunker. He’s reacting to a white family moving into a black neighborhood.”

So your first mainstream television role was in 2007 on Burn Notice. What was going through your mind at that very moment?

You know what’s funny? I ended up playing this kid driving a car on that show, and I get my car stolen by the main guy on Burn Notice, Jeffrey Donovan. We were filming in Miami and I’m in the car, and the guy pulls a gun on me and makes me scoot over to the passenger seat. There’s a moment where we suddenly stop and Jeffrey gets out of the car and then someone who looks just like him gets into the driver’s seat! And I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ And the guy turns to me and says, ‘Oh, have you done stunts before?’

They really tried you, huh?

[Laughs] Man, I’m like, ‘Hell no, I’ve never done a stunt before!’ I was just 19 years old. And he’s like, ‘Well, you might want to talk to the director.’ Unbeknownst to me, I was supposed to do a stunt that day where we crash the car, so I called my agent at the time and she’s like, ‘Well, they say if you do it, there’s an extra amount of dollars.’ At the time I’m young and I’m like, ‘Yeah. I’ll do it.’

And this stuntman gets on the phone and calls his wife and starts talking to her as if it was going to be his last time. And I’m like, ‘What the hell is about to happen?’ He was just messing with me. It was just a little stunt. So when people watch that episode of Burn Notice, just know I did do my own stunts!

So let’s talk Boss Level, which is being described as a sci-fi thriller, which also stars Mel Gibson. So will we see you channeling your inner action star in this film?

Ha! To tell you the truth, I don’t get to do much action in that film. Just know that movie is going to be a trip! You get to see me play a character that I’ve never played before. I consider myself to have a lot of confidence, and I’ve been told that I have a little charm and swag. But I don’t get to use any of that for this character that I am playing in Boss Level (laughs). But it is a fun, exciting film. Shoutout to Frank Grillo, who is the lead in that film. He’s an absolute action star.

Keith "Murph" Murphy is a senior editor at VIBE Magazine and frequent contributor at Billboard, AOL, and CBS Local. The veteran journalist has appeared on CNN, FOX News and A&E Biography and is also the author of the men’s lifestyle book "Manifest XO."