The Man With Many Talents – Datari Turner Talks Work, Passion & Career
Success comes in many forms and often the path to it isn’t what we first imagined it to be. Director/Producer and man of many more titles Datari Turner is a testament to that statement. Starting his career as a successful male model Turner has worked with some of the biggest names in the fashion industry and transitioned from in front of the camera to providing a camera for other talented individuals to shine. Now working on multiple projects at a time the busy businessman works in both film and television with some notable oscar nominated legends. As if that wasn’t enough he’s reaching new heights having been the first African American producer to have a film premiere at the Sundance film festival every year for the last five years. Amidst the busy schedule Turner took a few moment to chat with us about his latest films and more in store. Give it a read below.
Parlé Magazine: Let’s jump right in, you’ve worn many hats in your career in entertainment but I am curious to know what brought you into the business initially. Was modeling something you’ve always wanted to do?
Datari Turner: Well, I was an athlete my entire life and I went to school on a football scholarship to Oklahoma State. While visiting back home in the (San Francisco) Bay area in Union Square my freshman year of college this lady asked me to sign up for this Face Finders model search competition. She said I had a good look and I said cool I’ll sign up but you have to let all the friends I was with sign up too. They were all football players too, some like 300lbs and 6’7, and she looked horrified but said they could all sign up. She called me that night and said “i think you have a really great look” but can you come back by yourself next week. (Laughs) That’s kind of how it started.
Parlé: So by chance you were discovered, similar to a lot of other famous models. I assumed you competed?
Datari Turner: Yeah to make a long story longer (laughs) I ended up winning the best regional face and then I went to Palm Springs and won the best face in California. Then I went to New York and I won the whole thing.
Parlé: That’s an amazing feat for a freshman in college. So did that land you with any contracts or deals?
Datari Turner: Yeah, I was 19 at the time and the CEO of Ford Modeling Agency, Katie Ford, and one of the only black agents in the business at the time named Jerome Martin signed me to an exclusive contract to to the Ford agency.
Parlé: A lot of models would kill for something like that, what was that transition like from football to modeling so young?
Datari Turner: Well they wanted me to immediately move to New York but my parents said no since I was in school and was an athlete playing ball. Then they said they have a west coast branch in LA and since it was about six hours from the Bay Area it worked. We drove down there and immediately they said “ok, he’s gotta lose a lot of weight” (Laughs). Because you know I had the football neck and the muscles, they said I couldn’t even lift weights anymore. I thought it was a done deal because I wasn’t going to not lift weights but they took a few polaroids of me and sent them to Bruce Weber, who is an iconic fashion photographer who discovered Tyson Beckford, and he immediately booked me for Abercrombie & Fitch without any professional pictures. This was back in 1999 and he continued to use me for a lot of stuff and it grew from there.
Parlé: That sounds like the beginning of a great career to me. You must have been beyond excited then for all of this to be happening.
Datari Turner: Well at that point they (the agency) started taking it really serious. They basically said dude you have to move to New York because you could really do this on a real level. For me I think what was happening then was I was a kid that came from humble beginnings and didn’t have any money and with my first couple checks I just went out and brought me some expensive things. Like I bought myself an E-Class Mercedes and I bought my mother an X5 BMW truck and then said let me try this seriously for three to six months. But then what ends up happening is you start buying more stuff and creating bills for yourself and now you’re stuck in a cycle where you have to keep working to pay for everything. Thats what happened. I never in a million years thought I would be in the entertainment industry. My goal was to be a free saftey for the San Francisco 49ers and marry Aaliyah. (laughs) I just knew I was going to be drafted by the 49ers and meet Aaliyah and we would get married so this was all unexpected.
Parlé: (laughs) Well even though it didn’t turn out that way you went on to have a great run as a model. Do you have any favorite memories of your work then?
Datari Turner: Countless moments! You know when Diddy started Sean John he signed me to a contract and made me the face of the line for the like the first two years and I was in the majority of the Sean John ads. Also I remember being on the style network, which at the time ran 24/7 coverage of fashion week, when he did the first Mercedes Benz Fashion week in 2001. There’s a lot more but this was one of them because this was the first time the style network had streamed the show completely live and I opened and closed the show. That would be one, another one was in ‘07 I went on tour with Jay Z. We shot the Rocawear campaign around his world tour and he bought me and Zoe Saldana with him and it aired on MTV Diaries. It was like a 20 page spread in GQ and we shot it in all these different countries.
Parlé: That’s definitely a huge deal for a young guy of any caliber, how does it feel to have went from football aspirations to working with some of the biggest names in entertainment around the world?
Datari Turner: You know, when I look back in retrospect on my time in the fashion business now I appreciate it a lot more. You have to understand, I was this kid who was 19 from Oakland and completely oblivious to the whole process. I didn’t really know what the industry was other than it was difficult for me because I couldn’t really eat anything. I was just this guy who would walk into the agency with Mcdonald’s and everyone would roll their eyes. Or show up with my du rag on under my Oakland A’s hat kind of unaffected. Now looking back at it I recall thinking I couldn’t imagine doing it when I was 40 years old because of that and the fact that guys don’t make as much as females. I think it’s the only business where females completely dominate. It’s just a crazy business in general and it was a culture shock for me coming from being that kid who never really cared about how he looked or thinking I can make money off it and it made me paranoid. There were times when I would think “okay this is the day they realize I’m not that good looking” (laughs). I’m doing a film right now called Supermodel about the business which is something I always wanted to do. But when I was in it I didn’t really enjoy it but now I look back and can see really how blessed I was.
Parlé: So is it safe to say that the difficult combinations of all of that is what drove you to leave modeling and pursue something else?
Datari Turner: I do think that the reason I ended up in film is because I was paranoid a lot. You know my agents had this leash on me with a list of stuff that I couldn’t do because I was working a lot and they didn’t want me to get hurt and that scared me. Another thing that led me to film is I started thinking about what do I love besides sports and the only other thing was movies. Sometimes I would cut school in high school and go to Berkeley and go to the movie theater and stay all day. It was the only other thing I was in love with. So I read some books that taught me how to basically structure a screenplay which led me to write my first screenplay which was Video Girl.
Parlé: Now that we’re talking about the transition let’s touch base on something you mentioned earlier. I understand that your new film Supermodel is to feature fellow model Tyson Beckford. Can you give a little more insight on what to expect from it?
Datari Turner: Yeah. Here’s the thing. When I left I had just read a book called Think & Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and I felt like I had the courage to walk into the agency and tell my agents I was quitting modeling and moving to LA to be a filmmaker. Of course everybody chuckled like “okay kid, you’ll be back in six months” because there is that stigma that most models aren’t intelligent but that couldn’t be further from the truth. But I stuck to my guns and moved to LA and wrote the first script. So leading to Supermodel I felt like I didn’t have that 100% support from the agency and that they thought I would fail and come back so I wanted to get to a point where I could do a film about that and fashion industry. So this movie is not about my story, but it’s a story about black models and one girl in particular from Brooklyn who goes from the subway to the runway and becomes one of the most sought after fashion models in the business. Its shows her journey from dealing with racism to drugs and all of the things that are thrown at you as you are rising to the top.
Parlé: And what role does Tyson play in her story?
Datari Turner: Tyson was incredible in the movie. He plays an agent, the agent that actually signs/discovers the lead character Chloe in the film played by Sessilee Lopez. He helps her navigate through the business. It was a really great role for him. I think he killed it and will allow people to see him in a different light as well.
Parlé: I also understand that you are working on another film simultaneously with another notable cast. Can you tell me a little about that?
Datari Turner: Yeah. We’re doing a Vanessa Del Rio biopic. Right now the cast is coming together really amazingly. We have Zulay Henao who’s going to star as adult film star Vanessa Del Rio, she’s actually from Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club movie. And RZA just signed on board. Taryn Manning is in it who was in Hustle & Flow and Orange is the New Black. Drea de Matteo from The Sopranos and we’re talking with Jeremy Piven so I’m excited about it. I think if you look at the way that I approach film you’ll see that I just like to tell great stories. All of my stuff is completely different from all white dramas, to all black dramas, and comedies and so this talented writer/director wrote this script and I thought it was a really great take on her life. I think the latino community is a huge audience and with Vanessa being like the first latina adult film star in the business and during that time it tells a great story for that audience. Its kind of like Taxi Driver meets Boogie Nights.
Parlé: Very interesting, I think its great you are exploring stories others may not but where do you find the time. Between movies, and TV, directing and writing you must stay busy.
Datari Turner: (Laughs) Well you know that’s why it helps to do something you’re passionate about. I love film, I love being an artist, and I love watching movies. You know it’s funny it took seven years to get made, but five years ago my first movie was released, which was Video Girl, starring Meagan Good, Ruby Dee, and myself. I look up five years later and I’ve produced 20 movies and sold 10 TV shows. It’s definitely been a blessing.
Parlé: And how do you stay so in tune and creative with producing so many things so quickly?
Datari Turner: You know I try to read a lot of material, some of the projects I’ve done I’ve written but I’m always try to look for talented writers with good material and if it grabs me I want to shepherd it and get it made.
Parlé: So what keeps you excited about continuing to be a jack of all trades, is there one aspect that you love most of what you do?
Datari Turner: I like being able to do everything. You look at someone’s career like Ben Affleck, whom I admire greatly, and people look at him as a huge movie star, but he’s won an Oscar for screenwriting. He won an Oscar for directing Argo, which won Best Picture. So the dude has two oscars that have nothing to do with actually acting. He’s immensely talented to have two Oscars for those fields and that’s not what he’s even known for. I don’t really separate a writer or a producer, I just try to call myself an artist or a filmmaker. You know I think being an independent filmmaker too I’m used to wearing a lot of different hats and even with the acting I’ve done it didn’t start as me just being an actor. There were situations where we would extend and offer and it didn’t work out and I had to jump in and just do it. Sometimes that just how it ends up happening. I just try to do what’s necessary to complete the project and make it the best it could possibly be.
Parlé: Clearly that drive is paying off especially with your notoriety at Sundance with your four films premiering. How does that make you feel to see it all pay off?
Datari Turner: I mean it’s definitely a blessing just for my name to be on some of these films. I think that the business is big enough for everyone to do what they do and have their own lane and I’m in that indie/art house lane that always has the movies in Sundance and Berlin, and Tribeca and I like that. You know still working with major stars like James Franco and Ethan Hawke or Demi Moore and Common and I’m just grateful that artist respect me enough to get down with it and be a part of it. More than anyone, Meagan Good. I’ve done four movies with her and she was the first actor to believe in my talent as a writer and producer and I really do thank her for saying I really want to do this with you. She deserves a lot of credit.
Parlé: Keeping with the theme of onward and upward I must ask, are there any other projects in the works?
Datari Turner: Ummmm I would just say stay tuned. I got a distribution deal at Lions Gate and I just got back into the unscripted world and doing a bunch of TV shows over at the WE channel. One more notably we just had our season finale of a show called Love Thy Sister. Also I have a project with Gabrielle Union and Omar Epps called Between Us for Lions Gate. Plus we have another show we are shooting now that I think will be a real game changer but I can’t share the name of it just yet. Stay tuned.
Parlé: Will do! Thanks again man for your time and shedding some light on all the upcoming projects. Lastly, where can your followers find you to keep up with everything?
Datari Turner: No prob man. Definitely plug the IG @DatariTurner and Twitter @DatariTurner