DC Comics News is proud to present you with another exclusive! I had the pleasure and honour to speak with rising star Echo Kellum, who plays Curtis Holt on the hit CW show, Arrow. Curtis Holt draws inspiration from the DC Comics character Michael Holt who is renowned for his unbelievable intelligence and physical abilities. Michael Holt later becomes the DC hero Mr. Terrific. In this fun chat we discussed a wide range of topics from Mr. Kellum’s broader career, to his time now on Arrow.
(DC Comics News) For our fans, just for introduction, can you tell us where you grew up and why you decided to get into acting?
Echo Kellum: Yeah, I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and I knew I wanted to act when I was little. I used to watch this show on FOX called “In Living Color,” with Jim Carrey, and Keenan Ivory Wayans, and the Wayans brothers. I would try to mimic every Jim Carrey character, and I think that’s when I knew, I was like “oh, my god, this is what I want to do, I want to act just like them.” And then watching Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a huge influence as well. That was what I really think got my acting juices flowing. On top of that I had some brothers and sisters who were in a program in the inner city in Chicago, where they were just trying to get kids more active into music and the arts, so I watched them doing that when I was three and four [years old], and then coupled with “In Living Color,” and being a really big fan of Will Smith and Jim Carrey, I thought “I have act. This has to be something I have to do with my life.”
(DCN): Can you take us through, for fans who made not have followed you prior to Arrow, some of your latest projects before you had been cast?
Echo Kellum: Yeah I was recurring on the TV Show “You’re the Worst” before Arrow came, and prior to that I had done two series. One series was called “Ben and Kate,” that was on FOX. And the other show was called “Sean Saves the World,” and that was on NBC. So while I was on “You’re the Worst,” and that’s when I went and auditioned for “Arrow.”
(DCN): How did the opportunity come up for you to try for the role of Curtis Holt?
Echo Kellum: When the audition first came in, they had it in a code name. It wasn’t “Curtis Holt,” it was “guy who works with Felicity.” So when I read the script, I was really funny, and the character really interested me, you know — spoke to me as someone who is really nerdy. I used to work at Geek Squad, you know, so I was very familiar with the things he was talking about. I just really felt very close to the character even before I went in and when I went in, David Rappaport, who is the casting director, said “Man, I feel like you and Emily [Bett Rickards, aka Felicity Smoak] would have a really good rapport with each other. I think you guys would be really great acting off each other,” and I was like “oh, wow, thank you.” And then I went in the next day to audition for the producers, and they let me know at the end of the audition, “by the way, this is for Mr. Terrific, he’s gonna be a superhero on the show, and we think you’re awesome.” And then they called me a couple days later and let me know that they wanted me to play the role, and I was very, very excited. You know, I was – for me, it’s always been a dream to be in some type of comic book universe and to get to play that…and it was funny, prior to the audition I had set up this game plan up with one of my best friends called “Operation Let’s Take Over Hollywood,” and we started working out, and we’re like “dude, if we’re funny and we get jacked, we’ll be golden” – because you know, we came up in the comedy scene, and improv, and we’re also writers and directors so we were really just trying to attack it from all angles.
So it was actually really cool to get one of the things on our list off, which was like “book a superhero show or movie,” you know, not to mention the fact that I grew up as a kid, highly engrossed in comic books, and nerddom, and, like, you know, anime, video games, all the stuff like that. So it really was, when I got this role, such a tremendous feeling of pride, and I just felt, like, so blessed to get to portray a superhero.
(DCN): What was the process like to build your persona of the character of Mister Terrific?
Echo Kellum: I definitely read through all the Mister Terrific comics, definitely took some inspiration from Michael [Holt]. I think what’s really cool about the character and the way the development will progress will be like, you know, right now he’s just very optimistic, loveable, nerdy character but I think there’s a lot of room for him to really develop and grow into different things, especially if he decides to don the T-mask, and I don’t know one hundred percent if that will happen, but I think the thing I am most excited about this character is that he will have a lot of growth and development, and that even though he might seem a certain way now, who knows what life or tragedy could play into his future. And obviously I say this MAINLY being based on the comic books, because there’s been no hints or anything like that from the producers that we’re going to take the canon and do exactly like we do on the show, you know they like to do things differently. But I do love the aspect that it was tragedy that drove Michael to become Mister Terrific, and I think for me as an actor it would be very cool to go through some similar situation with Curtis to see how he shifts and becomes his character as well. And even when I auditioned for it, they had me play it two different ways. The first way had me playing it very much the way I play it as seen on TV, and the other was much more confident, to the point. So I think that would be really cool to see that character have some shifts even though he maintains who he is. Like on the show when Diggle had to deal with Andy – no spoilers – you know, it changed him. And you see these arcs in these characters from season 1 to season 4. And I think the comic book fodder would be and has been helpful in creating who Curtis is and who Mister Terrific will be.
(DCN): Do you think we can draw parallels between the relationship Curtis has with Felicity and the relationship Oliver has with Felicity?
Echo Kellum: Yeah, definitely. As we all know, when Felicity first started working with the Arrow, he was trying to get info on certain things and giving her half-excuses, you know, like “yeah, that serum was something I got from a club” and she’s like “yeah, okay.” And then there was a moment at the beginning of the season [four] where Felicity was trying to tell Curtis that she played poker and had a card and that’s why she needed to have him analyze it and I thought that was a really fine parallel as kind of an homage to see her doing [to Curtis] what Oliver had done to her.
(DCN): As far as development of Curtis, do you have any voice in the discussions for how that character will play out, or is it that the writers send everything and you just portray what they give you?
Echo Kellum: I would say the writers have a lot of input as far as where they want the show to go, what they want certain characters to experience. But I feel like they’re very open to suggestions and open to listen and collaborate with you about certain things if you really feel strongly about the character like, “oh he wouldn’t say that” or something like that, they’re very open to hearing things out. But I also feel like the writers’ room is so great that the actors have so much trust and faith that they are getting out our voices and writing and understanding how to pay homage to the characters, you know, keeping the integrity of the characters there. But we just have so much faith in them, you know, like, we know they’ve been doing this for a while and constantly put out really great material and really great stuff for us to do, but they are open to collaborate a lot.
(DCN): In sort of building the persona of your character, like the facial expressions and little ticks that Curtis has, it has made me laugh. Do you draw from your comedy background to build that humoristic approach to your character?
Echo Kellum: I think, for me, even in comedy, that there’s truth. That you really have to be true to that moment to play up the comedy. The truer it is, the better. Coming from a comedy background, it definitely helps to realize that truth. But they give me enough to play around. Occasionally I like to improvise, and a lot of the cast likes to just go with the flow, and I feel like that creates a lot of those funny moments, too, you know, just putting things in there that we feel will fit. But at the same time, the writers really, really get it. They get comedy, they get drama. And they make my job very easy with those funny moments and to have that levity. I think I bring something to it personally, but I think the writing is so well that it hits such a partnership in comedic aspects. Being an improviser, it is fun to sometimes create moments on the fly, and see what sticks in and what doesn’t get in. I’ve been deprived of things that haven’t gotten in the show, and then I’m like “holy cow that’s so cool!” I also am wary and have to be cautious about improvising too much in the show because there are a lot of specific things we have to get out so if we go overboard with it, it can really dilute the storytelling process. So whenever I do it, it’s very nuanced and selective.
(DCN): Prior to when you’re on set, is there anything you do to prepare before you go and film your scenes?
Echo Kellum: I love music, so I like to get down before I start acting. I’ll be in my trailer and crank my jams. Another thing I love to use is this app called Rehearsal 2, and it basically just allows you to record all your lines and dialogue, and to act against yourself. So I really just like to listen to music, and go over my lines, and really just get into the mindset of what’s happening in the scene, and just trying to play that character as well as possible.
(DCN): You told me earlier you were growing up reading comics and pop culture. Separate from Arrow, did you have any favorite DC heroes as a kid, or even now?
Echo Kellum: I mean, of course Batman, he’s one of my favorite characters. I love really all comic books and Marvel and DC. But the thing I really like about DC is that is seems to come from a more realistic superhero approach. I love the thought of an actual person training so much and really pushing themselves to the limit of human peak. You know Batman gets hurt, and whatnot, and it just felt so real, and that’s what always drew me into Batman and Batman: the Animated Series, which I loved and watched religiously. But I always REALLY dug Batman.
(DCN): What were your thoughts and feelings first day on set of Arrow?
Echo Kellum: You know, joining a hit show can be daunting in some ways, especially for an up and coming actor, so I tried to be as professional as possible and just really hoped to bring something special to the show. I remember my first day of shooting I met Emily Bett Rickards and she just honestly made it all so absolutely wonderful. She made it so easy to respond, she was so professional. It was such a wonderful day, it was a great jumping off point for the rest of the season. Everyone on the show is just really down to earth, really nice, and also very professional, from the grip guys all the way up to the executive producers. They made it so welcoming, an open arms environment. It was so surreal. And when I got there, I was like “this is a show I wanna be in for the long run.”
(DCN): As an actor on the show, and given all the crossovers we’ve seen across the television universe, is there any type of crossover you’d like to see happen?
Echo Kellum: I really want to see Curtis, Cisco and Felicity all interact with each other. Just to see how they would approach whatever issue is going on in an episode, I think it would be cool. I’d love to work with Carlos, I just think he’s really awesome.
(DCN): Can you share any details about what fans can expect to see in season 5?
Echo Kellum: I can say expect a lot of craziness, expect things to be slightly different. But just expect the same from Arrow, really great stunts, excellent storytelling, a lot of action-packed scenes, awesome visual effects, and meaty drama to go along with it.
I had a blast speaking with Mr. Kellum and on behalf of everyone at DC Comics News, I would like to thank everyone involved for pulling this opportunity together.
Arrow Season 5 will premier Wednesday, October 5 at 8 p.m. ET on the CW Network.