Online Originals

Shaping the Frame

From football to Old Spice to Shadowhunters, Isaiah Mustafa likes to explore his options.

Cecily Knobler
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For Isaiah Mustafa, it's not so much about reinvention, as it is discovery.

His dreams - some that he didn't even know he had - have been unfolding in front of him for years. He didn't just excel as an athlete, he got a football scholarship and later played in the NFL. He didn't just love the idea of acting, he joined a production with the Ojai Shakespeare Festival and honed his skills and his voice.

This hard work and undeniable passion did not go unrecognized by the entertainment industry (or People magazine who deemed him one of 2010's "Most Beautiful People.")

And as new opportunities come his way, he continues to discover new dreams and goals with passion and humility.

Let's go back to your early days. Where did you grow up?

I went to high school in Oxnard, but I can't really claim any one city because we moved a lot. I grew up in Southern California: Orange County, L.A. County, and Ventura County.

So safe to say, you're a California guy.

I like to say Los Angeles, because it makes it easier.

What drew you to football?

I just grew up an athlete. In Southern California, there's a pretty good sports program going on. So in high school, I played basketball. In junior college and college, I played football and eventually, that took me to the NFL. I got lucky, I guess!

I don't think they hire based on luck! It's talent! Do you have a football hero?

Growing up, I'm probably gonna have to say Tim Brown, who I had the actual pleasure of playing with! And Marcus Allen.

I'd assume you often get asked what made you switch to acting? But maybe it wasn't even a "switch." Was that something you always wanted to do?

My brother was an actor when he was in high school. He did plays and I liked the way it looked when I was younger. So I kind of got into it in high school.

And then out of high school, I did the Ojai Shakespeare Festival for a Romeo and Juliet production. And then I went to college! So I didn't have an opportunity to immediately carry that on, because I was on a scholarship to play football. When I got out and after I stopped playing football, I figured why not try it again?

You beat me to my next question. Based on your voice, I had a hunch you had some Shakespearean training!


In terms of acting, what role or actor inspired you early on?

The first time I saw something where I thought, "Oh man, this is the coolest guy I've ever seen in my life" was Beverly Hills Cop's Eddie Murphy.

My mom actually took me to see Trading Places and it was a special engagement. I don't what made my mom take me to see Trading Places. But I saw that movie and I lost it! I thought, "This dude is so funny!" And that was it. I knew that's what I wanted to do!

Funny you mention Eddie. You're also a very funny guy! Have you ever done stand up comedy or considered it?

I haven't done it but I have considered it. So many people tell you how hard and how dark it is. I don't have that darkness to pull from, so I don't know how well I'd do at it. But I can tell a joke! And if someone writes it, I can hit the punchline. If I develop the skills to write jokes, maybe I'd be able to do that.

Speaking of hilarious, you landed this game-changing, probably both for you and certainly for the brand, commercial campaign for Old Spice.

It never was supposed to be a series of commercials - it was supposed to be a one-off. So I thought I would be able to just pay the rent with the money I made from it. After it took off and started going, the brand came to me and said "Hey, would you like to do it a little bit longer?" I said, "Yeah!"

Then it just spun off into other opportunities. Being an actor, some people are scared of doing commercials because it might pigeonhole you. But that commercial pretty much led to everything! Everything I've done since then, I have to give to that exposure I got from Old Spice.

Is that the commercial that got People magazine's attention - putting you on their "Most Beautiful People" list?

Yes! And a whole bunch of things happened after that I never thought would happen. Or maybe I did think they would happen, but I wasn't focusing on it yet. It was like a dream. Suddenly I started knocking off these crazy life dreams or life goals that I had.

That year, 2010, was an amazing experience.

Would you call it a tipping point for your career?

Oh, most definitely! I learned a lot really fast between 2010 and 2012.

Let's talk about your role of Luke on Shadowhunters. The genre is interesting as it covers sci-fi, romance, teens. Tell us about that.

It's really cool because I get to be the "older guy" on a younger show. So it's kind of nice to not have all of the responsibility on my shoulders. But it's also nice to reach out and be recognized by that demographic. I think most millennials know what our show is about, so I think it's meant to fall into that fan group.

Luke is a werewolf?

He's also a father figure to many of the characters on the show. So it's really cool because I'm a father, so it's not that far of a stretch to play that character.

Was sci-fi a genre you were always drawn to?

I think everyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s were stuck on Star Wars and Indiana Jones and horror movies. So being able to be on a show that encapsulates all of that is really fun!

We do so many different cool things and even though I don't necessarily have to do all the prosthetic stuff, we do a lot of stunt work. It's also fun to talk about the silliness of the "shadow world" and vampires and werewolves!

Being that it's my first series I've been a regular on, it's a such a nice start! And it's giving me so much experience moving forward..

Do you go to Comic Con?

Oh that's the best! Because you really get a taste of the fandom and how the show affects other people. You may like the show you're on; some actors don't, some actors do. But when you see how it affects other people and they're really tuned in and drawn to your show, I think it gives you a better appreciation for it.

I'll bet the fans are super enthusiastic!

Rabid! And I say that with respect, because they are truly serious fans!

You're also a photographer. What inspires you there?

It's so funny you say that because I'm in the Sony Square store right now! I thought I'd just step in here and maybe buy something.

I love taking pictures. I just got into this last May. I want to start directing, so I picked up a camera and thought, "Okay, let me start at the bottom and figure out focal length and lenses." I wanted to learn about the camera, so I picked one up to start taking pictures to kind of figure things out.

And now something is just in me. To take a still of just - life- and what's going on is amazing. And the things you can do with it - that blows my mind!

Is there anything specifically that draws you in, like faces or landmarks?

Yes. I like when something tells a story. And as a photographer, you have the opportunity to make everything tell a story! So it's really how you frame it and how you capture that. And the ability to do that is - I don't want to say God like, but you're creating an image that's creating a story. And it gives you that weird sense of power!

Maybe that's the director in you! You get to tell your story through your lens.

To a degree, but if you say that out loud to people, they say…really?

Who are the top three directors with whom you'd love to work?

Oh I definitely have at least three. I liked Stanley Kubrick. Because what he did with a wide angle and his slow push in puts you on the edge. You're always expecting something.

I also like Ryan Coogler. He has such an interesting way of telling personal stories. When I was watching Black Panther, I thought, "Wow. It really is personal." And he does it in such a cool way. Even with a blockbuster, such a big movie, you still get a sense of this guy who's suddenly thrust onto the throne. And he's got to figure that out.

And I'm really excited to see what Jordan Peele does next! I was blown away by Get Out.

Yes! That's the kind of movie you go back and watch again…

Oh I've seen it about seven times! I've really dug in. I get stuck on moments, so I go in and watch a scene over and over again just to see how he sets it up. To see how he shot it and what he shot it with, possibly.

Again, I really admire other filmmakers because it's their personal touch on a story. It's so fun to watch what someone's idea of something is. Or someone's image or dream or imagination and to see that come alive!  

What's coming down the pike for you?

I've taken a lot of writing courses over the past two years. I've been working on a couple of things and hopefully I can get them out there. So I think that's what's next!

The third season of Shadowhunters premieres March 20, 2018 on Freeform.