A conversation with Marcus LaVoi: 'Thanks to ABC for keeping Natives on film’

Vincent Schilling

White Earth Ojibwe actor Marcus LaVoi portrays incarcerated Native prisoner Nathan Goodleaf in ABC’s ‘For Life’ television drama

According to White Earth Ojibwe actor Marcus LaVoi — a former military veteran and 14-year California Department of Corrections officer — his latest acting venture on ABC’s “For Life” as the character Nathan Goodleaf, a Native American in the prison system, is a real 180-degree perspective flip.

“For Life,” now available to watch live streaming on the ABC network, is based on the true story of Isaac Wright Jr., a black man imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. During Wright’s incarceration, he sought a degree in law and became a licensed attorney that dedicated his time to helping other prisoners navigate the complexities of the legal system.

In the series, the character Aaron Wallace, portrayed by Nicholas Pinnock, emulates Wright’s story.

“For Life” which has received praise from critics, premiered February 11, 2020, and recently aired its seventh episode, which co-starred LaVoi as Goodleaf. In the episode, Goodleaf wants to marry his fiance’ who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Goodleaf seeks the assistance of Wallace after several of his requests to get married were denied by prison administrators. LaVoi’s girlfriend/fiance’ is played by Indigenous actress Aurora Rowland-Martinez.

Prior to “For Life,” LaVoi wooed Indian Country with his gritty portrayal of Uncle Frank on the Netflix series “Chambers.”

(See related story: He’s Big Frank on the Netflix smash hit ‘Chambers’ - White Earth bad boy Marcus LaVoi)

In LaVoi’s career, he has also commanded roles in such productions as “The Young and the Restless,” “Days of our Lives,” “CSI: Miami,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Last Appeal” and due to his role on “Den of Thieves,” it’s LaVoi’s second time working on a production with hip hop artist, actor and producer 50 Cent.

In an interview with LaVoi, he described the experience of working on a production that embraced a Native theme, his thanks for appearing as a Native in the film industry, and what it was like bumping into 50 Cent once again.

Vincent Schilling: You did a great job as Big Frank on Chambers, now how did this latest role come about?

Marcus LaVoi: Actually, Julie Shubert Casting out of New York contacted me directly — and much praise and props to her — as she took the time to meet with me personally. She actually contacted my agent based on my work on “Chambers” as Big Frank. She loved the show and she said, "I've been waiting for a project to come across my desk and once I saw this, I called networks and said, I got the guy." And they were like, "Well don't you want to cast for it or audition?” And she said, "No, I got the guy." That's how it should be done, right? (laughs)

Vincent Schilling: Wow that’s great. So “For Life” on ABC. Can you tell the readers what this show is about?

Marcus LaVoi: Yeah, I can talk about it. Seven episodes have already aired — which is the first debut episode where I played Nathan Goodleaf. He is a Native American who has been incarcerated for 13 to 15 years. My girlfriend, who I'd been with for many, many years is dying of cancer. I seek to get married and have a family visit, which would be the first one I've ever had with her before she died.

Vincent Schilling: This show is based on a true story.

Marcus LaVoi: Yes, Isaac Wright Jr.was put in prison for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. And during that time, instead of being bitter and angry about it, which I'm sure he was at some point in time, he became an attorney and activist for inmates' rights and human rights in general. He started helping other inmates with their cases. That's how he met me in prison and helped me with my request to marry my girlfriend before she would die of cancer.

ABC YouTube "For Life" episode seven clip

Synopsis: As Aaron (Nicholas Pinnock) fights to allow an inmate (guest star Marcus LaVoi) to marry his longtime girlfriend (guest star Aurora Rowland-Martinez), he asks the girlfriend why she waited. See her heartbreaking reply in this clip from 'Do Us Part,' season 1, episode 7 of 'For Life.' 

Vincent Schilling: There are some notable actors in this show.

Marcus LaVoi: Nicholas Pinnock, who plays the lead on the show, Isaac Wright Jr., is maybe one of the best people I've met in the industry. I remember speaking very highly of Tony Goldwyn on “Chambers,” who was the sweetest, kindest, most humble man I've ever met in the industry. And now this guy Nicholas is right up there with him. These guys, and those are just two of my favorites I've ever met in the industry. Both of these guys are great, humble, wonderful people.

Vincent Schilling: How was it working with 50 Cent again?

Marcus LaVoi: Yeah. Anything 50 puts his hand to has proven to be successful. So I'm really hoping that we get some future seasons with this show. I think it's super unique. I think it is very well cast, and very well written.

Working with 50, it's been a while since I did “Den Of Thieves” with him, so I wasn't really sure if there'd be a recollection on his part. But I was in the makeup trailer one morning when I got out there in New York. This is all filmed in New York by the way.

So I'm just sitting in the makeup trailer and I'm talking to my hair and makeup lady and then I hear his deep voice and he's like, "Hey, what's up man?" He talks real low. And he's like, "Hey Marcus, how you been man? How are you?" And then I said, "Hey what's up 50, how you been?" And it was just this great reunion. He remembered me, remembered meeting my wife. He's just a really great guy. I can't speak highly enough about him.”

Vincent Schilling: How has the filming process been and what would you like to say to the folks out there who want to tune in now?

Marcus LaVoi: Please watch the show. (laughs) It is so unique and so diverse and it's taking a concept that I don't think it's ever been touched before. TV sometimes gets very redundant, monotonous, and we're doing a new thing here. It's bringing awareness to a topic that not many people are aware of. Some people are in prison and they're innocent. It shows the suffering that they endure.

Vincent Schilling: You used to be a corrections officer. Now you play a prisoner. That must be an interesting switch.

Marcus LaVoi: It's so funny how the circle of life unfolds. I used to be in law enforcement and worked as a correctional officer and now I'm playing an inmate. It's kind of a wild circle of life.

In reality, prison life is a very unique world that not many people know about. But this show is very authentic. It's been written and typecast very well. It's real and it's going to blow a lot of people away. The ratings are doing fantastic. So I'm hoping I can experience going back for a second season.

Vincent Schilling: How much in this show are you able to tap into some of the Native issues your character faces?

Marcus LaVoi: Well it was really great because my debut episode was episode seven and it's called Death Do Us Part. And I was cast as a Native American. Nathan Goodleaf is my character's name and the girl who plays my girlfriend was also Native American. The episode where we seek to get married is based on the Iroquois system of beliefs.

They actually brought advisors in to make sure any ceremony we might do would be done correctly. For the wedding ceremony, we passed the baskets and it was done really nicely.

So I really want to express thanks to ABC and to the writers and creators of “For Life” for keeping Natives on film. I really want that to be said. We're fighting for a voice in this industry and when companies and production companies come across and cast specific Native American roles, and I can be a part of that to advance my people? I'm very honored. So I would like to say thank you to them for that.

Marcus LaVoi's premiere appearance begins in episode seven and is titled "Do Us Part."

"For Life" episodes available for on-demand streaming on the ABC network and airs live Tuesday's 10|9c on ABC. It is also available on YouTube TV and Hulu.

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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, on Twitter - @VinceSchilling and Instagram - @VinceSchilling

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

A million thanks to my brother Vincent Schilling for this awesome interview. I can't thank him enough for his continued support and validation of my career and his continued and tireless efforts of dedicating his life's works in the advancement and awareness of affording Native Americans a voice, recognition and the respect that we are ALL so deserving of in our own LANDS.
Thank you Vince for who you are, a true Native Warrior who I am HONORED to call my friend and family.