Michael Irby is a veteran of theater, television, and film without definition – a quality that has both helped and hindered the actor's career. Born to a Mexican mother and African-American father in California, his features have the unique ability of adapting to various roles: a Puerto Rican-Russian playwright in Piñero, a Middle Eastern alleged kidnapper in Flight Plan, and most recently, a special forces ranger of unknown ethnic origin on CBS's military thriller The Unit.
For the most part, his mixed race background has been a blessing in casting calls.
"It really has," he says, but then offers, "on the downside it hasn't. I don't look totally Mexican. My mother is full Mexican, but I've played Puerto Rican, Cuban, as well as Dominican and I never get bored at the end of the day. I get to go around the globe."
Mr. Irby considers this positive outlook on his ethnicity a gift from his parents: defining himself as a person before defining a race.
"My parents broke the chain by stepping outside of stereotypes placed on them. I didn't have to look at the world in black, white, or brown – my parents showed me that it didn't matter.
"What I bring to the characters is my own personal journey. I'm a man before I'm Mexican or African American, searching for the truth, bringing the most honest portrayal to the characters," he continues. "If it happens to be about race, I can bring both positive and negative experiences from my own life."
He jokes that he didn't realize he was Hispanic until he looked at his resume, a nod to the increasing importance the industry places on incorporating minority faces. Still, he says, he's had a toss-up of good and bad experiences.
"It's hard to say, when you go in to audition and there's only two or three of us, and the rest of them are white. But, I don't think it's too far off from society," Mr. Irby says.
"We still live in a very Anglo world. I definitely think we're underrepresented, and the stuff that comes out sometimes is stereotypes. [Good roles] are like a needle in a haystack."
Mr. Irby, now into his second season as ranger Charles Grey on The Unit, has found his needle.
"This experience has allowed me to work with a great group of people, a great family," he says. "And with The Unit, I'm maybe changing the perception of what the military is, and what they do – I know it's changed my perception. I'm psyched to be able to portray that on television, especially where we are in the world right now. You can never hate the player, but hate the game."
Aside from the creative range that his character allows him, Mr. Irby is loving the challenge of working in television, as well as its schedule.
"I think the challenge of television is keeping things interesting – keep the character fresh," he says. "But, the exposure is great and I'm enjoying the schedule – the upside being that you feel like you're really working, and I get to spend time with my son."
And the future? Mr. Irby is grateful to be a working actor in Los Angeles, enjoying his craft rather than pushing ambitions of directing and producing.
"I've always been a take-it-as-it-comes type of person, and I've been extremely fortunate. I'm more about being open to things that will make you grow as a person. I would still like to be working, spreading the word, creating."
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