Unlike Deandre McCullough, his alter ego in The Corner, Sean Nelson has never represented his middle school in an oratory contest by day and hawked coke vials at a rundown urban intersection by night. Still, the Bronx, N.Y., native felt prepared to enter his character’s hopeless world. ”I could relate to it through my friends, people I grew up with, and places I’d seen in New York,” he says. ”It’s all the same story.”
The 19-year-old Nelson began his acting career at age 10 in the Off Broadway play, Hey Little Walter. (”That was the first time I got paid for having fun,” he recalls.) After a spate of guest-starring roles on Homicide, Law & Order, and New York Undercover, Nelson snagged the starring role in the 1994 feature film Fresh, which landed him an Independent Spirit award for best debut performance. He went on to costar in 1996’s American Buffalo and as the fresh-faced, flashed-back incarnation of Omar Epps’ Mike in the coming-of-age 1999 dramedy, The Wood. Fans of that performance may find Nelson barely recognizable as the cynical, dreadlocked DeAndre — a transformation that had Corner director Charles S. Dutton raving.
”He’s one of the most talented actors I’ve ever worked with,” says Dutton, who describes Nelson as having ”a De Niro quality. Once he got a hold of the character that I was searching for, I barely had to direct him.”
Shooting the miniseries on the same streets that witnessed the downfall of the real-life McCullough family afforded Nelson the opportunity to meet DeAndre in the flesh. ”He’s a quiet guy, but he seemed like he didn’t have it all together,” remembers Nelson of the now 22-year-old McCullough. ”He’d be sitting there watching me replay his life…and it wasn’t even a really good life. Living it again through us put a strain on him. I learned that you may think that where you live is bad, but it’s always worse somewhere else.”
Today Nelson is a sophomore majoring in film at Temple University, in Philadelphia, and he hopes to find another project for the summer. ”Acting is something I could do for the rest of my life,” he says. Though Nelson still hasn’t seen The Corner, he’s not anxious about his miniseries debut: ”Roc told us we did good, so I’ll trust him.”