Interview: Bechir Sylvain Discusses Netflix’s Hit Zombie Series ‘Black Summer’

Bechir Sylvain made his television debut on Burn Notice in 2007 and since then he has had memorable guest-starring roles on Fuller HouseBlack-ishBetter Call SaulThis is Us, and Grace and Frankie. He also appears regularly as EJ on TNT's hit comedic drama Claws. Recently, Sylvain guest-starred as Braithwaite in the second season of Netflix's hit zombie series Black Summer. 

The series, which is produced by the same company behind the cult classic Z Nation, is set in the earliest and most deadly days of a zombie apocalypse. While Braithwaite only appeared in one episode this season, Sylvain's performance left a lasting impression on fans.

Bechir Sylvain Discusses Netflix's Hit Zombie Series Black Summer

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Credit: Diana Ragland

Maggie Lovitt (ML): So before joining the cast of Black Summer, were you a fan of the zombie genre?

Bechir Sylvain (BS): Actually, yes, because of 28 Days Later. Once I saw that it was pretty much a wrap. The thing is, that set the standards so high. Anything else I couldn't watch. Any zombies that didn't move like 28 Days Later ruined it for me a little bit. Shaun of the Dead, the comedy was funny.

ML: That is my favorite zombie movie?

BS: Oh, man, that was a joy. When I saw Black Summer, the first season, I was like, “Oh, they are just bringing those [28 Days Later zombies] back!” That was probably one of the scariest and realistic films that I saw.

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(L-R): Bechir Sylvain as Braithwaite and Justin Chu Cary as Spears in Black Summer | Credit: Michelle Faye Fraser/Netflix

ML: When you were preparing to film Black Summer, did you do any character research to get into the role of Braithwaite?

BS: Oh, yeah! I did way too much research actually. Because we were going to be out in the wild [I chose to do animal work] I'm part of the Actor's Studio and we do a lot of sensory work and animal work. I chose a coyote. They are very resourceful and they're loners, but at some point, one of their hunting partners is the honeybadger. Which is the most interesting thing I've ever seen. So finding characteristics about how, when they go into a room, they look around. How they've tried to find things to use and that survival instinct is one of the coolest things. They mimic wolves and dogs. So when you see them, you don't know if they're a dog or if they are a wolf.

That put an idea in my head, as far as when I meet him, [about] how to basically befriend him, in a sense. Historywise, [I did] the journal [with] where he grew up, what's his motivation, and all of that wonderful stuff. The environment itself was a great easy thing for me to take in and just allow myself to respond to it.

ML: What makes Braithwaite tick?

BS: What makes him tick? He doesn't just go off. I think what used to make him tick was his past.  Everything in his past used to really mess him up. But he's at a place in his life right now where he's trying to find ultimate peace because things have changed so much. Anything that we were used to, as far as reality, is gone. Now all he's looking for is peace. So anything that is of the old world, such as lies and deception, and manipulation, ticks him off. It's like, there's no need for that anymore. You literally just need to survive. You just need to know how to eat, drink, and try to have as many moments of joy because at any given moment one of those zombies can kill you.

ML: Speaking of survival, Braithwaite's story was left open-ended at the end of the season. Do you think there's more story for him in Black Summer?

BS: Oh, man, I think so. I think so. I mean, depending on what route they go, I'm hoping that they go back as far as a prequel showing his life before. So you get to see the arc.

ML: That would be awesome!

BS: All of this stuff with what Spears was doing when he was working for… I don't want to give anything away in case they haven't seen the show. But I think it would be dope if they went back and showed basically the beginning. How it all started. What's great about the show is that they throw you right in the middle, right? You're just going along with the ride. I think now they're in a position where showing how it started would be good.

Bechir Sylvain as EJ in Claws | Credit: TNT

ML: I could see that. You're also on Claws, which is a very different genre from Black Summer. So what challenges come with playing these more comedic roles?

BS: I mean it's not that challenging. It's more of just a different mindset.  It's just committing to whatever is given to you. Because with drama or comedy, it still demands the same amount of work. Maybe I won't do the animal work, because it doesn't demand that, but I still do the same approach as far as backstory.

The good thing with the comedy is that it's more fun because then you're not really going for it. You don't have to put yourself in a place of a downer or anything like that. With comedy, for me, I think it's refreshing [because] you get this freedom behind it.

Even with Braithwaite, I put some humor in there because it's so much richer with comedy because of the limits as far as your creativity. It's always broader for me. If you want to be sad, there's only a certain amount of ways you could go at it. But with comedy, there are so many more avenues for me. Some may be like, “That's the same.” But for me, I see there's a little bit more freedom to comedy.

ML: What draws you to the roles that you audition for? Are you looking for those roles that challenge you as an actor and as a person?

BS: I definitely love challenging roles, but more importantly, I love roles that serve a purpose. Especially now, in my life. Before when I was younger it was, “I just want more, I just want to work. I just want to work.” But now I'm more specific as far as finding roles that fit the agenda that I feel is my purpose.

I'm a believer. So I do pray before I take any role to make sure that there is God in it. For example, with Brathwaite forgiveness was the word that came out of it for me. For EJ, it was the family. It was someone that's gone to jail [and is] breaking the stereotype of a Black father [who is] out of jail that wants to be with his daughter.

ML: You're not just an actor, you've also written, directed, and produced. Do you have any projects that you're currently working on?

BS: So [with] a lot of these roles I try to find these things that I feel are very important to me as well as the community. Anything that helps me push the way that I get to represent my country as well too because I'm Haitian. I always try to look for things like that. But anything challenging,  I always jump for it because it's just fun.

Yes, I'm writing with my cousin. We wrote this short called “Id.” Double meaning. It's on YouTube, anybody could go look at it. Just put “Id” and then my name.  We're super excited about it and we're trying to basically sell it. We wrote an entire Bible for it. Now we're in the process of shopping it around and hopefully, it gets picked up. People seem to be very interested in it.

It literally deals with identity and every aspect of it. It's this character that id basically introduced to his ID, which are physical entities that represent part of yourself. So his Id is the Haitian version of himself, that he's been trying to stay away from his entire life because he feels that being Haitian has not been a beneficial thing for him. He's a little bit embarrassed. We all have our things that we push away. And so this Id shows up and basically just teaches him that, no, you can’t ever erase part of your history. You need to embrace your heritage.

ML: So I always like wrapping interviews up with some fun questions. As a fellow SAG-AFTRA member, I love hearing about how actors got their SAG-AFTRA vouchers and got their SAG-AFTRA card. So what job landed you in the Guild?

BS: Man, it was my first commercial. I didn't even know! It was a Florida lotto commercial. Real quick, so I did American Idol, like American Idol [Season 2].  I didn't make it all the way, but I made it all the way to LA. I was in the top 10 that they picked from Miami. It was a big deal.

So I'm just trying my luck on this thing. They cut me off really quick and I was very upset. A lot of the staff were cheering for me and Simon [Cowell] was like, “Hey, you're great.  You have so much more than just singing. You should be an actor. He was like, “Go back home and get an agent.” I didn't even know what an agent was. But I was like, “Cool.  Simon told me this [so] I'm gonna do it.

I called two of my friends. Sheaun McKinney, who's in the neighborhood, and my friend Arturo Fernandez. We were both actors back then. I was like, “Hey man, we have got to get an agent.” We were all like, “What is that?” So we look at the phonebook, I'm telling my age. We're looking in the Yellowbook for an agent. We can't find it. It was all real estate agents. We don't know what [an agent] is.

We happened to know an acting teacher at New World that had an agent. She was like, “Call this agent and see if they would be interested.” We're young, we were like 23 or 24, and just cocky. It was just ridiculous. So we call her up [with] all three of us on the phone. She's like, “Hi, this is Roxanne.”  We're like, “Hey, how are you doing Roxane? So,  we're the best actors in Miami and we want to know if you can represent us.” 

She's like, “Well, you have to audition for us.” So we go to the audition.  My friends and I treat acting like sports. We're all like prepping ourselves. We were outside of her office like, “Who can make a play? Come on! Cool. Let's do this!” We do the audition. She loves us. And she's like, “Tomorrow there's an audition for this commercial. You guys are welcome to come just to get some experience.”

We all went. I went in there and I got it. It was my first audition and I booked it and it was a regional commercial. I had no clue. Five years later, I had to do this movie in the Islands. They were like, “Oh, are you SAG? If you're not, you can't do this movie. You need to pay your SAG.” I didn't even know what that was. When I looked into it, they told me I had been SAG Eligible since [the commercial]. I was like, “Are you serious?”

ML: That's amazing! What a great story to have. So what is something you always have to have in your trailer?

BS: Oh! Music. I have to have music. It's one of the other things that I use to prep for any role. I have to have music in there. That's a must.

ML: Are you someone who likes coming up with like playlists for your characters?

BS: Oh, yeah. Even 20 seconds of a song could just get me “Boom!” Just like that. I mean, music is such a pivotal thing for me.  Especially if you do a period piece. You just live in that world. I've always wanted to open a radio station where they replay every song of the day. For example, like today's what the 28th? Imagine a station where they played every song from the 40s on that day.  I always wanted to do that.

ML: I've always joked that I got into acting because I love set catering. So what is the best meal you've ever had on a set?

BS: It was a commercial shoot. I will never forget this. It was a commercial shoot. It was for Comcast and we were at the office. We had lobster and steak and then we had a mariachi band playing music. I remember going like, “Wait a minute. Why is this all happening?” The director was like, “I wanted to hear a mariachi band so I hired one.”

ML: What's something you always have to grab at crafty?

BS: Those little gummy things? What are they called? Welch's? The 100% fruit gummies are addictive. Especially now that they have a small pack where there are only five of them. So I'll grab them by the bin and put them in my pocket.

ML:  I love that! Now, I don't know if it's this way on every set, but on the sets that I've been on there's always a great debate over sparkling water. So which brand is the better one: La Croix, bubly, or non-sparkling water?

BS: Man, La Croix was winning for a long time. Especially with the Passion Fruit and Pamplemousse [flavors]. Then somebody introduced me to Spindrift.  I feel like I'm doing a commercial. Spindrift: one of the best. No, but I mean, it changed the game because they have the pulp. I like the artificial tasting, it's fine, but they actually have real fruit juice in it. They have a raspberry one and a grapefruit one. Oh my gosh, it's addictive. So that's that one for me. So if anybody has Spindrift on their set, I know they know the business. They know. If they don't have that, then La Croix wins.

ML: What's next for you?

BS: I've been recording a Netflix animation. I'm not sure I could talk about it, but that's what I'm working on right now. Which is so much fun. It is my first animation — ever. And man, talk about good times. It's pretty awesome. It deals with my country, which is Haiti, so it's not only fun, but it's very dear to my heart. I'm super passionate about it and I'm so blessed that they thought of me. I just did another session yesterday. I did a couple of characters in there and I'm super excited. 

The second season of Black Summer is streaming now on Netflix. 

Maggie Lovitt is a writer at Wealth of Geeks where she covers her favorite topics: Star Wars and pop culture nerdery.

In her free time, she is also a novelist, screenwriter, actor, and member of the Screen Actors Guild.