Dover High School grad Burrell gets starring role with ‘Madea’

Dover High School graduate and former Delaware State University student Courtney Burrell, right, stars with K.J. Jones in Tyler Perry’s “A Madea Family Funeral,” which hit movie theaters on Friday. This is the last film in the “Madea” franchise. (Submitted photo)

The power of writing down your goals and dreams can go a long way.

Courtney Burrell is a living testament to that statement.

“I wrote down my affirmations and just started chasing them,” Mr. Burrell said. “I wrote down that I was going to become a great actor and I was going to start inspiring people younger or older than me because it’s never too late to chase your dreams.”

He also wrote down he wanted to work with mogul Tyler Perry, which may seem like a far-fetched dream to some, but for Mr. Burrell he always knew it would happen and it did.

“I remember writing that down,” Mr. Burrell said. “That was in like 2008 or 2009 and to see that it actually came true is a blessing.”

Mr. Burrell, who spent his teen and young adult years living in Dover, is now in his first movie “A Madea Family Funeral,” the final installment of the Madea film series written, directed, produced and starring Mr. Perry.

“It’s one of those dreams I’m not going to wake up from anytime soon,” Mr. Burrell said. “I will never forget it. To write something down and watch it actually come true is a surreal feeling.”

The film, which opened Friday, tells the story of a joyous family reunion that turns into an unexpected nightmare when Madea and the gang find themselves planning a funeral in the backwoods of Georgia.

“My character’s name is A.J.,” Mr. Burrell said. “He’s an antagonist that’s battling inner demons that stemmed from when he was younger within his family. As an actor I took all of my painful memories from my personal life and applied that to my acting.”

Long journey

Some of the memories he used was the journey it took to reach the point he is now as an actor.

“I’m originally from Philadelphia,” Mr. Burrell said. “I went to Dover High. I graduated from Dover High in 2004 and I went to Delaware State University. The last semester of my senior year was when I decided to pursue my dreams.

“In 2010 I had one class left of my senior year, which was calculus,” he added. “I repeated that class over numerous times. I even had a tutor and everything and I just wasn’t getting it. But during that moment I realized when you see things aren’t working for you, you realize you want to do things that make you happy.”

Mr. Burrell, 32, knew pursuing his dreams would fill that void, so he decided to take a break from DSU to pursue acting.

“It was a risky move,” Mr. Burrell said. “I’m eventually going to go back and accomplish that, but I just knew that acting was something that I always wanted to do and I was going to do it no matter what. I went against the grain and went with what I felt I should do. I just wanted to be happy.”

Mr. Burrell has also starred in national commercials and television productions. (Submitted photo)

He knew his journey wasn’t going to be easy, but he was determined to make it happen. In 2011, he lived in Atlanta for a year and a half working as a model before he decided to move to Los Angeles.

“I always wanted to be in LA,” Mr. Burrell said. “I was modeling first. I wanted to use that as a stepping stone to get to acting so I jump-started my career there. I was there for a time and then one day I just packed up my stuff and made that trip from Atlanta to LA in my car.”

But once in LA, opportunities didn’t come right away.

“It took a while,” Mr. Burrell said. “I was in the background of a few shows while I was in Atlanta like ‘The Game’ and ‘Let’s Stay Together.’ That was my first taste of entertainment, but I wanted to be in front of the camera more.”

From 2013 to 2015 he started to gain a little more footing, starring in a McDonald’s and Coors Light commercial and a few television series.

In 2016 he got a call from his manager about an audition for Tyler Perry’s television drama on TLC called “Too Close To Home.” Even though the audition was short notice Mr. Burrell knew he had to jump at it.

“I knew that was my chance,” Mr. Burrell said. “It was last minute. I only had an hour and a half to prepare. I usually need way more time than that. I had to read over the script that was like seven pages for a two-minute audition. But I knew I had to rise to the occasion.”

While he was auditioning for the television role the vice president of Tyler Perry Studios liked what he saw and told him to read a few more scenes.

“He said I was a strong actor,” Mr. Burrell said. “I kept reading more scenes and in a matter of three or four days, my life changed. I landed the part. I had to fly back to Atlanta and I was back at the same place I started at.”

“Too Close To Home” followed Anna, a young woman from a trailer park who left home to work at the White House. After getting involved in a scandal with the president, she fled back to Alabama.

A date with Madea

After the television show ended in 2017, Mr. Burrell auditioned for the part in “A Madea Family Funeral”. He said the experience gained during his time on the television show helped him prepare for his first movie role.

“Just being around Tyler I learned so much,” Mr. Burrell said. “He has so many different hats when he works. He’s a producer, director and he’s funny. He makes you feel at home on set. We shot this movie in seven days. That’s unheard of. Tyler works at a fast pace so you have to be prepared at all times.”

One way that Mr. Burrell stayed prepared was living by the motto, “Be ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

“When the occasion is there you have to rise to it,” Mr. Burrell said. “This is still a job so you have to prove to them you are who they hired, so I put my head in the books.

Courtney Burrell, left, acts in a scene from Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Family Funeral” with Rome Flynn. Mr. Burrell previously worked for Mr. Perry in the TLC television drama “Too Close To Home.” (Submitted photo)

“I never liked to read but this is what my career calls for so I was constantly reading over my lines all day every day. I made sure I tried to expand my knowledge to better prepare me for the role.”

“There’s a formula for everything,” Mr. Burrell said. “Like Michael Jackson said, ‘If you want to be great, you have to study the greats,’ so I studied Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Marlon Brando. I took little things from them and incorporated it in my acting. That’s how I went about it to be prepared and I plan to keep doing that throughout the rest of my acting career.”

But through it all he continues to strive for more.

“We had a lot of fun on and off the set,” Mr. Burrell said. “Tyler is a great person. It felt like a family. I had a hard time keeping a straight face sometimes. It’s the last of the franchise and I’m real humbled to be a part of it.”

“I want everyone to go see it,” he added. “I think people will be very impressed and inspired. I’m evolving and this is only the beginning for me. We all can evolve. You just have to continue to believe in yourself and you can do it. I wrote down my affirmations and crossed them off once I achieved them.

“That doesn’t mean that I stop writing them down. You create more as you go. You can’t let anyone put a damper on your dreams. You can’t trip over something that’s behind you. You have to keep moving forward, and that’s what I plan to do.”

Arshon Howard is a freelance writer living in Dover.

Arshon Howard is a freelance writer living in Dover. E-mail comments to newsroom@newszap.com.

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