Howard University junior Carlos Jackson shoots about 15 rolls of film a week. A self-taught photographer, he has worked for both the yearbook and newspaper. Last May, the film production major invested in a Bolex motion-picture camera and is planning his first feature. He's always reading three or four books on production and cinematography, and he's scrambling to get noticed. So what's a bright, diligent guy like him doing on Road Rules, the world's silliest television show?
“Fuckin' A,” Jackson replies with a grin. Translation: Why not let MTV pay you to go on an expenses-paid road trip across the nation—complete with “adventures” like land-sailing and sky diving—and make you a minor celebrity? The show may be a weekly festival of lameness, but it's a great gig for a struggling student.
Some cast members of MTV's The Real World, which spawned Road Rules, have spun their visibility into other TV stints—most recently the cute, contemptible Puck from the San Francisco installment. But the Hollywood game isn't for Jackson. The 21-year-old, known as “Los” on the show, doesn't want to be an actor and thinks the West Coast is a “fantasy land.”
He also views his MTV experience with a healthy dose of skepticism. “It's cheese. It is ultra-cheese, man,” says Jackson of the 15-episode show, which premiered July 19. Piled into a Winnebago for 10 weeks and forced to find clues leading them from one place to the next, Jackson and four others had to complete various missions at each stop before moving on. But the drama among the cast members seems manufactured. Quotidian conversations pass for dialogue and humor. And any sense of real risk in the missions—things like dog sledding and an obstacle course—is lost to the hopelessly obvious planning and preproduction, which took about three months.
Of course, it's also entertaining as hell. The five cast members—chosen from among 25,000 applicants—are mostly likable, ordinary young people we can relate to. Even if we know things will turn out all right, the dream vacation is a fun ride. Many viewers seem to agree. According to co-producer Mary-Ellis Bunim, Road Rules is one of MTV's highest-rated shows, almost approaching Real World popularity.
For Jackson, it was a complete departure from reality. As an aspiring filmmaker at a cash-strapped university, life hasn't been an MTV fantasy. Jackson and other Howard film majors work with outdated equipment in short supply, and they must wait long periods to have film processed. “We're exposed to enough that we know what it takes to get a project done, but at the same time, this isn't a traditional major at Howard—this isn't something that's always had a lot of importance there,” he says.
The difficulties Jackson faces have only steeled his resolve. “I'm very serious about it, and a lot of my friends are very serious about film,” he says. He believes he and his classmates could be among the next generation of great young filmmakers.
But Jackson's purposefulness sometimes created problems with his be-boppy fellow Road Rulers. His biggest peeve during production was that the others often wanted to go out drinking, something that the Stone Mountain, Ga., native says he wasn't raised to do.
“I come from...a lifestyle where it was never considered fun and it's never really acceptable to go bar-hopping,” he says, adding that his family, which includes two brothers and his parents, has “a strong spiritual base.” He says his parents have a no-nonsense view of his moment in the spotlight. Their first reaction to the news that he would be on national television was, “How much are they paying you? Are you going to miss school?”
Jackson says being the only African-American on the show made him feel like an outsider “for a quick minute.” One problem was that the other cast members—three whites and a Native American—didn't always grasp his sense of humor. “Maybe if they went to Howard, they'd be down,” he laughs.
He's been surprised at the large number of black children and fellow students who have recognized him around Howard and his neighborhood nearby. He thinks MTV should cast more black people, but he didn't push the issue too hard during production. “After a while, I kind of tried to let it fade and not worry about it so much, because, I mean, I didn't want to ruin the trip,” he says.
Still, he spoke his mind, on race and everything else. “I fucking got on their nerves, man, like Malcolm [and] Farrakhan,” he says, half kidding.
At times on the show, Jackson seems standoffish and creepy. One of the first dramatic moments came when Shelly, another cast member, revealed that Jackson surprised her with a kiss one night when the two were falling asleep in the Winnebago. The advance offended her, and the two stopped speaking to each other for a while. Jackson now says Shelly was just surprised, not angered. But he learned that from reading her memoirs without her permission.
Still, the unplugged, off-screen Jackson is thoughtful and charming, and he knows how to handle himself. For example, when a bothersome loon repeatedly interrupts our interview to ask questions, Jackson glides into Spanish, asks a few friendly questions and then firmly asks the man to butt out. And when a kid named Derrick recognizes him in Union Station, Jackson shakes his hand and invites him to Howard's Homecoming.
Jackson used the road trip to his advantage. Road Rules gave him a chance to shoot photographs across the country last spring. Besides expenses, the show paid about $300 weekly. It was a fortunate windfall for Jackson, who says late financial-aid papers probably would have kept him out of classes.
Jackson says he remains friends with the other cast members, but they're not especially close. Instead, with his career in mind, he made a point of getting to know the show's director. Connections like that might come in handy in the future, as Jackson tries to cobble together a film feature and start his career. “I had a plan for my life before MTV,” he says. “And I'm trying to stick as closely to that plan as possible.”