Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Kong: Skull Island"
Corey Hawkins, on March 8, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif. Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

Straight Outta Kong


Corey Hawkins plays a macho war hero on 24: Legacy, but in real life the classically trained 28-year-old actor found his calling as a child singing for his loving grandmother and his mom, a Washington, D.C., policewoman. "My parents and grandparents encouraged me through the use of imagination to be whoever I could be," Hawkins says. "It wasn't until I left D.C. did I discover the world was a very different place." He studied acting at Juilliard, where a black instructor gave him some tough love. "He said I had to work harder than everybody else, and sad to say, it was because of the color of my skin. Expectations of [African-Americans] are low, so I have to work that much harder. That is something that never left me."


Hawkins got his big break in the 2015 blockbuster Straight Outta Compton, but he initially freaked at the idea of playing legendary rapper-producer Dr. Dre. "I didn't want to be the one to eff it up," he says. "We worked our asses off, though we didn't know this little movie about guys in Compton would go on to be the highest-grossing music biopic ever." Fortunately, he felt less pressure when Fox approached him about taking over for Kiefer Sutherland on the 24 franchise. "All I'm doing is carrying the torch," he says. "It's special because when I grew up, I didn't see roles like this [for black actors] on TV. It's meant a lot to me."


In Kong: Skull Island, Hawkins plays a Yale geologist who knows more than he's letting on about what awaits a military expedition to a recently discovered island in the Pacific. "I get pretty close to a lot of monsters," he says. "It's set in the '70s, at the end of the Vietnam War. John Goodman plays my mentor. I'm hesitant to say more than that. Let's just say they go to the island in search of...well, they don't know what to expect. That's what makes it exciting."


A week after production wrapped on 24, Hawkins began rehearsals for the revival of Six Degrees of Separation on Broadway—where he debuted four years ago as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. The play, costarring Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey and opening April 5, centers on a charming young man who scams his way into New York society by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Hawkins sees an emotional connection to his own life. "I've been talking about being a young black man trying to find his identity," he says. "And that's exactly the character that I play. Maybe that's how this was supposed to happen."

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.