At a crossroads when he lost his mother to AIDS, weeks shy of his high school graduation, IronE Singleton turned to God, then muscled beyond the demons of his past to rise up and later slay them on TV
by Sean Black
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Commaleta Singleton
It’s astounding, the number of people around me who have died from HIV complications,” reflects actor and author Robert “IronE” Singleton as he reminisces about the family and friends he’s lost to AIDS. It’s a wonder, in fact, that he’s neither a casualty nor a statistic himself. Marking his transformative strength in 2002 he branded himself with the nickname “IronE” on a road trip seeking the Hollywood dream. As he forged ahead, his solid persistence has become a testament to his might, and his steely fortitude has paved his way in becoming a sought-after actor, most recently in a starring role in AMC’s blockbuster hit The Walking Dead.
“In 1993 I lost my mom, ’94 a cousin, ’95 an uncle, ’96 another cousin. In 1997 my uncle’s girlfriend—who I’d grown up with; then a very close friend of mine—he passed from it in 2000.” The list rolls off the tongue of the vigorous former athlete who found his way out of the projects and into the theater while playing football for the University of Georgia; a hard win for him in the game of life.
His “right-arm,” business manager, full-time mom, and photographer (see this cover story’s exclusive shoot) sitting next to him in our interview is his wife, Commaleta, whom he’s known since high school, when they were fourteen. From their suburban Atlanta home, she echoes the toll that AIDS has taken in her life as well. “My newest case just happened about a month ago,” she shares. “I found out that a cousin, a very young cousin of mine has HIV.” Making her point she settles back to her husband, “He’s been touched by this plague his entire life.”
Having survived a physically and emotionally abusive mother addicted to crack, an absent father, playgrounds infested with drugs and a neighborhood riddled with violent crimes, IronE Singleton contends of this painful roster of loved ones, “I could name at least ten more people I was one-degree away from, whom I was close to, who’ve died.” Keenly alert he pauses, “It’s very alarming and that’s why we have to continue the fight.”
It’s an arduous fight that began for IronE (known at the time as Robbie) when he was just eight-years old, while growing up in one of the South’s largest and most notorious housing projects, which has since been completely demolished. Sharing one of the three bedrooms in grandparents Ray and Ethelrine’s apartment in the typical two-story, barrack-style brick structure on Atlanta’s northwest side, IronE slept in tight quarters with his mother, “Momma Cat” (short for Catherine), and his older brother Tracy. Perry Homes was hardly a safe haven for a child but it was the place the sometimes eleven-member Singleton family called home and IronE endured.
Eluding most temptations of an illicit gangster lifestyle, his mother’s cruel berating, physical assaults and her erratic mood swings, and the roaches scurrying in the recesses of the walls, young Robert sought solace first in a bathroom mirror venting his frustrations before ultimately taking his pain outdoors. Playing ball, swimming, working-out at the local gym and readily availing himself of state-funded activity programs for at-risk-youth like P.A.L. (Police Athletic League)—all of these activities bolstered his commitment to a better life for himself as well as his strong athletic frame.
Looking back on his childhood, IronE vividly recalls his first scrape with the virus with the premature death of a third-grade classmate’s mother, a haunting precursor to the loss of his own.
“She was my mother’s good friend and they hung a lot. They partied together and because they didn’t have anyone to babysit, our mothers would end up taking us with them.” Sadly, at the time, when his friend’s mother died IronE couldn’t recall if anybody really said anything about it to the little girl. No acknowledgement, no condolences. The children were so young and naturally immature. “It was like, ‘okay, let’s go out and play,’” he remorsefully recalls.
“I look back and wonder how traumatic that it must have been for her as a small child but [at that age] I really didn’t know what to say or how to say it—it was hard for me to express myself at all.”
At thirty-eight, IronE Singleton is fully able to express himself today, in real-life and through the characters he’s portrayed in both movies and television. Characters like the drug-kingpin Alton in his game-changing turn in The Blind Side opposite Sandra Bullock, who won the Oscar for her tenacious role, or as T-Dog who, much to his avid fans’ chagrin, met a grisly demise sacrificing his own life for a friend’s, midway through the recently aired Season Three of The Walking Dead, the hit zombie thriller born of the creative juices of Frank Darabont.
Asked how he turned his life around, IronE Singleton recalls a divine intervention at the time of his mother’s passing and his graduation from Archer High School. It was a turning point that brought him to a more fulfilling path, one involving God.
“There are at least two paths that are laid out for you, and many paths in between,” assures IronE. “You can go down the path of God and realize that there is a bigger calling for your life, but you have to seek that guidance from Him and try to understand what it is.”
In his recently released autobiography, Blindsided by the Walking Dead, co-authored by Juliette Terzieff, IronE describes in graphic detail his escape. Against great odds, he recalls hurtful tales of his turbulent upbringing, the painful horrors of an unstable and troubled mother, and his sexual exploits as an attention-starved adolescent growing up in the hood. Through the pain he touchingly dedicates the book to his mother: In loving memory of my mother Catherine Singleton and all the others that left us too soon. You will always be remembered. He also deals with abominable mistakes head-on, coming clean about his infidelities, committed despite his wife’s unflinching love.
Along with building a more secure and trusting relationship with Commaleta over the years, IronE has involved himself in fundraisers to fight AIDS such as RED Party events on World AIDS Day but has also raised awareness by taking on roles that have touched bigger audiences. While at UGA he took on the role of Belize, a former drag queen, in a school production of Angels in America. “I’d like for you to guess who I had breakfast with back in 1997—he wouldn’t have a clue though; he’d be like ‘IronE who?’ [as] I was going by Robert back then—Tony Kushner. We, the entire cast, had breakfast with him at a Dunkin’ Donuts or something like that in Athens, Georgia, and it was quite an eye-opening experience,” he proudly laughs.
In his book he discusses a role he took a few years later, in 2000, still early in his acting career. “Secrets scared me and they scared Eddie [the main character] too,” he writes about the play. IronE played a high school football player like himself who was recruited to play college ball. The lines he delivered for his character rang true for the actor himself: “A person can look completely healthy and still have the virus.” The play, sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, targeted at-risk communities and focused on bringing awareness about HIV/AIDS. Its production team demanded that all cast members get tested before the show opened. Concerned over his own results, IronE writes, “With my history of sexual activity and Momma Cat’s death, I was scared out of my wits.”
“I was getting a small taste of the fear Momma Cat must have experienced in her battle against the disease and the fear was pretty close to debilitating. The mere thought something invisible, incurable, and deadly could be coursing silently through my veins left me light-headed and nauseous.”
Fortunately, IronE fared better than his character, Eddie, who ended up testing positive for the virus.
His message today is, “I would have to say to the young people that life has a bigger purpose and that traumatic experience should serve as an opportunity to direct them on their paths to finding their true purpose and the betterment of humanity. For some reason we tend to distort the reasoning behind adversity (losing a loved one) and we use it as an excuse to indulge in the temptations of life. I would implore them to be smarter—to use their common sense, because your conscience speaks to you and it lets you know when what you are doing isn’t right.”
“My experience with death hitting so closely to home, put things into perspective and gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I was chatting on-line with Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer of The Walking Dead, yesterday, and she lost a loved one, and I was trying to offer her some words of encouragement. Again, I realized that when I lost my mother, I had this renewed sense of purpose and it made me realize why I march this journey. It is about helping other people and helping them find their purpose. Death is interesting, as I was telling her, you never really get over the pain—it lingers for a long time but it brings about a certain strength as well.”
Looking back on his two-and-a-half season run as T-Dog, IronE describes the apocalyptic drama filled with gore as a study of the human condition with underlying messages on topics such as racism, anger, hope, friendship, desperation, and love. “There might not be flesh-eating ghouls threatening to break through the doors, but every man, woman, and child faces a lifelong series of challenges and choices that help define their ability to survive and thrive. I had found a way, by keeping love in my heart and my faith in God ever in my mind.”
Asked what’s next and he mentions reviving his one man show, IronE: The Resurrected. The 2008 self-produced play features re-enacted snippets from his own life experience. Ironically, his original production debuted to a handful of viewers in the 14th Street Playhouse in Midtown Atlanta with one, however, being a casting director responsible for his life-changing role in The Blind Side, a role he calls “God ordained.”
Thriving and keeping love alive today, IronE lives with Commaleta and their three children (Heavven, sixteen, Nevvaeh, twelve, and “EZ”—short for Etheral Zephyr—nine) in a lush suburban corner of Georgia, the state he calls home. “We are blessed to have a family dynamic that was absent in the home I knew as a child. The family life that I have now is a total contrast to what I had growing up. It is functional. There is no screaming, cursing, shooting, or sirens throughout the day and night. Our home is full of peace and serenity. I am truly thankful and blessed.”
For more about IronE Singleton’s memoir and his many other projects, log on to www.ironesingleton.com.
To see more of Commaleta Singleton’s work, visit www.newnsight.com.
Editor at Large Sean Black interviewed Duane Cramer for the May cover story.