Alumni Q&A: Maxwell Whittington-Cooper ’13

Maxwell Whittington-Cooper ’13 got his start on the stage while attending Fieldston. We spoke to Whittington-Cooper about his favorite memories from his time at ECFS, his journey from the Fieldston Middle musical to playing John Lewis in the upcoming Netflix drama “Rustin,” and the meal from the cafeteria he misses the most.

What brought you to ECFS?

I transferred to Fieldston in 7th Grade, right around the time that the new middle school was built. It was exciting because the new space meant that there was a big influx of students coming in at all grade levels within Fieldston Middle.

Were you involved in theatre or music during your time at the School?

Fieldston Middle was where I cut my teeth as an actor and where I was inspired to pursue acting. In 7th Grade, I saw the preview for the musical that year, “Once on This Island,” and immediately thought: “I want to do that. I can do that!” In 8th Grade, I got to join my first show, “Bugsy Malone,” and I was hooked. After that, I was always involved in theatre productions. I got to be in “Grease,” “Ragtime,” and “Spring Awakening.” I feel like I lucked out — a lot of these musicals had nontraditional soundtracks with music influenced by rock music, R&B, and the blues, which captivated me.

Whittington-Cooper in “Ragtime” at Fieldston Upper

What was a standout experience in your time doing theatre at Fieldston?

When I was a senior, I was in T. Co., the Theatre Company, and I got to write, produce, and act in a one-man show. The show, which I titled “Eyes on the Prize,” centered around themes of race, equity, and social mobility. It was so helpful to me because I really had to fill every single role in the production: lighting design, writing, costumes. It really prepared me for the multi-hyphenate world of Hollywood, which always wants actors who can do a little bit of everything. It also gave me an appreciation for everyone on set and all the different roles that they fill.

How did your time at ECFS impact your approach to storytelling and acting?

Ethics really is the backbone of an ECFS education and I think that wholeheartedly informs my work as an actor, a writer, and a human being. One of the reasons I became an actor was to inspire empathy in the world. That mission was born out of my existence as a young Black man seeing inequality for my people and other minorities. Even when I was very young, I knew I never wanted to treat anyone as less than equal, and I wanted to do work that would inspire others to feel the same way. My ECFS education bolstered that even more and propelled me in terms of the tone and genre of the work I want to do.

Whittington-Cooper in “Spring Awakening” at Fieldston Upper

How did you start your acting career, and how did you land your recent role as John Lewis in “Rustin”?

Getting started in my acting career has been fun, exciting, and — at some points — very trying. When I was at Fieldston, I found myself obsessively studying acting and all the theatre greats to grow my skills, even though in the back of my mind I didn’t know if I would be able to do it as a profession. I just wanted to be ready in case the stars aligned and I got that one perfect opportunity.

As it turned out, an agent saw me in my very last show before I graduated from Harvard and insisted on talking to me about my future as an actor. That summer, I signed with an agency and started going out on auditions while simultaneously working at a venture capital firm. It was a slow process with lots of starts and stops, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down every set in 2020, but last year I got a call to audition for a film called “Rustin” about Bayard Rustin. I knew right away that it was special and, after intensely studying John Lewis, auditioning, and meeting with the director to try the scenes out every which way, I was over the moon when they offered me the role. We shot last fall and will do more filming in Washington D.C. this spring. It’s been amazing to work with all these industry titans and to help tell this story.

What advice would you give for current ECFS students or young alumni, especially those who want to pursue a creative career?

Explore all of your interests and try everything! Down the line, it will inform your work in surprising ways. When I was at Fieldston, I played lacrosse and golf, I was the Fieldston Student Government President, and I worked on the sustainability Green Club. Doing all these different things kept my happiness well full. When you’re in school, it can feel easy to subscribe to an archetype or conform to other people’s expectations. My advice is to lean into what makes you unique and special. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to set you apart.

What's a favorite memory or teacher from your time at the School?

One teacher I remember is Miss Stokes, my English teacher. She didn’t go easy on her students and I think her favorite question was “Why?” She always pushed us to be more analytical and more inquisitive. I loved her class because it felt like being in the gym for my brain. I came out of her classroom a better writer and a better reader.

Being elected Fieldston Student Government President was also huge for me. It felt like all of my different interests could suddenly come together to bring about positive change for my fellow students. The fact that the student body believed in me to do all of that was a really special, gratifying moment.

And of course, the bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches. They’re so good and always hit the spot. I miss them!

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