Isaiah Mustafa was a journeyman pro football wide receiver with a dream of becoming an actor. Then he landed the spot as the suave Old Spice spokesman who burst out of the shower wearing nothing but a bath towel and deodorant. The moment led to appearances in sitcoms like “Anger Management” and “Baby Daddy,” after which he landed a recurring role on Freeform’s “Shadowhunters.” Next up, he stars alongside Jessica Chastain as the adult Mike Hanlon in “It: Chapter Two,” opening Sept. 6. Here, Mustafa discusses career changes and his experience on the set of Stephen King’s killer clown franchise.
You had a big career switch.
I just take the opportunity that’s given to me. I love basketball. I played it all through high school, but I was vertically challenged as far as being in the NBA. I switched to something that I thought would be a little easier, so I played football. I was able to get a scholarship, and I made it on a couple of NFL practice squads. I did that as long as I could. After that, all I really wanted to do was acting.
When did acting first come to mind?
My mom took me to see “Trading Places” when I was 9. I don’t know what she was thinking. Immediately, Eddie Murphy became my favorite movie star. I wanted to do what he was doing. People were laughing at what he was doing. He was so quick and witty and hilarious. And then my brother started [acting] and I was like, “My brother is doing it too? Why not try to keep going?” I wanted to follow in his footsteps. He wasn’t too successful at it. He didn’t carry on. He became a lawyer. Whatever he was doing made an impression on me.
Did you grow as an actor on the set of “It: Chapter Two”?
Absolutely. They always say you get better by working with people who are better than you. I had all these awesome people working with me. A coach of mine said when you play football in a high-caliber game, like a championship game, your game elevates because you rise to the occasion.
Was transitioning from comedy to horror a challenge?
It was a whole new world. To be in a horror movie, that’s one of my favorite genres. I had to go back and look at a bunch of horror movies: “Evil Dead,” “Friday the 13th,” “Aliens,” “Drag Me to Hell.” My daughter and I have these midnight movie marathons where we watch a lot of horror movies.
Any lessons from football that apply to acting?
My work ethic transferred over from football and also the ability to ignore rejection and keep pushing. Being cut from any athletic team, it’s 1,000 times worse than not getting a job or not booking a role. When you don’t book a role, you don’t ever know what you did wrong. They just say it’s not going further, and someone else gets the job. When you get cut from a team, they would literally give you a sheet. They would check off boxes so you would know exactly what you did wrong. It’s so traumatizing to get cut and have to go through that. And I got cut at least four times. But the rejection in Hollywood isn’t that bad. You get rejected, nobody knows. You pick yourself up and try again.
Things You Didn’t Know About Isaiah Mustafa
AGE: 45 BIRTHPLACE: Portland, Ore. FAVORITE WIDE RECEIVER: Tim Brown FAVORITE HORROR MOVIES: “Scanners,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) OLD SPICE SCENT OF CHOICE: Captain TOUGHEST COACH: Jon Gruden BEST NFL OPPONENT: 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers SPORT YOU DIDN’T KNOW HE PLAYED: Hockey (started at 39)