What do Duke football, “Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns” and “Big Momma’s House 2” have in common? They all feature Chris Tavarez.
Tavarez is no stranger to big stages. He and his Blue Devil teammates have grown accustomed to competing in front of thousands of fans every Saturday in college football’s largest stadiums. But there are few players in the nation that share the redshirt freshman safety’s experience off the field—acting on the silver screen for millions of viewers.
Tavarez began taking acting classes when he was 8 years old with hopes of breaking into television and film, but his budding passion for football conflicted with those dreams at first. The Atlanta native admitted that for his first few years, he did not take acting as seriously as he should have. Football came first.
“I was dealing with the big male ego of not trying to look too soft in the acting world and trying to look cool for my football friends,” Tavarez said. “Around when I was 11 or 12 I began to find a true passion for acting. I started to figure out what acting really was.”
When he was just 12 years old, Tavarez auditioned for and signed on with his first agent, Jayme Pervis of J Pervis Talent Agency. Hundreds of children from across the country audition for the agency every year, Tavarez said, and he was just one of six Pervis selected that year.
It was that same year when Tavarez booked his first role in a feature film, playing Ryan in “Big Momma’s House 2.” The part was small, and Tavarez recalled that he only had about three or four lines, but it was a big step in his young acting career.
“He’s just so incredibly natural,” Pervis said. “A lot of kids will come in and they were over the top, but Chris has always had a natural ability to act as if he’s having a conversation and be very real. He’s just very talented.”
As Tavarez entered high school, his football career began to blossom as well. He was forced to juggle his football schedule with auditions, and once college recruiters started knocking on his door, a 15-year-old Tavarez considered quitting acting, but his parents would not let him. They told Tavarez that the skills he learned in acting were valuable to how he could present himself to other people throughout his life, and that regardless of whether or not he wanted to be an actor, he would have to continue practicing.
Sure enough, Tavarez began to book more roles just as his football recruitment heated up during his senior year of high school. Receiving interest from a number of Division I programs, Tavarez was backed further into a corner—coaches wanted to know whether he would choose football or acting.
He continued to audition for roles during his senior season and landed his big break when he received a lead role in the Disney Channel movie “Avalon High.” He relocated to New Zealand for four months for the movie’s filming at the end of his senior year of high school, and his commitment to acting affected his football recruitment. Oklahoma State, Oregon, Tennessee and Kentucky all stopped recruiting Tavarez due to his acting career.
But Duke head coach David Cutcliffe had other ideas. He offered Tavarez a scholarship, and the safety turned down offers from Maryland, Tulane, Vanderbilt, Harvard and Princeton to play for the Blue Devils.
“A lot of them just told me, ‘Good luck, but we’re looking elsewhere.’ They basically told me they were looking for strictly football players, and that’s one of the main reasons why I committed to Duke,” Tavarez said. “Coach Cutcliffe understands that football is great to be a part of, but we are students first, so grades come before anything. But he also understands that there’s life after football as well, so if there’s a way I can still show 100-percent commitment to the team, I can still do whatever I want in acting.”
Tavarez continues to act and audition for roles, but since he arrived at Duke he has not had as many opportunities to act professionally. He was allowed, however, to leave the team for three days last summer to film with comedian Rickey Smiley in Atlanta.
Although his acting career has taken a back seat, Tavarez has still had many chances to hone his craft at Duke. He is currently minoring in theater and is considering adding it as a second major. With limited experience in stage acting, Tavarez has relished in the chance to further study it. He does not even tell his professors that he has acted professionally before.
“I love it. The classes are great. The thing I like about theater is that people think it’s very similar to film acting, but it is actually very different. I just went straight to TV and film, so it’s great to see this from a different perspective,” Tavarez said. Tavarez said he hopes to become more involved in the theater community at Duke and eventually act in some of the theater department’s productions. Studying theater, Tavarez said, has helped him develop a better understanding for his biggest influence, Leonardo DiCaprio, who Tavarez lauds for his versatility and his selective nature when choosing scripts.
Tavarez would find himself in rare company should he continue to act professionally after college. He is not the first actor-football player combo—Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, another one of Tavarez’s role models, won a national championship at Miami before going on to a successful career as a movie star.
As for his future, Tavarez said he would play professional football if the NFL comes calling, but would be thrilled to pursue a full-time career as a professional actor.
Hollywood couldn’t script two better endings.