I’m Dwayne Vandebacker but you know me as Chester Cheetah, “a cool dude in a loose mood.”

I was destined to be an actor. While just a cub, I booked the role of playing a hungry jungle cat during feeding times at the Bronx Zoo, and I knew then that I wanted to recreate that feeling of connecting with an audience through performance and storytelling for the rest of my life.

I studied at Julliard. I was Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park. I even wrote, directed, and starred in a one-man play called Jesus Cubed where I, as modern-day Jesus, ruminated on the politics of the early 1980s while solving a Rubik Cube. I was really honing my craft.

But I was broke—so poor I had to move back in with the coalition at the zoo. I swallowed my pride and, at my agent’s urging, took what I thought was a one-time gig for a Frito-Lay’s commercial.

I went totally method for the part, eating nothing but cheesy, starchy snacks found next to the register at the bodega for weeks. I isolated myself from friends and family, with my relationship with snack food the only thing to sustain me. I was ready to perform a deep exploration of the love and devotion to a particular processed snack product.

But the director wanted something totally different. He put sunglasses on me, gave me a goatee and even had me take off my pants! He wanted Bugs-Bunny-type energy and while I despised the overacting required for cartoonish behavior, I was a professional and delivered the performance asked of me. Filming took less than a day and I’d forgotten about the experience when the commercial aired. If only I’d known how the line, “It’s not easy being cheesy” would come to define me!

Critics applauded Jesus Cubed but no one saw it. Meanwhile, I became famous as Chester Cheetah. At first, I enjoyed the attention. I could get a table at any restaurant. Models wanted to date me. Suddenly directors and producers were taking meetings with me. But no one wanted me to act—they wanted Chester Cheetah.

I lost track of who I, Dwayne Vandebacker, was.

I fell into a funk. I needed booze, coke, tranquillizers, you name it, just to make it through the day. For a while I refused to perform the character of Chester Cheetah and would only walk on four legs. It was a dark time. I became feral, hitting rock bottom when I was caught by the paparazzi spraying urine and defecating on landmarks to mark my territory.

Only when Frito-Lay allowed the Chester Cheetah character to evolve did I feel I could inhabit him again. I was able to tone the character down, make him a cool, suave hipster with a penchant for questionable behavior driven by a mysterious backstory. As I made my peace with the character of Chester Cheetah, my life stabilized, and I once again funneled my energy into my true love—acting.

During that time, I jumped through every hoop, went to every meeting, read every script sent my way. There were so many parts I almost got, auditioning multiple times, only to be rejected in the end. I lobbied hard for the part in Swingers that made Vince Vaughn famous, it came down to me and Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects, and I almost broke into comedy as Joey on Friends, but during the table read for the pilot, Matthew Perry and I didn’t really connect.

I know I’m blessed and don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, because I’m a Cheetah and it would confirm the negative stereotypes about Cheetahs, but also because the Chester Cheetah character means I have the financial resources to reject projects that don’t inspire me. Sure, I was offered work in Jumanji and Dolittle, but that’s so expected. So predictable. I want to play an abusive stepfather, a Holocaust survivor, or an innkeeper with a dark secret. I just need one opportunity. One chance to transform myself to prove an audience can forget they are watching the actor known for saying, “The cheese that goes CRUNCH.”

I admire what Reese Witherspoon and Elizabeth Banks have done by starting production companies to address the absence of female-led, female-voiced projects in Hollywood. Hoping to mimic their success, I partnered with Stephanie Courtney (the actress who plays Flo from Progressive) and Steve Cernan (the actor who plays Martin the GEICO gecko), to produce some indie, character-led vehicles for actors who are stuck being typecast.

Right now, we are in the production phase of a period piece about the actors who brought to life the elves, “Snap, Crackle, and Pop.” Stephanie will direct the movie, Steve will play Snap, I’ll play Crackle. And we are really excited because we’ve just cast Matt LeBlanc as Pop, and Zooey Deschanel will play the elves’ mother in childhood scenes.

No more typecasting for us!