'The Best Man Holiday' Interview with Nia Long and Eddie Cibrian

Nia Long and Eddie Cibrian

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is based on an interview which took place back in 2013.

It has been over a decade since “The Best Man” came out in theaters, and now Nia Long returns to play Jordan Armstrong in the eagerly awaited sequel “The Best Man Holiday.” Whereas in the original she was a producer for the BET network, we now find Jordan working as the director of programming at MSNBC. She remains as work obsessed as ever, but she has found time to snag a boyfriend named Brian who is played by Eddie Cibrian. But while she is completely smitten with him, can Jordan find the power to pull herself away from her job enough to fully commit to a relationship? Also, will Jordan’s friends have an issue with Brian being white?

Long is best known for her work on the television shows “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Third Watch,” and she has appeared in the movies “Boyz n The Hood,” “Love Jones” and “Big Momma’s House.” Cibrian also appeared on “Third Watch,” and many still remember him best as Cole Deschanel on “Sunset Beach.”

We got to catch up with Long and Cibrian when they appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for “The Best Man Holiday” press junket. Long talked about what it was like playing Jordan Armstrong for the first time in 14 years, and of how she has managed to have such a long career. Cibrian discussed what it was like joining this closely knit cast, and of how he came to deliver one of the best lines in this sequel.

Question: Nia, 14 years ago you played this role. Was it easy or difficult to pick the character up again 14 years later?

Nia Long: Getting back into character wasn’t so difficult. What was difficult was determining what her journey has been like for the last 14 years and making sure that I maintained certain things about Jordan in this film. But also, we just really needed to be clear about what her emotional journey was. For me that was pretty much the motivation and the most important thing.

Question: What was the deciding moment for you to sign onto this sequel?

Nia Long: We all decided that before Malcolm really finished the script. He kind of came to each one of us and said, “Would you guys be interested in doing the sequel?” We all just decided that if the script is great and the story is there and the characters have grown, why not? So that’s basically what happened and it was pretty easy.

Question: Eddie, you are the new kid on the block here so you are essentially joining the cast that already has a chemistry. Was it daunting for you coming on knowing that these guys have a connection?

Eddie Cibrian: You know, I think what Malcolm was looking for was someone who could feel at ease in the environment, and I’m kind of that way personally as well. For me, I’ve worked with a handful of them before so I already knew them and it wasn’t like I was meeting this team for the first time. Nia and I worked together while we were doing a show called “Third Watch” in New York, Morris (Chestnut) I’ve worked with a handful of times so I already knew some people which made it easier for me. But I think what Malcolm wanted was someone who didn’t feel intimidated in this situation, and I hope that came across that he (my character) is somebody who’s just at ease with himself and the environment.

Question: The female characters are all so strong and so diverse. Why is it important that we see these types of images in the media?

Nia Long: I’m all about girl power…

Eddie Cibrian: She is!

Nia Long: I am, right? I love my girlfriends; I think sisterhood is so important. I think learning from one another culturally is really important no matter where you are from or what you look like. If we can come together as women, I think we are just so much more powerful when we stand in a group. I’m not afraid to say I am a bit of a feminist. I think that we are incredible. What’s so great about Malcolm’s writing is that he does give each character a very specific voice, and the reason why we have so many women who actually love the “Best Man” brand is because they can look at the film and almost point themselves out or at least say I’m a combination between Jordan and Shelby or Robin and Nia or whatever it is. As an actor you don’t get those opportunities to really work alongside other great women, and that’s such a blessing. I mean when’s the last time you’ve seen a film where there were four African American women that are actually all in the same movie? It doesn’t happen all the time so you’ve got to take the ball and run when you get it and get that touchdown.

Question: It is 14 years later and you still look amazing. What are some of your beauty secrets?

Nia Long: Oh my gosh! Should I tell them?

Eddie Cibrian: I don’t know.

Nia Long: He saw everything that goes on in the trailer.

Eddie Cibrian: She’s got some beauty secrets. She’s naturally beautiful, that’s her secret and that’s the truth.

Nia Long: Thank you. You know what it is? I just take care of myself, and when I’m not working, I’m with my kids. In mommy mode you are in sneakers with no makeup and my hair is really combed, so that’s what it is. You guys just don’t see me out there all the time, so when I do come out there it’s like, oh okay, you’re back.

Question: Nia, can you describe what it was like coming back to this cast 14 years later?

Nia Long: We would have to these roundtable discussions where they would always put our chairs altogether. The girls would be kind of grouped together and the guys would be grouped together, and we would have some pretty intense conversations about everything and we would get into debates on love and relationships. I don’t want to be inappropriate but we were like college kids at times (laughs).

Eddie Cibrian: This was in between takes.

Nia Long: Yes. We were like bad children. That’s what we were like, but we got it done.

Question: Nia, when it comes to your career, your longevity is something many actors and actresses continually strive for. What has been the key to remaining relevant after so long?

Nia Long: Dealing with my life and truth, dealing with my career and truth, saying no and I’m never really motivated by money. I am motivated more by the creative (aspects)… Well that’s not true. Let’s not get too carried away (laughs). I have bills to pay. Sometimes money is okay. I think just staying true to myself. My dear brother who I miss every single day, Heavy D, said to me, “This is not a race, it’s a marathon.” Whenever I get frustrated or unsure about what to do next, I always think about him saying that to me because it’s very true. Don’t you feel that when one door closes something else opens and you’re like, whoa, I didn’t expect that? You just go with it if it’s right in your heart.

Eddie Cibrian: Plus, you’re very good at what you do. That helps.

Nia Long: Thank you!

Question: Eddie, you delivered one of the most memorable lines in the movie when you said, “You have to be a bitch to be concerned about your woman’s past.” How did that scene play out for you and how did you go about delivering that line?

Eddie Cibrian: Well you have to think Malcolm for that because it was written. I wasn’t clever enough to come up with that line. I think what Malcolm’s intention was that everyone has a past, everyone has made stupid mistakes, everyone has done things that they are probably not proud of, but that’s in the past and that’s made them who they are now. They are a different person, and if you fell in love with them for who they are now and what their truth is now, then who cares what their past is? They weren’t just born. They have had life experiences to get them to where they are.

Nia Long: And who wants a virgin? (laughs)

Question: Who are some of your mentors and the people that have kept you going this whole time?

Nia Long: I was doing a film called “Made in America” with Whoopi Goldberg, and I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I was just like a little deer in the headlights and Whoopi Goldberg said to me, “This business is tough and you are going to have to develop a second layer of skin.” And now when I think back on that, I know exactly what she means because as an actor you want to keep your heart open so you can do good work. The only place that good work comes from is by being vulnerable. But in the business side of this, you can’t really be vulnerable. You have to separate the two and it took a long time for me to understand that because naturally I’m just an emotional being. That’s just kind of who I am. So, I would say Whoopi, Heavy D who I think about almost every day, my brother and my grandmother who said, “You know when they stop talking about you, that’s when you need to worry.”

Eddie Cibrian: My dad really. When I was first getting into this business, he would take me around to auditions. I was doing commercials and stuff like that and I was an athlete and I just wanted to play sports, but he was like “no, you can do this.” And I was like, “I don’t really wanna do this” and he was like, “You can do this.” And so we would go to 100 to 200 auditions in a year and I would get four or five of those, but every single time I would go I was like, “Why am I not getting these? I don’t understand.” He said, “Well look, you don’t have to get a yes every single time. You just got to get the right yes.” That’s the way it is. We go out on a bunch of different things and we wish we could get a bunch of different things. We wish we could get everything that we go out on, but we don’t because there are thousands of people out there. But the ones that you do get and they say yes to, those are the ones where you have to make something of, and those are the important ones. I thank my dad for that.

Nia Long: I like your dad. Where is he?

Eddie Cibrian: He’s at home sleeping (laughs).

The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and various streaming services.

Scene from “The Best Man Holiday”

'The Best Man Holiday' Interview with Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2013.

Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan return to reprise their roles of Harper and Robin from 1999’s “The Best Man” in writer/director Malcolm D. Lee’s long-awaited sequel, “The Best Man Holiday.” When we last saw these two, Harper proposed marriage to a very shocked Robin. Now its 14 years later and they are happily married and expecting their first child. But while Harper’s previous book “Unfinished Business” proved to be a bestseller, his latest book gets rejected by his publisher. To make matters even worse, he is laid off from his teaching job at New York University, and he doesn’t have the nerve to break the bad news to Robin.

All those concerns get put on hold, however, when Harper and Robin travel to Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia’s mansion to celebrate the holidays, and it reunites them with the other characters from the original film. But old rivalries and passions are quickly reignited as Lance has not forgotten about the affair Harper had with Mia all those years ago. Can these two men find it within themselves to forgive one another and move on from their past?

We got to catch up with Diggs and Lathan when they appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Together they talked about what made them decide to do this sequel, how everyone has evolved since the first movie, and what it was like returning to play these characters 14 years later.

Question: For this movie to work, essentially everybody in the original cast had to sign on to do it. At what point did you to decide to do the sequel?

Sanaa Lathan: A couple of years ago, Malcolm actually got us all together and we went to Boa (Steakhouse), and he hadn’t written a script yet and at a loud restaurant with lots of drinks flowing, he literally pitched moment by moment and beat by beat the story. In that environment which is very challenging for a pitch, we were on the edge of our seats and we all at that moment said, “If you write it, we’re gonna do it.” So, for me it was that, and then the script came much later…

Taye Diggs: And then it just became about fine-tuning.

Sanaa Lathan: Exactly.

Taye Diggs: We all obviously had a great time doing the first one. Great friendships and bonds were made and we’ve kept all those friendships, so at this dinner it was so great to see each other just on general principle. It’s great to see old friends that we haven’t seen in a while. I think a couple of us knew possibly what Malcolm was going to come with, and then to actually hear him say it and then to hear the story and then to kind of get together as a group and do what we all needed to do to get this project done and made, it has been a great experience.

Question: How do you think Malcolm has evolved since directing the first movie?

Sanaa Lathan: He actually regressed… No, I’m kidding.

Taye Diggs: I was there every day on set, and good is good. I think we all evolved. We’re all older, we’re all more mature, and we have all had more experience. For me what I noticed this time around, when it pertains to Malcolm, was the outside pressures. I could tell this time around that he had a lot more on his shoulders, so I would say he has evolved in the sense that he was able to deal with a lot more pressure.

Sanaa Lathan: Yeah, and there’s the pressure of the first movie and of living up to it too. That’s a huge pressure.

Taye Diggs: Right and he did it again with a lot more on his shoulders. He had a cast that had experience…

Sanaa Lathan: (We were) very vocal. We tested him a lot and we were having a lot of fun, but we were always like, why? Why are you doing that? I know that we tested his patience but he dealt with it well, right?

Taye Diggs: Yeah. We were all new (at least I was) for the first one, so we weren’t nearly as vocal. But now we have matured as actors and we look at a script differently and challenged him on character and through lines and story structure, so he handled it well.

Question: Taye, have you seen “The Best Man” with your real-life wife?

Taye Diggs: Oh, of course. My wife was at the premiere and was a huge supporter, and hopefully she will enjoy the second one as much or even more than the first.

Question: You all look like you had an absolute blast on this movie. How much fun would you say you had on set?

Sanaa Lathan: They (the men) turned into like seven-year-olds (for the dance sequence). They had dance rehearsal because it wasn’t that simple and Tate has a dance background and Morris has no background. So literally in between takes for weeks they would be like okay, and 5, 6, 7, 8 (laughs). All the girls were so excited. This was like their debut at Alvin Ailey (laughs).

Taye Diggs: I have a stage background. I don’t know if you all know that. For me, stage is a lot more nerve-racking than film acting because no matter what you’re in front of people. With film acting you have control. If we’re shooting an emotional scene and its private you can say I don’t want anybody in the room except for the cinematographer and the director. It’s less nerve-racking doing film, but with this dance sequence Malcolm said, “Be on your stuff because the girls are gonna be watching.”

Sanaa Lathan: The first time we saw it was real-time reactions (laughs).

Taye Diggs: Yes, and there was a level of performance that we had to take into account because we wanted them to think we were good. So, we were nervous, at least I was, and I wanted to make sure that we had the counts and whatnots and it worked. It helped and when we filmed it, seeing them and getting that live, real energy…

Sanaa Lathan: And those reactions that you see in the movie are real.

Taye Diggs: That was great.

Question: Some of the themes in this movie are about unity and brotherhood and sisterhood amongst friends and family. Why do you feel it is so important that we see these images so often for minorities?

Taye Diggs: We don’t see them enough.

Sanaa Lathan: I think it’s important for us to see ourselves reflected in all that we are instead of one type of genre like the over-the-top comedy. It’s really important for the art form of film to reflect the world that we live in and who we are, and I think that it hasn’t really done that for people of color at this time in history.

Taye Diggs: We’ve come a long way but we are still struggling.

Sanaa Lathan: We still have a ways to go, but I think that’s why a movie like “The Best Man” resonates so much because people are hungry for stories that are layered, and they can recognize themselves and their family and friends in the things that they’re going through.

Question: What are the holidays like at your houses?

Taye Diggs: It’s crazy, fun and there’s always a little tension with those couple of family members who always bring something surprising. But growing up I’ve always looked forward to the holidays. Now I got my own little boy so there’s that level of enjoyment and excitement that comes with having a baby, and this Halloween was the first Halloween where he understood what was going on.

Sanaa Lathan: What was he?

Taye Diggs: He was, and he chose this, a zombie Michael Jackson from “Thriller” and he was into it. I had a different take on Halloween this time. I was just loving being able to live through him.

Sanaa Lathan: What were you?

Taye Diggs: I wasn’t anybody because I was so focused on him which is something different. Usually I’m worried about what I’m going to be and dressing up and leaving him with the sitter and partying myself, but this time it was all about Halloween for him. It’s fun. The holidays are fun, and they are way more fun with a four-year-old.

Question: Sanaa, how did playing a pregnant character throughout the entire film affect your craft, and how do you think your character handled being under the same roof with two women who have a romantic history with your movie husband?

Taye Diggs: Usually they ask how it affected me (laughs).

Sanaa Lathan: When Malcolm pitched the idea that I was nine months pregnant, I was (coming from a female vain perspective) like, well damn (laughs). I’m like, the whole movie? And it’s not like three or four months where it’s cute, it’s nine months. But I think that energy and “well damn” is what women feel in their ninth month, so it worked. I had to put on this huge belly that they actually… I did “Blade” where I played a vampire years ago, and the same people that did the prosthetics for “Blade” did my belly, so it was like a real belly. It was heavy, it made me hot and you have to waddle. It was a drag, but it worked for the character. And I realized how sick and sadistic people are. Literally every day, I would get about three punches in the belly out of the blue (laughs). They were just laughing. Malcolm would do it and it was crazy! Something about knowing that it wasn’t real (laughs).

Taye Diggs: We were awful.

Question: How has your real lives paralleled what your characters go through, and how was it coming back after 14 years?

Sanaa Lathan: In terms of the parallel, I tried to be a glass half-full person and I think Robin has always been that especially for Harper. He’s kind of the glass half empty and she’s the glass half-full, and a lot of my friends call me a hippie. I cultivate that mindset to see the bright side of things, and I come from a family of artists and Bohemians in the 70’s so there’s that aspect. But other than that, the reunion was great. It was fun and it didn’t feel like work. We had so much fun in between takes.

Taye Diggs: It helps. I think it shows in the chemistry. You can choose to act it or you can just be real, and obviously it always helps when it’s real. Just being able to hang out socially and look forward to the time when the cameras aren’t rolling as well as the time when the cameras are rolling, it makes the entire experience truly enjoyable. It just worked out. I think we were so blessed, lucky, fortunate or however you want to term it. The fact that we even got everybody together in the first place I think was miraculous, and then to have that type of script and then to have everybody mature the way that they did. We all brought our life experiences to these roles. We’ve all been through our ups and downs, and that has affected us as people and as actors. We were lucky in that we could apply that to these characters.

Question: Sanaa, having grown up with a parent who is a director, has that affected how you approach filming and have you ever worked with your dad?

Sanaa Lathan: You know I’m about to work with my dad. I’m going to do kind of like a cameo thing on “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” I think that’s his show.

Taye Diggs: Oh, I want to do that. You tell him I want to be on it.

Sanaa Lathan: I will. You’d be perfect because you are a real husband of Hollywood. It’s a fake reality show, but Regina (Hill) is going to do it too. I wasn’t really around on set with my dad coming up. He and my mother broke up when I was five so I didn’t see him. He was always in my life but he was always so busy. The sets that I remember going to were “Sesame Street” when I was very young… I don’t know, I just didn’t go to a lot of sets and I have never worked with him. The great thing that I think I have in having parents that have been in the business is that they understand, and I think that’s a very special thing. I realize with a lot of my peers that they don’t have parents who really get what they are going through, and it’s great to have parents that you can lean on when you are going through some stuff.

Taye Diggs: You probably were blessed that you weren’t raised on set. A lot of times kids that have that early exposure end up going down the wrong avenues and you’re fairly sane.

Sanaa Lathan: Thanks!

Question: So, when it comes to your mentors, who would you say have been some of the people you go to for guidance in this industry?

Taye Diggs: For me, it was a very emotional shoot and Sanaa has always been in my life someone who I can bounce stuff off of and she always has really, really great and positive things to say. I have a best friend who is not an actor and we’ve been close since junior high school. No one knows me better than him and he has a good perspective. A lot of times you don’t want to go to someone that knows the business. You want a more accurate kind of view that doesn’t give you a lot of excuses like people in the business do. So yeah, I’ve leaned on him as well.

Sanaa Lathan: You know I get it from everybody, from my parents and I have great girlfriends. I feel like having some really close black actress friends is actually great because it’s such a unique road that we travel. There are so many blessings and so many challenges, but it’s great to have that community because there are days where you don’t want to do it anymore, and it’s great to have that person who is kind of in the trenches who would say to you, get up. So, I get it from everywhere. I don’t really have any one mentor.

The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and you can also stream it on various digital platforms.

Malcolm D. Lee on 'The Best Man Holiday'

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview was from a press day which took place in 2013.

In Hollywood, most sequels usually come out one to two years after the original because the studios want the money to keep rolling in while the property is still fresh in audiences’ collective minds. But when it came to making a sequel to “The Best Man,” writer and director Malcolm D. Lee was not about to rush it. “The Best Man Holiday” is being released 14 years after its predecessor, and it reunites Lee with Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun and Melissa De Sousa who reprise their roles. This time the college friends reunite for the holidays at Lance and Mia’s mansion, and it soon reignites old rivalries and romances from the past.

Since “The Best Man,” Lee has gone on to direct the comedy “Undercover Brother,” the roller-skating comedy-drama “Roll Bounce,” “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” the musical comedy “Soul Men” and the horror spoof “Scary Movie 5.” We got to catch up with him when he appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. While there, Lee discussed why it took so long to make this sequel, what he thinks about the success that African American films have had in 2013, and of the possibility of there being a third “Best Man” movie.

Question: In a world where people are making sequels a year to three years later, what took you so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: Honestly, there was talk of doing a sequel very early on when the first movie came out, but I wasn’t interested in doing the sequel right away. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a director. It was my first movie and I didn’t want to just do the same thing. My idea was if I was going to revisit these characters, and I thought I would want to, it would be like 10 years later after they’ve lived some life and had kids. Around late 2005 or so I just started percolating the idea and I would see the cast over the years and say hey I’m thinking about doing the sequel, and they were like, oh okay. It just got to the point where I was like, okay I’m ready to do this now, and I had taken enough notes and put enough of a structure together where I said well, let me get the cast together and let’s see what can happen. I basically got them together in early 2011 and said okay, let’s all get in the same room and at least we will have all caught up. I have an idea for a sequel, and if we all think at the end of this meal that it’s worth doing then I’ll pursue it. So, I pitched them the idea and they were all into it and they liked it, and I said well, let’s go. Then a couple months later I went to Universal and pitched them the idea and we got it going. It took a while to get it going because I wrote the script pretty quickly because I had been thinking about it for so long, and it wasn’t easy. It was, as you’ve seen from the film, very different tonally speaking than the first one, and I think that was part of their hesitation of wanting to make it. I didn’t want to do the same thing again. I didn’t want to tell the same story. The things you think about when you are in your mid to late 20’s is very different than what you think about when you are in your late 30’s and early 40’s and married and have children and have bills to pay and do grown up stuff and dealing with grown up things. So, I said to them it’s not about wanting to do a destination wedding or anything like that. People loved this movie because they loved the characters. They loved the people. They don’t just love that it was a wedding. It took us bringing the cast together and doing a read through, and once they did the read through they were like okay, we get it.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about the process of getting into the minds of these characters after so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: I know these characters very well. I’ve lived with them in my head for a long time so when you evolve as a person you have to have your characters evolve too. Not only that, but my actors were great actors in the first movie, and they are even better now. I have grown as an artist, as a writer and as a director. I’m better, so I wanted to make something that was more sophisticated, something that spoke to these characters that would be similar to where they were but which also showed their growth and evolution. I don’t think it was that difficult. It was just a matter of really knowing the characters and making them evolve.

Question: Did you seriously entertain other alternatives to the storyline for each character at any point?

Malcolm D. Lee: What I had come up with I pretty much stuck to. There wasn’t a whole lot of deviation. There were a lot of suggestions by the studio about making it a wedding movie and blah, blah, blah, and I was just like no I don’t want to do that. So, it was pretty much what I wanted to do, and the actors had some input about what they felt about their characters and where they could be strengthened and layered. Some of the suggestions from the studio were like, well this person is out of the picture already, this person is that already, and this person is divorced, and I was like I brought the cast back together and we are going to do this collectively, period. At least you’ve got to give this a fair shot. So that’s why we did the reading, and that’s what made them say oh okay, we get it.

Question: Futuristically speaking, do you foresee a production of a series or a spinoff from this kind of film like “Soul Food” or something similar to that?

Malcolm D. Lee: It’s possible. People love these characters and they want to live with these characters, so it’s a rich enough world and a world that’s rarely seen on network or cable television. The only danger would be like, could you get all the actors to do a series and where do you start it? Do you cast different people? So, I don’t know. I had the idea of, were this movie to be successful, to do a series that would take place from the end of the first movie until the second movie. That 14-year span might make for an interesting television show, but how do you cast that too? It’s possible. We’ll see.

Question: Have you thought about doing a third movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: Well we have to see how this one’s going to perform first. That will dictate whether a third one gets made or even talked about. There have been some whispers. I have an idea, let’s put it like that.

Question: What’s the idea?

Malcolm D. Lee: I’m not going to say.

Question: Are you going to wait another 15 years to make it?

Malcolm D. Lee: I will not wait another 15 years. If it happens at all, it’ll happen quickly.

Question: “The Best Man Holiday” actually feels like a stand-alone movie in that you don’t have to go back to the first movie to catch up with or relate to the characters. Was it important to you to make it a stand-alone film so that you can capture new audiences as well as retain the fans of the first?

Malcolm D. Lee: I don’t know if that was a conscious decision. When I set out to make the first film, I set out to make a classic movie, one that will stand the test of time. Fortunately, that has been the case. People really love “The Best Man,” and with this one I knew I had to, in my mind, make a movie that was better than the first. Or at least, in my mind, more sophisticated and more layered and have some deeper things to explore. So as a result, yes I guess the movie stands on its own but that’s what the whole opening credits are about which is trying to fill in people who may not know, and then also the fans of the first one get kind of tickled about remembering them then and this is what they’ve been doing and this is where they’re at now. I certainly wanted the movie to stand on its own and I think that there are people who really loved the first one will be more deeply connected. I think people that have not seen the first one was still enjoy this, but I think the fans of the first one will really enjoy this because they’ve had the experience of 14 years of viewing it.

Question: 2013 has been a great year for critically acclaimed black films. What do you think that means for the future of black filmmaking?

Malcolm D. Lee: We’ve seen these bursts before, and what happens is that studios and filmmakers start to churn out carbon copies of these movies. When Spike (Lee) first came out with “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze,” it was like this Spike Lee phenomenon. There were a couple of movies that came out like “House Party” and “New Jack City,” and they were all different. John Singleton started with “Boyz n the Hood,” and that was like the whole hood genre and pushing that. Then “Menace II Society” and “Juice” came out and we got saturated with that and we were like, okay, what’s next? On their tail came “Love Jones,” “The Best Man” and “Soul Food” which gave us a different side of African-American life. Then in 2008, nobody wanted to make any black movies. They weren’t profitable, nobody was going to support them, people got tired of them and they petered out which is why I had to wait until “Jumping the Broom” came out before I went ahead and pitched the movie to Universal to see what the appetite of the studios and the audience was going to be. I hope that the diversity of African American fare this year will continue. It has been a very refreshing year to see sports movies, comedies, musicals, romantic comedies, historical drama and indie movies that are made by black filmmakers. So, I hope that it continues and that the quality of the work keeps getting better because I feel like that’s great. But if there’s like, oh, we can make money because they’re going to come out for Kevin Hart or this person or that person, then it’s going to be a money grab. It’s got to be about having choices at the movie theater that African-American audiences can enjoy and general audiences can enjoy, and just let it be a regular thing. Let’s see great movies.

Question: Can you tell us about more about the movie’s soundtrack and what role you played in it?

Malcolm D. Lee: One of the things that I was doing back in 2005 was listening to Christmas music and thinking about where it could fit into the movie. I love music. I think music and songs are such an integral part of filmmaking so I was playing a lot of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas music and Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. So, a lot of those songs were written into the movie, and then we get updates of many of them. It was very, very integral in the soundtrack and making sure that the sound that was created was going to be integral to the movie. I don’t like soundtracks that just are “inspired by.”

Question: How did you decide which artists to include in the soundtrack?

Malcolm D. Lee: You work with a label and they say well we got this person and we’ve got that person and it’s kind of like casting. I thought Fantasia would do a good job on this song, I think Jordan Sparks would do a good job on that song. Someone like Ne-Yo who came out of the blue, the song that he sings is a Marvin Gaye song called “I Want to Come Home for Christmas.” I thought that nobody was going to be able to replace that, but Ne-Yo came in and I showed him the scene and where it fit, and I showed them how important was for the movie and how the emotion was going to play. He said listen, I’m not going to sound like Martin, but I’m going to do it in a way that is me and it will be faithful, and he killed it. First time out and I was like, wow! That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you’re just no, that’s not quite it. Let’s try that again. Also, the one song that’s featured, the Stevie Wonder song that Marsha Ambrosius and Anthony Hamilton sing on camera (“As”), that had to be in the movie where it was because it was very integral to the first film. I always felt that it was one of the greatest love songs ever made and it would be great to do it as a ballad or as a duet, so Marsha and Anthony were a great choice for that. It’s funny because people, when I’ve been watching the movie with audiences, love seeing Anthony, and then they recognize the song. And if that’s not enough, then they see Marsha and they are like, oh my god! It’s really a beautiful combination. We struck gold with that, I think.

Question: Which of the characters do you relate the most to and why, and did that change from the first movie to the second movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: There’s a little bit of me in all the characters. They’re all within me. I lived with them in my mind. Of course, there are female characters and there are certain things that I don’t know because I’m a man, and I observe and talk to people about how they feel about fidelity. Murch (played by Harold Perrineau) finding out those kinds of things about his wife and they have a great open relationship, but it’s like whoa, that’s something I didn’t expect. How do I deal with that? Should I be mad about that? I don’t think they’ve changed over the years. They’re pretty much the same to me.

Question: Can you walk us through what it’s like with your writing process when it comes to creating these characters? Where does it start and how does it develop?

Malcolm D. Lee: When it came to these characters, I want to see where they left off. From the get-go I just started saying that I wanted to set this movie at Christmas time because it’s a cinematic time of year, and it makes it a reason for being together. If you are going to bring these characters back together, it’s got to be for a reason. Harper (Taye Diggs) was kind of on top of the world when we left off. He had learned some things and had been beaten down a little bit, literally and figuratively, but he was on his ascension. So now I want to say okay, what if he has a couple of failed things? Lance (Morris Chestnut) has this seemingly charmed life and he does; he’s about to break a record, he’s got four beautiful children, he’s got this ginormous house and this wonderful, beautiful, supportive, loving wife, but there’s something that’s going to test his faith even more than in the first movie. And then you have the other characters and you just try to give them conflicts and obstacles that they have to get around. I’ve learned over the years to be a better writer and what characters are used for. Quentin (Terrence Howard) is going to be that button pusher still and he’s going to give us the comic relief and so is Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) and they’re going to be my comic fastballs, but at the same time they are more than they were in the first movie. I tried to write something sophisticated, challenging for myself and challenging for the actors because why come back together because it wasn’t for the money. This wasn’t a money grab at all. We did this for price and it was about displaying their acumen as actors, mine as a director and writer, and kind of re-introducing ourselves to the world and the time was right. We also knew that there was a large fan base for this movie that really wanted to see these characters again, so let’s give the people what they want.

“The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and it is available to stream on various digital platforms.

Chadwick Boseman on Playing Baseball Great Jackie Robinson in ’42’

42-fp-0292

Before he took on the title role in “Black Panther,” Chadwick Boseman had the honor of portraying baseball great Jackie Robinson in “42.” With Hollywood being the way it is, you would expect to see studio executives insisting on a getting a big time movie star to portray the famous baseball legend, but writer/director Brian Helgeland got away with casting Boseman back when he was relatively unknown to audiences at large. An actor and playwright by training, Boseman started to burn into our collective consciousness with this performance.

Filmmakers and actors over the years like Spike Lee and Denzel Washington have tried and tried to bring the story of Robinson to the big screen but with no success. It took Helgeland, who won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay to “L.A. Confidential,” to finally succeed in making such a film a reality. The burning question is how did Boseman get the role of Robinson over so many others? There must have been thousands upon thousands of actors desperate to play the legendary ballplayer, and there is something very inspiring about a lesser known actor beating out a bunch of big-name stars for this opportunity. Boseman, during an interview with Julie Miller of Vanity Fair, explained how he got cast.

“I had left L.A. for a few months, and I was directing a play Off Broadway in the East Village,” Boseman told Miller. “I came back to Los Angeles for a visit and was supposed to go back to New York on a Friday, and my agent said, ‘No, they want to see you for 42. For the Jackie Robinson film.’ I met with 42 director Brian Helgeland, and I knew that I would love to work with him. He’s an Oscar winner and a great writer but also, the way that he works, you know sometimes that you can vibe with a person and that you will work well together.”

“The additional meeting was great. A lot of it was just talking about the role and project and why he wanted to do it,” Boseman continued. “I left thinking that it was a great audition but didn’t necessarily know if I would get it. The next week, they called me back in again, and I could tell that he was trying to show me to somebody else. They were taping it and saying stuff like ‘What else might they want to see?’ I realized at that point that I was Brian’s choice, so I was just trying to prove it.”

Before “42” came along, Boseman had been working a lot in television and appeared on shows like “ER,” “Law & Order” and “CSI: NY.” Eventually, he started starring in movies such as “The Express” among others. Surprisingly though, Boseman did not originally set out to be an actor. A graduate of Howard University and the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford, he saw his career heading in a different direction.

“When I started in theater and film, I thought I would be a director,” Boseman said. “The only reason that I started acting was because I felt like I needed to understand what the actors were doing and their process so that I could better guide them. During the course of that, I caught the acting bug. But once I finished my acting training, I still was thinking I would be a writer/director. I don’t really think I focused on acting until I came to L.A. in 2008. That’s when it got serious for me.”

As a kid, Boseman played Little League baseball for a time, but he was more serious about playing basketball after a while. When it comes to sports movies, most directors prefer actors to have some sort of experience in baseball or whatever sport their film is about. It looks like Boseman had just about enough experience to show he could play Robinson, but he still had to go through a lot of baseball training in order to prepare for the role before the cameras started rolling. He related his training regimen to Eric Alt of Athlon Sports as well as the challenges he faced during pre-production.

“All the coaches I worked with concentrated on the way he did things,” Boseman told Alt. “They studied his swing, and I studied his swing on my own. We would tape batting practice and they would film me base running, and then every two or three weeks they would take his footage and split-screen it with mine and give it to me and let me compare. We did that for almost five months.”

“The fielding was much more difficult than the batting,” Boseman continued. “I’m a natural athlete, so I have the hand-eye coordination to hit the ball. But the fielding? The footwork? Understanding where to throw the ball from, depending on where you receive it? I just wish there was more of it in the movie because I worked so hard on it! (laughs) When I saw the movie I was like, ‘Man, that’s all? That’s it?'”

The cast and crew of “42” also had a great asset in having the participation of Jackie’s widow, Rachel Robinson. It turns out Rachel was very much involved in looking over different drafts of the screenplay, and it gave the film a genuine legitimacy it might otherwise not have had. Boseman told Miller he began his preparation for the role by talking to Rachel.

“When you’re trying to tackle a hurricane, or something larger than life, I knew that the first thing I had to do was talk to her,” Boseman said. “She gave me some books. She sat me down on the couch and told me about their relationship and the rules that they set for themselves to get through the experience. That was a great start, because you are meeting someone who is still connected to him and you get a sense of him when you meet her. You see what kind of a man could actually stand by her. Who is this guy that she would fall for?”

“In some sense, you got the sense of the edges of him, like the two of them were a puzzle. She is one piece and his piece is not here, but I can feel the edges from her,” Boseman continued. “She started the journey, definitely. She showed up on set. And she challenged me by asking me why I should play him. That’s a good place to start because you have to start with yourself.”

While Chadwick Boseman must have felt a great deal of pressure in bringing the legendary Jackie Robinson to life in “42,” he did deliver a terrific performance which had audiences applauding loudly when the credits come up. Acting may not have been Boseman’s first choice as a profession, but it is certainly working out for him in a great way.

SOURCES:

Julie Miller, “42 Star Chadwick Boseman on Playing Jackie Robinson, Copying His Baseball Moves, and Being Stood Up by the President,” Vanity Fair, April 12, 2013.

Eric Alt, “A Chat with Chadwick Boseman, Star of Jackie Robinson Biopic ’42,’” Athlon Sports, April 19, 2013.

‘The Hangover Part III’ is Infinitely Depressing When it Should Be Funny

The Hangover Part III movie poster

The Hangover Part III” is a serious disappointment. I am not even sure it is meant to be comedy considering how dark and depressing the material is. After the spirited debauchery of the previous two films, and I have no problem defending the second, director Todd Phillips and company try to do something different instead of giving us the same old thing which is commendable, but what we get is a far too serious action movie, and not a very good one at either. While the previous two films were a lot of fun, this one is dark and largely depressing, and the laughs are few and far in between. What the hell went wrong here?

The movie starts with Alan (Zach Galifianakis) on a downward spiral as he ends up buying a giraffe for no reason other than he can, and it ends up getting accidentally decapitated while he drives it home. The stress of this crazy incident ends up leading Alan’s father, Sid (Jeffrey Tambor), to have a fatal heart attack, and at the funeral it is revealed that Alan has been off of his medication for a long time. This brings the “Wolfpack” of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) back together as they stage an intervention and encourage Alan to go to a rehab facility in Arizona to get help. Alan agrees to go, but only if the Wolfpack will go with him.

But while on their drive to Arizona, they are captured and kidnapped by Black Doug (Mike Epps, reprising his role from the first film) and his boss, drug kingpin Marshall (John Goodman). It turns out Alan’s old friend Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) has stolen $21 million in gold from Marshall, and he wants it back. Chow, at the movie’s start, has just escaped from prison and Alan, against his better judgment, has stayed in touch with him despite all the bad things he put him, Phil and Stu through. As a result, Marshall holds onto Doug and orders the three of them to find Chow and bring him back to him. If they fail to do so, he will kill Doug. Great setup for a comedy, huh?

The great thing about the two previous “Hangover” movies was how we were every bit as intrigued as the characters were in finding out what happened to them the night before, and we shared in their discoveries with a great, delirious glee. With this third movie, you get the sense none of them want to be dealing with anymore of these shenanigans and, as a result, neither do we. All the fun has gone out the window, and what we are left with is a dreary road movie which Phillips and his co-writer Craig Mazin were under the mistaken impression they could mine comedy out of.

One major mistake made in “The Hangover Part III” is the filmmakers give certain minor characters from the previous films get far too much screen time this time around. This is especially the case with Chow who we first see escaping a dark and grimy prison at the movie’s start. In small doses, Chow is a riot to watch and Jeong is a very gifted comedy actor, but this time the character overstays his welcome and quickly becomes an unlikable prick with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There is nothing more to Chow than him raising hell, getting high on cocaine and deceiving everyone around him whether they are friend or foe, and he comes across as a needless irritation in this sequel. Just try to laugh when Chow smothers a cocaine-fed rooster to death, I dare you.

Galifianakis also gets more screen time in this one as Alan, and this proves to be another major mistake. As funny as he can be when given the right material, his shtick as Alan has now worn out its welcome. Even when he has moments of genuine sweetness, they are wrecked by the character’s obliviousness to proper human etiquette. When “The Hangover” first came out, Galifianakis came across as one of the more original comedic actors we had seen in a long time. How sad it is to see his talents squandered in his tepid reprisal of his most famous characters thus far.

As for Cooper and Helms, they just seem to be going through the motions here as their characters have little in the way of growth or depth. Cooper hit a career high with his brilliant performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” and an even bigger one with his remake of “A Star is Born,” and Helms has been endlessly hilarious in “The Office” and various other projects. But “The Hangover Part III” proves to be a big waste of their time and talents, and you get the feeling after a while they really don’t want to be in this sequel at all.

Was there anything funny going on in “The Hangover Part III” at all? Yeah, there were a few chuckles here and there. Comedic powerhouse Melissa McCarthy shows up in a cameo as pawn shop owner Cassie, and her scenes with Galifianakis succeeded in putting a smile on my face during a movie I found myself mostly frowning at. It is also great to see Heather Graham back as Jade, Stu’s escort-wife, and it allows Alan to have a sweet reunion with the baby he befriended in the first film. There is also a post-credits sequence which has the Wolfpack up to no good again, and it makes you believe Phillips and company would have been better off recycling the same old story for another movie like they did with “The Hangover Part II.”

I saw “The Hangover Part III” at an early morning screening where there were about five or six other people in the audience. I think I heard them laugh only once or twice. I shudder to think of what a sold out audience would have sounded like during this movie. There was a lot of talent involved in the making of this eagerly awaited sequel, but what we ended up with instead is an epic fail of a comedy. Seriously, few things in this life are more infinitely depressing than a comedy which does not make you laugh much, if at all.

By the way, the next time you are thinking of having a character sing Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” at a karaoke bar for comedic effect, don’t.

* out of * * * *

 

Jennifer Lopez on Playing Leslie Rodgers in ‘Parker’

Jennifer Lopez in Parker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Jennifer Lopez has been so deeply involved in the music business for the last few years to where it is easy to forget she is also an actress. Now that her stint on “American Idol” is over, she gets the opportunity to be an actress again in Taylor Hackford’s “Parker.” In it she plays Leslie Rogers, an unsuccessful real estate agent and recent divorcee who has been dealt an unlucky hand in life and is forced to live with her overbearing mother Ascension (Patti LuPone) almost against her will. While “Parker” itself is not a great movie, it allows Lopez to give her best performance since she acted opposite George Clooney in “Out of Sight.”

The part of Leslie Rogers came to Lopez while she was filming a season of “American Idol,” and it made her realize what was missing from her life at that point. In talking with Nina Terrero of NBC Latino, she explained how she was drawn to “Parker’s” screenplay, and being on the set of this movie made her realize how much she wanted to go back to doing this kind of work.

“To be honest, I had been doing music, releasing two albums,” Lopez said. “And when I got the chance to do this movie between two seasons of ‘Idol,’ I realized how much I really missed acting; I hadn’t done enough of it over the past few years.”

“When they offered me a third season of ‘Idol,’ I just had to say no,” Lopez continued. “I made the decision that I was going to go back on tour and after that focus on film for the next few years. It’s just the perfect time in my life with the things that I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced. I have so much to offer as an actor at this point in my life. I’m going to make music and I’m going to focus on my artistry.”

Filming “Parker” came also came around the time Lopez was divorcing from her husband of seven years, Marc Anthony. Now many have been quick to dismiss Lopez’s performance here as they have gotten so used to seeing her being so glamorous whenever she is in public. Regardless, she has been through a rough and tumble time, before and after she became famous, which people in general are not quick to acknowledge. She explained this in more detail during her interview with Terrero.

“We’re both human beings who’ve gone through hard and difficult times,” Lopez said of the similarities between herself and her character. “At this particular time, she’s recently divorced, a little desperate. When I was filming this role, I had similar feelings. I had recently decided to divorce and it was hard to get out of bed and go to the set every day. I knew what those feelings were, to feel your world was falling apart.”

Hackford himself had zero hesitation about casting Lopez in “Parker.” While it might seem rather odd to see this particular superstar playing a down on her luck character, Hackford had known her long enough to be aware of how she had to fight hard to get to where she is now. He made this clear to me during my one-on-one interview with him.

“I know who that person is, she’s for real,” Hackford said of Lopez. “You see the glamorous person out there in the world of entertainment, rich and famous and a lot of times you get a bad rap because people are jealous. But Jennifer’s the real person. She was a dancer and they can just work and work and work.”

“I trusted the fact that she was good, but I didn’t realize how good she is. She’s a fantastic actress. She walks on the set, she frees herself of all of that Jennifer Lopez stuff and she embodies the character,” Hackford continued. “You tell Jennifer a note and BANG! It’s there in the next take. Not partially there, it’s there. You think, my God she got it, she understood it. Now part of that’s me because if you can’t explain what you want, how do you expect someone to do it? But the other part of it is she’s got an instrument that is real and very developed. She’s a much better actress now that she ever was before, and she’s also gone through some things in her life. She’s got some miles on the treads of those tires, and ultimately she’s incorporated that. I think she’s terrific in this movie.”

Still, Lopez did show some hesitation in her scene with Jason Statham, who plays Parker of the movie’s title, where she has to strip down to her underwear to show him she is not wearing a wire. Even though Lopez said she spent a lot of time eating right and working out before filming this sequence, she is no less nervous about doing stuff like that today than when she first started out in movies.

“Doing scenes like this one are so nerve-wracking,” Lopez said. “You have to get mentally ready because it’s a vulnerable state, being in front of a crew having to do a scene like that. My heart beats getting ready for it, but you know at the end of the day it’s part of the job.”

Now many may still not be willing to give Jennifer Lopez the credit she deserves for her performance in “Parker,” but this will end up saying more about her critics than it will about her. Lopez actually proves to be quite believable as a divorcee who is trying to put her life back together with varying degrees of success, and she proves to be one of the things in this movie which actually works. At this point, her career can go in many different directions, and she is excited about the opportunities which are ahead of her.

“I always want my fans to be happy with what I do,” Lopez said. “But I don’t want to choose my projects based on what I think will please them. I choose projects that are I can excel in and that are real, not stuff that’s fake or forced. I don’t consider genre so much as having a great script, great director and great actors to play off of. Doing an intense drama scene can be as much fun as a romantic comedy. I enjoy all of it!”

SOURCES:

Nina Terrero, “Jennifer Lopez talks ‘Parker’ and her return to acting: ‘I have so much to offer,’” NBC Latino, January 22, 2013.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Taylor Hackford on Parker,” We Got This Covered, January 25, 2013.

James Franco Undergoes One Hell of a Transformation in ‘Spring Breakers’

James Franco in Spring Breakers

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2013.

It almost shouldn’t work. James Franco as a Florida-based rapper in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers?” Just the thought of it sounds utterly laughable as we are so used to him playing such clean-cut characters in the “Spider-Man” trilogy, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.” But then again, he did play the ultimate stoner in “Pineapple Express,” so there is that. In the end, while Franco does have some laughable moments as the crazy rapper Alien, the role allows him to give his best performance in a movie ever since his Oscar nominated turn in “127 Hours.” There’s no doubt as to how much research Franco did, and this is one of the first great actor transformations of 2013.

After watching “Spring Breakers,” you desperately want to find out what made Franco take on this role as it is so very different from any he has played previously. Clearly, he was drawn to working with Korine who is best known for writing the screenplay to the highly controversial “Kids,” and maybe he has a thing for rap music which we did or did not know about. But in a conversation with Roger Moore of RedeyeChicago.com, Franco discussed one of the main reasons why he chose this particular project.

“None of us had ever experienced spring break, really,” Franco said of himself, Korine and the rest of the cast. “Actors who start their careers early miss some key experiences in life. I didn’t go to prom. Well, I was dating a theater nerd so we went to a theater festival back in Aspen, Oregon instead. I experienced prom, for the first time, on film. Same with spring break. This is my spring break. And I was over 30 when I got around to it.”

Many have said Franco based Alien on the rapper Riff Raff (and this includes Riff Raff himself), but the actor said his main inspiration for the character was another rapper named Dangeruss. Dangeruss is a local Florida rapper who is still relatively unknown, but he lived in the same area of Florida which Alien lives in and has the same kind of lifestyle. Franco ended up writing a long essay which was featured on the MTV website, and in it he explains how big of an influence Dangeruss was on him.

“I met Dangeruss through Harmony,” Franco wrote. “Before I went down to St. Pete to play Alien in ‘Spring Breakers,’ Harmony sent me innumerable videos and photos as references for my character. He drowned me in them. Harmony is a master of online research. Once he chooses a location to shoot, it turns out he is also a master at finding the most interesting and odd local places and characters. One of the last videos Harmony sent me was of a white guy in dreads, sitting in his car, rapping about Dope Boyz. This turned out to be Dangeruss, a local rapper who Harm had met at an audition and knew immediately that he was the real deal.”

“The same day I arrived, Harmony had me visit Danger at his apartment,” Franco continued. “I was surprised when we pulled into a rather nice sprawling housing development, country-club style, with fountains and manicured grass. I think there was even a driving range. When I met Danger, he was tall, thin as a stick, covered in tats and humble as hell. He was willing to help in any way. He told me about growing up in the bad part of town and having poetry as his only recourse when things got ugly. His involvement with the street and his involvement with hip-hop developed simultaneously. ‘While Peter Piper was picking peppers, I was selling yola at the corner store.’ His lyrics are the highly autobiographical chronicle of surviving on the streets of St. Pete.”

Then there’s the question of where Franco got those cornrows done. Looking at someone with cornrows, it makes me think of how painful the process of getting them must be as it involves a lot of hair being twisted around in unusual directions. However, in an interview with GQ, Franco described to Matthew Serba what it was like having them done.

“We had a local artist down in St. Petersburg, Florida do it,” Franco told Serba. “I think it took about five hours total, only because we had to try different cornrow configurations. It doesn’t hurt that much, but it does get very itchy because you can’t get them wet.”

Korine himself has stated in an interview with Joel D. Amos of Movie Fanatic of how impressed he was with Franco’s transformation into Alien. It turns out that the two of them spent a lot of time working on the character even before the cameras began rolling, but once Franco arrived on set, Korine was stunned at what he was witnessing.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Korine told Amos. “I spent a year just sending him images and talking to him, designing the character. I never saw him do it. He didn’t want to rehearse. When he put in the cornrows and the gold teeth and I heard the accent… I was like ‘whoa.’ He was a maniac.”

James Franco’s performance as Alien in “Spring Breakers” is really just another reminder of what an amazing actor he can be when you give him the right material to work with. While he may be getting more attention for the box office blockbuster “Oz the Great and Powerful,” it’s this movie which is bringing him the critical raves he deserves. Watching here makes you excited for what he has in store for us next.

SOURCES:

Roger Moore, “James Franco finally gets his spring break,” RedeyeChicago.com, March 21, 2013.

James Franco, “James Franco: The Inside Story of My ‘Spring Breakers’ Gangster,” MTV.com, February 20, 2013.

Matthew Serba, “Last Night…Talking Cornrows with James Franco,” GQ, May 1, 2012.

Joel D. Amos, “Harmony Korine on James Franco in Spring Breakers: What a Maniac!,” Movie Fanatic, March 21, 2013.

Michael Shannon on Playing the Notorious Richard Kuklinski in ‘The Iceman’

Michael Shannon in The Iceman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2013.

Thanks to his unforgettable performances in “Bug,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Runaways” and “Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon has long since become one of the best character actors working in movies today. It’s fascinating to watch him go from playing one kind of role to another which is completely different from the last, and his range as an actor has kept him from getting easily typecast in ways most actors cannot help but fall victim to. Now he takes on perhaps his most challenging role yet as the cold-blooded killer Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman.”

Based on, yes, a true story, Kuklinski was convicted in 1986 of murdering 100 men for different crime organizations in the New York area. At the same time, the movie shows him to be a loving husband to his wife Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) and their children. We would later learn of his crimes in more detail in Anthony Bruno’s book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” as well as in James Thebaut’s documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.” The documentary is especially interesting to talk about as Kuklinski described his various crimes without a hint of remorse. His only true regret was the irreparable damage he did to his own family, and it is this confession which ends up bringing him to tears.

Shannon was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for “The Iceman” press day, and he took the time to talk with me and several others about his experience making this particular film. He described the role as being very frightening, came to make some discoveries about the character which he didn’t see coming, and he admitted a truth about Kuklinski we are understandably hesitant to say out loud.

Michael Shannon: This is a very intimidating part to play. This character is so far removed from my own personal experience, and to try to play the part with any authenticity was a very daunting challenge. Sometimes I think I’m alone in this regard, but then sometimes I think maybe other people feel the same way and they’re just afraid to say it, but I actually kind of like the guy when I was watching the interviews. I think people are very adamant about, he’s a psycho, he’s a cold-blooded killer, he’s remorseless and so on. The fact of the matter is when you’re watching him in those interviews, he’s been arrested, he’s been caught, he’s not going to kill anybody else, his entire life has been ruined and he’s going to rot in jail until he dies. What good is it going to do him to cry on camera? It’s really none of our business, and in a way we’re all being peeping toms on this guy’s pretty cruddy life at this point. I looked at him as a pretty empathetic figure. If you look at his childhood at least as it’s described in the books that I read, it was absolute torture. He was tortured and it was very sad. So, these poor unfortunate parents created this monster, and he didn’t know how to… He wanted to be something other than he was. He even says it in the interview, he says it in the movie. He says, “This would not be me. This would not be me.” So, for all the people who say that he’s cold-blooded, why would he be saying that then? I found him a very sad, lonely person, and I felt like he deserved some sort of exploration into why he wound up the way he wound up.

Indeed, it’s hard to completely hate Kuklinski as he is presented in “The Iceman” as a devoted family man, and life had dealt him a bad hand which left him little in the way of skills to make a normal career out of. He did have a set of rules he set down for himself which dictated he did not kill women or children, and most of the people he killed were criminals and degenerates who weren’t doing society any favors. At the same time, it was not lost on Shannon or any of us that Kuklinski needed to be arrested and brought to justice for the murders he committed, but to dismiss him as some one-dimensional bad guy is to miss the bigger picture.

MS: This enterprise of making movies about people seems to be in service of trying to understand them, and that’s what I tried to do. He dropped out of school and he had a very low opinion of himself. I don’t think he thought he was a great person, and I think he was fighting lot of demons.

Shannon said he never talked to Kuklinski’s wife or any of the family members in preparation to play him, but this is understandable considering the subject matter. To ask them to participate in the production of “The Iceman” would be like asking them to relive a nightmare they may still be trying to wake up from. In terms of research, Shannon ended up relying on other resources.

MS: I did talk briefly to (Anthony) Bruno, the author who interviewed him. He talked with me for ten minutes and he told me the story of the first time he went to interview him and how just horrifying it was to be in the same room with him. He made the interviewer sit with his back to the door and Kuklinski would sit and look through the window, so Kuklinski knew when there was somebody out there like a guard or whatever and the interviewer didn’t. There was nobody that knew him that wanted to be involved with this I don’t think.

In the end, “The Iceman” is not out to change anyone’s mind about Kuklinski as a person. People have long since made up their minds about this man who murdered so many, but there is no denying Michael Shannon is a fantastic actor who continues to give one great performance after another. As Kuklinski, he allows us to peek inside this man’s twisted psyche to see the human being underneath all the notoriety, and it makes for a truly compelling portrait of a man whose name will forever live in infamy. Up next for Shannon is “Man of Steel” in which he will play Superman’s nemesis, General Zod. Like all of you, I can’t wait to see him in that superhero flick.

 

Matthew Goode on Portraying Such an Evil Character in ‘Stoker’

Matthew Goode in Stoker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Matthew Goode’s performance as the enigmatic Uncle Charlie in “Stoker” brings to mind the one Joseph Cotton gave as Charlie Oakley in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” Both men show a pleasant and courteous exterior, but there’s something in their eyes which tells you they are really twisted. Goode has delivered many strong performances in movies like “Match Point,” “Watchmen” and “A Single Man,” but it’s going to be impossible to forget him after seeing him playing a very frightening sociopath in this one.

Now playing a character as evil as Uncle Charlie has got to be a lot of fun for actors, but at the same time they really can’t judge a character like this too much. Once they do, they fail to portray them in a truthful way and their performance eventually rings false. Goode, in an interview with Nigel M. Smith of Indiewire, however, made it clear he was not about to fall into the same trap.

“I’m not a method actor; I think that would be rather exhausting on this sort of a project. But I don’t judge the character; I think that’s safe to say,” Goode told Smith. “You’re conning yourself between action and take. I don’t think about it too much, I just do what you have to do. You know there’s a camera in your face, and there are times when you can just get completely lost in it and the take is over. Then sometimes it’s very choreographed and you have to get your head in there to match with someone’s eye line, and I love that. I love the technique.”

“So with a darker character like this, it’s quite fun,” Goode continued. “It’s something that’s very different to who I am. I’m not a sociopath and I don’t go around strangling people. It’s just like kids playing. That’s really what our job is. We haven’t grown up.”

The other important thing to remember with a role like this is not to play it as evil. Yes, Uncle Charlie is evil as can be, but to portray just that one side of him would make for a very boring performance. You have to look at this character like you would any other and examine their wants, needs and motivations. In doing so, you will give yourself different areas to explore, and your performance will be all the better for it. In talking with Katie Calautti of Spinoff Online, Goode explained how he went about preparing to play Uncle Charlie.

“You can’t just play bad,” Goode told Calautti. “I wouldn’t even know how to start playing bad, or what that even means – it’s so two-dimensional. So you have to find some sense, despite his despicable acts, some kind of psychological truth of why. And director Park (Chan-wook) talked about bad blood and the idea that there was a predisposition within the family bloodline to want or need to commit these acts, and where does evil come from, is it nature or nurture? And for me they’re all very lonely, isolated characters. So I felt like, as much as this is a coming-of-age story for Mia (Wasikowska’s) character, Charlie’s kind of trapped in the past.”

The best scene in “Stoker” comes when Goode joins Wasikowska on the piano, and the two engage in a duet which can be best described as beautifully intense. Watching these two actors duel with one another while pounding away at those black and white keys was exhilarating, and it was the one scene from this film I wanted to know the most about. Karen Benardello of We Got This Covered was at the film’s press conference and asked Goode what it was like shooting this particular scene.

“It became liberating in the end,” Goode said. “I hadn’t played the piano in 20-odd years. So coming back into the fold of the piano, it was unbelievably daunting. Luckily, I don’t have a bad-sized hand, so I didn’t have to leap or anything like that. But it was hard work, but it was great working with Mia. We learned about three quarters of it, because some of it was just too hard, and too much going on with both hands. But we were able to fake some of that, and he was able to shoot the whole thing from whatever angle he wanted. We kind of recognized that in the vocabulary of filmmaking. When someone starts playing, you think, is he actually playing that? (laughs) He was able to dip down, and you go, they are! It’s not a trick on the audience, so it was nice.”

Hopefully Matthew Goode’s performance in “Stoker” will help burn his name into our collective consciousness because every moment he is onscreen is filled with a rising tension which never lets up. While he doesn’t let you in on all his character’s secrets, you know he is like a snake waiting to strike. He has already worked with a number of well-known directors such as Woody Allen, Tom Ford and Zack Snyder, but Goode makes it clear how a lot of the opportunities which have come his way so far have been the result of sheer luck.

“I’m not the person who’s able to pick and choose their roles,” Goode said. “But I know that Nicole [Kidman], for example, has said that she’s interested now – there might be a film in the studio system, but she loves independent film and she thinks that’s much more where her desires are, and the films she kind of likes. And so I think she is able to say to herself, ‘I like to choose projects not only based on the material but also the filmmaker,’ which is wonderful for her. And I think I just happen to have been quite lucky in the fact that the material that I gravitate towards or the people that have thought I am going to be better suited to it – because it’s not my choice, they’ve picked me. I’ve been lucky as hell, and the parts have been quite varied.”

 

SOURCES:

Nigel M. Smith, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode On the Joys of Playing a Sociopath and Working for Park Chan-Wook,” Indiewire, March 5, 2013.

Katie Calautti, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode on Evil, Parenting and, Yes, Belts,” Spinoff Online, March 1, 2013.

Karen Benardello, “Interview with Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode And Chan-wook Park On ‘Stoker,'” We Got This Covered, March 8, 2013.

Mia Wasikowska Fearlessly Dives Into the Dark Side in ‘Stoker’

Mia Wasikowska in Stoker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013.

After watching her in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and seeing her portray the highly intelligent daughter of Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in “The Kids are All Right,” Australian actress Mia Wasikowska goes from lightness to darkness in “Stoker.” In it she plays India, a mysterious, dark-haired teenager whose father has just been killed in a car accident on her 18th birthday. Throughout the movie we see India trying to deal with both her emotionally unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her enigmatic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has arrived to stay with them. Thanks in large part to Wasikowska, India is one of the most original and haunting teenage characters to appear in movies in quite some time.

It’s fascinating to watch Wasikowska’s transformation in “Stoker” as there is very little trace of the good-natured characters she has portrayed previously. Even her work in “Jane Eyre” felt like a fairy tale compared to the creepy nature of this film. Going into it, I wondered if Wasikowska was really looking to distance herself from the roles she has played in the past. It turns out she was, but in an interview with Helen Brown of The Telegraph, she also said it was because she was drawn to the character’s ambiguity.

“You don’t know if India’s a hero or a villain, the hunter or the hunted,” Wasikowska told Brown. “The film toys with your perception. It’s a weird love triangle between a mother, an uncle and a daughter. That feels very modern and very classic, at the same time.”

“It’s less about evil being in the bloodline than an idea of evil as contagious,” Wasikowska continued. “I think violence is something that catches on. I was interested in something India’s father says: ‘Sometimes you have to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.'”

I loved how Wasikowska avoided making India seem like the average sullen, anti-social or Goth-like teenager we’ve seen in so many movies and TV shows. There’s something about India which feels wholly original, and it is a wonderfully complex character you spend all of “Stoker” constantly trying to figure out. Wasikowska explained to Brown what she was aiming for when she decided to play India.

“Stereotypes are much more prominent in teen movies,” Wasikowska said. “As a teenager, it’s more attractive to watch something you don’t necessarily feel you are, to watch movies about pretty people in love. But it was always exciting for me to find roles that gave me an opportunity to express what I felt was the more realistic side of teenagers.”

The most memorable scene in “Stoker” comes when Uncle Charlie joins India on the piano for one of the most exhilarating duets ever filmed. The whole moment feels like a cross between the “Dueling Banjos” scene from “Deliverance” and David Helfgott playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s blisteringly difficult Concerto No. 3 in “Shine;” it’s a moment of harmony combined with a psychological unraveling which reaches a fever pitch. This is a movie scene I will be studying for a long time, and while talking with The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Ford, Wasikowska described what it was like filming it.

“That’s sort of one of the scenes that you’re always anticipating during the shoot,” Wasikowska told Ford. “It was almost my favorite one to film, because we had the music there, playing really loudly for us, and then, to a certain extent, I felt like I didn’t have to do anything because so much of the emotion and the feeling was in the music, and if I just sort of surrendered to that, it was all there.”

“Stoker” marks the English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook who is best known for his “Vengeance Trilogy” of movies which includes “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.” Both he and Wasikowska worked closely together on India to make sure they were on the same page throughout filming, and Wasikowska told Ford they kept sending each other pictures back and forth through email which helped to illustrate their thoughts on the character.

“Some of the images were from India’s perspective, so things that I thought would explain the way that she sees the world,” Wasikowska said. “And then the other images would be something that had an essence of her physicality or her emotionally, so that was really helpful.”

Now with a movie as dark and disturbing as “Stoker” is, you would think the atmosphere on set would be very serious as to not break the mood of the piece. But as we found out on this movie and many others before it, the dark nature of the script was counterbalanced by a lot of humor amongst the cast and crew. Wasikowska made this abundantly clear to contactmusic.com while at a press conference.

“I’ve often found on the films that have a more serious nature, the more light-hearted and silly and goofy it becomes in between the scenes out of necessity to counter the intensity of the scenes and material,” Wasikowska said. “I felt like we were pretty good at that!”

Watching Mia Wasikowska in “Stoker” gives you an idea of what great work lies ahead for her. Here she digs deep into a character she hasn’t previously portrayed, and she completely disappears into the part as a result. While India is still a hard character to figure out at the movie’s end, it is Wasikowska’s journey into the role which renders it all the more fascinating.

“The best way to explain it is when I’m filming, I have a definite story that I follow for her, but then when I finish and I let go of the project a bit, it’s sort of up to interpretation,” Wasikowska said. “So one of the interesting things has been seeing how people have interpreted her (India) and her character in the story. And the only thing that’s consistent is how different everybody’s opinion is of her.”

SOURCES:

Helen Brown, “Stoker’s Mia Wasikowska, interview: ‘It’s a weird love triangle between a mother, an uncle and a daughter…,'” The Telegraph, March 1, 2013.

Rebecca Ford, “‘Stoker’s’ Mia Wasikowska on Her Mysterious Character and Sexualized Piano Playing,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 28, 2013.

Mia Wasikowska: ‘Stoker’ shoot was fun,” contactmusic.com, February 28, 2013.