From the Web
More on Vibe
The premiere episode of Starz’s seminal New York City crime drama, Power, introduced a world that is now blaringly unfamiliar nearly six years later. A very married James and Tasha St. Patrick walk hand-in-hand into the opening of Truth nightclub. Tasha and her best friend LaKeisha are thick as thieves, bonding over drinks and designer threads. James’ drug-toting alter-ego, Ghost, commits a brutal murder within the first ten minutes. Ghost’s partner-in-crime, Tommy, is eyeing a red-haired waitress named Holly. Tariq St. Patrick adorably tries to con his dad into doing his Spanish homework. And after 18 years, James has a chance encounter with an old flame, Angela Valdez; the two trade googly eyes and jokes about the old ‘hood while knowing little to nothing about each other’s current lives.
Yet, some things about that very episode bear a striking resemblance to the show’s sixth and final season. Before turning into a cold-blooded killer himself, Ghost scolds Tommy for cavalierly bringing street drama to Truth. Ghost’s flashbacks of his murderous act turn to lovemaking with Tasha into a moment of animalistic catharsis. Tommy lets out a hearty laugh at Ghost’s dream of “growing up, going legit and living happily ever after.” Tariq naively questions how his dad even learned to speak Spanish. Tasha watches dreadfully from across the room as a visibly enamored James takes Angela’s phone number. Angela defends abandoning her and James’ teenage courtship with a foreshadowing truth: “I would’ve dropped everything for you. Everything my parents worked for, everything I’d worked for.”
Ultimately, the old and new worlds combust, leaving the death of James “Ghost” St. Patrick in their wake.
“The show kind of told its own end,” says Courtney Kemp, Power’s creator and showrunner. “If you’re writing for as long as we have, the characters start to tell their own stories after a while. You’re not really as much in control of them as you think. There are certain things that they do and certain things that they don’t do, certain things that they will and won’t say and do, and so you go with where the story is leading you.” But how does a bevy of creatives stay in-tune enough with a fictional world to relinquish control and allow for natural progression? Apparently, with an incredible amount of empathy—even for the story’s most devious.
Omari Hardwick describes his Power character, James “Ghost” St. Patrick, as “dynamic,” “duplicitous,” “big,” “angelic,” and “magnanimous.” Try your luck at adding “narcissist” to that list of adjectives, and Hardwick will stop you in your tracks. “I would say that he’s maybe the most empathetic character in the entire story,” he says. “He went to a little white boy—who was the only white boy in the neighborhood—and to a girl who hid powder and drugs for him, and said, ‘We could be more.’ He didn’t say ‘I could be more,’ he said ‘We can be more.’ By the end of the series he says, ‘Tommy, I got more.’ And that’s only after asking Tommy a million times to believe in we. Tommy said ‘No, ain’t no more.’ Tasha said ‘No, ain’t no more.’ But Ghost kept saying ‘we;’ he never said ‘I.’ Eventually he said ‘I.’ Eventually. The narcissism was a growth pattern.”
This level of humanity has been a part of Hardwick’s approach since the very beginning of his career. With roots in poetry and hip-hop, Hardwick asserts that affinity for the human plight is necessary for artists of any kind. “Those that are natural at this—those that look like they were pulled off the side of the road and made for every character they play—that natural thing is as synonymous with empathy as anything else that makes you a naturally good artist.” Even with the early knowledge that Ghost would either die or go to jail, Hardwick insists that treating James St. Patrick as finite would be against the ethos he brings to his craft. “I would imagine that you do a disservice immediately to the character if you’re thinking about that. I’ve always been an actor who believes that a character can’t be known until the job is actually completed.”
If viewers tally up what they know about Ghost, the math may not check out on the side of righteousness, even after Power’s final curtain call. Twenty murders. One failed marriage. One fallen mistress. One child lost, another scorn. And if one say, Googled the traits of a narcissist, Ghost would certainly fit the profile. Inflated sense of importance. Entitlement and need for admiration. Obsession with success, power and finding perfection in a mate. Manipulative for the sake of their own interests. Unwilling to consider the feelings of others. Hardwick, however, proposes that we look at more than just figures and textbook symptoms.
“He grew up with no mom,” the actor points out. “There’s no father introduced to Ghost. There’s no uncles, no brothers, none of that; he’s just got surrogate people all around him. The only family we know of Ghost is the one he made with Tasha. That’s the only family we know. His major overriding insecurity is that he’s still on a search, not only for betterment, but first to be better, you gotta know who the f**k you are!” This staunch ability to come to Ghost’s defense suggests that Hardwick, in fact, succeeded in his personification of such a labyrinthine figure.
No less confounding is Ghost’s right-hand man Tommy Egan, whose on-screen rap sheet boasts upwards of 30 murders—including his ex-girlfriend and his father. Crimes of passion, albeit often misguided, carved Tommy into an “emotional gangsta,” calling into question the difference between brutality and heartlessness. For actor Joseph Sikora, the lines are not so fine. “I think sometimes people make the mistake of saying Tommy is a sociopath,” he says. “Which of course he couldn't possibly be because of how emotional he is and how much he is present in all aspects of his life, even if it is murder.”
“Even if it is murder.” The phrase alone is striking evidence of a connection Sikora has grown to his fictional counterpart. “I feel like it's the only way to be in a relationship with a character, is to make it intimate so you know all the dynamics of that person's personality and thought process,” he notes.
Similar to Hardwick, Sikora—who Hardwick affectionately refers to as his “very talented Scottie Pippen”—urges Tommy’s critics to consider his character’s origin story. According to the actor, Tommy’s volatility is an asset on the streets, and a liability in his relationships. “[Tommy’s emotions] also can be his downfall with trying to build his family and find love, probably because of the lack of love he had from his mother growing up and then obviously growing up with a father who was absent,” he says. “A lot of that comes out of him trying to fill those holes.” Ultimately, Sikora brings it back to the beating heart of the matter. “I think Tommy Egan's legacy is that there's humanity in everyone. That everybody needs love. And sometimes, maybe not even sometimes, all the time, it's that you can always judge the action but you should hold back from judging the man.”
An intentional feat by Kemp, Power’s enduring dichotomy finds nobility and savagery in a constant tug-of-war, making it difficult to crown any of its characters as a hero or villain at any given scene. This tension finds the show forsaking the black-and-white, and existing in the grey. Still, any defense of murder and treachery remains jarring—for everyone except Kemp, that is. “Well, I guess the question I have for you is, why is that surprising though? They don't watch the show like you do.” Fine. Checkmate. “They're reading the scripts and they're having to inhabit the character. So, of course, they have to be invested. And plus, when you write well, every character is in their own positive intention. There is no such thing as a villain. There is no such thing as evil.” The proposed absence of evil hasn’t stopped the show’s audience from finding characters they love to hate, however.
For many fans, Michael Rainey Jr.’s portrayal of Tariq St. Patrick was worthy of picking a switch. The once innocent, wide-eyed son of Power’s principal character is led into darkness by his father’s former mentor, Kanan Stark. Under Kanan’s street tutelage and through the revelation of Ghost’s distortion of their family life, Tariq begins a marathon of crime and disrespect that succeeds at getting under the skin of viewers—a fact that Rainey Jr. is proud of. “Actually, all of this feels like an achievement,” he says between elated laughter. “If people are in tune and they're engaging with my character, then it makes me feel good. No matter if they hate my character, I love my character. But I feel like if you could make an audience hate you then that's a good thing.”
Less likely to be categorized by viewers as a “good thing,” is Tariq’s own track record, which, though less extensive than Ghost’s, culminates with an unthinkable deed: the murder of his own father. Still, Rainey Jr.’s voice is somehow filled with assurance when describing Tariq’s love for the elder St. Patrick. “It was just hard for him to show how much love he has for his father since his father is disappointing him so much,” he says. “It's his father at the end of the day, so he still has a lot of love for him, but he also just doesn't really know how to show it and he's just kind of lost in it.” Even as a younger thespian, Rainey Jr. enacts the same compassion for his character as his more seasoned peers, using his own life as a driving force.
“Ghost and Tariq’s relationship is kind of similar to me and my father's relationship,” he reveals. “That's a reason I really relate to those scenes with Ghost and Tariq where they're really going at each other because that's something real in my life.” Though the St. Patrick’s father-son fissure suffered a bloody ending, Rainey Jr. points to the admonition in their story. “I feel if they watch it, then they could learn from it. Just because you don't have the best relationship with your father, it doesn't mean you should rebel and act the same way,” he warns. “I feel like there's always a way around things. And if you just talk things out, and just hear each other out and listen, then I feel like things could get straightened out and you can have a healthy relationship.”
Coming in second on the “Power’s most hated” list, is Andre Coleman, the series’ resident slithering snake. After rising in street ranks from Ghost and Kanan’s protege to running a drug operation of his own, Dre’s fall from grace lands him breaking a cardinal rule: snitching to authorities. Witness protection aside, actor/singer Rotimi Akinosho still holds his character in (very) high regard. “This is a kid that was a corner kid with Kanan and ends up being the most sought after character because he has taken everything from Ghost, Kanan, and Tommy and has forced them to be a group, to work together to bring him down. No one else on the show has had a trajectory like that.” Akinosho is also very adamant about his criticism of Ghost—to whom he insists Dre owes nothing.
“I feel like they both are very narcissistic, but I think that the difference is that Dre genuinely, genuinely wants to do the best for his daughter,” he says. “I think with Ghost, he's so caught up in his self and the narcissism in himself that he doesn't see anything or anybody's side of anything. Everything is somebody else's fault.” Ask Akinosho if he believes Dre is a better father than Ghost, and his answer is, “One-thousand percent.” How then, does he justify Dre committing a blood-splattering murder with his daughter in his arms? Necessity, of course. The “Love Riddim” crooner, like his other castmates, is a sworn defender of his character’s sanctity.
“With Dre, it's literally two sides of him, where he's the killer, but then when he's with his daughter, he's the softest, most caring person and wants what's truly the best for her. And so, I think the motive of fatherhood is different, you know?”
Kemp has previously cited parenting as a leading theme on Power. From Ghost, Tariq and Raina, to Tasha and Tariq, to Dre and Heaven, to LaKeisha and Cash, the definition of “mother” or “father” is contorted to reveal a spectrum of light and darkness. In the single most sinister display of parenting, Kanan, played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, murders his son, Shawn, in cold blood. The scene immediately called to mind 50 Cent’s relationship with his real-life eldest son, Marquise Jackson, who he’s been estranged from for nearly a decade.
While the rapper-turned-actor has been candid about using his own life to fuel his character’s interactions with Shawn, his father-son divide was also a driving force in Kanan’s scenes with Tariq. Accessing another facet of his strained relationship with Marquise, 50 Cent taps into his son’s penchant for making friends out of his father’s enemies. “The intention was to kill [Tariq] on that couch [in season three]. But when I found out he doesn’t like his father, I’m like, ‘Wait, slow down,’” 50 says. “The relationship is actually the one my oldest son builds with anybody he sees me argue with.”
On the whole, the parallels between 50 Cent’s storied journey and Power’s plot doesn’t end at his parental hardships. For the South Jamaica, Queens native, the show is closer to home than any of his castmates; in fact, Kemp would often call him to discuss his former life of crime while writing episodes of the series. With this level of intimacy, it was no wonder that 50 upped the ante from executive producer, to actor, to director by the show’s final season. In his directorial debut, empathy may have played its biggest role yet in his work. “A big part of directing is being able to communicate or give an alternative description of the emotional piece of the performance,” he says. Per usual, he attacked this new role like he’s attacked everything: by striking a nerve. This time, with Alani “La La” Anthony.
In the third episode of season six, Anthony’s character LaKeisha Grant is out on a limb while aiding Tommy in the kidnapping of Alicia Jimenez, a drug lord in federal custody. As Keisha makes her way inside of the courthouse, 50 Cent compels Anthony to dig deep by likening her son, Kiyan Anthony, to Keisha’s son, Cash. “I told her, ‘La, when you get to the top of the steps, you realize that Cash... that’s Kiyan. And there’s not gonna be anybody here to take care of him if once you decide to go through that door, it doesn't go right,’” he whispers, reenacting the moment. “I’m giving her a note using her actual son as a character.”
Likely, a purposeful choice by Kemp, Keisha’s final display of motherhood ends in the character’s death, as Tasha thwarts Keisha’s plan to drop a dime on Tommy and run off with Cash by lodging a bullet in her chest. “It was poetic,” Anthony says of the scene. “And it was tough to shoot too, because we've had such a journey on the show, Naturi’s character and mine, as friends. To see it come down to this was very sad and hurtful.” The showdown, which finds actress Naturi Naughton committing Tasha’s first on-screen murder, also finds Anthony at her most vulnerable. “To see two mothers come down to that and as Keisha was laying there pleading for her life, she's saying, ‘What about Cash?’ Like, what about my son? That was heartbreaking because that's just a mother's love.”
If Power does indeed serve as a commentary on motherhood, Naughton says it shows how painful of a duty it can be. “Motherhood requires us to become superhuman. And I think that every superhero sometimes gets hit. Every superhero sometimes falls or their wings don't always open up the right way. Or their cloak doesn't always help them fly. I think people forget we're also human sometimes. That's why it is so painful because you have to put on a mask at times and be a superhero for our kids.” For Tasha, being a superhero for Tariq finds her looking her son in the eye, and uttering a line that sends shockwaves: “Alright Tariq, I’ma teach you the game,” a move even Naughton didn’t expect. “That was a moment where I was a little shocked and taken aback. Like, ‘Wait a minute, what?’ I had to turn the page and reread it.”
“Sometimes I want to tell Tasha, ‘Tariq just needs a good ol’ whooping! What are you doing protecting him?!,’” she says. “I think that's Tasha's flaw, that she's blinded by love for her son. And I think that's something that she will have to suffer for.”
Suffering, according to Naughton, has become a way of life for her character. “I think that Tasha has emotionally been dragged through the mud, honestly,” she says. She also notes, however, that much of Tasha’s suffering comes at her own hand—or heart, rather. “In a lot of ways Tasha's deep love for even Ghost, even after he dogged her, cheated, she was still the one sitting up at court. Still, the one trying to raise money to get him bail money. She's still the one that was lying for him to protect him whenever he was under fire. Tasha's love of course for her son is also blinding. I think that's her flaw.” So what, then, does Power teach us about love? Naughton’s answer is swift: “That love will get you killed out here in these streets.”
But Naughton doesn’t want anguish to be the point of Tasha’s tale. “I hope that Tasha signifies the strengths of us as black women, the resilience that we possess,” she says.
Finality is a new idea to attach to a show that has run for six seasons. For the actors, there’s a wider rear view of what each of them hopes the show and their characters will represent. It’s just not that simple for Kemp, who has already begun working on Power’s spinoff, Power Book II: Ghost, starring Mary J. Blige and Method Man.
“I cannot step back from the show and say that I know what the legacy is,” she admits. “What I can tell you is that the show is about, ultimately, 50 Cent, my dad, the election of Obama, what it means to be a black man in America, what it means to be a father, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a son or a daughter, what it means to be Black, what it means to be white, what it means to be brown or Asian. It's about race. It's about culture. It's about music. I mean, it's all those things, but I can't tell you what our lasting legacy will be.”
Photographer: Karl Ferguson Jr.
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Vince Patrick and Jason Chandler
Makeup Artists: Julia Jovone (50 Cent, Rotimi, Joseph Sikora), Autumn Moultrie (Courtney A. Kemp), AJ Crimson (Naturi Naughton), Sheika Daley (La La Anthony), and Vanessa Scali (Lela Loren)
Hair Stylists: Johnny Wright (Courtney A. Kemp), Aviva Perea (Lela Loren), Alexander Armand (Naturi Naughton), and Ray Dodson (La La Anthony)
Wardrobe Stylists: Christina Pacelli (Courtney A. Kemp), Merced Jackson (Rotimi, Joseph Sikora, 50 Cent), Alyssa Sutter Studios (Lela Loren), Brian Mcphatter (Naturi Naughton), and Maeve Reilly (La La Anthony)
As black as Queen & Slim seems on its glossy exterior, there's another layer to explore beyond the blackness, a level of self-awareness that both protagonists endure that encapsulates the heart of those that relate on a spiritual plane. To see the realization of that happen in real-time at the highly-anticipated film’s star-studded premiere afterparty at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel is something you wouldn’t soon forget.
Snoop Dogg walks through, Janelle Monae is over there, Tracee Ellis-Ross’ illuminating smile turns heads, Rihanna flicks it up with stans, all while the fearless foursome of the movie’s screenwriter Lena Waithe (creator of Showtime's The Chi), director Melina Matsoukas (of HBO’s Insecure and Beyonce music video directing fame), and stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) and new stunner Jodie Turner-Smith bask in the accolades and appreciation. So much so, that there is a moment where the movie’s many co-stars (Bokeem Woodbine is stellar as "Uncle Earl") and fellow Hollywoodites stare in awe as Turner-Smith takes pics and b-lines to her reserved section where her mom and family welcome her with open arms. Clad in an all-black skintight number, Turner-Smith shakes what her momma gave her in a happy two-step victory dance that looks like a “Momma I Made It!” commercial.
And rightfully so. Kaluuya watches proudly from the stage, as does Waithe and a beautiful middle-aged black woman from public relations rushes up, hands shaking from nervousness and bursts into tears while speaking to Turner-Smith. “You have no idea how much joy you gave me seeing you with your brown glowing skin, strong stance and grace. You. Gave. Me. Strength!” Turner-Smith takes in the energy, delivers a hug and love right back before she gets emotional. Her task of breaking through the screen to touch hearts is seemingly accomplished. Yet, her job of explaining how she and Kaluuya brought this universal gem of a tale to life starts now and will continue for them both as their performances elicit a certain soul-stirring bond for viewers that will stick with them for eternity.
Earlier that same night presented the most Hollywood of movie premieres for Queen & Slim. You know the setup: the hustle and bustle of overzealous security guards, stressed-out public relations reps trying to wrangle talent from the hangers-on in tow of celebrities that barely know where to go or which camera to look into while on the red carpet. Then there's the air of VIP status from everyone else in attendance, scrambling on check-in lines for prime viewing seats and after-party wristbands so they can drink the spirits and the night of celebration away. The scene at the legendary TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd., for the early view, rebels on the run film was no different. Well...maybe it was for a bit this unusually chilly November night.
Before the movie starts in front of the dark cavernous 900-plus seater with only the stage area lit, Waithe and her choice in director and good friend, Matsoukas address the crowd. Both have heartfelt words to impart to one another, the audience and the lead actors Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The British thespians stand next to them, while Waithe and Matsoukas wax poetic on the two that create the world that Queen and Slim navigate through so thoroughly.
Waithe’s short-cropped haircut and orange and blue tapered slacks and fitted jacket takes to the podium and loves on the satin-white-suited Kaluuya: “With a single look, you can break my heart. With a single movement, you can make me feel like I’ve known you all my life. You don’t just disappear into roles, you morph into the human being you’re playing, because you’re not playing. You’re doing the impossible, you’re existing in celluloid so that we as a people can never be forgotten. You are not an icon awaiting, but an icon already...we love you and thank you for sharing your gift with us.” There's a loving embrace between Waithe and Kaluuya, surrounded by well-deserved applause.
Then Matsoukas steps up in a hunter green leather pantsuit, long bob hairstyle and shines a light on Tinseltown's newest black woman lead in Turner-Smith, who's rocking a sheer lavender gown with 1920s Billie Holiday finger waves. “Jodie, our Queen, this was the role of a lifetime and not only did you take it on and exceeded all of our expectations, the moment we saw your face, we knew it was you," Matsoukas said. "When you walked into the room for your chemistry read with Daniel, he shrank. Not because he felt small, but because he knew he was in the presence of royalty. [Wild applause] Your stride, your skin, your power can’t be forced. You are walking joy. So for you to play a woman that liked living in the dark, that doesn’t smile easily and doesn’t like to let people in, is truly a master class in acting. Your performance is stunning. We are so honored to introduce you to the world. Thank you for trusting us with your gift. We love you and we know the rest of the world will too.” More applause, more hugs and more screams of positive affirmations flood the venue.
Queen & Slim's production is rather rare in its make-up when you analyze the team that put it together. Waithe, a Chicago repper, is a certified star of writing (Queen & Slim is her first movie screenplay), acting and producing, being the creator of a hit cable series and part of successful productions (Netflix's Master Of None, NBC’s This Is Us, BET’s Boomerang). The New York native, Matsoukas is a directing vet in the music and television world, but Queen & Slim is her directorial film debut. This project screams breakthrough for not only those two, but also for both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The main characters are in new positions as Turner-Smith’s first leading role and Kaluuya’s first executive producing shot. Understand, this cinematic offering rarity is majority woman-led and black woman-led at that.
Being in prime production position to cheer for from the get-go is what has everyone so wild with enthusiasm about Q&S. The movie trailer, in its present-day setting is fast-paced, glossy and gritty all at once. You see the slick old school ride with big chrome rims, Queen’s thigh-high snakeskin boots, dirt and gravel paved country roads, lush greenery that speeds by in blinks, Slim’s velour sweatsuit so synonymous with parking lot pimpin’ pros from the aughts era that you’d think he was a rapper first and not on the run. Yet, all of the glitter to gain your attention is slashed with what the movie is here to do for you...for us, as a people. “We wanted this to be a love letter to blackness,” Waithe shares at the premiere. What she means by that is how the little things throughout the viewing experience will trigger nuances that attach to damn near every aspect of black life you can live out. The food, the attitudes, the dancing, the words, the rhythm of walk [Queen glides in scenes with the strides of a Gazelle], the tension, the music [the soundtrack will make you dance in the aisle], the love, the anger, the softness, the humor, the confusion, the pure black assed blackness you can’t wash off and you’ll understand it even more so if you are black.
Two days after premiere night's bright lights, the fearless foursome and various supporting cast members are jetting from suite to suite for press interviews. They're all hunkered down on the second floor of Hollywood’s lavishly-laced The London Hotel of Young Thug and J. Cole song fame. Kaluuya is in a friendly state, interacting with hotel staff on the elevator. “Pardon my Bluetooth speaker playing, I need this song right now,” he states with wit. He later admits that the song was probably one by Travis Scott. Waithe passes by in haste to another interview when we say, “Great job on the film, Lena. It’s a hit.” She replies warmly with her hand over her heart, “Why thank you…” No...thank you.
After our photo shoot at the hotel, Turner-Smith appears in elegant style. Still, in the salmon-hued double lapel blazer we shot her in, her face is full of quick smizes and her energy refreshed by a few bites of lunch. We sit and chat on the balcony of the press suite. She's exhausted but ready.
Jodie, seeing you and your family interact at the premiere party felt like a family reunion. Can you share what that moment was like for you?
It's so funny because it made me immediately think of how my mom and my stepdad came to visit me on set in New Orleans. It was so special for them. When I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, they didn't know what the hell I was doing or why. They’re Jamaican and they were very concerned. They were like, "This is not a plan." When they came to New Orleans [where Queen & Slim was filmed] to see me, they had a chance to actually see me work. I rented this house in the Garden District and I remember one day coming home from set and we all started dancing in the living room. It was the first time we did something like that. What I love about my parents and Jamaican families is that exuberance we have, which I think is where I get my joy from, my energy and my attitude. They're just like very fun-loving people, but I had never really interacted with my parents in that way because when you're a kid it's like you need to be seen and not heard, you need to do what you need to do. For them, I feel like to celebrate with me in that way, it was like how far we'd come in our relationship and how far I thought...like they trusted, and what joy that I had come in my life. When I was dancing with my mom at the premiere, it just made me think of that day in New Orleans when we danced together.
It makes me so happy that they can see me doing this and feel proud of me because really that's worth everything.
(Wipes tears from her eyes) I'm so emotional.
Yes, that's beautiful. And then just as your emotions are coming out now, right after that moment, you start to mingle with everyone else and a woman comes up to you as I'm about to approach you and she starts crying.
Oh, my God.
Yes, I do.
And you were trying to console her, but she was going on and on about how your character was strong throughout the film and gave her so much strength and how beautiful you were in how you moved within the film.
View this post on Instagram
thursday night was better than anything i could have expected!!! ✨ i’m still so blown away by the fact that i was chosen to be a part of this very special film and i cannot wait for you all to see it!!! a very special thank you to @alessandro_michele #gucci for making me into a fierce mermaid queen 👑💜
Do you understand as much as you've made your family proud, how many other women, especially women that don't get the representation that you're putting on screen, do you know how much you're representing for them?
I mean, I'm starting to see it. Wow, I'm just like a mess. I'm sorry, you're making me cry.
Oh, my goodness. Take your time. It was such a beautiful moment to see because she just started pouring her heart out. You're taking this energy, you know, from this woman that was just obviously wowed by your performance.
Honestly, you think about it in a way, in a smaller way because...when they were casting this role, they wanted a specific kind of woman for this movie. You think about that because I'm a black woman, I'm a dark-skinned black woman. I think about what I grew up seeing, what I didn't see growing up, and what it felt like when I did see someone who I thought that I could relate to, just living their life on screen.
For everyone to see, you know? So that wasn't lost on me that. There's going to be people that felt like I felt when I was younger and that first time that I saw someone that was like me. I have definitely thought about that before, but you can never really account for what it feels like when someone stands in front of you, when they are so moved. I was just so humbled by that because I really understand that what that's coming from is that I allow myself to be a vessel for Queen's truth, and for who that woman was created to be. I know that because I know that in order to do it so many times, I have to tell myself that I have to get out of the way because if I try to do this through the lens of who I am, I would be lost and confused. There were so many times where I just had to be like, "I surrender to the story. I surrender to the process. I surrender to the leader's vision because I trust her so much that she knows what she's doing and how she's doing it." It's just really beautiful to be able to be a vessel for that because I know that in many ways, it's not about me.
I know that it's happening because I was able to be that vessel. I'm humbled and glad. I remember when we were making the film that there would be small times and moments where people on set would say something to me and it would make me feel like if even one person had a response like that. Like I've done something, I did something.
I don't know what I did, but I did something. It's such a privilege to be given the opportunity to make us feel something. I feel a lot, as you can tell. I'm just here weeping.
Well, it's beautiful. Throughout the film, what you get to see is a strong black woman who fights for others’ rights and is dealing with so much past trauma.
Listen, trauma. It's so funny because I was talking to someone about it. I was saying it's interesting how certain things that you experience, whether you believe in God or not, certain things that you experience will make you feel God. Love, you know what I mean? Trauma, tragedy. All those things will make you feel—
Joy. Hope. "I'm not a prayer person." You'll always hear that [from others]. "I don't usually do it, I don't usually talk to you [God], but I'm going to talk to you now because..." So interesting how whatever you believe that God is, we all feel God.
View this post on Instagram
ALL THIS CHOCOLATE. @queenandslim premiere. #AFIFEST
Yes indeed. Did you believe that it was destiny for you to be able to have your breakout role with Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas where everyone seems to be in a new position with their firsts: Lena's screenplay, Melina's directorial debut and Daniel's first big executive position?
Definitely. It feels way too special to just be. I don't really believe in coincidence. And the way that everything has happened in my life, especially for the last 10 years of living in L.A. and the way I've seen things happen, it's like everything has been like this. It's always like this culmination of being. I went to business school so what they teach you in business school was that success is about positioning yourself to get lucky. It's not just about how hard you work. It is also about a little bit of luck. To position yourself to catch the luck when it comes. There have been so many things that I've done and it was doing that, where I was just, without even knowing, because I was never attached to what it would look like if I was positioning myself to one day find myself in an opportunity like this. When it happened, I need to sit and sit with them and hear them talk and hear them say that they knew when I walked in that I was Queen. This whole thing has been a meditation and remembering that yes, you deserve this, you earned this, you're supposed to be here.
It's okay to embrace that.
And Daniel would always tell me that, too. I see now that I've gotten through the process and the experience of that, that we're all kind of evolving in our relationship together and with the filmmakers. Someone very close to me watched the movie and said to me, “When I watched that movie, I saw how much Melina trusted you.” It's something that even I didn't realize while I was doing it.
The iconic imagery of it, like the photo, everyone wearing your shirt, you know that's going to happen immediately after this film.
Everyone loves the shirt already. I have a box of merch, my family, my friends. I mean everyone.
They were handing it out after the after-party.
Yeah, my aunt puts on the T-shirt...I'll tell you my mom was so upset. She said, "Why are you putting that on over your outfit?" My aunt said, “I don't care, I'm wearing this.” It's so dope to be a part of a film that I feel like we've made for the people and the people love it.
And the messaging of it. Do you feel like there are different layers as far as self-love? Police brutality?
Yes. I feel like that speaks to blackness in that it's like you have love, right? Then you have this violence, you have this trauma. For example, the love scene is intercut with the riot.
It's such an example of what it means to be black and the black experience because here you have black love existing and thriving. Meanwhile, there's this violence and turmoil and the way that Melina cut that scene. It was always written that way that it would be intercut, but the way that she cut that scene and made it like poetry. Then to see these two black people making love and it was sensual, passionate, and urgent. Nothing about it felt hyper-sexualized and animal, which is usually how it is. And especially for myself, I came from modeling and doing music videos. It's like the way that people always want to depict and I'd be like myself is in a way that's animal.
And look, all of those things exist in us. Whereas humans, we're also animals. But it's often just being depicted in that way, in a way that is not about the art of it or even it's not about the agency, it is that this is the lens through which the person who is trying to take your picture or capture you sees you.
Just the way they got the look on there, too. Lit beautifully, the cinematography is amazing.
The cinematographer was a white man, Pat Radcliffe. Melina said something that I thought was so interesting, too. He never gave us any limitations of color because some people say, "Oh, you know, you don't want to put black people in white because then we don't know how to fu**ing light it." And it's like no, this man knows how. To me, things like that, that's being a white ally.
When you and your craft understand, like our makeup artists. My makeup artist is a white woman. That woman in the beginning of the movie, I remember the first time I said, “Oh, you know what? She's the truth.” [It] was when she did my makeup and when I came to the end of the day to take my makeup off, I was like, “Oh, it's still my face.”
It wasn't much different. Whereas toward the end of the movie, because she was creating a story with our faces because as we were on the run, everything was trauma. She started creating the trauma on our face as well, you know? The stress. By the end, I would take my makeup off and say, “Oh, thank God. That wasn't my face," because I was like, “Oh, I look fu**ed up.”
Queen going through it.
"I'm tired, girl, what's going on?" Melina, after a set point in the movie, said, "You have to be ashy." And I was like...wait a minute, “Melina, what?” She said, “You're on the run. You're not going to be lotioned up.” I said, “Melina.” I'd have to sneak lotion in the morning before I came to work. I could never put lotion on at work. I looked awkward, too, like “Baby, you're ashy.”
When I watched your Today Show interview, you said it usually takes you about four hours to read a script, but you read this one in an hour? What part of that hour did you say, "All right, I'm in?"
There were no breaks. I just wanted to know what happened next. At the end, I said, "What? We're going to make time work." Especially after Get Out. I'm sitting there like, "All right, cool." [Black] Panther hadn't come out yet. Widows hadn't come out here, and I'd got Panther and Widows pre-Get Out, coming out.
I realized that "Oh, after Get Out, I need to be very purposeful. It's going to say a lot about me, what I do after that." It just felt like I really wanted this to go, "When I'm more responsible for my career, this is how I move, this is the direction I want to step into." It was after filming it that it came to me.
View this post on Instagram
Slim in The Underground, 2019. By Andre D. Wagner. #QueenAndSlim
What made you say, "I'm going to step into this role”?
I felt a kinship to the source material. I wanted to help it get over the line and do what it needs to do, but also it's understanding the frustration and the disappointment in so many films that you'd hear about being from England, being from London, black films that you'd hear about and they never make it to the cinemas.
And they just said, "Oh, they don't travel. They don't this. They don't that." And feeling a responsibility to go, "I want to change that narrative and say no." Not necessarily other films that are way more specific than, I don't know, a Great Debaters or a Menace II Society. They travel, they managed to make it through. They managed to get a nationwide release and there's not a pressure for them to make money in order for them to be valid. I felt a responsibility to go, "Listen, I need to be part of those conversations." And also to support these women, I was helping out with a script. There's a lot of the stuff that's in the script that's from conversations me and Lena have had. I was the first person to read it.
Whoa. She felt like it was for you?
No, not at all. We were just in conversation. We were talking and chilling and then she said what she was working on. Then she sent it to me and said, "I'd love for you to read it." Then I said, "I want to play Slim." We just had early conversations. I read it before Melina, so it was that kind of situation.
Now that you are an executive producer on it, why did you name your company 59%?
It's the win rate of Billy Beane in Moneyball. I love Moneyball, I feel like my life is Moneyball.
Because I had to think differently to get what I need to do, to do what I need to do.
To act, you had to think differently?
Because I'm black.
But also, hold on. If you're out here [in America], you're not just black. Samuel L. Jackson, of course, has said something along the lines of "the black British guys get the best roles." But, it’s as though you had to...
It's not... Not only I'm black, but I also come from a background where... I was on free school meals. People don't know to understand the nuance of the British experience and what it's really like. I couldn't afford drama school. So this perception I'm coming in with like, "You're benefiting from XYZ," I don't. I couldn't afford the privilege that I'm supposed to have had. So there's this self-education that I've had to have had and have to think differently before I could even think about working in America. I had to have a 10-year career. I've got to get my mom situated. I've got to get my family financially supported and have a foundation in order to even think about living my dreams. And that's the same with Damson Idris, John Boyega, Letitia Wright. We're all a wave of people that didn't go to conventional drama school.
But that label is there because of what—
But that's the problem: we're misrepresented. And that's a parallel, we're told who we are. You didn't even have a conversation with me about it. That's what I'm trying to say, I have to then take that in and go, "All right, cool. Dah dah dah dah dah," and try and go, "That's not who I am,” and still navigate that space. That goes about thinking differently and seeing the game differently.
Things really shifted in me when I stopped playing the conventional game and tried to do what everyone else is doing and go, "Listen, I'm not competing with anyone but myself. And my past. And the stuff I want to do. That's it."
What 59% represents is... I Googled all my favorite football managers, like soccer, football managers that I love, and over a 40-year career, the best managers, their win rate was 59 percent. I said, "This is a through-line in here and this is what winning actually looks like. This is because the winning is in the win. The win is the journey, and the fulfillment and satisfaction you have on that journey." So I said, "How you think differently when an obstacle or something's trying to derail you, is actually an opportunity to grow, and figure it out." At the end of the day, no one's 100 percent. It's just how you show up the next day. There's always another game and I love that metaphor.
Did you gravitate toward him in that way because of the transition he made?
Well, yeah man, there's an evolution there. And I think it's an interest in meditation and the interrogation of black masculinity. What does that mean to be hard? The parallels between Slim and Uncle Earl, he's the one that's outwardly, overtly what someone would go, "That's that guy." But look at the turmoil he has gone through. Look at what he does when he's intoxicated. Look at the hurt he inflicts to people that he supposedly loves. Then Slim is seen as the more vulnerable sensitive type, but he's there for his woman.
He called his family. That was an important thing for him to get to his family.
Exactly. He just wants to be with his family and there's strength in that. There's strength in wanting to have a life just there. Just wanting to have family, wanting to chill. There's strength in that, and we put a lot of these aspirational people on a pedestal when actually, sometimes they're just running from stuff. He's not running from anything. He's trying to keep his life together because he actually loves his life, and he loves the people in his life. He's surrounded by love.
For me, a satisfying element of cinema is seeing someone change over the course of two, three hours. I always look for points where I could do that.
You did it excellently.
What did you feel was the film’s message outside of police brutality, poverty, relationships and love? What did you get out of that, working with Jodie?
Compromise was a big theme. Relationships are about compromise, respect, and how easy compromise is if you respect each other. You don't hold onto sh*t, you don't need to because it's, "All right, if that makes a person happy, then cool." Putting the ego to the side when you have to and making sure you're present. It's so interesting that they’re able to connect when they throw their phones away. They're not running away, they're not trying to go, "I can get someone else in this app, get someone else here, I can go out there." They have to face each other and they actually have more in common than they realize.
And I think that's a really great theme that's in it.
You're looking to play Fred Hampton. What was it about his story that attracted you?
I just thought he's a brilliant man. And I'm similar to you, where I heard about him, rap lyrics, and then I saw the Soul of the Nation and there was an art piece that was inspired by him. I was like, "He's 21?" It blew my mind. And he doesn't look 21. He's got such a presence.
When this came through and Ryan Coogler and Shaka King spoke to me about it, and I read it for the first time, I said, "I don't even understand the ideas he has." This is like 1969, and I said, "I don't understand how he speaks and what he thinks." And just any opportunity, for me, what's blessed about all of our jobs, we live in a space where we can just learn stuff that we wouldn't know because...and we get paid. We can spend all day like, "Oh, what's this mean? What's that mean?." It all informs our work. It's really great to go into his psyche, go into the world of the late '60s and understand the history and what led to that point of that generation being, "We're not having it anymore." And understanding him as a man, and what he was around and the tide he was up against.
Photographer: Peter Dokus
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Laetitia Rumford
Wardrobe Stylist: Petra Flannery
Wardrobe Assistant: Lauren Mock
Makeup Artist: Allan Face
Makeup Assistant: Ruby Vo
Hair Stylist: Larry Sims
Groomer: Tasha Reiko Brown
Nail Artist: Thuy Nguyen
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1995 issue of VIBE Magazine.
Written By: Scott Poulson-Bryant Photographs By: Jon RagelOne big summer movie - Bad Boys. Two prime-time funnymen - Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Teaming up to bust caps as well as guts, Smith and Lawrence are an odd couple on the screen and off. Scott Poulson-Bryant talks with both of them about Blowing Up and Growing Up.
When you think about it, it's downright unprecedented. Prime-time television's biggest black stars—Will Smith of The Fresh of Bel-Air and Martin Lawrence of Martin—are starring in Bad Boys, a big-budget Hollywood action-comedy full of stunts and explosions and big, crowd-pleasing laughs. Two for the price of one. Call it Beverly Hills Cop 2 meets Miami Twice.
It's easy to think these entertainers, who hold sway over their own hit network sitcoms, would have been at each other's throats, throwing prima donna shade over the slightest of perceived slights. But according to both actors, things were smooth. "We basically ad-libbed every scene," Will says. "It was two and a half months of two of the silliest guys in comedy doing exactly what they wanted to."
In Bad Boys, they play two Miami detectives in the special narcotics division whose temperaments are 180 degrees apart: Will is Mike Lowrey, a flashy playboy; Martin is Marcus Burnett, a homebody family man with a mortgage to pay. After making the biggest arrest in the department's history, the duo have to find the thief who stole $100 million worth of heroin from the station house, or they'll lose their jobs.
Smith and Lawrence weren't necessarily playing their roles from experience—offscreen they're different, but not in the way the Bad Boys are. At the time of filming, Will was the married-with-child brother who wanted to focus on family values, and Martin was the recently dis-engaged rascal, doing his thing on the singles scene. Now, on the eve of the film's release, it seems they've done another role reversal. Will Smith is grappling with an impending divorce from Sheree, his wife for more than two years, and with how it will affect their two-year-old son, Willard C. "Trey" Smith III. He says he's not yet ready to talk about the situation, though he does note that the sudden death of his infant half brother, Sterling, took him back to Philly, where he now intends to spend more time. On the flip side, Martin Lawerence got married in January to ex beauty queen Patricia Southall. He and his wife are planning for children, and Lawrence, after a year of professional ups and downs, looks at the future with great expectations.
Everything's happening so fast for these two transplanted twentysomething East Coast guys who found fame and fortune out West by doing their versions of black-boy cool for the masses. So fast and furious, in fact, that crammed schedules never allowed all three of us to meet at the same time. I had to wait endlessly for Martin. First he was just back from his Caymans honeymoon, then he said he had injured his back, then he was busy finishing his show's "Player's Ball" episode, featuring an array of blaxploitation stars. All that waiting, however, left plenty of time to chill with the very accommodating Will Smith.
We spent one day cruising around L.A., pumping Teddy Riley's BLACKstreet tape in Will's white Ford Bronco. I had been there last June when the media began its all-out assault on OJ, so driving along the freeway in this particular ride with a black male superstar at my side took on an almost surreal quality. "I had mine before all that started," Will noted. But the irony didn't escape him. When the ringing car phone signaled Will's booming system to automatically pause, one thing raced through my mind: The rich really are different. But the price of livin' large is steep out in this bright-lights, big-titty world, where dream seekers flock and where black boys, in particular, come to Blow Up, if not to Grow Up. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are trying their best to do both.
Caverting around the low-key set of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wearing oatmeal colored linen and boots, Will Smith seems thinner in person, wiry almost, even though he had to follow an extensive workout regimen for his movie role. His face does its trademark dance between seriousness and just buggin', the balancing act between sophistication and boyishness that has kept this 26-year-old in the public eye for the past eight years.
Smith's office conveys the same sense of his multi-layered self. A big-screen TV is in one corner, the tangled joystick cords of a Sega video game in front of it. A mini-stereo rests on a low table, surrounded by cassettes. A plethora of gold and platinum DJ JazzyJeff and the Fresh Prince records line the far wall, a reminder of the up-and-down road that led to Will Smith's current state of Blowing Up affairs. And adjacent to that wall hangs a huge painting—by a fan from Miami—of Will uncharacteristically in repose. It doesn't seem vain for Will Smith to have a massive painting of himself in his dressing room. One gets the impression he needs his, more serious side to look down upon him, to bestow the necessary intensity to reach his goal: to be the reigning funnyman in the prime-time wars—which is as serious a job as any, as Martin Lawrence also well knows.
"What makes you an effective superhero is that you don't want to be," says Bad Boys costar Will Smith. "Like Bruce Willis in Die Hard--- the last thing he wanted to do was run over that glass barefoot."
With five years of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air under his belt, Will Smith has the hip teen thing down. I ask him if he thinks he's a natural clown—considering the comedic video persona of his early rap days and raucous appearances on late-night talk shows—and he laughs. "I'm just outgoing," he says, then pauses, as if that doesn't quite sum it up. Then he jumps right back in to answer, appearing to try out responses in his mind as he goes along. "I'm comfortable enough to impose myself on my surroundings," he continues. "That's the best way to describe it, really. It's a gift. It's the ability to impose myself on my surroundings without making people feel imposed upon."
Good answer, I'm thinking, as he continues on, knowing innately that a good answer isn't enough. Only a great answer will suffice. "But it's always been like that. When I was younger, it was more about being different when everyone else wanted to fit in. I always wanted how I talked or my clothes to be different. Peer pressure never meant anything to me. If something was done one way, something in me resisted it."
He pauses again and laughs. "It was the same way in my music. Something in me enjoyed coming to New York from Philly and people not liking us at first. When everyone else was trying to act tough and grab their dicks, the first thing anyone heard me say on record was, 'Oh man, my eye! This guy just punched me in my eye for nothing.' I enjoyed that. I strove for that. Oris is it strived? Or striven?" He throws his hands in the air, deferring to the writer in the room. "Whatever, just put it right in the article."
Will Smith can make that kind of demand. In fact, you want him to make demands of you because he's so demonstrative, acting out scenes from his life when words won't suffice, rapping entire verses of "The Message" to make his point about rap's changing style, reciting complete Tony Montana monologues from Scarface to illustrate a point you just made, challenging your taste in movies ("You haven't seen Pulp Fiction yet?"), challenging you to one-up him ("Don't you wanna ask me some more questions?"). But it's almost more interesting just to observe Will Smith. He's a perpetual performer, always doing his job, always giving his all.
Six years ago, though, the Fresh Prince nearly gave it all away, nearly lost the crown off his head. He blew up too big too fast, and it all came crashing down. He suddenly went broke. His first album, 1987's Rock the House, went gold the following year. Then 1988's He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper eventually sold 3 million copies, spurred by the single "Parents Just Don't Understand." Next, And in This Corner merely went gold, before 1991's Homebase, the return to Philly roots featuring "Summertime," went platinum. His most recent album, 1993's Code Red, went gold. The DJ. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince phone line, the first celebrity 900 number, minted money—in its day it was the second-highest-grossing line behind Dial-A-Joke. "In '87-'88 I was rich," he says. "In '89 I was broke."
Broke like, rich-folks broke? I ask. No dollars in your pocket, but a couple hundred thou tied up in investments and CDs? He laughs and shakes his head vigorously. "Nah, man. I was broke. Like, can't-buy-gas, sell-the-car broke. Actually, you know what? Sell everythingbroke. I was a moron. I had the suburban mansion, a motorcycle, I was traveling the world. I was 18 and the world was open, and when the world is open like that it makes you crazy, you want everything. I wasn't any happier with money, and I wasn't any less happy when I went broke. It hurt, and mentally it was tough dealing with, but inside it didn't change. I still had my family, and I could still have a good time. I could still laugh."
He rebounded in a new arena-prime-time TV as the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, post-Cosby sitcom with a nod to The Jeffersons: movin' on up with a hip hop twist. Then, through sheer force of will, Smith made it to the big screen in 1992, debuting in Where the Day Takes You as a wheelchair-bound street kid. His role in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made in America (and the screams of teenage girls on the set) led to his landing the plum role of Paul, the sad, confused con man in the critically acclaimed film version of the Broadway hit Six Degrees of Separation. In the process, Will Smith's screen persona grew exponentially, acquiring layers of resonance devoid of the street corner histrionics usually demanded of young black male actors.
As Smith copes privately with the dissolution of his marriage to a woman who shunned the amusement park of the klieg lights, his public persona enters the high-stakes world of shoot-'em-up, make-'em-laugh, big-bank movies. And he may have just found his Axel Foley—the role that will give him a defining big-screen image. Produced by the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer team behind Eddie Murphy's Beverly Hills Cop series, Bad Boys stretched Smith in ways he's never been stretched before.
"With all that jumping and shooting when you're making an action movie, you realize that it's a stunt, not a trick," he says. "And it brings out all that testosterone. I saw how the situation brings that stuff out in people. Everybody has an action hero in them; everyone wants to kick in a door and shoot somebody." On the other hand, he says, "I knew it had to be as real as possible, because what makes you an effective superhero is that you don't want to be. Like Bruce Willis in Die Hard the last thing he wanted to do was run over that glass barefoot. People can't relate to a guy who just jumps in front of bullets."
Martin Lawrence knows that too, considering the potshots he's taken in public over the past year. Coming on the sitcom scene more than two years ago as Martin Payne, Lawrence instantly became the quotable cock of the walk with a bop in his step. He was the leading man in Martin (the funniest post-hip hop black show on the air) and did double duty as the host of the successful Def Comedy jam.
But somewhere along the line, Martin lost its stride. Year No. 2—the 1993-94 TV season—was supposed to be the one in which its star, Martin Lawrence, Blew Up, bringing his candid ghetto realness to the moviegoing, record-buying masses with his first concert film, You So Crazy, and comedy album, Talkin' Shit. Things didn't quite work out that way. The endearing wannabe who played Bilal (a.lea. Dragon Breath) in the House Party movies seemed to morph into a larger-than-life, self-made superstar from the 'hood, whose comeuppance was—like Tony Montana's—just around the corner.
First, there was his battle with the Motion Picture Association of America over the NC-17 rating they slapped on his concert film, You So Crazy. Of course there was race issues here (why a brotha gotta get the NC-17?) and censorship issues (why a brotha gotta get told what to say?), but what got lost in all the hoopla was that this comedic performance didn't meet the high standards he had already set for himself. Neither did his next notorious public moment.
Last winter, on his first Saturday Night Live hosting gig, Lawrence brought Def Comedy Jam to Lorne Michaels's crib. It was a debacle. Spraying the small stage with the scent of his insecurity and nervousness, Lawrence littered his opening monologue with scatological references that play fine on cable but shocked NBC's brass. He subsequently found himself at the center of a media storm regarding his not-ready-for-network language and subject matter, which ultimately led to his being de-scheduled from an appearance on Jay Leno.
Looking back at the whole situation, Lawrence believes he was "set up" by the SNL people ("They kept telling me, 'Do what you do.' And I did.") and admits to a certain nervous energy that informed his antics. He also says that after so many black folks came out to see him at Radio City Music Hall in New York earlier that year, he anticipated playing to a more racially mixed studio audience. Yet ultimately he chalks the disaster up to youth, to being intimidated by the history and mythology of the once-cutting-edge late-night dinosaur. But for a minute there, it looked like Martin Lawrence was about to be taken out like just another sucker MC.
Lawrence wasn't going to let that happen. He laid low after enduring those storms, held back on public appearances, broke up with his then girlfriend, actress Lark Voorhies, and concentrated on Martin—which was still being talked about, although two years into its run the funniest thing people were saying about the show was that it wasn't funny anymore. (And exactly where was Sheneneh, anyway?) Lawrence also started looking for a movie script that would have a "buddy-buddy feel to it, but something that was real, that would be good for my audience and work for other audiences as well." Which was probably a good move for him: That way he wouldn't have to carry the burden, or the risk, alone—as he did in his concert film and on SNL.
He found Bad Boys, a movie that was, ironically, originally slated to star former Saturday Night Live clowns Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. In the box-office-friendly blend of action and comedy, perhaps Martin saw the opportunity in his first starring role on the big-screen to follow that other foulmouthed black funnyman who found fame on TV. Eddie Murphy, the post-Pryor model of black comic as household name, has already primed the box office for Lawrence and his generation's brand of raw good humor. Maybe Martin Lawrence too had found his Axel Foley—a role that could establish him as a cinematic franchise with Badder Boys and Even Badder Boys to follow. As creative and fluid as his work can be, Martin's savvy very much includes keeping the business plan in full focus.
"I called him Martin Lawrence King," says Smith of his costar. "It's really important to him to be real, and present himself and his work to his audience with integrity."
Sitting in his small office in the Martin bungalow on the Universal lot, with fake African masks adorning the end tables—"I don't know where they're from," he says casually—Martin Lawrence, dressed in a black turtleneck and gray plaid slacks, comes off less like a creative dynamo than as the Hollywood hyphenate he is: sitcom star, executive producer, sometime writer, and soon-to-be feature film director. He's very wary, even difficult, toward the press these days. Like other stand-up-to-sitcom stars, Martin fought through the usual creative control issues, in part by firing longtime manager and show cocreator Topper Carew, reportedly before a live studio audience. When asked about that incident, his reply is, "I have the utmost respect for him, but I don't wanna go there."
Ask Lawrence if he likes having more power on the set, and he looks at you with a blank stare and asks, "What do you mean by power?" Then he adds, "I have more say, so if I don't like something, we won't do it. If I do like something, we do." Does it make work more difficult with more responsibilities behind the camera? "You have to be the judge of that," he replies tersely. "If people are saying the show's suffering because of it, maybe I'm too much involved in the business."
While making Bad Boys, it wasn't hard for Will Smith and Martin Lawrence to find a working rhythm, even though both guys are more accustomed to having straight men than being them. "You never see two brothers from different networks getting together to do something like this," Lawrence gushes. "But we had a lot of fun. We worked hard together. Since both of us have comic timing on the sitcoms, we knew it was just a matter of getting together and finding out how we complemented each other."
"That's the beauty of working with another comic," agrees Smith. "You go in in the morning and you have no clue what's about to happen. I'm used to changing lines on my show, and he does the same thing. It was like a tennis match. He would say something, then I'd toss a line right back."
Smith was also taken with Lawrence's devotion to the social and cultural impact of their collaboration. "He has a lot of interesting insights," Smith says. "I called him Martin Lawrence King. It's really important to him to be real, and present himself and his work to his audience with integrity. We'd talk for hours about whether our coming together would mean anything to young black kids. Would it mean anything that we were being strong enough for it to work with no problems?"
Which begs the ego question. Compared with Will's accessible playfulness, Martin is guarded and defensive in person. Yet on-camera, he invariably thrusts himself centerstage, as if demanding his costars catch up to his manic energy. His mercurial reputation precedes him. When I mention that he's regarded as a taskmaster, Lawrence replies, "I feel everyone should come to the project as I do. If you don't care as much for it as I do, why are you there?"
When I ask Will Smith, "Do you have a big ego?" he replies, "Yeah, I have a huge ego, but I don't impose it on people. You have to have a big ego to be an actor. But I have control over that, because I don't like how it feels when other people throw their weight around. That experience makes me struggle really hard not impose myself on people for selfish reasons. Ego drives you. I think it's really important. But you have to control your ego; you can't let your ego control you."
When I ask Lawrence the same question, he looks at me for about 20 seconds before responding. After a bit of verbal jousting and nonanswers ("Do you think I have one? What defines a big ego?"), I ask him how he's changed as a result of having a hit TV show, a wedding that was covered by the tabloids, and a big summer movie about to drop.
"I've grown up a little more," he says, "though I don't know if I'll ever be fully grown-up, 'cause I ain't trying to lose the kiddish things in me, 'cause that's what I love. I love to bug out and be spontaneous and talk some shit. I changed for the better, and I'm steady trying to get better at what I do. But by the same token, I talk shit. We all do. "Spoken like a true bad boy.