Sunday, March 18, 2007

Bernie Mac: Transforms with a Dramatic Turn in Pride (Q&A)

















You'd be hard-pressed to find a comedian as funny as Bernie Mac. Although he'd been honing his stand-up skills for decades, first on the platforms of Chicago's L- Trains and then to comedy clubs all over the country, he didn't become a national comedic force until he made appearances on HBO's Def Comedy Jam during the late 90s which lead to gigs on films like Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, Life (opposite Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence) and the wildly successful concert film The Original Kings of Comedy where he officially blew up on the entertainment scene and the actor/ comedian hasn't looked back.

Next Friday, the 23rd, Bernie's going to flip the comic script with a co-starring role in the film Pride opposite Terrence Howard, Kimberly Elise and Tom Arnold. The film, directed by South Africa's Sunu Gonera, is inspired by the real life of Jim Ellis, once an aspiring swimmer, who moved to 70's-era Philadelphia in the hopes of getting a job teaching only to find himself fighting against staggering odds to establish an all black swim team in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Philly. A few weeks ago, the Golden Globe nominated Mac (The Bernie Mac Show) was in Los Angeles doing press for the new film. Read on and see what Bernie has to say about saying "no" to George Clooney, getting dramatic with Al Pacino, comparisons to Richard Pryor and his role in the forthcoming Transformers flick...

Q: So how was it for you to take a stab at a dramatic role for a change?

Bernie Mac: The dramatic was easy. A lot of people don't know that I started with the dramatic-- comedy is something that you all know that I can do. I've introduced myself [as a comedian], once you introduce yourself as something, that's where people keep you, that's where people like to hold you. But Mrs. Hunter, in fourth grade, started me in drama -- that's when I first started doing plays -- I took a page out of my Big Mama's [grandmother's] notebook: "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." So that works in my favor-- when you all see me in that light, or as an individual in that light, I love to hear you all say "wow, I didn't know he could do that." And for actors and ball players, when they want to do other things and the media or critics don't let them, they get frustrated. You shouldn't get frustrated [because] that goes with the territory. For example, it's an honor when people see you and without you saying a word [they] just start laughing and smiling.

There's only one person I know who had that, that was Richard Pryor. And Richard Pryor, in Lady Sings the Blues, did an excellent job and every time he came on the screen [the audience began to laugh] but, you know, he was typed. Afterwards, he was like, "man, I did good. I wasn't trying to be funny!" and I learned from that. I remembered that when he said it and I said "don't get mad, Richard. They love you." You know what I'm saying? That's a compliment. But I realized the frustration when [actors] want to do something outside of what everybody else sees them as. See, all you do as a performer is keep doing it. If you keep doing it -- and then it depends on why you're doing it-- if you're doing something for superficial or [monetary] reasons, if you're doing it for female attention or for money and stuff, well...the only way you could get upset is when you're expecting something [in return]-- if you don't get this award or you don't get that award, that's because you're expecting something. If you get mad at John or Jill, you're expecting something-- you understand my point? Drama is something that I can do, man, I got chops. But you just have to always, always, every time you get an opportunity [be prepared]-- life ain't no dress rehearsal...Every time that light comes on or every time that camera comes on; the microphone comes on, the Mac- Man seeks and destroys.

Q: Is your characterization of Ellston in the film based on a real person?

BM: Well, kinda-sorta. I came up in the [recreation] center, I used to be physical director of South Central Community Center in Chicago on 83rd-- it used to be Channel Y back when I was a kid. I played at Channel Y, Ogden Park, South Tower Y; I grew up in the gym, I was a gym rat and I had Mr. Hill, Mr. Butler, Mr. Stevens...those were the guys who were in my head, besides my mother and my grandmother. Those were the individuals that were in my head pushing-- they were my counselors, my guidance, teachers, my lawyers. They knocked on my doors many days and talked to my parents and told what I was doing, how I was improving, [like] Mr. Hill when I was boxing and stuff-- those were Ellstons. So, having the experience as physical director, dealing with the kids, dealing with the single-parent homes (mostly female parents), trying to get sponsors to help sponsor the [kids' activities]...the black kids didn't like swimming, golf, tennis, track or gymnastics, those sports are put on the back burner plus in my day they were "sissy" sports.

...minority kids feel that there's no instant financial gain in those sports but [they require the most] hard work and dedication-- you look at the build on a swimmer, look at the build on a gymnast. That's the best build in the world, it takes every muscle in your doggone body to swim. And water, you're dealing with an element that's so under-rated, water, like Bruce Lee said, "holds the strongest of mammals, water is underestimated." Water puts out fire. Water sterilizes. Water drowns. Water tears brick. And swimming is something that a lot of people just don't know about. I got introduced into swimming by watching Lloyd Bridges in [the 50s TV show] Sea Hunt (laughs) and I always wanted to scuba dive-- I used to pretend to scuba dive under the covers as a kid. (makes bubbling sounds) My imagination was just large, they wanted to put me in a mental hospital years ago! My grandma said "something's wrong with him" (laughs) because I used to do voices and stuff like that. And now I scuba, I've swam all my life, you know, and boxed and sports-- I never ran track, I never played tennis but volley ball, baseball, basketball, football; I kept chalk in my pocket. We used to play strikeout. People used to yell at me: "Bernie Mac don't write on my wall!" You know, I used to draw that little square on the wall...the playgrounds used to be filled [with children] when I was coming up-- playgrounds are so empty now. But my point is [sports like swimming] were put on the back burner. I think those sports should be [compulsory] in the schools. We had to swim naked in high school because it was unsanitary to swim with trunks, class after class, you couldn't wear swim trunks so we had to swim naked-- that's where that line came from [in the film] "we had to swim naked."



















Q: You mentioned Daddy Rich earlier, you think you'd ever do like a Jo Jo Dancer, autobiographical film on yourself?

BM: I'm not Richard, I don't want to do a Jo Jo Dancer. I want to show, and no disrespect to anybody, I run my own race. I don't worry about what lane somebody's in or what somebody else is doing or who's in front. I want people to say, at the end of my day, you know like they used to say about Sidney Poitier, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Red Skelton and those guys-- they did [films with] quality, substance. You'll always remember them. I turn down so much stuff because I want [when people see] "Bernie Mac is performing in such-and-such" them to say "I'm going" because they know I'm not going to cheat the people...I just want it the same as when Stevie Wonder comes out with a new album, I was like: "I'm going to get it." Because I knew he was going to bring it. Jo Jo Dancer was something that Richard Pryor wanted to do, he wanted to tell the story of his life, I don't want to tell that story. I think I've told my story, number one, many times [doing stand up], if someone else wants to tell the story, that's their job to tell the story about you or him. I think, to me-- for me, that's a sign of bragging, you know? I'm not that actor, I don't want to do that.

Q: How's Ocean's 13 going?

BM: Man, let me tell you something. I hate to compare [films], especially while I'm promoting Pride, I feel that that's another [kind of] disrespect but Ocean's 13 is the best movie I've ever done in my life-- no question. With the boys, I mean, because it's personal. You got all the boys, all my buddies on that. You got George and Don Cheadle and Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould; you got Matt Damon...you got Brad and all the boys, so you can't say no...You cant say no to [Steven] Soderbergh. (laughs)

Q: So what about it makes it better? George is on the record saying that he was a little bit disappointed with the way the second movie went

BM: Well, we all were disappointed.

Q; So, how do you guys come back to do it a third time and make it the best one?

BM: By making a bad film the second time and then you say "okay, you know what?" (laughs) No kidding, it was like "what were we doing?" See, that is a perfect example of pimpin'. That's the perfect example of not being true and honest to yourself-- I don't want to do that. But, you know, with my connection with the boys, I couldn't say no. How can you say "no Bernie" when Soderbergh wants you in it? And I was doing Guess Who at the time too and I was flying all over-- that's how I got pneumonia. Flying all over the world, I'd just gotten through with the television show, 20 hours, and then I said "no, I'm not doing it next time, okay?" And then we were making the film and I said "man, this script is booty"-- I didn't know if it was mission impossible or what, you know? But you can't say nothing. Because, I don't want to do that to my fans, personally...I don't want to do that. i don't want to be doing it, milking it just so I can make some money and the people come out [and feel gypped]-- this one is good.


You got my man Al Pacino in there. Let me tell you something, I'm not quickly intimidated, being an athlete and being from [South Side Chicago], Al Pacino is one of my [acting] mentors. When I was on set I was like "man, I got a scene with Al Pacino today wheeew", you know what I'm saying? I was a little bit [afraid] ..I was like "goddamn!" (laughs) It's like a fight-- I could see how [fighting against] Larry Holmes was and then when Al came in I was like (in a meek voice) "hey, Al Pacino" and he said (in a booming voice) "Bernie Mac!" and I said "wow, man." I called my wife and said "it's me and Al Pacino today, dude." She said, "man, Mac, you know you're going to do alright" but you know, when I saw him I was like "Damn!" I kept watching him, man. It was like with Don Rickles...when I hooked up with Don Rickles I was like "Don Rickles!" You know, I don't have a 'favorite' nothing, I just like good stuff: Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, you know, I could go on, Jackie Gleason-- man, I grew up [watching them]...the younger people don't have those pioneers. I had some pioneers, even in sports: Roberto Clemente-- I loved him, I used to try to run like him. (laughs)

Q: So, what's up with being cast in Transformers? Talk a little bit about that.

BM: In Transformers I'm playing a used car salesman and you know all used car salesmen are full of shit, excuse my French, but they're con-men. And they came to my set lot and I sold them-- the Transformers. I didn't know that they were Transformers, I thought they were a piece of junk and the first thing you do as a car salesmen-- I didn't even know this but I found after investigating for myself-- they always sell you the BS cars first. It's almost like a restaurant, get rid of the food, rotate it. And when [the Transformers] come, I just throw them on the line, I'm a fast talking quick-wit guy-- I got a chance to have some fun. And Michael Mann -- I've been fortunate because every director [in the past] allows Bernie Mac do his thing. I have not been handcuffed [creatively in a role] since my career started, from Ted Demme [onward] every time we'll do it straight and then they'll tell me "now, Bernie Mac it" that's a luxury.






Q: Did you do a lot of ad-libbing in Pride?

BM: I only ad-libbed when Sunu [Gonera, the film's director] told me to Bernie Mac it. I'm very disciplined and I'm a fan of respect. Sunu was a first-time director and I didn't want to go off the page and everything. But Sunu instructed me, he'd say "Bernie, I need something right here, give me Bernie Mac" that's when I did it. We took a take of the way Sunu wanted it, if Sunu had a note for me, I did it the way he described it in the notes and then I'd put the Bernie Mac on it.



...Pride opens nationally on Friday, March 23rd...see trailer below...

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