May '00 : From the Stage to Screen
Pierce is Fierce

(May: Main Page * Features * Reviews * Gallery ) Current Issue * Archive
 
by Shelby J. Jones

Shelby
What do you think of the presidential candidates?

Wendell
I respond to any candidate with a serious platform on education reform. Most of the problems that plague us today stem from the deterioration of our schools. Combine that with the desire to fill those prisons built for profit and you have a recipe for disaster. It is in the best interest of the prison business to keep a criminal class and to do that you keep an uneducated class. Although I'm for education reform, I do not extol the virtue of school vouchers. How can we send our kids to better schools with vouchers when they're already full? Poor kids will just end up right where they started. The best solution is to make all schools equal. If you read the candidates platforms you'll know whom I'm leaning towards.

Shelby
How did you become an actor?

Wendell
I was interested in many different things, like law and engineering before I realized the craft that would let me do it all. I first started to study seriously in high school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). I produced and hosted a teenager TV Show and was on air at the radio station WYLD FM98. After graduating, I was selected as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. I moved to New York to study at The Juilliard School. While living with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, I studied at school during the day and went to the jazz clubs at night. That was an education in itself. I learned to act from Jazz musicians because they understood how to have freedom within form. That's what acting is for me.

Shelby
In Get On The Bus, what role did your character play in telling the story?

Wendell
As African Americans we are always trying to get others to see us as a diverse community. And just because my character was offensive to most he has a place in any dialogue about our humanity. Surprisingly, just as many loved his views as hated them. As an artist I believe in the truth of life. As a student of human behavior, that character was quite a lesson for me because we are complete opposites. But for us to gain any insight about whom we are, we have to look at the good as well as the bad. We must be faithful to the truth.

Shelby
What was it like working with that awesome ensemble?

Wendell
One of the highlights of my career was working with Ossie Davis. He is an actor who has done everything from classical to the contemporary, tragedy and comedy. He is a great chameleon, which is a high honor for an actor to receive. I remember listening to Ossie and Ruby on the radio reading poetry as a child, so I grew up with great admiration for the man. To have an opportunity to work with him as a colleague was a very fulfilling experience.

It was also wonderful to work with so many brothers I already had worked with or knew from the business in N.Y. I replaced Charles Dutton on Broadway in Piano Lesson, I went to school with Andre Braugher; Isiah Washington, Gabe Cassius and I all lived in Fort Greene Brooklyn together (along with Spike). Wesley Snipes and I go all the way back to college. He actually was the DJ for my 22nd birthday party. It was a very personal experience to work on that film. It was a wonder to reflect on how far we all have come. The hard work is paying off.

Shelby
Denzel lost to Kevin Spacey at the 72nd Academy Awards. What do you think about that?

Wendell
I thought Denzel had a good chance of winning because he was overlooked for Malcolm X. Hollywood has a weird relationship with him so I thought they would try to make up for pass mistakes. For instance, Whoopi Goldberg didn't deserve an Oscar for Ghost, but the Academy knew they overlooked her for The Color Purple and was trying to make up for it. I thought it was Denzel's turn. He was overlooked for Malcolm X, and Philadelphia. They owe him. I personally think those other two performances were better. But it may be a blessing in disguise, because some of the biggest oversights resulted in better careers for the actors. The two that come to mind are Don Cheadle in Devil and a Blue Dress, and Debbie Morgan in Eve's Bayou.

Shelby
Do you like television? And have you ever played a cop?

Wendell
I like good material no matter what. And Third Watch has good writing. I love working on television because you get to play a character in a multitude of different situations, unlike theater and film where the challenge is to play the same events many times over while trying to keep it spontaneous. I have played a cop in films before but seldom on TV. And never on stage. I think I'll have more of an opportunity to explore the character through his work this time. All of the other times I played a cop it had more to do with his personal life, not his work.

Shelby
The NAACP is bringing the heat to Hollywood concerning minorities on TV? Do you think the battle is productive or should we adopt a new plan of attack?

Wendell
A few years ago while our community protested the Oscars for the same reason, I was complacent about it until Rev. Jackson spoke at our rehearsal for Get On The Bus. The one thing that was an epiphany for me was this statement: "Never lose the ability to be offended". How absolutely true that statement is. Others would try to make you feel it's worthless to dissent in Hollywood. That is not true. We owe it to the future generations of this country to be vigilant about fighting injustices. Just as those who fought for us in years past, we must fight now. The protest is productive but we should also demand more of those minorities in positions of power. It was with unconditional support from our communities that they arrived to positions of influence in spite of all the unnecessary obstacles placed in front of them. We also have to create for ourselves. Historically Hollywood has never demonstrated that they have our interests at heart, so why continue to wait for them to come around? These things can happen concurrently. All at once, we can hold the networks accountable and create our own vehicles. And I practice what I preach. I am currently producing August Wilson's new play, Jitney, and just completed three short films with young Black student directors for their thesis (all of this while still pursuing a very commercial career). Our economic power is also a great force to be dealt with. The sponsors should be held accountable for participating in our exclusion. Money talks. Boycott the sponsors and change will happen sooner than later.

Shelby
Besides Third Watch, what projects are you working on? Any interest in directing and producing?

Wendell
While on a trip to Uganda two years ago, I met my business partner. Curiously enough, we lived near each other in Brooklyn. After several months of discussions, we formed Jinja Media, Inc. A production company named after the city that is the source of the Nile. It was near where we first met and what a metaphor for creating. Our debut project is August Wilson's new play entitled, Jitney. It played in Los Angeles until March 19. The production then moves to New York on April 18th. We also just finished producing a short film called The Date in association with Clarendon Entertainment. It was written by Kelvin Phillips and directed by Roderick Giles. I also acted in the film. Other projects include the short film, Deep In My Heart by April Scott-Goss, which played at the Pan African film festival in February. I also just finished Tartuffe by Moliere at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park this summer.

Shelby
Pretend I am an actor and I have yet to find work, what advice could you offer?

Wendell
First, be a student of your craft. You aren't an actor until you have figured out for yourself what acting is. Most importantly, always remember that employment doesn't define you as an actor. Some of the most successful actors in the world aren't very good, while some of the best that I have ever seen have never earned a penny at it. That doesn't mean they are any less of an artist. That doesn't mean I romanticize the life of a poor artist either. Always know your worth and value, even when you do something for free just to show your work to others. Luck is when preparedness meets up with opportunity. So always be prepared. When you audition, don't think of it as asking for work, but realize it's a chance to show your craft to your colleagues. If they choose to use you fine, if not then move own. You still might get a job, years later, because they remembered your work from an earlier audition. Just share your work. Even in my darkest days, I focused on my acting. That was what got me to the next job and helped me deal with the rejection.

Shelby
There is a rising tide of hip-hop artist who are starting to find roles in film now. What do you think of this phenomena?

Wendell
There is the craft of acting and then there is the business of acting. The people who run Hollywood are businessmen and women first. They see the popularity of hip-hop and that becomes the only barometer by which they judge talent, popularity. I just recently lost a job after the director wanted to hire me. The network executives said, "No get a rapper, any rapper". Obviously the decision had nothing to do with the ability to act. That is the infuriating thing. The variable that makes a studio choose a rapper for an acting role has nothing to do with the ability to act. The really sad part is that the rappers actually start to believe the hype. They start to believe they are getting the parts because of their acting chops. It's the cult of personality. What really is insulting is the cavalier attitude that goes along with this phenomenon. The belief that without any study they can do anything. I have no gripe with confidence, but it's ironic that rappers who pay so much attention to the existence (or not) of street authenticity, can so easily step to another man's craft with so much disrespect.

 

(May: Main Page * Features * Reviews * Gallery ) Current Issue * Archive