September 2002
Crazy as Hell : An Interview with Eriq La Salle

Interviewed by Chika Chukudebelu

Crazy as Hell : An Interview with Eriq La Salle

In his first role since leaving ER as Dr. Peter Benton, Eriq La Salle emerges as the devilish character, Satan, in his new film Crazy As Hell. This new role is unlike any weíve ever seen him portray and clearly shows us his range and talent as an actor, a producer and director.

CC: Whatís been the hardest part about the transition for you since leaving ER?

ELS: Iíve been too busy to notice whatís been hard and what hasnít. Ever since Iíve left, Iíve been doing nothing but this film and traveling, promoting and doing festivals. So the good thing is that Iím not sitting around pining over whether I made the right choice in leaving. Iím moving and grooving.

CC: Do you find yourself ever missing the structure of working on TV?

ELS: No.

CC: Or the paycheck?

ELS: The paycheck youíll always miss. [Laughing] I ainít going to lie. I donít miss that structure because one thing fortunately for me by having a company and having this film [is] Iíve had to create another structure. So itís not like I go from being this disciplined person who has to get up and go to work to now I just lay around all day in my underwear eating Cheerios. I have this structure. I still have to do this and the difference is Iím doing this for me and my company.

CC: What attracted you to this project?

ELS: I thought it was a witty story. I thought it was challenging. I thought it had mystery, suspense and drama and an opportunity as a filmmaker to really do a complex, layered story which we donít normally get to see in ďBlack filmmakingĒ as usually things are much more simplistic and in-your-face. I saw this as a complex piece and I wanted to do something that challenged me.

CC: In the book, Satan, that the film is based on, was the race of Dr. Adamís or Satanís characters specified?

ELS: No. The book is so different from the movie. Theyíre like night and day. So we took it and just made it ours.

CC: How did you choose Michael Beach for the lead role?

ELS: [We] tried to do the traditional casting [and] tried to find the White male lead that everyone told us that we had to have in order to make the film sell. I didnít find anyone that I was pleased with. At the point when I just said, ďYou know what? Weíre not going to do it the studio way, weíre just going to do this thing independently,Ē he emerged as the best choice. He trusts me, I respect his talent and I needed an actor that could give me a layered, complex performance- and subtle. I thought he nailed it.

CC: You play around with the sexiness of this character. Is this an element that youíve wanted to portray for a while?

ELS: I made a conscious choice when I did Dr. Benton that I would be very true to that character and that character was emotionally challenged. He didnít really know how to express himself. He wasnít a people-person. He knew medicine, but he didnít know life. And the evolution was, toward the end, he learns about life. Which is why I left because I go to take care of my son which is more important than my career. So that was a nice arc for that character. But for eight years, being known as this guy who was so straight and hard-edged, it was nice to play someone with sexuality, with frivolity, with passion and rakishness. The bad boy kind of thing, of course thatís very appealing and people always like those characters, but you can do yourself a disservice if you stay in one role too long. Dr. Benton was such a popular character that you almost get locked into [it]. ďThatís all Eriq La Salle can do. That must be because heís doing it pretty well. Thatís it!Ē And you go, ďItís called acting!Ē And acting means Iím playing this one role. This happens to be a very popular role for a long period of time, but itís called acting. This is the first role post my departure. I definitely wanted to do something that exposed another side of me as an artist, an actor and made people go ďOh! Ok, I thought I knew everything he had. Heís got something else.Ē Hopefully with the next role, I can continue that even further.

CC: What was the importance of Sinbadís role?

ELS: He was just simply a voice of reason. But in dealing with such an egotistical man, he would never hear that voice.

CC: Aside from the obvious entertainment value, what do you want your audience to take away from the film?

ELS: Well thatís the point: People donít normally take away things from films anymore. You go and see a $100 million film, half an hour later, your biggest concern is what are you going to be eating. I think American cinema, particularly, has become so disposable. Itís not even cinema, itís just moviemaking. The films that have influenced me and the films that have motivated me and inspired me were films that resonated, films that made me think after I saw them. [Films] that haunted me. The last film that I saw like that was [a] Darren Aronofsky film. Darren Aronofskyís first film was called Pie and then he did a film called Requiem for a Dream which was extremely haunting and uncomfortable and brutal. But when I saw that film I realized he didnít compromise. He just went for it. He was going to tell his story. So he inspired me to just go for it. Maybe itís not the biggest blockbuster film, but there will be some people that will see it, that will be debating it, that will be questioning their own sense of spirituality. If the film resonates, then I have succeeded in what I set out to do.

CC: Was it your intention to leave people wondering with a certain level of suspense about the events in the film?

ELS: You want there to be some sense of clarity. I just refuse to force-feed and spoon-feed people everything about that film. It wasnít like ďOk, Iím going to tell you how your supposed to feel.Ē Thatís what Hollywood films do. They tell you this is a tender moment. Now we want you to cry. I refuse to manipulate the audience that way. Your history and your definition of spirituality is probably very different from mine. So when you and I look at a ďspiritual film,Ē we have to bring our past. And it might bring us to the same place, it might not, but thatís ok. Someone who doesnít believe in God can watch this film and come up with another version of what the film is. So that, to me, is important that audiences are treated with an amount of respect toward their intelligence. Most Hollywood films donít respect their intelligence. [They tell you,] ďItís a movie so go with.Ē And sometimes you canít go with it because something is so preposterous and so stupid and insulting. I wanted a film that was intelligent, entertaining, witty, challenging and thought provoking.

CC: You talked about how films that star African-Americans tend to fall into two categories: silly comedies or violent gangster movies. This one doesnít fit those categories. What kind of marketing do you have planned for this filmís release?

ELS: First and foremost, this film is a psychological thriller. So weíre really pushing that element of it in the campaign. Hopefully people will see it as that, as a film with some suspense, drama and somewhat of a supernatural edge. Thatís the film. So thatís obviously what weíre trying to highlight.

CC: What kind of difficulties did you encounter taking on the producer and director role?

ELS: Just trying to get a film made which is always difficult no matter what kind of a budget you have. Not having a budget makes it even more difficult. Having nineteen days and no budget makes it extremely difficult. Acting, directing and producing in a film when you have no budget and only nineteen days makes it extremely, extremely difficult. I could go on. [Laughing]

CC: Would you take on all three of those roles again?

ELS: In a heartbeat. [Laughing] Iím a sadomasochist. I just love killing myself like that.

CC: How involved are you in the day-to-day dealings of your company?

ELS: Iím very much involved. Itís my company and I believe in the company thatís why I started it. From day one it was always [been] important to me to show that my deal at Warner Bros. wasnít a vanity deal. I was always doing things. I was always producing and directing and by the time I left Warner Bros., I had a rťsumť. I had a rťsumť that I didnít have when I came in and if you consider that Iím on a show, you donít necessarily even have time to create an additional rťsumť. But I did on projects that I produced, that I directed, that I acted in because it was important. I want to be a filmmaker. I donít want to be an actor who directs, I want to be a director. I want to be a filmmaker. So thatís a big difference.

CC: Is there any piece of advice that you wish you would have followed when you first started your career?

ELS: Wow. Yes and no. You could always look back on a situation and say, ďI wish. I wish. I wish.Ē But I happen to think that all your mistakes and all your victories lead you to where youíre supposed to be. Maybe if I had done something differently, I wouldnít be sitting right here right now and that could be good or bad. I donít know. Weíll never know. But I donít believe in consciously spending a lot of time going, ďOh, I wish I had done this.Ē I need time to grow. There are mistakes that you make. [You think,] ďMy God! How did you do that? How could you make that choice?!Ē I think that you make the best choice with the information that you have before you at that given time. Now Iím older and much more mature. Next year, Iíll look at some of the choices that Iím making today and go, ďHmmm. Maybe you should haveÖĒ But I try not to become preoccupied with that because with whatever direction I follow, with whatever advice Iíve followed or not followed, itís landed me in New York, in a very beautiful hotel, talking to people about something that I love. So I ainít that far off. [Laughing] This is what I love doing. I ended up here. And hey, maybe we could have had fifty people here, and maybe we could have been on a private yacht. I donít know. But, Iím just saying, it ainít bad being here, talking about what I love with you lovely people. Life ainít bad.

CC: Do you think youíll continue doing films independently or would you prefer to do big-money studio films?

ELS: Probably a happy medium. Somewhere in-between. I donít see me doing $100 million films because $100 million films, the very nature of them, you need to offend as few people as possible just to make your money back. I donít know that, in general, thatís the design of art. Art should offend people because art should challenge people. If you want to just do something commercial then make a lot of money then thatís a whole other thing and everyone has that right. But right now, Iím more attracted to films than I am movies. Iím more attracted to films that say something, than movies that I can forget a half an hour after seeing them.

CC: Any actors that you really want to work with in the future?

ELS: Love to work with Denzel. Thereís some young energy I like. Mos Def I find interesting. Who wouldnít want to work with De Niro. Thereís obviously a fantasy list.

CC: Advice for actors just starting out?

ELS: Advice on anybody just starting out in any profession. Study your craft. Just know your craft. Do homework. Whatever that means. Try to get some experience. Try to put yourself in a situation where you are exposed to your craft. If that means you have to do an internship. You do whatever you have to do to soak up your craft. I think thatís extremely important and not enough people tend to do that. Everybody wants the glory, but nobody wants to put in the hard work. So know your craft.

CC: Future projects?

ELS: Future projects: thereís a vacation on the horizon in October. Iíve got about three projects right now that my company is developing. I want to do an action film in the vane of The Wild Bunch with that focus on character. We have a pretty cool project that would bring together a nice ensemble. Great action. And thatís it. Just find challenging projects and challenging genres and just do different films.