October 2002
Paid in Full : Coming Home : An Interview with Mekhi Phifer

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Paid in Full : Coming Home : An Interview with Mekhi Phifer

Itís been less than ten years since Mekhi Phifer was first introduced in Spike Leeís CLOCKERS and today he follows a short list of African American actors who could have the lead role in independent and commercial films. He was amazing in ďOĒ and in ďAn Invited GuestĒ, the little seen Urbanworld Festival winner. Heís the latest doctor on the long-running TV series ER. Currently shooting the film ďHoneyĒ with Jessica Alba and Lonette McKee in Toronto, Mekhi briefly came back home to NYC to talk to blackfilm.com about his role as Rich Porter in Charles Stone IIIís film PAID IN FULL.

WM: What was it about this character that attracted you to the film?

MP: Iím from Harlem, born and raised there. As a young man, I grew up knowing about these cats, Alpo and Rich Porter. When you become an actor, at some point you look for something that brings you back to your roots. You find something that people around your neighborhood can relate to. People that youíre close with can relate to. At the same time, you get to bring people who arenít used that world into this world. I think my world is very intriguing.

WM: How was it working with CamíRon, considering his lack of acting skills?

MP: Cam did his thing. Heís from Harlem too. We knew the ramifications of doing a film like this since we still have to go back to the neighborhood. These guys are still alive and obviously the one I play is dead. You want to portray these Ďcats to the fullest. You donít want to lose your street credibility. It does bring a certain amount of passion to the work. I think Cam was willing to go all out and he learned a lot. He did a great job.

WM: Did you get a chance to speak to Rich Porterís sister to get some insight on her brother?

MP: I definitely spoke to his sister a couple of times. Spoke to the family, friends, cousins, and all of that. People are going to offer you their opinion anyway. I really paid attention to the family and what they had to say.

WM: Have you seen the documentary GAME OVER, the story of these guys?

MP: Nah, I havenít seen it yet.

WM: Why were these three guys so at large?

MP: In the early 80s, it was hard to find celebrities you can identify with if you lived in the hood. There werenít any rap videos at the time. These were the rappers of the 80s. They shined and had all the jewels, the cars, and the chicks. Those were celebrities. They were making money and making moves and traveling. When you are in an impoverished state, itís hard not to be intrigued and look at the fun these guys are having doing the hustle.

WM: Why didnít you follow their route but became an actor instead?

MP: Just like in the story, none of those Ďcats are making money. My characterís dead and another is locked up and the third is just living. You see people around your neighborhood that fall to that path or get locked up and go to jail or get killed. I got other things to do, and donít have time to get locked up.

WM: Whatís the difference between shooting in Toronto and shooting in New York?

MP: Toronto is like a smaller, safe New York. It was cool. I had a great time. I think with certain scenes that we did, we could do it without being distracted by the city. When we did all the stuff in Harlem, it was the right type of energy that we were looking for. It worked out perfectly. It gave us a chance to just delve into our characters. It gave Cam a chance to be away from New York and be in Toronto and be focus in on his character and what he was going to bring to the table. It is just an interesting different dynamic.

WM: How do you think the people of Harlem will react when they see this film?

MP: Iím hearing great things. I think itís a story they have been dying to wait for. Everybody in Harlem knows about these Ďcats. I think all the New Yorkers will go check it out. Lots of people are intrigued by the story. They want to see if any of the stuff on screen is true based on the stories they heard over the years.

WM: What about the people from Iowa?

MP: I think itís a story of intrigue. I hope it reaches Iowa and others places. Itís only going to be release on 300 screens. Iíve had Ďcats from Baltimore to Virginia to ĎCali come up to me regarding the movie.

WM: What do you think about the people who have seen the film on tape through piracy?

MP: Thereís nothing better than a movie going experience. The stuff thatís on the streets is more like rough-cuts. I donít buy any bootleg tapes because itís a terrible copy. When you watch one, you can see the theater within the film. You can hear people talking. The close-ups are horrible. The movie cuts half way into the film. The movie going experience is the best way.

WM: Whatís the message you want people to get once they see the film?

MP: I think this film doesnít glamorize drug dealing. Itís almost Shakespearian the way itís tragic at the end and they way see peopleís lives deteriorate so fast. Itís like a thin line between love and hate. You see these guys love what they are doing and then you see them stuck in turmoil and you hate the situation. I think people will walk away thinking, ďMaybe thatís not something I should doĒ.

WM: Whatís the role you play in 8 MILE and whatís the story about?

MP: Itís loosely based on Eminem growing up in a trailer park and all of us being friends. Heís trying to become who he is today. Eminem and I play best friends. I host these rap battles and I help motivate break his fear and go on stage and really make a name for himself with the music.

WM: Were you a fan of his before the film?

MP: I was a fan of his music. When they told me there was an Eminem movie coming up, I initially turned it down. I then read the script and thought it was dope, so I flew to meet the Ďcat. I met him and felt his passion for what he was going to do. We read together and he did his thing. It was a good experience.

WM: From CLOCKERS to ER, how difficult is it for an African American actor to get to this level?

MP: Itís difficult, but you have to put in the work. Nothing happens overnight. You have to really work hard. You have to make the best work possible and make the best choices possible and donít sit around complaining. Step up to the plate and do your thing. The work will pay off.

WM: Samuel L. Jackson said recently that he wonít work with rappers that are actors. I know that you have worked with Beyonce (Knowles) and CamíRon and now Eminem. How do you feel about his statement?

MP: I think itís an unfortunate statement he made. In one turn, he turned himself into a square. I think itís hypocritical and contradictory for him to say that. An artist is and artist. Itís almost racist what heís saying. I give him NO LOVE on that. I donít respect his statement. Heís doing ďFormula 51Ē with Meat Loaf. Whatís the difference? You stupid duck! You know what I mean. I donít see people arguing about doing movies with Harry Belafonte or Frank Sinatra. Why attack rappers? I want to work with passionate people. I think itís unfortunate that I have to see him in that light. Heís trying to separate himself from his own people and culture that has helped so many of our people be in this business and make money. I think heís shutting himself off and I think heís a clown for making the statement. I wish he didnít feel that way but it is what it is.

WM: How long will you be on ER?

MP: I have sign on for about 3-4 years and weíll see from there. That too is a stepping stone.