November 2002
Half Past Dead : Interview with Morris Chestnut

Interviewed by Monikka Stallworth

Morris Chestnut in Columbia's Half Past Dead - 2002 Half Past Dead : Interview with Morris Chestnut

Morris Chestnut is the kind of guy your mother wants you to bring home. Yep, heís tall, dark and handsome, but heís much more than his divine exterior. However hokey this may sound, heís one of those individuals whose smile and energy warms up a room. I had the opportunity to soak up some of his glow recently when we met at the W Hotel in Westwood,CA to chat about his latest film Half Past Dead :

MS: So how was it playing a villain?

MC: It was a lot of fun. Much more fun than playing the straight guy that gets to kiss the girl.

MS: What kind of preparation did you do in order to play such a menacing character?

MC: Well, thatís really me, ya know. (Laughing) Basically, after reading the script, I knew that I wanted to do a lot more with my character. But, it was kind of difficult because we went to Germany to shoot this like around the same time as September 11th and the whole country was in shock and then, when I got there I was reading all this stuff about Training Day. It had just come out and people were saying things about Denzel, so I really didnít want to go too far overboard.

MS: What did you find appealing about the opportunity to play this particular role?

MC: What I liked is that I could just go in and pretty much do what I wanted to do with the character. In all my other movies when youíre kind of like the lead character, you have to do things that donít offend people because the audience has to like you and they have to be able to feel for you. So, when youíre not the lead character and youíre the villain, you donít have to care what the audience is thinking, you know. You kind of want them to hate you and like you at the same time, if that makes sense.

MS: When you first came on the scene, I remember finding your success story very inspiring, didnít you work at a bank or something like that?

MC: I was robbing banks. (chuckling)

MS: Can you re-tell your story?

MC: I was a bank teller in Cerritos (CA) and then in Northridge (CA). At the time, it was Great Western, which is now Washington Mutual and I was at Bank of America. But when I graduated from high school, I wanted to play football and I told myself that if I didnít get a football scholarship, I was gonna do something else. And so I was going to a junior college in L.A., Southwest Junior College and a buddy of mine said, "hey, come check me out in this play." So, I came to the play and brought a date and she was just like riveted to him on stage and I look around and all the girls are like riveted to him on stage. I thought, "you mean if I do a play, Iíll get women?" So, being the kind of cat that I was.

MS: What year was that?

MC: Letís see I think it was in Ď88 or Ď89. But you know, guys always do things to get girls and so, the next semester, I took an acting class. And I liked it and I started pursuing it.

MS: Wow, so things must have happened pretty fast?

MC: Yeah, you know what, it was in Ď87 or Ď88 and I got an agent and he sent me to an audition for A Different World. I went on the audition and he says "they want to bring you back," and he says, "this is what youíll be saying". And my character said ďhello." And he said Iíd be making like $1500 for the week and I was like "$1500 for one week?Ē I would have been cool with $100 for the week. So I was like "this is what I want to do!"

MS: So how do you feel about the progression of your career?

MC: When I did Boyz In The Hood I was still so, so new. I just got a lucky break. I didnít know anything about the industry. At the time I had this agent who had a very small office, about the size of this room and he sends me out to the audition. At the audition, I met the casting director and she decides to have me meet the director and producer and the director was like, my age. And then, my agent calls me back and says, "they want to screen test you." And Iím like "okay, my first Hollywood screen test." And they say, "Now go do down to Crenshaw over in Leimert Park" And Iím like, "Wait, Hollywoodís over there" (laughter) So, I go and Iím not nervous because itís not like a big "Hollywood Screen Test", you know. So I get the gig and while weíre shooting Iím thinking, "Okay, Iím nobody, Cuba had guest starred on some projects, but he doesnít have a big name. We had the guy from Pee Weeís playhouse, then you had the guy from the rap group from Compton that not too many people knew." So I wasnít thinking it was a big deal. And when it turned out that it was that big of a deal, it was kind of like all the sudden everybody knows your name, everybodyís talking about the movie.

MS: How did you handle your newfound celebrity?

MC: At that time I was so green, I made a lot of mistakes. Iíve just been fortunate to still be able to work because a lot of times people get these big movies and you never hear from them again cause theyíre not prepared. And you guys donít see a lot of it because it goes on behind the scenes. And I wasnít prepared, but Iím just fortunate to be able to look back on that as an experience.

MS: Could you be more specific?

MC: After I did Boyz In The Hood - a huge movie at the time, I had this "agent" whoís suppose to be advising my career, and heís talking about "They want you over at NBC for this show, paying $5000 a week." And as an actor, you donít know if that it might be wiser to take advantage of the heat and pursue a film career. Youíre in a hot film, everyone wants to do film, so why go from film to T.V.? Little things like that and you think that theyíre advising you for whatís best for you and them, and sometimes theyíre advising you to do whatís best for them only. And not knowing anybody in the industry, there was really no one that I could call.

MS: Film is such a powerful medium and Iím sure youíre aware of the oftentimes, distorted images of black men on screen. I look at your body of work to date and thereís nothing that I would wince at and I wonder how much of a conscious decision that is, or is it that disparaging roles donít some your way?

MC: Once I started working, it became a conscious decision. But it hasnít always been that way, because as an actor, your job is just to get a gig and to get work. Any type of thing that you can do for people to see your work, you want to do it.

MS: Do you write? Or have any plans to direct?

MC: No, Iím too lazy for that. Itís not in me to be a writer. And itís not in me to be a director. I think itís in me to act. And Iíd like to produce, just to have a say in the creative decision making process. You know, as an actor, unless youíre Tom Cruise, your only voice is kind of that of your characters. And at the end of the day, you really donít have a say because if you make a choice as an actor and they donít like it, itís gonna get cut. So, to be more involved in the creative process and have more of a voice, I would like to produce.