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September 2004
Mr. 3000: An Interview with Bernie Mac

Mr. 3000: An Interview with Bernie Mac

By Todd Gilchrist

In 2000's stand-up ensemble "The Original Kings of Comedy", Bernie Mac turns to the audience at one point and accuses them of being scared of him, attributing their fears of his unflinching comedy to be the reason he alone amongst the Kings' ranks is without his own sit-com or star vehicle. Four years later, their fears seem to have abated; his self-titled television show notwithstanding, Mac's profile has catapulted him into no less than five blockbuster films- among them "Ocean's Eleven", "Bad Santa" and "Head of State"- and seems only to be rising, with the 2004 one-two punch of "Mr. 3000" and the follow-up to Soderbergh's ensemble heist flick "Ocean's Twelve". Mac recently sat down with blackfilm.com to discuss his most recent film, in which he stars as Stan Ross, a baseball player who discovers that his record-setting home run tally is a few hits short, as well as his evolving position as one of the industry's most sought-after stars.

This is by far the most dramatic role you've tackled. What were the unique challenges that you faced for the role of Stan Ross?

Bernie Mac: Making a good film was the biggest challenge, and making a transition with this being my first leading role, I think was a challenge to start off right. That was the biggest thing for me. It wasn't so much just doing the role itself; I want to do good films, so when people see me in a starring role, I want them to see my range, I want them to see more than they saw in the past so they say îI didn't know Bernie could do that.' That's really important to me. That's more important to me than just getting the role itself, because a lot of people get roles, people get their first lead and stuff like that, and it's booty. They do it for the wrong reasons, for money, and I didn't want to do something like that. I wanted to put together something special, and I want people to remember and I want them to say îhey man, Bernie shopped me on this one,' and that was the biggest challenge for me.

You've made a very fluid transition from having an audience that is predominantly African-American to one that is much broader. To what do you attribute this success as a mainstream comedian and performer?

BM: Patience. Waiting and watching and being observant, doing my homework and being a student of the game, and realizing what's important and what isn't important, and coming up from the era that I came up in has a lot to do with it. Watching entertainers that had no color, from Red Skelton to Flip Wilson to Richard Pryor to Jack Benny to Harpo Marx, even the Three Stooges; I didn't see nothin' I just laughed like a son of a bitch. That was very important to me because I always was taught that if you're a comedian, you make everybody laugh. There wasn't such a thing as îI'm a black comic.' I don't know where that title and all of that stuff comes from, and that trips me out. Who's a îblack' comic? Who's a îwhite' comic? I don't come from that, so when I saw James Cagney and I saw Sidney Poitier, I saw talent, I saw skills, and when I saw that, that was something I wanted to put myself in the same type of perimeter. I'm an entertainer; I want to be entertaining and do good work and I think by priding myself and being patient and being able to watch and understand, all of that stuff puts me in a position to do my homework and take "Mr. 3000" and make a good film. When I first got this film and we prepped it, I told Charles, îI ain't doing nothin' stupid. I'm not making this a butt joke, and we ain't signifying. I'm not doing this îlove should have brought you home last night.' We ain't doin' that- I want to do a good film.' I want people to say the same thing as when Cagney came on: îJames Cagney! Oh sh*t, I gotta watch that!' Because we didn't have a lot of channels like now, and when the late late late night show came on, that was a treat. It's a whole era thing for me, and it's about where you want to be as an artist. I want to do good work.

In "Mr. 3000", your character lets his ego get the better of him. How do you keep grounded in your personal life?

BM: I used my brother to play him, because my brother was a replica of Stan Ross. As far as my grounded ness and stuff like that, I think by me being 46, and with all of the trials and tribulations I've had, and being in this business as long as I have, taking all of this time to get here has given me the appreciation that I have. This is something that I always wanted to do since I was a little boy. I love it- I truly f*ckin' love it- and I've done some of everything to counter my comedy. Being married at 19, I had a family, and that helped. I had my daughter when I was 20, and I didn't want to be over here like a lot of my partners and their kids, or like my father. îI'm over here, you're over there, and I'll see you on Saturday;' I didn't want that. Everybody kept telling me that if I was going to make it, I had to come here [to Los Angeles], but I didn't believe that; my grandmother kept saying îyou do what you do, and they'll come to you,' and they did. I knew that had I come here I might not be sitting here talking to you; I might be burnt up, and I might be old news. Then again, I might be all messed up and foolish and have made mistakes like a lot of people who get caught up. I always had to work extra for mine, and I don't believe when people say îI want my props.' I don't need anyone to ring my bell; when you come into my room, it's empty. I walk the line, I stand on my own two feet and I make no excuses, and I like it that way. I'm on the no stress express, you know? I'm 46, and if I don't have good sense by now I'm in bad shape. I do know what's important, I know what's important for me. I can't talk for nobody else, but I can talk for me. I ain't no party cat, I don't do drugs, I'm not saying that for a holla, I'm just telling you about the personality that you're dealing with. I don't knock anybody or what they do, but I get a rush every time that camera comes on, or that microphone, and I get out there and say' good evening, ladies and gentlemen,' and there's just something out there that comes over me that makes me act just like a damn fool.

Are you still developing comedy material for your stand-up career?

BM: Oh man, all of the time. I've been doing stand-up ever since I was a small boy- I'm a storyteller. I've been telling stories since I was five, six, and my imagination is long. I'm always writing, I'm always performing- I'm always performing in my head- and the only thing I miss as far as stand-up is going to different spots and doing my thing, holding your style down. I wish I could do that, but you can't do that any more; the New Jacks, they don't have comedy courtesy. You know, you work your butt off, you try to be creative, and all of a sudden you've got to argue for yourself. I'm not an argumentative person. I don't deal with toxic waste. I like love, I like to laugh and joke and party and have a good time, and if you want to talk about comedy, I could do it all night, because that's my rush, my dollars and cents. That's my mistress, what I do. I don't have no other time but that to really enjoy what I do, because first of all I don't want to disappoint you. I don't want to disappoint that audience. Every time they see me it's really important to me that they feel that I give them my best.

How do you give your own slant to material like "Mr. 3000" that has been previously written or written without you specifically in mind?

BM: First of all when you go in and talk, they present this stuff to you, and you need to do your homework. I try to have an understanding of the script and I try to pitch my ideas of how I think the character is, and that's when you ping pong back and firth in terms of what's best for the film and how you can make the film better. I always try to have a part in that, when it comes to that; I like to be on the creative end of that too. I don't necessarily have to be the director, but I think I have to have at least some type of say-so or creative involvement in that too. I think that it's just how you position yourself, and success comes with a lot of options, and that's the luxury. It's fun when you go back and forth, especially with the director or producer or writer, and you sit there and say îhow about this, that and the other?' The process is the fun part and that's how it works for me.

How did you develop your relationship with the other actors in the film? Do you rely on what's on the page, or did you have discussions with Angela Bassett, et al?

BM: I'm not a page guy. A lot of directors want you to stay on the page, and that's something that during the [development] process I stress too, but a lot of time I say îlet me do my thing; I'll do your thing and let me do mine,' but I'm an instinctive and spontaneous sort of guy. Angela and I, the only thing we discussed was the love scene, because I didn't want to be Wesley Snipes with the love scene, because it's already been shown, it's already been done, and it's always over the top. I wanted to go old school; I let you use your imagination, but I wanted to show the chemistry between Angela and myself. I haven't seen it, but I heard it was real good, and I'm proud of that, because it's exactly what I wanted. I'm a movie fan; I try to catch a movie every week, and I like to examine it as a fan and look at it as an artist, so I really wanted to make it. So many times you see love interests and it's just not there; it's a bunch of reading lines and going through the motions, and I didn't want that, so I told Angela, îif you throw it, I'll catch it,' and she threw it.

Do you see a role like this as a transition towards more dramatic material?

BM: I want to do dramatic roles, but I do understand what people want to see me do. I am a comedian, and I think this is a process you take step by step. I don't think I just want to jump over and do a drama right away, because people still see me as a stand-up. It's almost like comics that are talented like my man Jamie Foxx; he can sing, but people don't want to see him sing, so you have to be really careful, and that's the thing about when you make a move like that. They don't want to see it. Eddie Murphy tried it, but they didn't want to see it, because once they put you somewhere, you have to gradually go [somewhere else]. When Robin Williams did "Insomnia", I thought he did great as a villain, but you look how he worked towards that . You saw him as îgood morning, Vietnam!' You have to gradually go into that. Yes I want to do it, but I don't want to do it that extensively, I don't want to do it that rapidly. I want to build the same way I got people to become my fans, and that was a process. I am not in a hurry, one thing I have is patience, and I'm not in a hurry to do anything because that's a feather in my hat that gives me longevity and it gives me something to do in my fifties. Hopefully, God willing, in my fifties I can direct, to give me another career into my 60s. God willing and if I'm healthy and everything, I can produce and sit back on the side, get on the boat, and do a Johnny Carson move, you know what I mean? That's what I have planned for my career.

How difficult has it been to continue moving forward in Hollywood without feeling like you're compromising yourself?

BM: I lost early in my career a couple of pilots and stuff that didn't go through, and I learned from that, and the reason they didn't go through was because someone else was trying to make me something else that I'm not, and so many artists make that same mistake. I think first of all for you to be successful, you have to know what direction you want to go as an artist. Nobody can create you; once you start allowing people to create for you, that means you don't know what you're doing, from my perspective. Knowing what you want and how you want it puts you in a different position, and expectations and all of that stuff and working has helped me. This is me, and I know what got me here and I battle my crew all of the time, and Hollywood didn't do it; all of those people coming to see me when I was on the road 48 weeks out of the year created this and helped this be what it has become, and the new fans are just a surplus. I've got to say what got me here. So many people become successful and they get out of character because they start doing things for the money, and they keep offering you this and that, and next thing you know, you've made two or three booty films in a row and it's over. I don't want to do that.

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