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October 2005
The Gospel: An Interview with Clifton Powell

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The Gospel: An Interview with Clifton Powell

By Wilson Morales

A lot of people say that Samuel L. Jackson is probably the hardest working man in the business. I would have to say that Clifton Powell could challenge that theory. While Jackson has appeared in more Hollywood films in any given year, Powell had done just about the same, but his films are of all ranges, Hollywood and independent. If he feels his name and talent could help a young filmmaker get his film off the ground, he’ll lend his support. Last year, Powell may have had his year ever, in regards to exposure. Not only did he play the bus driven and one-time friend in “Ray”, but his performance in “Woman Thou Art Loosed” was memorable. In his current film, “The Gospel”, Powell plays Bishop Taylor, whose ill health brings home his son after many after years. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Powell talks about his role and his career thus far.

What was the process of aging you, what was your process - you’re one of the few actors that have had a natural progression of age w/out looking made-up, what was your approach?

Clifton Powell: One of the things that I do {because I come from the theater), is I’m always involved in every look that you see that I have in the movies. I don’t know how many people saw Buffalo Soldiers”, but I’m instrumental in the process. When I get a role, I immediately go to the hair and make-up people and not that I try to come in like a movie star, but, I come in real clear about how I want to look once I clear it w/the director. So, in this movie, I had done the Richard Pryor Story and my hair was shaved bald, so, I asked Rob if it was ok for me to keep my head bald - how we were going to do this character. I started off looking like this and then aged, so we just laid the gray in layers and then as he started healing with chemotherapy we took some of the gray out to make it look like his hair was patchy and then we laid a gray beard down so I was instrumental in making sure that the color was right because coming from the theater I know the kind of look that I want. There’s an exercise that’s done in acting called “character walks”. In building the character, you start walking like you’re young, gradually aging (where your eyesight changes, you head jets out a little more, you walk slows down a little more) as you layer a character w/a malady like prostate cancer, and going through chemotherapy, there’s time when you’re tired so Rob and I worked together where some days I was a little more tired than others and just having the handkerchief, we kind of coached each other through that. Some days I’d do too much, so, that’s the process and that’s what you learn in acting school.

What inspired you to take on the role of Bishop Fred Taylor?

CP: You know I met Rob and Will when they were doing Motive. I actually went to them with a project called “The Bishop”, that I wanted them to do, at that time they were tied up. So, I said look guys if you guys are doing something I’d love to work w/you. So, they called me out of the blue, they said, hey we got this role, I never even read the script when they called me. One of the things that I do, as Gil knows, I try to keep my hands in the street and I keep one foot in Hollywood and one foot in the street. Consequently, you may do a lot of little crazy movies; people will say why did you do that w/those DVD folks. I think part of my job is to try to help young filmmakers, you know sometimes it’s not as glamorous as a Hollywood set, so when Rob and those guys called me I was like let’s go to work. Because noya gayeI believe in what they’re doing and they’re two brothers that I think are doing some real interesting work outside of Hollywood.

How do you go about choosing the roles you will accept?

CP: Like I told the last group of interviewers I didn’t have a plan when I came to Hollywood, I basically come from the school of “go-to-work”. I do videos, I do stage, I’ll wash your car, and I’ll clean your house. That’s what Sam and Denzel and Angela Bassett, I think we started getting real picky about what we would do once we got to Hollywood. Like I don’t do television! I do television, I’m an actor. There’s certain characters, let me go back, I didn’t plan any of these characters. A lot of the characters that you all see, happened by happen-stance. When I did Roc it was supposed to be a cracked-out crack dealer, one episode. I went in like a cracked-out crack dealer, (because I come from theater) some of the guys came in w/white tee shirts and sneakers, I came in looking like a cracked-out crack dealer w/dirt on me and black teeth. When I got in the room Charles was like ugh, this brother look like a real cracked-out crack dealer. So, when we got on the set it didn’t work like that, so then they said let’s put a pair of baggy pants on him and that didn’t work and so we did another change which you all saw and it just happened to catch on. You know Cutty was a character in “Dead Presidents” where I talked w/the Hughes Brothers, Cutty wasn’t a pimp he was a hustler. So, we had him in a nice car, we did the finger-waves I went with the finger nails, I just created those characters just trying to find the authenticity of all of those characters and the Bishop is just no different.

How did you and T.D. Jake meet to do “Woman Thou Art Loosed”?

CP: A lot of people that have followed my career from the Roc days know that I’ve done Martin Luther King, Buffalo Soldiers, an attorney in “Why do fools fall in love”, “The Brothers” or Pinky” any of those characters who were all totally different characters sometimes when I’m called on to do a role it’s out of my hands. For instance when Roc happened, it was out of my hands. It was just a character that was in leather that had to go toe-to-toe w/Charles Dutton, there are very few actors that could go toe-to-toe w/Charles Dutton so, and it just caught on. And then, ok now I’m Andre the drug-dealer. Then in Menace, Tupac had a falling out with the Hughes Brothers somebody said why don’t you bring in Cliff Powell, I audition - I was funny, now I’m riding through the hood looking for hood hair cuts and now I’m Chauncey from Menace. In Dead Presidents they called me in to play Spider (who had 2-lines); I asked them after I had read could I read for Cutty. I had one suit, I wore that suit went into the bathroom changed into another character, did Cutty and got Cutty, now I’m the gangster in Dead Presidents. Woman Thou Art Loosed came about, Reuben called and I didn’t want to do that character, I have a 12 year old daughter. But, Reuben put me in Why do fools fall in love, Selma, Lord, Selma, The Brothers, and Buffalo Soldiers. And, you just don’t say no, you know, you have relationships. He called me on Thursday and I had to be to work on Friday morning. So, it wasn’t any research to be done. I approach every character from Pinky to Martin Luther King all the same; you just try to find the truth. I think that’s what makes Pinky so funny. I just play all of those, from comedy to drama with a sincerity that is the through line of all the work that I do. So I don’t go in noya gayewith any technique per say. But again, that dark character in Woman Thou Art Loosed, Dead Presidents, Never Die Alone - Ernest Dickerson, whose a friend of mine who put me in Bones, if you know the African American community, you know one hand washes the other - you sitting around, saying wow, I’d like to have a $50,000.00 paycheck and then one of your boys call you and says look, I got a movie and we’re gonna pay you $50,000.00, and you’re like, ok - I’ll be there. So, when they call you, you got to go. Never Die Alone, I didn’t make a lot of money but I had to go do that for Ernest another one of those notorious characters that was just the way it was. Some people thought the Ray character was bad, because he stole from Ray Charles. Ray came about where I auditioned for Ray, had a great audition, and got some negative feedback from my agent about my audition. So I did something I never done before, I called Jaime at home and I said Jaime what did you think, he said man you tore that up caused I cried like I did in the role, but I almost lost the role because a few people felt like I should not have cried because I was an army guy. I felt like that was a love scene between Ray and that guy because they were like brothers. Jaime had to stand up in the room and say if you don’t hire him it’s going to be a problem. So, that’s how that role came about. So each role has a story that I’ve played from Dead Presidents all the way through.

You and Eddie Murphy have a resemblance, have you talked about doing anything?

CP: No, I’ve come across Eddie’s path maybe once, you know. it would be interesting. Eddie’s brother Charlie and I, you know I actually saw Charlie the other day and I said it would be interesting to play twins, and like be hustlers or like lovers and we be tricking girls - I just figured out something off the top of my head that would be funny. People stop me all the time and they think I’m Charlie Murphy and I think they stop Charlie thinking he’s Clifton Powell because we do have even more similar features than Eddie and I thought about maybe it would be really interesting to see two brothers, me and Charlie playing twins, and we’re dating and playing tricks on somebody - it can be interesting. That might come about, I know some people who know Charlie, and I might throw that out in the universe.

Is there a role you want to play or a movie you want to do that you haven’t done as of yet?

CP: There are a couple of movies, but in particular there’s this short story that I read, called “The man who lived underground” - it’s a Richard Wright story. I’m going to try to get that story, it may be hard to option something by Richard Wright but it’s about a man who lives in thenoya gaye sewer system, it’s real interesting if you ever get a chance to read it. I think this guy is running from someone and he lives in the sewer system, he has TV hooked up down there, his food, he cooks. As a theater actor, I like characters that have interesting energies and backgrounds attract me. As I did Woman Thou Art Loosed, I got into Reggie because Reggie was so different from myself. Most of the character that I play, you know, I don’t fight, I’m not a gangster, you know those char are harder to play for me than playing somebody like the Bishop, because the Bishop was just a nice guy. I’m not saying I’m always a nice guy but it’s harder for me to stretch to like smack a woman, I don’t hit woman so, like say “Civil Brand” for instance, that was harder to do because it’s outside of my character. But those char bring light to what’s happening to women in prison, because it’s way worst in real life.

Who is your favorite Gospel Artist?

CP: Well you know, everybody loves Kirk Franklin. But Donnie McClurkin and I and Hezekiah Walker, I bonded w/those guys on the set. Those guys were really humble and real nice to work with. Donnie was concerned with his acting, I was like Donnie just do it for real and it was real cool. It’s really nice to do a faith-based kind of movie (I go out on the Gospel circuit and do the plays) but to do a movie it’s really nice to see this movie getting the kind of attention because I think there will be more spiritual-faith-based movies coming along where we don’t necessarily have to kill everybody and have sex with everyone.

What do you feel the message is in this film?

CP: I think the message is when you watch this movie I think a lot of my following that come from the deep inner-city will go see this movie. I think we all are struggling spiritually. Look at what happened with Katrina around this country, I was telling somebody I saw a white woman in the south taking a whole two black families in. I think we are struggling, so when you see this movie, at the end if anybody is struggling spiritually, you start saying man, do I need to go back home, do I need to get back, not so much being born again, but do I need to get back to that spiritual foundation that I had that got me to where I am right now. Because every time I see the movie, I’m thinking I need to stop doing so and so and try to get closer back to home cause that’s really what happens. The Prodigal son comes back home which is a tried and true story over and over and over. When you get away from how our parents raised us, that’s really the bottom line, I think this movie shows. We’ve gotten away from the old-fashioned upbringing. I’m not definitely going in for all the spankings that we used to get, I’m not going in for all of that. The spankings are not working anymore I’m just going to tell you, but the old-fashioned foundation is working. I have spanked my little son because he has a strength and determination I have never seen innoya gaye a child but it’s not working. So I think we do have to examine the discipline patterns but the morals and the foundation that we had, I think the country has gotten away from it and if we don’t get back to it, we see what happens.

How do you discipline him?

CP: I’ve taken away his playstation, PSP - at 8 he comes in the room and puts all of his stuff down and then go out of the room, it doesn’t work anymore.

Any upcoming films?

CP: I’m supposed to do a movie in Johannesburg, South Africa called “In the shadow of Wings“, with Virginia Madsen and Tim Roth but they’ve pushed it back three times so we’re just putting prayer around it that it will happen next month.

How does it feel to be “That Man”?

CP: You know what’s really weird - it’s almost like you have an outer body experience, because I come from the tough part of town in D.C. - Southeast, and when I do lectures at High Schools (when I’m on the Gospel Circuits), and I was that little kid that was cutting up, I never went to an assembly, because my teacher be like Clifton Powell, come here, come here - you know you’re not going in there because you’re going to get in there and you’re going to start cutting up. My mom died when I was four and my mom had a tough death and my dad it was tough on him raising me because he had his own problems. I tell young people I got 580 on my SAT and they give you 200 for your name back in the day. I mean we took the SAT like you’re in the hood. Back in the day, they had 8A, 8B, 8C, 8D and 8E, so I must have took the SAT w/the 8D people because I was in 8C. So, it was like - “Hey yo, yo Duck, what you got on 8 man, what you got for number 50” - and the proctor was like sitting right there - “Hey yo man what you got on 50 - oh you got A, ah, alright I’ll put B” and that’s how I took the SAT. When I give lectures to young people I use, my example - I let the young people know if I can make it out of the inner-city and I got 580 on my SAT and I was a young kid who probably wanted to be a bus driver or football player then there’s nothing that they can’t do. So, as African Americans renoya gayecognize me as being The Man, it’s almost a outer-body experience because I imagined these days ‘cause I knew like in the 2nd or 3rd grade I was going to be somebody that the whole African American world would know. But now it’s here and it feels weird because one of the obligations that I have coming out of the environment that I come out of is to sit with young people, young tough guys, young ladies and use my celebritism to share and help them grow to a different place. So, it’s a deep responsibility and it’s one that I take very seriously and it’s something that I have to manage because this thing can get away from you in terms of just everything - from drugs, to women to a lifestyle, to doing illegal stuff - the other day Kate Moss was arrested for cocaine and it’s not a joke. So the thing that’s helping me is being from the streets and understanding that even at 50 that I have a moral obligation to reach back to those young people and that if I stumble and I fall I’ll get back up because they’re watching me. So that’s really it - it feels weird, but it feels wonderful to be respected by African Americans.

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