Since he portrayed intelligent dope-dealing gangleader Nino Brown in New Jack City, Wesley Snipes has come to define a new breed of action star: urban, intelligent and not always on the right side of the law. His high-profile films include Passenger 57, Murder at 1600 and, of course, Blade. However, the handsome, buffed-out actor often defies the typical action star route by playing in smaller, more dramatic and oftentimes odd roles including Mike Figgis’ One Night Stand and the genderbending To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
Snipes has also used his star power to launch a production company, Amen Ra Films, that produces Snipes vehicles as well as (through its subsidiary Black Dot Media) documentaries on unsung African-Americans. Recently, Snipes also created a publishing arm to give voice to young writers whose work may otherwise go unnoticed.
Undoubtedly one of the busiest actors (and producers) in Hollywood, Snipes recently took time out of his hectic schedule to talk about his latest action film, The Art of War, the sequel to Blade, and the state of black cinema.
How long have you studied martial arts?
Since I was twelve.
With twenty-five years of martial arts behind you, did you have to do any training for The Art of War?
This time, yeah. I kinda walked in and did it. You know I usually train regularly and stay at a level where, if it’s required of me to play an action role, then I can just beef up, pump up, rev up. When I have to play something more dramatic then I don’t work out at all.
Is there a challenge in doing martial arts in formalwear?
We had the tuxedos constructed where it has a gusset in it so I won’t split my pants during a shot.
Was there any action sequence that did present a challenge?
I didn’t have too much difficulty in this. Fight scenes always have their challenges. Especially when you don’t have the time to really rehearse the fight scene the way that you’re supposed to. They have their challenges. But other than that, things went very smooth on this. Plus, I worked with the same team. We have a team of stunt men and martial artists that I always work with, and we know each other’s movements; we know a lot of each other’s styles and rhythms. We can come in in a day and bang, bang, bang -- hit it and we’re done.
How did this project come to you and your production company?
Conceptually, I think the project was written with Jet Li in mind, and then they brought it to us and said, “Well, we’re not sure about Jet. What do you think you guys and Amen Ra Films can do with this?” So we said, “Great, we can make a good political suspense whodunnit.” A good political thriller and on top of it, we can add the action.
Are you a fan of potboilers?
Suspense thrillers work consistently. They’re timeless, really good ones. Hitchcock films, you can watch now, you can watch ten years from now; you watched it ten years before now. Some of the stuff that Harrison Ford does, in terms of his political thrillers, you still like them; you still watch them. When you add the extra element of the action on top of it, man, you have a whole different genre of movie. You raise the quality of action films so people don’t go around saying, “Oh, another mindless action movie.” No, not this one.
How do you avoid making just another mindless action flick?
We found (director) Christian Duguay and we said, “This is what we want to achieve. We want to make it tight. First and foremost, the story has to make sense; it has to be tight. And we need to cast it with some great actors.” Then, we’ll handle the action part.
Is the biggest part of the recipe mindful talent like Donald Sutherland, Anne Archer and Maury Chaykin?
And Christian Duguay -- a great filmmaker who understands filmmaking and can tell great stories through film. It makes all the difference in the world. Then people don’t just throw it away as an action film.
Were you personally involved in the writing?
We had a number of different versions of the script, and I’m a hands-on guy with it, especially when I’m wearing the producer hat. I’m like, “Look man, if we paid to go see this movie, what would we want to see?” Let’s make a movie that we would be comfortable and satisfied with paying to go see.
Was there any pressure to play up any budding romance between your character and Marie Matiko’s?
No man! My man is on the run. He’s got two days. He’s got no time for boning. He’s got no time for none of that. It’s like, “Yo, my man is on the run.” He’s got to save his own self. That’s it. It would be stupid, you know, they end up in the sack somewhere in a hotel or motel on the run. Yeah, right. I don’t think so.
How difficult was it to avoid making your character Shaw the typical robotic action hero?
We wanted to keep it consistent with the way these guys really are. I mean, I know some guys that do this, and these guys are simple guys. You’d never know that they do what they do. I always try to say to myself, “Wes, if you’re gonna play a character that has all these prerequisites, and is based on either real experience or a real occupation, or a real person, the people who do that should feel, “Yes, okay, that’s right.” That’s the barometer which I set for myself. And then everybody else, we hope they like it.
Knowing covert operatives and playing one, has your political viewpoint changed?
There’s a lot of stuff that man if you only knew. Wow. I tell you. Nothing is what it seems. I don’t care what you see on television, what you hear in the news. It ain’t what it seems. Let’s take this for example -- and I’m not gonna get political, because I’m not political, but it’s very simple. Who is the Electoral College? Who the hell are they? I don’t know anybody! Who are the Neilson’s? Where they at? Can a Neilson please come up and introduce themselves to somebody please. See, what I’m saying? So when we go and vote and they tell us later on our vote don’t matter because the Electoral College is the one that’s going to choose the president, what the hell was that vote worth? And who are they? What’s the deal? That’s all I gotta say.
Okay. Are you involved in the marketing of The Art of War as well?
Yeah. As an executive producer, sure. We didn’t only want it to be appealing to say the youth or the boys or males. It had to be intelligent so a 60- or 70-year-old person who’s going to the movie and saying, “Well, I want to see something that makes some sense,” they can come to see this movie. So we’ve appealed to both sides and that’s a part of the marketing strategy as well. Plus, the movie has an international appeal. That’s the key.
Do your films fare well overseas?
If I never work in America again, I can still work as an actor. They will accept me like that, thank God! Uh!
Where are you most celebrated?
It’s strange. It goes from Germany to Sweden to all the African continents. All the African Diaspora The Asian community are like “Yo, Wes, you’re our man. Plus, you’re getting us jobs, we love you.” (laughs)
To the Asians, are you what Bruce Lee was to the bruthas back in the day?
No doubt. Definitely.
You seem to use that global celebrity to produce international projects…
We would like to have Asian and African directors present stuff to Amen Ra Films, and we can produce it on their behalf here in the states. I don’t have to be in it. I’m not interested in being in it. And it can be stories that have nothing to do with the African-American experience. It could be purely and solely specific to that culture, but give us an opportunity. We can make a good film for you. We can help you make a good film.
You also have Black Dot Media producing documentaries, and did I hear you had a publishing arm?
It’s a publishing company where we take some of these hot young writers, maybe some of you, and give them the opportunity to write novels -- street novels with a gritty edge to it. Coupled with the book is also a CD-ROM, the marketing campaign is to put the books in places that you don’t normally see these kind of books. And then those that are good, Amen Ra Films will produce -- make a movie out of it.
With all these other activities, and with the diversity of roles you actually play, you seem to defy the expectations of an “action star.” Are you down with being an action star?
Hard to say. I’m just fortunate that I can do some of the action things. I didn’t go into this business to do action. I’m a classically-trained actor, and I love the more dramatic pieces. I love working with other classically-trained actors whether it’s on Broadway, on stage or on film. But I mean, man, I can tell you, doing action films has afforded me a lot of opportunities to make and fund these other projects and do the kind of more heartfelt, more sensitive and more dramatic pieces. So I’m not knocking the action stuff. It pays a lot of money.
Speaking of action, what’s up with Blade 2?
Starts in February. Principal photography starts in February. With (director) Guillermo Del Toro. And all I can say is “bananas.” For sure.
It’s more loco than Blade?
That’s child’s play. You know, we were trying stuff we had never done it before. Now we understand how it works. We’re not going to make the same mistakes, and we have a ten times better story than we had on the first one. It starts with Blade going to Vegas (laughs). And Whistler comes back. How does it happen? Hmm?
The basic premise is that there’s another class of vampires. Actually, there’s been some genetic manipulation, engineering between humans and vampires and they created a supervampire. This vampire feeds on other vampires. So the Council calls a truce. They want to call a peace treaty with Blade because they need his help to get these other vampires out of the way. And they send a team that was otherwise supposed to kill Blade to work along side him. So now his enemies become his allies and they both go after this supervampire.
Were you ever shocked at the immense success of Blade?
What’s the politically correct answer? “No.” Those people have been waiting for a good action flick. Waiting for a good comic book film, and we were just waiting for an opportunity to do it. I stood here and was like “Most of these films are whack. Totally whack. You give us a chance, we’re outta here!” Because we know what people like because we still go to movies, and we still pay to see them.
Why are films so whack?
You know, because it’s in a vacuum. Writers and producers, they never go to see movies like the average person. They see them as screenings and controlled environments. They don’t sit there and hear the comments of people saying, “That’s bullshit. That’s whack. That’s corny. Yeah, yeah, seen it!” They don’t hear that, so they don’t know.
You’ve also been developing Black Panther. Are you looking for any more superhero franchises?
I think only two. I think Blade and Black Panther. That’s enough. You’re not going to see like Blade 15, let me tell you that. It’s not going to happen.
You were one of a handful of actors who came out during the Renaissance of black filmmakers in the ‘80s. Where do you see the state of black filmmaking?
You know, I believe this medium can afford a lot more opportunities than we actually take advantage of. It’s cool, and I understand the emotional side of wanting to express yourself, to show “keeping it real,” showing what the reality is. To me, it’s kind of cathartic.
But if you think back to how movies were put together in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, most of the people that saw movies in the rest of the world, believed that what they were seeing was reality. This was America. And it wasn’t even real for the people who were acting in the movies. What does that say? It says that you can actually take the medium and use it to create a reality. You don’t have to portray the reality. You can create another reality that will, in the future, become the reality.
That’s kind of how I feel about black films. Some of it is cathartic and they’re venting and they want to be heard, and it’s all good. I ain’t knocking it. I’m with that. But we’re missing the value of the medium. When you go see a movie, you believe whatever the movie tells you is there. Period. You just accept it. What I mean is you take the givens. If they say that this car is capable of doing this, you accept it. And the rest of the world believes the stuff that American movies portray. Black filmmakers can do the same thing. Keeping it real, that’s cool, but why not make a movie where we show Harlem, not the way it is now, but the way we envision it to be? If we do enough of them, everybody will begin to believe that that’s the way Harlem is, and Harlem will become that.