Delivering a powerful, distinct and enlightening message in film is a rare commodity in today's Hollywood scene, according to acclaimed actor-director Mario Van Peebles. The "New Jack City" star hopes that's what he has delivered in his latest directorial effort, "Redemption Road," which stars Michael Clarke Duncan, Luke Perry and Morgan Simpson, among others.
The Tennessee-set drama tells a tale of two men from distinct backgrounds embarking on a music-steered journey through the deep south who are then linked by a series of events that took place years earlier.
“One of the things that drew me to it was it has life affirming quality to it. You see a lot of films where you don’t care for the people and you’re watching them do things, but it just doesn’t help us out,” Van Peebles told The Huffington Post. “Dr. [Martin Luther] King said, ‘We either learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we die together as fools.’ And I think ‘Redemption Road’ is about some very different folks having to learn how to live together as brothers and sisters.”
For Duncan, who also serves as the film’s co-producer, it was the portrayal of his character Augy and the direction of Peebles which drew his interest to working on the film. “Two things attracted me to the role. The first was the writing and the character. I never played a character like that,” he said. “Independent movies sometimes come along and the script is so good that you want to be involved in it. It wasn’t about the money, it was all about the script. The second thing that attracted me to this movie was Mario Van Peebles. Just to be able to work with that brother, I’ve met him several times before. And just to know him and to know how cool he is, and to finally get to work with a director like that, it was unbelievable.”
“Since I co-produced the movie, the brother was in my trailer literally every morning for 40 minutes,” Duncan continued. “We would go over lines and go over what we would do for the day before the sun set. And the brother is truly intelligent, he knows his game, he’s on top of his game, and those are the two main things that attracted me to the movie.”
It was Peebles’ vast experience as both an actor and a director that gave him the advantage of encouraging the film’s cast to showcase some of their best work. In fact, the former daytime television actor revealed that being personable is a vital when it comes to heading a motion picture. “You’ll be surprised how many actors don’t really get directed. And I think after 20 years, I’m getting pretty comfortable with it,” Van Peebles explained.
“They say that you have ten-thousand hours to really master something, well I significantly have had more than that. But I give my actors what I would want as an actor. So when I’m directing it I’m serving up what I would want to have. And a lot of it is not about the script, the lights, and the camera. It’s about people having people skills. And if you have the right people skills then you can really get this great performance from Michael Clarke Duncan, and this one from Morgan [Simpson], and this one from an actor like Luke Perry, who’s very sharp and can really mix it up. And that’s exciting.”
“He’s more hands on and he wants the characters to pop, he wants them to come to life,” Van Peebles added. “He wanted this character [Augy] to be so unique, because there is a flip side to this character. And once you see the movie, you’ll see what I’m talking about. The character’s going down a redemption road himself. This character has to redeem himself for something he did in the past. And in order for him to redeem himself he must help somebody. So Mario was very, very careful about how Augy was portrayed.”
For Duncan, holding court as co-producer while being the film’s leading star was no easy task. The ‘Green Mile’ alumnus and Chicago native juggled hats as he promoted and shot ‘Redemption Road’ all while developing his forthcoming FOX series, "The Finder." He also talked about the difficulties in shooting the film: scheduling locations, knowing what shots were need and working against the daylight.
“Most of the time we were battling with the sun going down,” he said. “But I had a lot of different things going on with the producing and trying to get the movie out there, and trying to do publicity that was my end of it. Mario and a lot of other guys have been doing the ground work. I myself have been doing other things. ... It’s a big challenge, so I’ve been trying to do as many interviews as I can to help the film out.”
The motion picture’s underlying message of living harmoniously with each other has already inspired viewers, according to Peebles. “I think as a filmmaker it’s like having a big megaphone. Some folks when they get on the mic they really don’t have much to say, and I thought here was a chance to entertain but say a little something with it. People who have seen the movie came back and said that it inspired them to try to do better with their people, their in-laws, their friends, with their relationships that have been broken or damaged. So the thing that inspired me wasn’t the money or anything like that, it was really the story itself. And of course, working with Michael Clarke Duncan.”
Mario Van Peebles is set to share the big screen alongside his iconic father, Melvin Van Peebles, in his forthcoming flick, "We The Party," set to hit theaters early 2012. Michael Clarke Duncan’s FOX series, "The Finder," premieres on January 5 immediately following "American Idol."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Mario Van Peebles starred in "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." While he did in fact appear in the movie, his father Melvin Van Peebles was the star and director. More recent work by Mario Van Peebles has been incorporated into the article.