Mario Van Peebles was originally set to star in his latest film, All Things Fall Apart, before being asked to also serve as the director. In the film, Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent, plays Deon, a promising, college football player who is getting ready for the NFL. All of a sudden, Deon becomes diagnosed with a deadly disease. The film also stars Lynn Whitfield and Ray Liotta.
For the role, Jackson reportedly lost over 50lbs. to play Deon when he has to go through chemotherapy. The role was inspired by a friend of Jackson’s who had passed away from cancer.
Van Peebles took some time to talk to us about his new film, and what it was like to direct and act with Jackson. The veteran actor and director also spoke about New Jack City and how it holds up 21 years after its initial release.
Check out the interview below.
We Got This Covered: The movie is about a person dealing with cancer. Was this a difficult film for you or any of the other cast or crew to approach?
Mario Van Peebles: The idea came from 50 (Cent). He had someone near and dear to him pass away from cancer. Initially, when I met him, he had some of the script and I just met him to talk about acting in the film. We went further and further with it, and it sort of evolved to, “Do you think you could help me get there as an actor? Would you consider directing the film?” And that’s where we went with it. I had also, in an eerie way, had a parallel experience in that I had played Ricky Bell in The Ricky Bell Story, where Ricky was a football player and had passed away from a terminal disease. Lynn Whitfield, in The Ricky Bell Story, played my wife. Here, Lynn Whitfield and I were playing romantically tied folks and her son is a football player going through some of the same stuff. There was some interesting circular history on it.
But we all knew what we were getting into, and I think what interested me was that we all know anything or anyone born is mortal. We’re all going to die, and most fear is death based. But we postpone it. We don’t think about that all the time. You don’t know when you’re going to die, and I don’t know when I’m going to die. We kind of put it away. And when you get older, you kind of realize that it’s coming up soon. But you kind of have to look at it and think that if you knew the date when you would die, what would you do? Would you still interview me today? Would you love your lady, your kids, or whoever it is you care about a little differently? What would you do differently? I think that was interesting. I didn’t look at it so much as playing it from the cancer side, but also from the understanding that you’re going to die. Once you’ve taken the fear of death off the table, then it’s not about the fear of death. It’s about the joy of life and what you do with it while you’re there. As one old lady wrote in this article before she passed: “I want my roses when I can still smell them. Why would they have the biggest party for me when I can’t be there?”
WGTC: I saw that 50 Cent co-wrote this film. Did he write this as a tribute to the person he lost?
Mario Van Peebles: I think that’s a better question to ask him. I think it was him stepping away from the rap/bully persona and playing something that I think probably Curtis would want to see. He wanted to bring more Curtis Jackson to it. He’s a smart, palpable and disciplined guy. He’s got a charm and a wit and an ease with people. Some of that you saw the way he as a football player sort of moves through the crowd and was just easy with them. Guys want to know him and be a friend. Girls want to get with him. He’s got some of that ease naturally. The part that was a trip to go through was the illness and then to come out of that and to find the wisdom with that – these other layers of character and modulation. That was new. I don’t know if I’d say it was a tribute, but I think it was somewhat a testament to 50’s ability to go into film with no gun and no backup, but with people like Lynn Whitfield, Ray Liotta and myself, veterans who have been doing it for a long time, and bring his A-game.
WGTC: How was it like to direct 50 as an actor?
Mario Van Peebles: Well, part of it is people skills. As a director, I never know what an actor is going to do, and I like that. And I never know, even when I’m acting in a scene that I’m directing, I never know what I’m going to do. The best acting is reacting. It’s kind of like this interview. I don’t know what question you’re going to ask me, and you don’t know what answer I’m going to give. There’s a spontaneous side of it. Part of it is written, so that it has a structure, but people sometimes do stuff that’s better than what is written. That happened in the case of this. There were scenes where I went, “Oh, wow. What he did was 12 times better than anything he could have conceptualized, or me, or the other writer. Let’s use it.” That would bring out something that was different in Lynn or Ray or whoever was in the scene with him. There’s a sort of magic in that some of the scenes I’ve done as a director were scenes where I got out of the way, and let the actors do what they do.
I remember, specifically, in New Jack City with Wesley (Snipes) and Allen Payne on the roof, there was some stuff they did where I said, “Let me just shut the hell up, back up, and just roll it. Make sure there’s film in the camera.” And be grateful enough to say, “Wow, that’s great!” So, that’s part of it. But part of it was also that with 50, he’s musical. Once I understood that the guy was musical, I would give him a tone. I would say, “Let me show you what I mean,” and I would show him. He liked when I talked him through it. But if I did it, and I can do it because I’m an actor, I would say, “I’m not saying, ‘Do this.’ I’m just saying, ‘Let me show you what I would do with it.’” And he would get it. He would say, “Oh, gotcha, gotcha, gotcha.” It’s like playing the chord for a guitar player, so it can be the right key. But it doesn’t mean the guitar player’s going to do it that exact way. You don’t know how they’re going to do it.
So, with 50, he was able to get there, because his director is an actor. So, once I found that the key to him was music, I could go through and modulate stuff in the course of the piece, and he would get the modulation. If he wasn’t musical, I’d have to find a different way. There are also some people who don’t like you to do that. For example, with Lynn Whitfield, I would never take that approach. She’s been acting as long as I’ve been acting. It’s a whole different thing, and with her, it’s more conceptualized. I would tell her, “Here’s what I’m thinking,” and she would say, “OK, got it,” and she could shift right into it and get it. You have to separate them out and have a different discussion with each person, so it didn’t cross pollinate before the scene started.
WGTC: You mentioned New Jack City and it’s the 21st anniversary of its release. Do you think that film is still a relevant piece to today’s society in terms of drugs and crime?
Mario Van Peebles: Yeah, unfortunately. But I think you have to understand that it comes up in The Godfather. You have to think, “As long as the drugs are in the low-income communities, we’re OK. We can medicate those communities.” That’s a very cynical way to look at it. But you have to understand that we don’t have poppy skills in America, and we don’t have gun-manufacturing plants. All you have to do is say, “Follow the money. A 13-year-old boy can find a drug dealer. Why can’t the cops?” Once you follow the money, you go, “Oh, wow, there’s big money in this.” And once there’s big money in this, then there’s big connections, and there’s no way, logistically, you can get this stuff moved in here without the OK of certain officials – not all officials. Some folks are doing the right thing, but other folks will turn the other way and do the wrong thing.
It’s like prohibition. You have to ask yourself bigger questions. “Are we better off legalizing and then taking the money and taxing and regulating and educating? Or are we better off continuing to fight a legal battle?” And when you’re fighting it and saying that it’s illegal, you’re creating a monetary value to it that is not proportionate to what it costs to make. It’s not economics anymore. It’s like, “Why do I buy this chair? I want this chair, but the chair is made of wood. So the price of it in the open market includes the labor it took to make it, plus the products and materials it took to make it, and then what you get on the open market. When you suddenly make something illegal, you’ve increased its value and then you put profits in it because it’s illegal. Sometimes, if you take away the profit, you’re able to regulate it differently. As Wesley Snipes said in New Jack City, “It’s not me. It’s bigger than me. I’m going to go to jail and whatever, but there’ll be more of it around, until you understand it differently.” So, yes, it’s unfortunately very similar. You can go to any big city in America, go to any low-income area in that city, be it white, Hispanic or black, and find drugs.
WGTC: There were some rumors circulating on the Internet a few years back that there may be a sequel to New Jack City. Are you attached to it at all?
Mario Van Peebles: There are times when they talk about it, but I honestly don’t know. They talk about it, and then I don’t hear about it, then they talk about it again. I don’t know what the latest one of that is. I don’t really worry about it. Wesley and I got to get together and work together on another project called Hard Luck a few years later, which we really enjoyed. Wesley had grown as I had grown, and we were able to play with some of the scenes we played with in New Jack City almost in a way as if it were a sequel. So, if you look at Hard Luck, you’ll see some parallels to New Jack City. In the spirit of the way I made New Jack City, with all the groups and the music, I just did a movie called We the Party, which is a big, coming-of-age movie. Think House Party meets The Breakfast Club. It has Snoop Dogg, Y.G., The New Boyz, and kids from Hannah Montana and That’s So Raven. It’s the first generation of kids to come of age during a black presidency. It’s a whole new swag, whole different time, and it was a lot of fun. That one comes out April 6.
With New Jack City, we had a double platinum album and three videos. With We the Party, I think we already have five videos. It’s pretty exciting. So, I’ve done a movie in the spirit of New Jack City and then with Hard Luck, Wesley and I both played characters that were not too dissimilar to the ones we played in New Jack City.
WGTC: Aside from We the Party, are there any other projects you’re currently doing?
Mario Van Peebles: Not right now. I have other things in development. I’m interested in films I can fit to absorb the three loves in life for me. That’s love what you do, love who you do with it, and love what you support. If you can get those three to line up, you’re set. I try to do things that interest me. Sometimes it’s film, sometimes it’s directing Boss with Kelsey Grammer. I went off and directed an episode of Lost, when it was on the air. I did Damages with Glenn Close, Sons of Anarchy and Law & Order. It just depends, and some of the scripts I’m getting from these shows are so well written. In all kinds of ways, the business continues to change and morph, but I think there’s room for material that’s there to make you think.
This concludes our interview, but we would like to thank Mario Van Peebles for taking the time to speak to us. All Things Fall Apart will be available to rent or own on DVD/Blu-ray on February 14.