On Fast Track, From Harlem to Hollywood : Movies: Mekhi Phifer’s performance as a drug dealer in “Clockers” has industry insiders predicting a promising career.
Like many a 20-year-old, Mekhi Phifer wants to do it all--and believes he can. But unlike most people his age, Phifer has already been given the initial opportunity.
By the end of the year Phifer will have been in five feature films, guested on one television show, become a partner in a start-up talent management company and embarked on recording a rap album, for which he will direct his own video.
And his performance as a tortured drug dealer in the Spike Lee film “Clockers” has industry insiders predicting a promising career as a dramatic actor.
Not bad for a schoolteacher’s kid from Harlem who had never taken an acting class or music lesson, having confined his performances to community revues and family reunions.
“Basically everything that I learned I learned in my life experience and through expressing myself rapping and in talent shows,” Phifer said in an interview. “I guess I’m a self-made man, in a way.”
It may sound incongruous to regard someone so young as a self-made man, but Phifer’s driving self-determination and infectious, upbeat attitude are indeed the qualities of such success stories.
“I never met my father, but my relationship with my mother was real strong,” Phifer said. “She had a chance to show me self-love and self-pride and teach me common sense and a world view on things. She laid a strong foundation for me so that I would be able to take on these types of tasks and accomplish them.”
He’s also the recipient of a healthy dose of plain old good luck.
Phifer was chosen out of about a thousand candidates for the lead role in “Clockers"--a film based on Richard Price’s best-selling novel--when he was 19. In the film, he plays Strike, a young drug dealer who must cope with a violence-laden neighborhood, the increasingly criminal demands of a narcotics kingpin, and his own escalating physical illness.
Armed only with a tiny passport photo and self-confidence and charm to spare, Phifer attended the open audition on a lark, never seriously thinking he could snag the role.
“A friend of mine told me about an open call, he came up to me very excited and ecstatic,” Phifer said, launching into an animated recitation of that key day, later acknowledging that he perfected the telling recently during a press junket.
“My friend was like ‘Yo, man, Yo! This lady just took a picture of me. She was a casting associate for Spike Lee’s new movie. She told me to come down to the open call and maybe you should come, too. Maybe you can get an extra part or something,’ ” Phifer recounted with a grin. “I had just graduated high school and I got accepted to college for electrical engineering. I was also working construction at the time and I was very tired. I really thought it was a long shot: I didn’t have an agent, 8-by-10s, a resume, none of that. I thought they would laugh at me.”
But nobody laughed. And several readings later, he got the part.
“I brought him back 10 times because I had to be convinced,” said “Clockers” director Lee. “He’d never been in front of the camera before. He had confidence, but at the same time he wasn’t cocky. He read with [“Clockers” star] Harvey Keitel and he stood up to Harvey toe to toe.”
These days Phifer has an increasingly impressive resume--including a co-starring role on HBO’s “The Tuskegee Airmen” and a small role in Lee’s next movie “Girl 6,” due out in the spring--as well as a portfolio full of the requisite glossy photos and a William Morris agent.
The day Lee told him he had gotten the part, the director took Phifer along while he made a guest appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” It wasn’t until Lee’s limo deposited him back outside his Harlem apartment that Phifer let the magnitude of what was happening hit him.
“When Spike first told me I got the role, I didn’t say much, I just listened because he was talking to me about the do’s and don’ts of being on the set,” Phifer said. “I didn’t start screaming or anything till I got home.”
“His life is never going to be the same,” Lee said. “But he understands what needs to happen and he’s in it for the long haul. He’s definitely grounded. I just hope he doesn’t do any more drug dealer movies.”
Lee was concerned that Phifer avoid getting typecast. But, as it turns out, his next role is indeed about a young dealer--though the character he plays has served his time and comes back clean to his old high school.
Phifer has the lead role in the film, a TriStar Pictures comedy called “High School High,” scheduled to begin shooting next month.
A comedy should be a welcome break from the serious tone of “Clockers.” Phifer defends the violence in the movie as integral to the message of the movie.
"[Lee] didn’t just show you senseless killings,” Phifer said. “He didn’t show you a guy who was gunslinging, shooting guys behind his back with all kinds of perfect techniques. He showed you the negative repercussions of gun play. . . . He didn’t sugarcoat it. He just showed you the real, negative aspects of death and it really hits you.”
Phifer grew up across the street from the projects amid the world depicted in “Clockers.”
“I did see drugs, I did hear gunplay,” Phifer said. “I didn’t hear it everyday or experience people coming up to me and giving me peer pressure saying ‘Hey, kid, you wanna sell some drugs?’ But I did see it. There were guys in my class who have fallen into drugs, selling, using, going to jail. I myself never partook in selling drugs or robbing or things like that, but some of my friends did. So, in a way, I did go through it, too. I was able to bring all of that into Strike.”
Phifer feels strongly about being a role model and about educating young viewers.
“I feel a responsibility to tell kids that this is entertainment and this is what you can get out of what I did in this movie,” Phifer said. “This is what you can learn. Don’t take this out of it, take this out of it, because this is the positive stuff that you need to deal with. . . . Each one teach one: That’s the only way this society is going to better itself.”
While his career has taken off at a dizzying speed, Phifer is intent on remaining true to his Harlem roots.
“I want to be active in the community, fixing things up,” Phifer said. “Abandoned buildings, low-income housing, I want to own those. . . . I don’t want to leave an impoverished state in an impoverished state. Whenever people ask where I’m from I say ‘Harlem USA’ because I’m proud of being from there. It’s made me who I am right now.”