Boot Camp, Hollywood Style : Actor-director Bill Duke trains aspiring African Americans to achieve the same success he’s had in Hollywood. The graduates of his demanding program are finding out that he’s a tough act to follow.
Five years ago, Shamar Moore was working the late shift at a New York City coffee shop, waiting for his lucky break. “I was an unknown,” he says. Just another pretty face scrounging for modeling work.
Had he pursued acting, his chances of success would have been slim not long ago--opportunities for African Americans were limited. But in today’s Hollywood, Eddie Murphy and Will Smith are among the most popular of stars, Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington among the most respected. The casting of a dark face in television and film productions, even if often for marketing reasons, has become almost de rigueur.
Moore got a lucky break--producers called him after seeing his picture in a magazine. Today he is seen by millions on the daytime soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” Young girls squeal at mention of his name. “I’m the darling of grandmothers everywhere,” he says and laughs.
But overnight success comes with a price: “When I got into acting,” he says, “I heard voices over my shoulder; I kept looking back. I felt like I had fooled somebody. I felt like the day would come when they would see through me and see that I wasn’t good enough.”
Probably every actor feels that way deep inside. Uncertainty is the nature of the business. The doors of opportunity that allowed an unprecedented number of black actors into the industry swings both ways. That is why, in recent months, a group of African Americans who made it through the door has been meeting in a rented Hollywood rehearsal space. They want to make sure that they not only manage to stay inside but also make their presence felt.
They range in age from their early 20s to their mid-30s. Most of them are actors, but some want to write or produce. Some are unknown, but others are familiar faces such as Tempestt Bledsoe from the old “Cosby Show,” Tisha Campbell from “Martin” and the “House Party” movies, Kelly Williams from “Family Matters” and Chris Spencer, the first host of the short-lived talk show “Vibe.” What unites them is dedication to their art and the help and good graces of Bill Duke.
The actor and director of such films as “A Rage in Harlem” and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” has become a godfather of sorts for a segment of young Hollywood that is still finding its way. “He taught me a lot not just about filmmaking and producing but also about how to live and [specifically] how to live in this business, how to have your soul secure in this business,” says Paul Eckstein, a filmmaker Duke mentored. Eckstein and his writing partner, Chris Brancato, had tried for years to get the movie “Hoodlum” made. Duke agreed to direct the film and took the younger men under his wing as co-producers, teaching them about the business at every step. “He’s just a great man,” Eckstein says.
Last March, Duke began twice-weekly meetings with a group of 35 people. Ostensibly they came to study acting and industry survival techniques, but his 10-week “boot camp” became, among other things, a sort of industry encounter group in which participants wept, hugged and shared secrets. At the end, no one wanted to walk away, so they formed a theater company, one with both high hopes and influential friends. (Washington, Maya Angelou and Charles Dutton as well as Duke are among the benefactors.)
It didn’t stop there. Even before serious work began on their first play (“Dangerous Liaisons” set during the Harlem Renaissance), the newly christened Epiphany Theater Company/Griot Players added movie production to its raison d’e^tre. Few of the participants even read the trades when the meetings with Duke began. Now they are pursuing investors, building a board of directors, developing projects.
“Probably by the end of 1999 we will have produced our first feature film as a company,” says Lalanya Masters, the actress who originally brought the group together. “We’ll make baby steps at first, but what we’re hoping to have with our company is to become a studio. Not a production company--a studio on the order of Paramount, Warner Bros. and Disney.”
These are grand ambitions, but Duke taught his students to dream big. “Bill always stressed creating your own opportunities, getting control of your own career,” says Benjamin Brown, an actor involved with the group.
“He told us that he no longer wanted us to refer to ourselves as actors,” says Masters. “He said we should think of ourselves as entrepreneurs looking for funding for our next project.”
Duke speaks proudly of his proteges. “All over town actors are bitching about how difficult, how racist the industry is, yet they’re not doing anything. This group isn’t crying and complaining about the racist system. They don’t have time for that. They’re building something. . . . By hook or by crook,” he says, “they’re going to make it happen.”
From all of the dark-complexioned faces on movie and television screens, one might think African Americans finally have it made in the industry. “I don’t think there has ever been a time in Hollywood when so many African American people under the age of 30 were in positions that enabled them to make a good living being actors,” Brown says.
But Eckstein notes that most young black actors work on situation comedies. “It is a waste,” he says. “I see a lot of actors who have potential skills, who have some talent, and are stuck in--for lack of a better word--the system.” He fears that young actors who taste success without prior stage experience will have no foundation on which to build a career.
Eckstein--who previously was involved with the New York theater company Naked Angels, from which sprang Marisa Tomei, Rob Morrow, Gina Gershon and Nancy Travis--has served as producer of Epiphany’s first play while simultaneously teaching the group how to build a company.
“Someone who is on a sitcom at age 20 making 10 Gs or 12 Gs a week for just doing what they did when they were growing up in school and talking [expletive] to everyone is not going to understand that the process of acting is one of the greatest things you can do as an art,” he says.
Duke, meanwhile, is widening his sphere of influence. He is in negotiation to become chairman of the department of radio, television and film at Howard University in Washington. Duke has degrees from New York University and Boston University and made the transition from acting to directing at the American Film Institute. Without ceasing his film work, he plans to create an extension campus in Los Angeles and set some of his films near Washington so that students can be close to the industry and work on Hollywood productions.
“This business is a business of relationships,” he says, explaining the rationale. If he succeeds at marrying classroom instruction at one of black America’s premier institutions of higher learning with Hollywood movie production, he says, Howard students will be prepared to compete “on every level” with film students coming out of the nation’s best film schools.
A towering man whose menacing glare left memorable impressions in such films as “American Gigolo” and “Predator,” the 55-year-old Duke was a combination of toughness, nurturance and vulnerability with his students.
“He took us in as his own children,” says Josie Harris, an actress. “He told us about the sort of things that you don’t usually tell anyone.”
“He told of his life, about having an addiction, of standing on the corner asking for money,” Masters says. “He told of his journey from that to being where he is now. . . . One day in class as he was speaking he became overwhelmed. He tried to talk and couldn’t and the tears just streamed down his face, and the whole class was in shock. He sat there and he opened up and was so vulnerable to us we didn’t know quite how to handle it.”
Duke says he got involved with the group partly because he feels every generation has a responsibility to help the next, and he felt his own generation had dropped the ball. “We didn’t make the sacrifices,” he says, decrying the “me society.” “People were out for themselves.”
Still, while Duke is involved in other efforts to help young filmmakers, getting him to agree to hold classes was “a fight,” Masters says. She first broached the idea when she found herself sitting at the same table with him at an awards dinner.
Masters’ mother was a ‘60s activist, and so was her stepfather, Washington Mayor Marion Berry. Masters is a firebrand who complains that depictions of blacks in television and movies have “regressed to the Stepin Fetchit era.” When Duke agreed with her that young African Americans were not doing enough, were not living up to the examples set by earlier generations, she issued a challenge. “If that’s the way you feel, then the proper thing to do is help us, motivate us, challenge us,” she says she told him.
“Before he would commit to it, to test my seriousness he made me read several books,” she says. She had to read them quickly and then discuss them with him in depth before he would meet with her again. Then he laid down his conditions, chief among them that she assemble a group of up-and-coming young people who wanted to concentrate on the business side of entertainment as well as on acting.
Once he started the boot camp, he required that everyone read Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter along with plays by Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and August Wilson. He also assigned books: “An Empire of Their Own,” about how immigrant Jews built the American film industry; “The Highwaymen,” which profiles communications moguls; and “Megatrends,” which forecasts and examines social, economic and political trends. And he brought in prominent entertainment figures such as Washington, John Singleton and Reginald Hudlin to speak of their experiences.
At the beginning, students complained about all the work. “I didn’t want to hear that,” Duke says. “They haven’t seen difficulty yet.”
To prepare them for the rigors of stage work, Glenda Dickerson, a former Broadway director, a University of Michigan theater professor and another friend of Duke’s, held a two-week workshop in August. At the end, participants gave testimonials that sounded as if they were in church. Standing in a circle, holding hands in a seemingly airless room, one after another used the same term to describe the entire experience. They said they had been blessed.
Alternately fierce and playful, regal and earthy, Dickerson, with her mane of reddish dreadlocks, paces the floor during her workshop like a lioness watching over her brood.
“An actor comes on stage to do something,” she says, quoting Ruby Dee. “When that thing is done or the actor is thwarted in that deed, then he leaves. That sounds simple, but that’s very profound. You have to go on stage to do something. A lot of actors think you go on stage to be something or to profile or get a laugh.”
In each four-hour session, actors bring in scenes to work on. Tonight, actress Tanya Wright’s piece is from “Mama Flora’s Family,” a television miniseries airing this month that she soon will start work on.
“The hardest thing for film and television actors is to get their energy across the floodlights when they go back on stage,” Dickerson says when Wright’s words, in the first run-through, wither and die before reaching the audience.
Wright’s character is speaking with a lover for the first time in four years. The actress acknowledges that she doesn’t understand the character’s motivation in the scene.
Again and again she performs it with another actor, with the class breaking it down, analyzing it.
When an actress offers behavioral advice--a woman seeing her man after a long absence would study him closely to see how he has changed--Wright exclaims, “Yes!” and points like an auctioneer acknowledging a bid. That is the sort of thing she needs.
The male companion is uncomfortable, Dickerson suggests. At a certain point, he should look away. The motivation for Ernestine’s next line, then, (“I missed getting your letters”) is to draw him back.
Slowly, bit by bit, the scene is transformed. Where at first there had been but two actors speaking lines, now taking shape before everyone’s eyes is a scene of subtle power and emotion.
Dickerson asks Wright to pause before saying her line, to let the tension “resolve itself” as she realizes that her companion isn’t going to return her gaze. Offering her own contribution, Wright takes a timid step closer the next time she says the line.
Other bits of business are added. At Dickerson’s suggestion, Wright picks an imaginary flower. She nervously fidgets with it. Then, as the estranged lovers are about to part, she hands it to her companion.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Dickerson exults at the end of the scene. The class breaks into applause. The teacher jumps to her feet to give Wright a hug.
Some of the unknown actors in the group have had years of training and Broadway experience, while some of the celebrities are just now learning the basics of creating a character; they’ve never before performed in front of a live audience without the benefit of a director who can say “cut . . . let’s do that again” when they make a mistake.
“This is all new for them,” Eckstein says. “These actors have to realize that having the lead in this show and having one line in the next one or maybe only sorting the mail is something theater companies are about. I’m certain that we are going to have people who are upset about it.” He predicted, though, that the sense of unity the group has developed will prevail. “I see it happening already,” he says.
To raise money for projects, company members are doing everything from bake sales to special fund-raisers such as Dutton’s three-day performance last month of works by Shakespeare. The company also plans to pursue corporate funding and will stage a series of one-act plays featuring new or unproduced work by such well-known writers--and Epiphany benefactors--as Amiri Baraka, Bebe Moore Campbell and Richard Wesley.
The group faced its first setback last month when members had to admit to themselves that this coming Wednesday’s opening of “Dangerous” would have to be postponed. “We’re not ready,” Masters says. “This is going to be our first work in front of critics. We’ve got to knock them dead.”
How the group weathers this storm may be an indication of whether it can hang together to achieve its long-term goals. No decision has been made about whether the director and producer will remain with the production, but the cast, barring scheduling problems, would remain the same, Masters says.
Getting it right is important to company members because they want their work to be seen by Hollywood, in hopes that it will lead to the casting of more black actors in crossover roles and to increased Hollywood support for black-themed projects. That is why they’d scheduled their first play at the Court Theater in West Hollywood, Masters says.
And while a play originally set in 18th century France may seem an unlikely choice for their first production, company members say the unlikelihood of it was one of the reasons why they chose it.
The play deals with fundamental human issues of love, money, power, sex and deceit, says Wright, adding, “As an African American actor I would never ordinarily be given the chance to act in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ or ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ ” One aim of the company, she says, is to achieve a “paradigm shift” for black actors. “We’re interested in doing work that we would never ordinarily be cast in.”
And they say the boot camp experience has made them more prepared to tackle such work. Moore, the soap opera actor, says that working with Duke and Dickerson had made him more confident. He partially credits it for his winning a role in “Mama Flora’s Family” along with Wright.
“He made us realize that acting was not so easy,” Masters says, speaking of Duke. She has performed since childhood but “by the third day of class I was depressed because I realized I have to start over with the basics because of all those years of bad acting classes. He made us realize the sacredness of the craft.”