Wesley Snipes plays a Vegas pit boss you don't want to mess with in NBC's 'The Player'

Wesley Snipes plays a Vegas pit boss you don't want to mess with in NBC's 'The Player'
Wesley Snipes in "The Player." (Gregory E. Peters / NBC)

With his training in repertory theatre, Wesley Snipes says he feels comfortable sliding into just about any role. Never mind that he's best known as an action star — he's happy with trash-talk comedy, à la "White Men Can't Jump," or comic-book horror, as in the "Blade" franchise.

But try as he might, he couldn't see himself as the Machiavellian pit boss, Mr. Johnson, in NBC's Las Vegas-set drama "The Player." The series premieres Sept. 24.


"I thought that role was for a 65-year-old white British dude," Snipes said recently. "I've done some strange parts, but come on, that's too much of a stretch."

Snipes figured that his initial meeting months ago with "The Player" producers was about the lead, a former intelligence officer named Alex Kane who serves as the series' primary mover, shaker and bone breaker.

But he learned that show runners instead wanted him as a costar and would refashion and flesh out the role of Mr. Johnson if he accepted. For instance, the mysterious character would not be a sit-behind-a-desk-moving-puzzle-pieces guy, as implied in an early script, but a martial arts expert, a hands-on problem solver and an all-around chameleon.

"Then I understood," Snipes said. "I realized I could do some interesting things with it."

And having a supporting role would mean that Snipes could continue pursuing film work and developing various projects through his own production company.

Mr. Johnson, in his tailored form, fits like a glove, Snipes said, giving the actor a chance to do accents and languages, wear prosthetics and adopt new personas. "It's an actor's playground," he said.

Snipes has returned to this arena after legal troubles sidelined him for several years. He was tried on tax charges in 2010, and with the federal conviction on three misdemeanor counts that followed, one of the most bankable stars of the '90s disappeared after making the indie cop film "Brooklyn's Finest."

Snipes reemerged on the big screen in last summer's action-fest "The Expendables 3," during which his beefy costars busted him out of a speeding prison transport train about 10 minutes into the flick. "Why'd you get locked away?" one asked. "Tax evasion," he replied.

The cheeky scene will have to serve as one of his final comments on that chapter of his life, as publicists are careful to note these days that he'd rather not discuss the Internal Revenue Service.

Similarly, there's plenty left unsaid in "The Player." Viewers won't know much about the nattily dressed Mr. Johnson, including his first name, when the show launches late this month.

Little by little, the audience will learn some of his background and motivations. Four episodes into shooting the 13 hours in the first season, Snipes said he's begun to get a handle on the morally ambiguous character.

"The Player" revolves around grieving husband and security expert Kane ("Strike Back's" Philip Winchester), who gets pulled into a shadowy organization that gambles on crime.


Snipes' Johnson and his gorgeous associate, Cassandra (Charity Wakefield), control "the house," and recruit Kane to be a vigilante of sorts. With their predictive technology, evidenced by lots of flashy digital toys, they give Kane the intel he needs and challenge him to thwart the crimes midstream — in other words, "win" — using any means necessary.

Producers have dubbed the show "pulp," with procedural and serialized elements.

"Pulp is any story that's high velocity, big characters making big decisions, big emotional stakes, and every episode is a thrill ride," said creator John Rogers ("The Librarians," "Leverage") at the recent Television Critics Assn. press tour, where critics had called the premise a bit far-fetched.

"Ridiculous is a valid artistic choice!" Rogers said with a laugh.

"The Player" is part of an all-drama Thursday night, with the much-anticipated fantasy epic "Heroes Reborn" and returning hit "The Blacklist," with which Snipes' show shares behind-the-camera writing and producing talent.

Outside the new fall show, Snipes has a number of concepts in development with his production company, Amen Ra Films, he said, including an action drama with a female lead similar to the "La Femme Nikita" character. Except this gal is a supermodel, which covers for her night job as an international assassin.

There's also a single-camera comedy in the vein of "Parks and Recreation" and "The Office" that Snipes described as "a great ensemble piece." He's not likely to appear in either series.

Snipes, a fantasy and horror aficionado, could dip into supernatural and superhero stories as a producer, he said, and hopes to make a martial arts-laced family comedy that's a mash-up of "Kung Fu Hustle" and "Meet the Parents."

There have been "positive conversations" between Snipes and Marvel about another installment of the successful "Blade" franchise, but there are no solid plans, he said.

In the immediate future, Snipes may launch a digital companion to "The Player" that would allow fans to take on the role of the series' wealthy bettors. "It's an interactive vehicle where people at home can potentially be the gamblers," he said. "That'll fit well into the real-world scenario of the house and the Vegas environment. And it could be a lot of fun."