David Alan Grier discusses ‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham’
Adapted from Christopher Paul Curtis’ Newbery Award-winning novel, Hallmark’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is a work of historical fiction that focuses on the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The explosion, which occurred 50 years ago, killed four young girls and galvanized national support for the civil rights movement. Produced by Tonya Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver, the movie features Anika Noni Rose, LaTanya Richardson, Wood Harris and David Alan Grier. The program airs Friday.
Below is an edited transcript of an interview conducted this summer with Grier.
Q: You play Mr. Robert in “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” -- can you describe the role that your character plays in the story of the Watson family?
I am, delicately put, their grandmother’s “gentleman friend.” When the family comes to Birmingham, there is this old guy there -- and no one knows who he is. So, my character’s presence must be explained, which adds more drama the Watson family’s story. On top of the civil rights issues, there are always family issues as well.
Q: You have worked in various realms of entertainment and across multitudinous mediums and channels (radio, musicals, television, film, sketch comedy, etc.) how does your role as Mr. Robert compare to your previous work?
Now, I am transitioning to playing the “old guy” -- I would’ve been the Wood Harris character 15 years ago! (Laughs). It’s really fun though. I love to act -- and I love to act with good material. Also, I love to act with great actors, like Tanya (LaTanya Richardson). I’ve always wanted to work with Tanya; and Kenny Leon and I have talked for ages about wanting to work with each other too. In addition, Anika, whom I had never met; I feel like I have known for forever. All of this makes for a really great chemistry. Put this on top of a script with depth and meaning, I could not have asked for better.
Q: What is the most challenging and the most exciting aspect of playing Mr. Robert?
To be real. There is a lot of humor in this piece, but it is very organic and natural. There isn’t any need to force anything when you have a character and script that can speak for itself. Trying to find the reality in that was the most challenging and the most exciting aspect of the role. We all have older people in our lives crack us up -- they are very funny, but they also have a lot of depth.
Q: “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is inspired by Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel -- how closely does the movie follow the novel? What is the difference?
What is different is that we had to condense and trim some aspects. Part of reading a book is that the reader helps to paint the picture. All of our imaginations are different when we read a book -- from the color of the room to the smell of the room. Even though the author informs us, we bring a lot of ourselves and we help to complete that picture. In contrast, when you see a movie, all of that work is done for you. If you have read the book, you will obviously come with a bias -- not everything is exactly how you would have imagined it to be. That is all that we have compromised. However, I feel that we have captured the essence of the book, and people will not be disappointed. We have done a good job.
Q: Is there any added pressure to the movie’s production and reception to be as successful as the novel?
After filming, we were tweeting about “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” and we received so many responses -- everyone was saying how much they enjoyed reading the book and how excited they were to see our adapted film. That puts pressure on me. It just reinforced how well known this novel is and how much it means to so many people. I think that everyone will be happy -- we’re really proud of it.
However, this isn’t the first time I have done something like this. When I did “Streamers,” it was adapted from a play. I just remember David Rabe [playwright] coming up to me and saying, “You’re in ‘Streamers,’ right?” I said, “Yeah, I think it’s really good!” He just looked at me and said, “Yeah ... it better be.” I felt like I was going to die. So I’m used to some pressure. (Laughs).
Q: This movie is part of “Wal-Mart and P&G Present Walden Family Theater,” a new series of family movies introduced by Wal-Mart, P&G, Walden Media and ARC Entertainment -- do you feel this movie may be too mature for children? Or is it important for kids to understand our country’s history?
Kids can definitely handle this movie. This is a coming-of-age story that takes place in a very historically significant time in our country, which is something that every young person should be ready to hear. I know that when I was a kid, I wanted that. I wanted a story that was about people that looked like me, talked like me and were my same age. It’s nothing but for young people. It’s captivating.
Q: “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is set to premiere five days after the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing -- what do you think of the progress that we have made together as a country?
We have made incredible progress. My daughter, who is sitting on my lap, is 5½ years old. She is growing up in a world where there is an African American president in his second term. She is growing up in a world where she thinks, “Why wouldn’t there be an African American president?” rather than “Why would there be?” Hopefully, we will shortly have our first female president -- and this will change the perception of the next generation. I think that we have made an amazing amount of progress; However, cases like the Trayvon Martin trial reminds us that we are not perfect. We have work to do and a ways to go.
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