Interview: Mario Van Peeples Talks Life, Acting, ‘Clear Shot’June 29, 2020
Recently we had the chance to talk with Mario Van Peeples, who discussed the entertainment business, life, and one of his newer projects ‘Clear Shot’.
So how did you get into the entertainment business? Was this a conscious choice or an interest you discovered later on?
Mario: Wow…I suppose both, really? It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about that very thing lately, I’ve been writing a piece that might turn into a screenplay, about the evolution of modern black cinema through the eyes of a family. It goes from my father, who makes The Story of a Three-Day Pass, Watermelon Man and Sweetback, and then twenty years later I get to do New Jack City, Posse, Panther and then my movie to him BAADASSSSS!, where I play him, so it’s a good question. You know, my mom is white, my dad is black, my aunt is gay, I have a Trumper in my family, so I always felt just within my own family tree I had to be multilingual, cast a wide net and love everybody. I wanted to use the medium of cinema, television to kind of connect the dots, to show the human experience has more commonalities than differences. I thought it’s like being on the mic, if you get on the mic and have nothing to say, get off the mic but if you have something to say, entertain us and make us think a little bit.
You’ve done acting, writing, producing, directing. Do you have a favorite medium to work in or do they all have their own individual charms?
Mario: You know what, it’s funny, it’s kind of like growing up on a family farm, you learn a little bit of everything, and growing up in a filmmaking family you learn about editing, directing, writing, you learn to wear multiple hats. I kind of enjoy them all in a different way, for example, when I’m just playing Malcolm X in Ali, I’m not thinking about directing, that’s the director’s job, I don’t need to think about that. Really, what I like is telling a story that’s got something to say and playing with the other kids on the block. It’s not that I want to do everything, it’s that I want to do enough things that I can get in where I fit in, in different situations. Sometimes I’ve just written a piece and didn’t direct it, sometimes I direct things I didn’t write, and each one kind of makes me better at the other one. Being a parent has made me a better son for example, so it’s all been pretty delicious and unbelievable, playing your own father, playing Malcolm X, playing Stokely Carmichael, in a movie directed by me, written by my dad, called Panther, working with my kid, it’s been a pretty spectacular life.
What made you decide to start directing? Did you feel that was a natural progression for you or did something spark your interest along the way?
Mario: I saw my dad doing it pretty early on, I think when he did Watermelon Man I was eleven, I was working as a PA on his set, and then when he did Sweetback I was twelve or thirteen, and again I was working on his set. My mother took me along to audition for theater pieces, early experimental stuff in San Fransico, so I got exposure to the arts and I was such a different kid after having traveled the world. I guess to some degree the arts were my refuge, I found America strange, full of materialism, apartheid, and to be off-putting because like I said, my family is multi-racial, I couldn’t fit into any slots and I didn’t feel I needed to. We lived in Amsterdam, we traveled to Morocco where if you didn’t have three wives you were considered poor, everyone had a different take on what social happiness meant in each culture and yet in each culture, there are some happy and unhappy people, so I looked at it as more of a smorgasbord and less of a finite this is what you are given. I felt no compulsion to buy into what I was assigned culturally because when I came here I was already sort of formed, oh, I like girls, or you’re really cool if smoke cigarettes and weed. Well, my best friend was my sister so she helped me understand yes I loved girls and my mother has the best weed so if I want to smoke I smoke with her, so I was just a different dude, an old soul. A lot of stuff simply escaped me, I couldn’t take it seriously, so acting and directing became a great way to show someone who was stuck in one particular box what it was like to be in another particular box, to connect the dots between this cultural smorgasbord that we are.
How have things changed in the entertainment business, good and bad, from when you started to where we are now?
Mario: I think the short term is two steps forward, one step back but look man, I saw my father make Sweetback, a badass film and had to do it independently and in 1971 become the top-grossing independent hit of that year. I was also the first movie ever where a black man stood up against police brutality and escaped when they went after him and won. The audience couldn’t believe what they were seeing, there were no black leads at the time, hell, they couldn’t even wear beards and was considered to overtly sexual to even have a mustache. Then afterward, MGM had a movie about a white detective written by Ernest Titelman, and after seeing Sweetback, rather than hiring my dad they copied it, turned the white detective movie into a black detective movie, and called it Shaft. The Panthers got discouraged by some of the films that eventually came out, some were made better than others, and they said you know, Sweetback was a revolutionary hit, Shaft made being a private detective and working in collusion with ‘the man’ hip. Sweetback goes up against the system, the status quo, and Shaft works with the status quo and Superfly deals drugs against its own people for the status quo, so they said, so the revolutionary message was slowly being drained out. In the short term, that would seem like a step back, maybe a bit discouraging, but for all those boys and girls of all colors, growing up and seeing Sweetback, Shaft, Superfly, all of those movies were no longer the motif of a certain class anymore, it made very little difference. They saw black folks finally winning…winning at the box office, two hours of seeing black being beautiful and badass and classy and what does that mean? That for two hours you could someone winning as the lead, in the theater, and that one day, one event can show them they can win in real life, win as a President, a Vice-Presiden.
The Cosby Show would become the number one show, not the number one black show, simply the number one show. For those young black people growing up, it makes a huge difference, and kids want to be the success they see. Modern Family showed how a young gay couple could indeed be wonderful, caring parents. Television is super powerful because they are coming into your living room every single day, showing you how it’s possible to be all of these things and more. The thing is though, there definitely has been movement. My son Mandela who is acting, his mom is Canadian, he gets auditions for things I never would have gotten auditions for when I was his age, and it’s great, I love it. So in some ways, I see great change that way but obviously this administration is a big step in the wrong direction but change is coming.
I wanted to ask you about your role as the hostage negotiator in the movie A Clear Shot. What was it like playing that role?
Mario: The director is a new filmmaker, he’s got heart, an interesting take on some challenging work, which I’m always supportive of and it’s fun not to have to do the hard work and direct it. For me, I’ve played a lot of police officers and cops have the most power, they’re the people you deal with first. They can take your life, they can take your liberty, and that’s a big deal. You can say oh, there’s just a couple of bad apples, but it’s like what Chris Rock said, oh he crashed the plane but yeah, there’s just a couple of bad apples. There are certain professions where you cannot have a just a couple of bad apples because if you’ve got what, eighteen strikes against you, I mean, how are you still a police officer? Cops and priests are two professions where you can do some nasty shit and just get re-assigned. I mean, if you crashed a plane a couple of times for Delta, you don’t get hired by PanAm. So yeah, I’ve played a lot of cops and I’ve been lucky, I’ve been able to work with some really good apples. However, I’ve also seen some that weren’t so good and the character I play in A Clear Shot is between a rock and a hard place. He’s stuck between some cops who are good apples and some who are overzealous and not so good and on another side, there’s this minority group, which this time happens to be Vietnamese, based on a real story, who felt disenfranchised and we’re going about dealing with the disrespect and the pain that comes with that the wrong way, so my character has to go in the middle.
How much fun was it working with your son in this film?
Mario: Oh, he’s such a pain in the ass. (Laughs) It’s funny, I have a bunch of kids, a couple of my daughters work for me sometimes too, and they are turning into people I like. Right now, because of the whole COVID thing I’ve let them all move back home, and at the risk of blowing my cover, I am really enjoying it. We have a big property and my daughter is in one room, my son is in the other, they’ve got their boyfriends/girlfriends with them, and it’s just the best. We jump in the pool, we play around and you know, I measure my life in love and laughter, not critic reviews and money, so that’s the win man, it’s been terrific.
There is just so much content out there these days, how hard is it to get a movie like A Clear Shot to get noticed, or does the current climate in terms of COVID having people stuck indoors, help in terms of something like VOD?
Mario: You know it might, I don’t know. I’ve actually been watching shows I haven’t had time to watch so it’s interesting but I really don’t know. I would think there are more people who could watch it now and I think that also might be what happened with the Floyd thing, that people were staying home and watching the news, and there are only so many COVID deaths you can handle, and then this happened and more people were aware of it than might have been. For A Clear Shot, it’s a hard thing to say, I think we’ll know more as time goes on. Obviously in this climate things are really clogged up right now but I would imagine there is going to be a need for a product, but honestly, right now, I don’t know the answer.
What would you say to someone who is interested in getting into this business, in whatever way, shape or form that might be?
Mario: I think there are so many ways in now but I would say learn your craft as best you can and start learning it by doing it. Everyone’s different, I’m a doer kind of guy, I like to get out and do things. My dad always said there are three kinds of people in the world: those that watch things happen, those that complain about things that happen and those that make things happen. I’ve always liked to get out there so I made a bunch of movies early on, one was bad, the next one was better, the next one better still and so by the time I got to do New Jack City, my first feature, I had directed three episodes of 21 Jump Street, an episode of Wiseguy and Sonny Spoon, I had been directed by Coppola and Eastwood, and my dad of course, so I had a lot of experience. Now you can shoot something easily so go out and learn your craft, try it out, do short narrative things, and build from that. There are always two things to a project, one is the art, the making of it, the physical stuff, and the other is dealing with the forces that make and distribute it, and that’s going to be more people skills stuff.
So what projects do you have coming up next, or what were you working on before the world shut down?
Mario: I have the Salt-N-Pepa movie, which we filmed in Toronto, that I’m finishing up now, and that’s for Lifetime and Sony. I’m also putting another Western together, but I have to figure out how to shoot it in this post-COVID land, which is understandably a bit more complicated. I was also shooting something in New York and that got halted but yeah, the Salt-N-Pepa movie is what is done and going to be coming out next.
I want to thank Mario for taking the time to talk with us