Interview Chi McBride star of Lets Go to Prison

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Chi McBride is one of the hardest-working men in Hollywood, starring in countless television shows and feature films. McBride has truly made his presence felt this year on the small screen in the highly anticipated show "The Nine." The show has an all-star cast that includes Scott Wolf, Tim Daly and Kim Raver and centers around a bank robbery gone bad. McBride is best known for his four-year run on the critically acclaimed David E. Kelley series "Boston Public," in which he starred as Principal Steven Harper, and his five-episode arc on Fox’s hit series "House." He is also well known for his role as the wise-cracking, philosophical janitor on the NBC television series "The John Larroquette Show" that launched his comic career.

In 2004, McBride starred in two of the summer’s biggest films: Steven Spielberg’s "The Terminal" and the action thriller "I, Robot" opposite Will Smith. 2005 was a huge year for McBride on the big screen. He starred in three films – Lionsgate’s "Waiting" opposite Ryan Reynolds; Touchstone’s "Annapolis" with James Franco and Tyrese; and finally, the highly anticipated Fox release "Roll Bounce," where McBride starred opposite Bow Wow and Nick Cannon in the film from the producers of Barber Shop. McBride recently wrapped filming on the comedy "The Brothers Solomon" with Will Arnett and Will Forte that centers around well-meaning but socially inept brothers who try to find their perfect mates in order to provide their dying father with a grandchild.

In his latest movie, the no-holds-barred prison revenge comedy "Let’s Go To Prison" helmed by Bob Odenkirk, McBride plays Barry, the leader of the toughest prison gang, the G Lords. He stars opposite Dax Shepard who plays felon John Lyshitski and Will Arnett who portrays the obnoxious Nelson Biederman the IVth who is wrongly convicted of a crime, sent to prison, ends up as Lyshitski’s cell mate, and is sold to Barry for prison snuggling when he offends the wrong cons, proving that the joint is a scary place, so you better make friends fast.

In discussing his role, McBride comments, "He is a guy who is used to running things. He’s also a man who fancies himself a bit of a dandy…a smooth operator who has a picture of Oscar Wilde in his cell and makes merlot in the toilet." At 6’5" and with a shaved pate, the imposing Chicago native (a ‘badass’ according to Shepard) can look every bit the part of a tough con whom you would not want to cross in the shower. McBride takes it in stride. "Every now and then an inmate looks for a little companionship," he laughs. "Sometimes, it’s tough love. I think Nelson (Arnett) realizes he’s gonna have his experience the hard way."

At the Los Angeles press day for "Let’s Go To Prison," Chi McBride sat down with Movies Online to talk about his new film, what it was like to ‘prison snuggle,’ and other shenanigans behind bars in a cell the size of a shoebox. McBride is a fabulous actor with a great sense of humor and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us:

Q: So many TV fans know you from your dramatic performances on Boston Public and The Nine. With this movie, did you relish the opportunity to show you could do a "don't drop the soap" joke as much as the next guy?

CHI: Well, yeah. I mean, I try to make my choices be driven by material, and I love the opportunity that I've been afforded to do both comedies and drama. And with Prison, it was such a dark, subversive comedy, which is right up my alley. I don't want to do any mild-type comedies. I like to do specific kinds of work. Just like in doing The Nine, I'm playing a character that's completely different to any way that you've been used to seeing me. And to the credit of the creators, Hank and K.J. Steinberg, most times, when you go to producers and tell them that you want to have a different look, you want to put on a wig and a mustache and some glasses, they're like, "No." So they were right on board from the beginning with me creatively. And that's what I loved about doing this picture, Let's Go To Prison. And it was dark, subversive, and different than any way that you've been used to seeing me. And I think that's the challenge for any actor, to just try to avoid doing the same thing over and over, and to become predictable, where people think that

they know you and they know what you do. And this is a business where people will only let you do what they think you can do. And I'd like to let them think that I can do a lot of different things.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the film, since we haven't seen it yet?

CHI: You haven't? Don't you know people at Universal? You couldn't get hooked up? I've seen it! It's a comedy about a guy named Nelson Biederman the Fourth, who is played by Will Arnett, who is a rich, spoiled, privileged guy, and he's the son of a judge--a judge who has really made Dax Shepard's life a living hell. He plays John Lyshitski.

And after several run-ins with the penal system, he wants to exact his revenge on the judge, and the judge has dropped dead. And he ends up framing his son Nelson, played by Will, into going into prison. And he ends up in prison. And I play a character named Barry, who is the head of the black G Lords. Bad motherfuckers! Don't worry, it's R-rated. You'll be safe. [laughs] But I'm actually in the prison and I'm a tough guy, and I'm a head of a gang, and I'm also looking for love, and I think I've found it with Will Arnett's character. So it's a dark, subversive comedy, and I think you're really going to love it.

Q: Was it all scripted, or...?

CHI: What, research for the love scenes with Will? No, go on...

Q: How much was ad-libbed and how much was scripted in this?

CHI: It was pretty much all on the page. I mean, it just was. There were a couple things that we ad-libbed, but it was mostly on the page. Bob Odenkirk's a funny guy. And we had some very funny people involved, and it just didn't need that much. And I think that why this movie worked for me is I always felt like the realer we played it, the funnier that

it would be. It's when you try to play jokes and make it funny that it never works, and everybody's sitting in the theater with their face looking like they're taking their picture for their driver's license. And I think that that's what makes it work. And this was no exception.

Q: Going back to that first part, how much research did you do with Will?

CHI: Oh, you want to know...? Yeah. "No men were kissed in the making of this movie." It was easy, man. I mean, to play that kind of relationship, you just play it as though you were playing it with a girl. That's what makes it funny. The realer it is, the funnier it is.

When you really try to play up certain aspects, it's the intimation of what's going on. It's the implication of what's going on. The playing of that is what makes it real. I am still a fan...I think that movies have gotten to the point...Movies and television...We live in a world where our entertainment has become so graphic, that all of our imaginations are on permanent vacation. I mean, who amongst us didn't think that, as heinous and horrible as 9/11 was, and seeing those planes hit those buildings live...But there was still an underlying sensation of, "I've seen this." You know, you go back and look at the movie Armageddon, and the last shot in the first scene when the meteors are coming in, when

the helicopter shot goes around, it's the Twin Towers on fire. And this was what, three years before 9/11? And we've gotten to the point where we don't...I love old movies where you just see Richard Widmark and Dorothy Lamour go into a bedroom, and you know what they're in there doing, man! You ain't gotta see that! But you can leave things to the imagination. And that's what we've done a lot of in this movie, is we leave things to people's imaginations.

Q: So does Will's character come around to you?

CHI: Look at me, man. Who wouldn't come around? Come on. Of course he does. He submits!

Q: Did the three of you have a brotherhood together and share the script with each other? Or how did you get the script?

CHI: You know what, my agent called me with this script, and she said, "You're either going to really like it or you're going to really hate it." And I read it, and I was like, "Yeah! I'm on board!" You know, I thought...I use the words "dark and subversive" a lot, but that's what it is. It's humor that you don't know whether you should be laughing or

not. I love that sort of stuff, you know. I love movies like that, that make people laugh, and then look at their friends and say, "That's not funny." So that's what...the quality of the humor that really attracted me. And I love Bob's sense of humor. I just did another picture with Bob, and Will, as a matter of fact, called The Brothers Solomon, that

releases next year. More of the same. And the character I play in that is a very acerbic and cynical and quick-witted guy, and I really loved playing that character. So those are the things that really attract me to comedies.

Q: Are you hard on yourself as an actor when you watch yourself...?

CHI: "You said hard on." We're trying to get away from that kind of talk. Just because it's a prison movie doesn't mean that we have to revert to such language! [laughs] You were saying...Am I critical of myself, you mean? Is that what you mean?

Q: Yes. Can you watch yourself on the big screen, and how do you gauge whether or not you've done a good job?

CHI: I can't. My job is to do my job, your job is to love it or hate it. You know, I think when you try to be judge and jury as an actor, or as a performer, that you lose so much. Your job is to do your job. Your job is to invest as much of yourself on an emotional, and sometimes physical, level, and leave the critique of that to those who are qualified to do it. You know what I mean? The word "critic" or the job of a critic is to do exactly that. I don't have a problem with critics at all. It's their job to do their job. It's their job to talk about why they love or hate something. And that's too much on my plate. I have enough on my plate just to get people to believe me when I do something. Can I watch? I can. I don't go out of my way to do it, you know what I mean? I remember when they were putting all those Nine billboards up. I'd be like, "Yeah, so if you're come to my house, go down Olympic, and you see the big ass billboard of me, then turn right, go down to La

Cienega, you see another big billboard with my face on it." "Hey man, you're taking us out of the way." "No I'm not!" I don't go out of my way to see my performances. Generally, I see a lot of things before they come out and they're not cut together, and directors don't want me to see it then because they have the pride for what they do at stake by not showing you a completed film, and what have you. But you know, I don't

have a problem with watching myself, but I don't go buy tickets for it.

Q: So what is it like to see your face on a billboard?

CHI: It's pretty surreal, you know what I mean? To be honest, it's quite humbling, because seeing that and knowing that other people look at that and perceive something...I look up there and say, "I got hair coming out of my nose." So I don't take it too seriously. There is no rhyme or reason to it. It comes and goes. Easy come, easy go. It can all go away in a minute. It's a part of what we do. And if studios think that putting my face on a billboard will help make people want to watch something, then that's good. That's good for my career. And that's as far as I take it. I don't have a vanity attachment to it.

Q: Has The Nine been picked up for a complete season?

CHI: Not as yet, we haven't. I don't know the future of...Shoot, I don't even know what I'm having for lunch today. So that is an ABC question that they have yet to answer. So I imagine the answer for that will be forthcoming.

Q: A lot of actors won't do television because it can be a long commitment if the show is successful. Why have you decided to stick with television? Are you attracted to a show's ability to fully develop a character?

CHI: No. I mean, I'm attracted to good material. If I like the material, then I give it a shot. I've only done one thing in my whole career, I think, where I thought the material could have been better, that it was a little suspect, that maybe it would be better because of the pedigree of the person attached to it. That's the only thing that I've ever done that was like that. And that was Killer Instinct. Or as I used to call it, "Kill It, It Stinks." Other than that, I choose things based on material. So it doesn't matter whether it's a feature. I've been very fortunate in that all the while that I've done television, the producers have always let me out to do films. And I've had some help. I remember when I did The Terminal, and I auditioned for Steven Spielberg, and he got on the phone and called David, and David let me out so that I could do it, which was certainly a boost to my level of confidence in my ability. So as long as I'm able to go back and forth, I would not

choose one over the other.

Q: Why do you think The Nine hasn't totally connected 100% and there is still some uncertainty about its future?

CHI: Why does a phone always ring when you're in a bathroom? I mean, I don't have an answer for that. And that's because there's nobody in the world who can accurately predict how 10 or 15 million people are going to feel about something. Lost or Desperate Housewives or Ugly Betty at best--at best--are the products of an extremely educated guess. When I was doing The John Larroquette Show, Don Reo and I would smoke cigars. We would do two tapings on Friday, and we would smoke cigars in between.

And one day, he asked me what I wanted to do. And I said, "I want your job. I want to create television shows." I asked him what it was like to get a show on the air. He said, "It's like jumping through a hundred hoops. The last ten are getting smaller and smaller, and the last three are on fire." So the idea of just getting a pilot greenlit, and then getting a pilot shot, and then getting it picked up, and then getting picked up for the back nine, and then going to a hundred episodes...Because we have seen it happen so much by just turning on your television, we take for granted and become jaded about the process

of making something like that happen. Who knows, man? No one has any idea. My job is only to create a character that I think that people will believe. I feel like I've done that. My job is to choose material that I like and that I respond to. I think that I've done that. And it's ABC's job to get people to turn their televisions on. I can only go as far as making you believe what I do.

Q: Is there a genre that you haven't done yet that you're dying to do?

CHI: I've done...I mean, they're pretty much only two genres. There's tragedy and comedy. Or drama and comedy. So I've covered that. I was talking with a journalist just a minute ago, and saying I would really love to play Jack Johnson. Jack Johnson is probably the most controversial and multifaceted black man that this country has ever

seen. He was the precursor to Muhammad Ali. And he was Muhammad Ali in the 1920s, which seems unbelievable that a guy, a black man, especially a dark skinned black man in 1918, is driving through the South at 80 miles an hour, and gets stopped by a cop, and says, "Well, you might as well give me two tickets, because I'm going to be going this fast on the way back." You know what I mean? A guy to have those kind of stones in

those days? When people were just hanging people from trees just for being black...So a character like that, yeah, I'm dying to play that. And I don't know that anybody can touch what James Earl did in The Great White Hope, but that movie hasn't been seen in a long time, that story hasn't been told. And when Ken Burns did his piece on Jack Johnson, it

made me want to play that role. So if any...

Q: Get the script out there!

CHI: I would really love to see that happen. I really would. I mean, I'm not a writer. I'm not the guy to write it. But it's a story that really could and should be told, and I would like to play that role.

Q: Since we haven't seen this movie yet, does the trailer give away all the funny parts, or is there more?

CHI: [laughs] No. There's more. I think that when I saw the movie, I laughed out loud most of the movie. I think that Dax is very, very funny, and so is Will. And I love the character that I play in it. And there are some great, some really great lines in it, and some great sight gags. And Dylan Baker's really funny in it, and so is Koechner. I mean, we got some funny people in this movie. And I really will be glad when you have a chance to see it. I hate that you have to wait until the 17th to do it, but you won't be disappointed. I think it's going to be exactly what I'm telling you it is. It is as advertised.

Q: What were some of your favorite parts to do?

CHI: The scene with me and Will together in the cell, when I first start coming on to him, is pretty funny. The last scene in the movie's pretty funny. I mean, there's a lot of stuff in there that's really, really funny. A couple funny montages. Very funny montages, when I first meet Will. There's another scene in a bathroom that's pretty damned funny. There's some really good stuff in that one. So there are several moments that I really loved. I enjoyed the whole process of shooting the film. I loved working with Odenkirk. He's a fast and efficient director, and he knows what's funny, and he trusts his actors. He really gives us the opportunity to do what we were hired to do. A lot of times you work with

people, and they forget why they hired you. And that's why, as much as a lot of actors want to get offers for stuff, and I get offers for stuff in TV, but I would rather audition for people, because I don't want to have an arm wrestling match with a guy every time I come to the set. See what I'm going to do, and then if you don't like that, don't pick me.

And we never had those kinds of problems with Bob because he always trusted us.

Q: Did you go to any prisons or talk to any inmates to get a better idea of your character?

CHI: No, I'm not one of those guys who actually has to shoot heroin to play a heroin addict on TV. Of course, I'd probably do a lot more research if I were playing a gigolo. But we actually shot the movie in the Joliet State Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois. It was right outside my hometown of Chicago. And there was a lot of bad dudes who have come

through there. Richard Speck, John Gacy. There was some bad, bad dudes that have come through there. Dahmer was there for a minute before they transferred him to Wisconsin, where he met his deserved demise. I'm sorry, are there any Jeffrey Dahmer relatives? But no, I mean, there was no need to talk to any inmates, because, you know, when you're actually in prison, it's not that funny. So I didn't have any reason to talk to anybody about their experience. [laughs] Can you imagine? You go to like a guy who's committed a quadruple homicide and he's in there for life, and say, "Hey man, so what's the funniest thing about prison for you? What do you enjoy more than anything? Is it the gang rape?" So no, there was not an extensive amount of research, no.

Q: So you won't be doing any screenings of the film in prisons?

CHI: I'm not! If Universal wants to take their asses over to Corcoran and see how the inmates like it, they are welcome to do so! Because if you're in prison and you're doing a screening, it's cool to...Well, it's not even necessarily cool if they like it. They might riot. You know what I mean? "This is great! Let's kill everybody!" So not that I know of. I don't know that there's anything like that planned.

Q: How do you go about...

CHI: Make it a good one, it's your last one! All right, come on.

Q: When you're reading a script, do you get a visual image of your character?

CHI: Yeah. You get an image. You get pretty much a movie in your head, if the material is written well. If it's written the way good writing is supposed to happen, you can see it. Just like when you heard Richard Pryor do his routines, you could see that stuff, man. You could see an old guy all bent over named Mudbone. You could see the stories that he

was telling. They would just come to life, and that's because they were well-written and well-executed. And that's what happens when I end up choosing something, it's because I can respond to it in that way.

Q: Thank you.

CHI: You're welcome.

"Let’s Go To Prison" opens in theaters on November 17th.

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