Bernie Mac Interview, PRIDE

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline recently caught up with actor and comedian Bernie Mac at the Los Angeles press day to promote his latest film, "Pride.” Based on true events, "Pride” tells the story of Jim Ellis, a charismatic schoolteacher in the 1970s who changed lives forever by founding and coaching an African-American swim team in one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods. Directed by Sunu Gonera from a screenplay by Kevin Michael Smith & Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe, and Norman Vance, Jr., this uplifting drama also stars Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard ("Hustle & Flow,” "Crash,” "Ray”) and Kimberly Elise ("Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” "Manchurian Candidate,” "John Q”).

By turns comic, rousing and poignant, "Pride” is a triumphant story about team spirit and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. The year is 1973, and Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard), a college-educated African-American, can’t find a job. Driven by his love of competitive swimming, he refurbishes an abandoned recreational pool in a down-at-its-heels Philadelphia neighborhood with the help of its custodian Elston (Bernie Mac). But when the pool is marked for demolition, Jim fights back -- by starting the city’s first African-American swim team. Recruiting teens from the streets, Jim struggles to transform a motley team of novices into capable swimmers -- all in time for the upcoming state championships. But as racism, violence and an unsympathetic city official threaten to tear the team apart, Jim must do everything he can to convince his swimmers that victory, both in and out of the pool, is within their reach.

Bernie Mac has gone from the small comedy clubs of Chicago to become the highest grossing comedian today, selling out arenas and theatres all across the country. Born and raised in Chicago, Mac made his television debut on the landmark HBO comedy series, "Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam” which led to him being cast in the Damon Wayans feature "Mo’ Money,” which marked his feature film debut. Other film credits include the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence comedy "Life,” "House Party 3,” "How to Be a Player,” and "What’s the Worst that Could Happen.” Mac has also been seen in the feature films "Head of State,” "Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle,” the holiday hit "Bad Santa,” Disney’s "Mr. 3000,” and the remake of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

In 2002, Mac created the family comedy "The Bernie Mac Show” which he also starred in. He received Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 2002 and 2003 and the show won an Emmy for "Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series” in 2003. The show also received the Peabody Award; two Television Critics Association Awards for Best Comedy Series and Best Comedy Performance; and a NAACP Image Award for Best Comedy Series and Best Actor.

Mac has recently signed a first look deal with Lionsgate. His production company MacMan Entertainment, along with partner Steven Greener, will produce/star in feature films for the studio as well as develop four Dean Martin-style celebrity roasts that will go directly to DVD. Mac will be seen next in the Warner Brothers feature "Ocean’s Thirteen” where he re-teams with the original cast.

Never one to focus on any one medium, Mac wrote his first book, entitled "I Ain’t Scared of You,” which was published in Fall 2001. In it, he rips through such topics as sex, religion, hygiene, celebrity and more without missing a beat. This past April saw the release of his second book, a more traditional autobiography, "Maybe You Never Cry Again” in which Mac expounds upon growing up in Chicago and the hardships and obstacles in his path to the top.

Bernie Mac is a terrific actor and comedian who is well known for his trademark rapid fire and hard-hitting delivery. Here’s what he had to tell us about his new film, "Pride”:

Question: How was it being dramatic, Bernie?

Bernie Mac: Dramatic was easy. A lot of people don't know that I started dramatic. Comedy is something that you all know I can do. I've introduced myself with comedy and once you've introduced yourself as something, that's where people keep you. That’s where people like to hold you. But Miss Hunter in 4th grade started me in drama. That's where I first started doing plays. But I took a page out of my grandmother’s, Big Mama, and my mother's notebook: Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. So that works in my favor. When you all see me in that light or an individual in that light, I love to hear you all say "wow, I didn't know he could do that." For actors and stuff, ballplayers, they sometimes when they want to do other things and the media or the critics don't let them, they get frustrated. You shouldn't get frustrated because that goes with the territory. For example, it's an honor when people see you and, without you saying a word, just start laughing and smiling.

One person I know had that and that was Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor in ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ did an excellent job. Every time he came on the screen, everybody was laughing. He was tight afterwards, ‘Man, I did good. I wasn't trying to be funny,’ and I learned from that. I remember when he said that and I said, ‘Don't get mad, Richard. They love you.’ You know what I'm saying? That's a compliment. But I realize the frustration on people's parts when they want to do something outside of what everybody else sees them.

All you do as a performer is keep doing it. If you keep doing it, then it depends on why you're doing it. If you're doing something for superficial, monumental reasons and if you're doing it for female attention, or if you're doing it for money, it's like being upset. Only way you can get upset is when you expecting something. If you don't get this award or don't get that award, that because you expect something. If you get mad at John or Jill or Jack, you expect something - I've been knowing him for 30 years. Well, you gotta pay for it? Do you understand my point? So I don't ....drama is something that I can do man, I got chops, but you just have to always, always, every time you get the opportunity, that's what this life---life ain’t' no dress rehearsal. You know, every time it comes, every time that light comes on, or every time that camera comes on, every time that microphone comes on, the Mac Man seek and destroy.

Q: Is your character based on a real person?

Bernie Mac: Kinda, sorta. I’d say I came up in the community center. I used to be physical director of the South Central Community Center in Chicago on 83rd. It's still there. It used to be Chatawa when I was a kid. I've played at Chatawa Y, Island Park, and Southtown Y. I grew up in the gym. I was a gym rat and I had Mr. Hill, Mr. Butler, Mr. Stevens or Wayne Steen or Darrell Steen, those were Elstons. Those were the guys who were in my head besides my mother and my grandmother. Those were the individuals that were in my head pushing. They were my counselors, my guidance teachers, my lawyers, they defended me, they knocked on my door many days, and sat and talked to my parents and told them how and what I was doing, how I was improving, you know my boxing Mr. Hill when I was boxing and stuff, those were Elstons.

So having experience as a physical director dealing with the black kids, dealing with the single home, mostly female parents, trying to get sponsors to help sponsor the kids. The kids don't like swimming, the black kids don't like swimming, golf, tennis, track, gymnastics because those sports are put on the back burner, plus in my day they were sissy sports. Black kids, like minority kids, feel there is no instant financial gain in those sports. But those are the hardest working, most dedicated, focused sports. You look at the build on a swimmer; look at the build on a gymnast. They have the best build in the world. It takes every muscle in your doggone body to swim, and water you're dealing with an element that is so under-rated. Water, man like Bruce Lee said, it's as strong as a mammal. Water is underestimated. Water put out fire, water sterilizes you know, water drown, water tear brick, and swimming is something that you know a lot of people just don't know.

I got introduced into swimming by watching [Lloyd] Bridges in ‘Sea Hunt.’ I always wanted to scuba dive. I used to scuba dive undercover like black guy was scuba diving [makes sound like air bubbles rising through water to the surface]. See, my imagination is this large you know. They wanted to put me in the mental hospital years ago, you know, because they said, ‘There's something wrong with my brother, something is wrong with him.’ I used to do voices and stuff like that and now I scuba. I swim all my life and boxing and sports, I never ran track and I never played tennis but volley ball, I played volley ball, you know, baseball, basketball, football. I kept chalk in my pocket. We used to play strike out. People used to holler at me ‘Bernie Mac, don't write on my wall.’ ‘I'm not going to write on your wall.’ But I would draw that square on the wall.

The playgrounds used to be filled when I was coming up. Playgrounds are so empty now, but my point is those sports was put on the back burner. I think those sports should be forced in the schools. We had to swim naked in high school because it was unsanitary to swim with trunks. Class after class you couldn't wear swim trunks, so we had to swim naked. That's where that line came from. We had to swim naked.

Q: You mentioned Richard Pryor earlier. Do you think you'll ever do a ‘Jo Jo Dancer’?

Bernie Mac: I'm not Richard. I don't want to do ‘Jo Jo Dancer.’ I want to show and no disrespect to anybody, I run my own race. I don't worry about what lane somebody's in or what somebody’s doing or who's in front. I want people to say at the end of my day, you know, like I used to say about Sidney Poitier and James Cagney and Joan Crawford and Red Skelton and those guys and Bill Cosby. They did quality and substance. You always remember them. I turned down so much stuff because I want people to see when they say Bernie Mac is performing something I'm going, because they know I'm not going to cheat the people. When they say Bernie Mac is in the film, I'm going to see that. That's why I say, when Stevie Wonder came out with a new album, I've got to go get it because I knew he was going to bring it. ‘Jo Jo Dancer’ is something definitely Richard Pryor wanted to do. He wanted to tell the story of his life. I don't want to tell a story. I think it's important for...I think I told my story #1 many times and enough. If someone’s going to tell their story, that's their job to tell the story about you or him. For me, that's a sign of bragging. You know. I don't want to do that.

Q: How's Ocean's 13 going?

Bernie Mac: ‘Oceans 13.’ Let me tell you something. I hate to compare anything especially while I'm promoting. I feel that's another disrespect, but ‘Oceans 13’ is the best movie I've ever done in my life. No question. You're playing with the boys because I mean it’s personal. You've got all the boys, all my buddies over there. You've got George Clooney and Don Cheadle and Carl Reiner and Elliot Gould. You got Matt Damon, a sweetheart. You got Brad and all the boys and you can't say no to [Steven] Soderbergh. You can't say no to Soderbergh. You can’t say no, dude.

Q: What about it is going to make it better because George is even on record saying he was disappointed with the second movie?

Bernie Mac: We were all disappointed.

Q: How do you guys come back for the third time and make it the best one?

Bernie Mac: By making a bad film the second time. Then you say ‘Okay, you know what? No kidding. What are we doing?’ You see that is a perfect example of pimping. That's a perfect example of not being true and honest to yourself. I don't want to do that. But my connection with the boys, I couldn't say no. I can't say no to Soderbergh—‘Bernie, we want you in there’ and I was doing ‘Guess Who’ at the time too and you fly all over. That's how I got pneumonia from flying all over the world. I was doing that. I just through the television show 20 hours. No, I’m not doing that next time. You're just making a film. I said ‘Man, this script is booty.’ I didn't know if it was Mission Impossible or what. Where are we going? But you can't say nothing because I don’t want to do that to my fans personally. That was another entity. Me, myself, that's a perfect example of what I'm talking---I don't want to do that. I don't want just to be doing and milking so I can make some money and the people will come out.

This one is good. You got my man Al Pacino in there and Al Pacino, let me tell you something. I'm not quickly intimidated being an athlete and where I come from, but Al Pacino is one of my mentors. When I said ‘I've got a scene with Al Pacino today, I was hoooo.’ I was a little bit.....I could almost see how Holmes was. Then when Al Pacino came in, I said "Hey, Al Pacino." He said "Bernie Mac!" and I said ‘Wow, man’ and I called my wife and I said ‘I met Al Pacino today dude,’ and she said ‘Mac Man, you know you’re going to do it,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ Then when I saw him, I was like *damn*, you know. I kept watching him and like Don Rickles and them. When I was with Don Rickles and them, I was like Don Rickles, you know? I don't have a favorite nothing, you know. I just like good stuff. Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor you know. Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett and I could go on, Jackie Gleason; man you grew up.... those guys man. See the younger people don't have them pioneers, you know. I had some pioneers even in sports like Roberto Clemente. Oh my, mellow man. I used to try and run like him.

Q: Do you ad lib a lot in this? Terrence [Howard] mentioned that a lot was ad libbed in this film?

Bernie Mac: I only ad lib when Sunu told me to Bernie Mac it. I try to do and stay...I'm very disciplined and I'm a fan of respect. Sunu, a first time director, I didn't want to be ...and go all off the page and everything. But when Sunu instructed me, he said ‘Bernie, I need something right there. Give me Bernie Mac, you know.’ That’s when I did. We took a take the way Sunu wanted it and Sunu if he had a note for me, I did it what Sunu's note described to me and then when Bernie Mac, I put the Mac Man on it.

Q: Can you talk about your character in Transformers?

Bernie Mac: Transformers. I'm playing a used car salesman and you know all used car salesmen are full of sh*t, excuse my French, but they're con men. They came to my lot and I sold them the transformer. I didn't know that it was a transformer. I thought it was a piece of junk and the first thing you do as a car salesman -- and I didn’t know this, I did some investigating myself -- they always sell you the B.S. cars first. It's almost like a restaurant -- get rid of the food and rotate it. (Laughs) When they come, I didn’t know what car....what is this stuff and I just throw them a line. I'm a fast talker and quick wit guy, you know, and I got a chance to have some fun. Michael Bay… I've been fortunate because every director allows Bernie Mac to do his thing. I have not been handcuffed since my career started. From Ted Demme, every time a director....every time we do it straight, they'd always tell me ‘now Bernie Mac it.’ That's a luxury, you know.

"Pride” opens in theaters on March 23rd.

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