Interview : Bernie Mac

Bill Murray’s shoes are quite large ones to be filled, but comedian Bernie Mac has seemingly done it with ease. PAUL FISCHER catches up with one of America’s most popular comedians to get the lowdown on his role in "Charlies Angels : Full Throttle".

An edgy comic who skyrocketed to comedy fame with his memorably side-splitting appearance in Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy, Bernie Mac may have seemed an unlikely candidate for a television sitcom, but with the debut of The Bernie Mac Show the inventive comedian began on a high note, leaving many pondering the apparent overnight success of the comedian who had ostensibly come from nowhere to become a ubiquitous presence. Born Bernard Jeffrey McCollough in Chicago, IL, in 1958, Mac was a member of a large extended family living under one roof, which provided the energetic youngster with plenty of fuel for refining his ability to perform dead-on impressions and humorously recall memorable family occurrences. Time spent as a gopher for performers at the Regal Theater also served as a primer for his showbiz aspirations (as well as a cautionary warning of the destructive temptations that go along with fame); Mac’s first experiences with standup came at the age of eight, when he performed a routine about his grandparents at the dinner table in front of the congregation at church. Though it resulted in some strict reprimanding from his grandmother, he had the audience feeding out of his palm and the young impressionist quickly had the epiphany that humor meant more to him than the sting of discipline. From that point on, Mac refined and developed his comic abilities on the tracks of Chicago’s El trains and in local parks. Though he earned a modest keep from his public performances, Mac craved the legitimacy of the club circuit and he began to perform professionally in 1977. After early film work including memorable appearances in Above the Rim (1994) and The Walking Dead (1995), which followed on the heels of his big screen debut in 1992′s Mo’ Money, Mac was offered and appeared in the television series Midnight Mac in 1995. Hesitation as to the neutering of his material made the comedian leery of television, and the show didn’t last. Turning up frequently the following year in television’s Moesha brought some more attention to the comic actor, though mainstream acceptance was still four years and numerous bit film parts away. Following Kings, Mac began to develop an idea for a sitcom that revolved around similar family experiences and retained the edge that had initially shocked his audiences into laughter. 2001 would indeed prove to be the year of the Mac as he also took on a substantial role in director Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11.

Mac now takes over from Bill Murray in the new Charlie’s Angels and is clearly having the time of his life as he confessed to PAUL FISCHER.

Paul Fischer : Was it mostly ad-libbed, your stuff?
Mac : You know, everyone keeps asking me that. McG allowed me to, as he called it, ‘Bernie Mac’ it and I’ve really been fortunate that, that’s when they tell them my career so far, you know, I’ve been on films where directors always say, now do your thing, and one thing about that to, even on the page, when I’m on the page, I try to bring it so many different, I always try to do it different.

P.F: Were you surprised that this was offered to you as a replacement for Bill?
Mac : I wasn’t surprised because I didn’t know anything about it I really didn’t, so I mean to say, I was surprised, you know, I had to have some kind of anticipation or something, but I didn’t know. I just thought he wanted me to be in the movie.

P.F: What was your reaction when you first heard you guys were going to be brothers and did you have any input on that?
Mac Ah, no I had lunch with Mc who broke it down like a fraction really. He broke it down. He told me that he wanted me to do Bill and I was a little bit nervous at first because some are from Chicago, second city again, a comedian, street performer and you know, I know Bill and all those guys. I was “Whoa, I was, “man, Bill Murray”, you know and I hadn’t seen it, and I think that was another part of almost a semi intimidation for me because I hadn’t saw the first Charlie. And then he kept, Mc kept breaking it down of what it was, we was brothers and I came from a detective family and Bill was kept coming home and telling us about these three beautiful women and I’d never saw them, you know and it was almost like someone telling you all this stuff, yeah right, right, right, ok. He’s your brother but I never really saw it. So I saw that, I caught that and when I went home, flew it in the meet with me and I flew out right after the meeting, when I went home I called my wife and I said “Baby, you got, we got Charlie’s Angles?” She said “Yeah.” I said “Get it out.” I said “Cook something for me.” I saw it three times. And I watched it three times for the strength of watching how Mc shot and watching what Bill did because you know when you come in behind somebody and being a movie buff and a comic myself, we automatically just want to see the similarity and try to dissect everything that someone else does. And I didn’t want to bring no similarities to Bill, none whatsoever, with no disrespect. That was the key of me being accepting this to see if I could bring something to the party, because that’s the way I was brought up. That’s the way I always trained. If you’re going to do something, my grandma always said bring something to the party. So what I saw it on the third, looking at the movie, third time, I saw it. I said back, I said “I could Bernie Mac it”

P.F: So what was the most uncomfortable costume they put you in?
Mac : I don’t think it was because when I do film and stuff I’m not me. I’m really not me. The same when I do stand up, I’m not me. The hour and a half, the two hours that I’m on stage I’m gone, man, you know so when I take all that stuff off, this is me. When I take that off I’m doing it in the content of the film.

P.F: So are you comfortable being you or are you more comfortable being one of these comic characters?
Mac : I think I’m more comfortable being me, because at the end of the day this is who I’ve got to live with. You know, when I’m not funny no more this is who I’ve got to walk with, but I recognize and I separate the fact of what I am and who I am and what I do or what I need to be doing, I separate all of that and Red Fox taught me that.

P.F: You said earlier that you could Bernie Mac it can you just add a little of like what that means and how did you add some of your own mix to this in a way?
Mac : I think what it means coming from all the people, I didn’t, you know, a lot of people gave me that and I guess it had really been following me from sports you know, when your coach always used to say “Alright Mac, do your thing”, you know, because always, I don’t know if it’s just my personality or what, I always um, I’m not afraid to do it. And plays directors would say “Bern I need you to do it”. I never looked at it in terms of being a man, just something that I love to do and I guess it comes off. I don’t know how they see me from their point of view. I don’t know how they see me but when I do this, this is what I really, really, really, really, really love to do and I don’t want to do badly at it. I don’t want to do it just for dollars and cents. I don’t want to do it for just no hoopla. I don’t want to do it just for no cars. I don’t want to do it for no superficial reason. I want to do well. I really, extremely want to do well.

P.F: But what is that you’re trying to do? I mean, do you try to make it real, do you try to, and is there an approach that you have of what makes it true to you?
Mac : I try to make it make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, so many times you see a film and I reflect back to it. Three The Hard Way with Fred Williamson and Jim Brown and Jim Kelly. When Jim Kelly was walking through the park a lot he had on dress shoes. When the three guys approached him and they started fighting, he had on gym shoes. And when he kicked the guy in the ass the last kick, he had on orange shoes. When I looked at the Ten Commandments, when Charlton Heston had the Ten Commandments and he threw it, he had his Timex watch. You know? See, my point is I watch all those things and I try to make it look make sense. You know, when it makes sense it’s funny when you keep it simple it’s true, comedy is truth. Comedy is much different from Lucille, you know Ed Sullivan days. It’s much broader when you had comedy teams. Story lines are much more different. You have more dialogue back in the day, now you have sex and explosion. You know, I look at all that being a student of the game, I take all of that and I come back and I put it into me. And I know my audience. I know my audience and I think that’s the key of being successful, knows your audience. I watched Don Rickles and Richard Pryor and I saw what they did, television did to them. You know, you had to be yourself.

P.F: Does the TV show enhance your understanding of comedy? Does it add to what you’re doing in film and how much more time will you give
Mac : I think when we do something, everything enhances one another. I think they call it growth. I think from when you first start out, I’m quite sure you can reflect back to your writing and your journalism skills to what you are now. Night and day. Well, I look back from when I first started doing comedy. I keep those tapes from humble beginnings but I look back and I look at them like this. [Laughter] But I wouldn’t be this if it wasn’t for that. And (I get you right now) and television enhances all of that.

P.F: I was going to ask you when you came into this project did you feel a little bit like you were walking into a sorority house, in a way?
Mac : You know, McG is wired all the time. If this was the seventies, I know he’d smoke reef. [Laughter] Mc is wired and that, once again, is passion, because when you have passion you don’t care how you look. You understand what I’m saying? You don’t care if a hair is out of place or there is spit in the corner of your mouth, you’re serious about, and then you come down, that’s how Mc is. And all that comes off with your with your players. It’s like coaching. Your team was a reflection of you. Your parents. Everything that you see reflect on us and he was my director on this film and Mc was so energetic, at one time, I said Mc “I get you, I get you” because he’s like a parade. Lalalaladedum, oh and that’s Mc and then you come down and then all of a sudden you hear the music and he’s drawing that picture all the time and that was really fun for me because it was different. Every director has his or her own style that you have to really respect, you have to really be honest to. You know, some director’s vision is a little bit more direct than others. Some are really not sure of what their vision is and they find their vision as they go along. And once you find out who you’re playing with and where you are, you know, you as a professional have to make that adjustment.

P.F: How selective are you in what you choose to do?
Mac : Very selective. Very selective.

P.F: You’re ready to do something else now that’s very different?
Mac : Very selective because I’ve seen so many people do things for dollars and cents. I’ve seen so many people do things just for the strength of doing, being on TV. Five minute fame and I always said I was never going to do that. It’s not about money. It really isn’t. I see guys who I started with that I don’t see no more. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to set my in it for a minute, I’m in it to win it. I’m not in it for a few seconds , I’m not in it for no parade I don’t need no parade, I don’t need no pat on the back. I’m very selective because you do things and it’s going to come back and haunt you. You can tell an individual from a body of work and that’s what I’m seeking. I’m seeking a body of work. People don’t, I don’t hear the voices, I don’t hear what these people, and I don’t hear what they say. You know? And it makes no difference what they say. It matters what I think. And one thing that I know from a comedian, people don’t know what they’re like until you show it to them. They really don’t. I don’t want to see them in there. I don’t want to see them with that. I don’t want to see her do this. You don’t know, and you as an individual, as an artist, you can’t be afraid. Sydney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner got beat up, got beat up by his own people. NAACP beat him up for that movie. That movie was a great movie. Thirty years later now, people are tipping their hat off too him. Sydney Poitier was the man. He had balls. He had guts to do that film in that time, to tell that story and to have faith enough in that story that took a lot of character.

P.F: Is his career the kind of career that you would like follow?
Mac : Yeah. Yeah I will follow Sydney. If I had to follow somebody, I would follow Sydney in a minute. Not only his career, he’s a gentleman.

P.F: What makes you laugh?
Mac : You, because honesty comes along with it. Your sincerity, you know. You’re not trying to make me laugh and that’s the best laugh in the world. When you do things you do it off the cuff. There’s no price on that. Comedy, a lot of young comics, you can’t tell them, it’s something that you have to really understand. And they call it the essence of comedy. The new comics don’t even know who’s what, where, where I come from. I can tell you who stole it, who wrote it, where it came from, where it started, who re-made it, I could tell you. Comedy is something, there is no such thing as big or small laugh. Comedy, laughs come in all shapes, forms and fashion. A smile could be a hell of a laugh. My grandmother who dedicated her life to her entire family, who had no life, I’ve never seen my grandmother really laugh, and when she did laugh she had a little “uh-huhuh.” That was almost like a gut busting laugh to us. My grandmother would sit there, [laughter]. That was, to make people laugh at the most inopportune time and places, is funny to me. And so when I say you make me laugh, ordinary things, simple things is the most funny things and that’s where my success come from. To be able to have an attachment with you and the people who view me run this relationship when you slap the shit out to a man and say you do that. You know, that’s funny, because it has some identification with you and that comedy. Comedy is truth.

P.F: Was there any talk at all of having Bill Murray kind of pass the torch to in the film? Of having him come and explain why he was leaving and why?
Mac : No. You know, I’d rather he wouldn’t do that for Melanie that. Some things go best unsaid. I don’t know why. Because where I come from it’s none of my business, you know, but Bill Murray pass on the torch to me.

P.F: Did you watch the TV series at all
Mac : Yeah. Wednesday nights.

P.F: Who was your favorite Angel?
Mac : Ah, Farrah Fawcett was at first. Then Cheryl Ladd and Jackie you know, I saw a lack of brunettes, you know? You know I saw it when Cheryl Ladd was a thriller to, you know? My girl Cheryl she was cool, but I grew up on Cheryl’s a little bit too. Farrah Fawcett, I kind of liked. She had that little sexy smile and full body of hair. You know, a young boy, a man, you know, a young freak I might of said, but you know, when you sit there you get that. I was really torn off by them but then Jackie I started getting older you know, I said Hey Jackie, Jackie, oh, you know? Bosley was so simple but he was so funny. But all that stuff was good TV as my grandpa used to call it. Good TV.

P.F: You’re working on something different now aren’t you?
Mac : Right, right. I’m doing Mr. 3000. It’s a baseball movie. It’s about this young arrogant guy Stan Rowles out of Milwaukee and he saw, Muhammed Ali has got nothing on him. He’s way over the top. He’s so self-centered and egotistical, you’re going to hate him. And he gets a three thousandth hit right at the end of the game, everyone’s coming to him to kiss my ass. I retire, quick. Ten years go by, get ready to get inducted into the Hall of Fame, come to find out I’m three hits short. I got to come out of retirement but the man that I was, I’m no longer, but the man I become is the fun part.

P.F: So how’s the baseball coming along then?
Mac : I was a ball player back in the day, now I’m an actor. I can still play the game from a movie perspective but I’m forty-five now.

P.F: Are you preparing to do any?
Mac : Oh yeah, I’ve been preparing for it for the last two months. We’re a month and a half in and all the baseball stuff comes in next week. But we’ve been in training, we’ve been in training with the Brewers and everything and then the guys were doing real great. We got a great set of guys and they’re all young guys. These guys are twenty seven, twenty six, thirty. I think Dondre is the oldest cat out of those guys playing with me. I’m the vet for real. I’m forty five, so you know, my playing days are really over but I know that I can do it. I used to coach and all that kind of stuff but you know, I know how to look good. I know how to hit the ball but I ain’t running.

P.F: How active is Drew on the set as a producer.
Mac : Drew? That’s a good question. Drew was extremely a great producer.

P.F: Did she help direct you?
Mac : Yes, yes she did. She had a lot of input and Drew was extremely beneficial to me.

P.F: What sort of things would she tell you?
Mac : Drew really went out of her way and not in a negative sense, to make me feel at home. She involved me in anything that I was in. I mean from the break-down of the character to the break-down of the scene, Drew made it her damnessed that I was there. Drew made it her damnessed that I participated. Drew made it her damnessed that everyone knew what my way was. Drew had me, I mean she took me by the hand literally and I really appreciate that and I told her that and I told know if I told her enough. And the reason that I say that is, that was really nice of her to do that, but I’m a big boy. I really am, and I felt that maybe that was because I don’t know being a big fellow I might have been uncomfortable or not, but I wasn’t. I was not uncomfortable about my move to play in this movie. I was not uncomfortable about coming behind Bill Murray. If I was uncomfortable in any way I wouldn’t have taken it and for them to really do that and make me feel like I belong, I really thank them, because they didn’t have to do that.

P.F: So would you come back for a third?
Mac : Yeah, you know what, if they ask me to come back I would love to come back and if it’s not in the cards for me to come back that’s beautiful to.

P.F: Have you signed for a third.
Mac : I didn’t even know there was a third. I don’t know anything about it.

P.F: What about the other two girls because you mentioned Drew. What about Cameron
Mac : Well, let me break it down. I just gave you Drew now I’m going to give you Lucy. Lucy is a thriller. OK? Lucy got fire. Lucy is so fun and I liked her because of her directness. I like her because you see what you gets. She’ll tell you like it is and that’s nothing but the utmost respect. Cameron Diaz, I’m going to tell you, that’s the quiet storm. [Laughter] Cameron Diaz she can go. She has, all of them have the sexy thing going. Lucy, she had that little…, Drew, got that little, that beautiful smile, you know, just sucks you in and Cameron Diaz man, there’s something about Cameron. She got that body of work. That girl can go. She makes your imagination just go wild.. She just makes your imagination just go a little to the left a little bit.

P.F: Really?
Mac : Yeah.

P.F: Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Mac : Cameron Diaz, she did this spoof on Hammertime. Cameron can dance. I mean, really dance. She can move. She can pop-go-the-weasel until the weasel go pop. [Laughter]

PF: What about Demi?
Mac : When I saw Demi. You see I was in love with Demi back in the day, so when I saw Demi, they tell me Demi was here and I said “Where?” Her trailer was right behind mine and so I waltzed, you know, I like to give people their space but I broke in and of course Demi, when you see Demi, I used to just say, you know up close and personal she’s pretty. She’s really, really extremely pretty but besides all that she’s a gem. She’s as nice as a hare. So this guy asked me, he said “Man if you had them all against the wall, which one would you get?” I figure I would be a bad boy. You know, I’d have to steal them all.

PF: Bernie, you’re one of the sharpest dressed actors we get to interview, where does this particular outfit come from?
Mac : I Designed my own stuff Woody Wilson out of Los Angeles and Hodge out of Chicago. They cut me up. They do my own.

CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE OPENS ON JUNE 27