At the Top
Michael Clarke Duncan is happy. He’s happy to be starring in The Green Mile with Tom Hanks, to be sitting in a nice hotel room wearing white socks and designer jeans and no shoes. He’s especially happy with his role in the film, saying, “I like to equate John Coffey with an angel. We don’t know how long he’s been around. He could have been a slave for all we know, because with his special powers, he doesn’t age. He’s a mystery, he feels pain every day: you’ve had a headache before, but imagine having it 24-7, each and every day. That’s gotta be demoralizing.”
The Chicago native feels lucky that he was working with this big-money project, not to mention “all these people, they’re so accomplished.” Arriving on the set, he says, “I thought, okay, I’m in the big time now. And I’m just working, trying to do a good job. I’m trying not to get too intimidated. I walk in and there’s Tom Hanks, and I think, god, there’s the guy from Bosom Buddies. But we really didn’t get in each other’s way, or talk about our parts, but when the camera was on, it meshed into this finely tuned instrument. It’s like when you have a magnet and crush up metal and spread the particles around and then can pick them all up with the magnet? That’s what it was like, the magic of the movie. Everybody’s good. It was too much. Movie making is fun, it’s the best job in the world.”
Duncan says this “magic” was largely achieved by director Frank Darabont. “It was a wonderful thing to have him,” Duncan recalls, “He was like a Zen master. He uses, I call it ‘mental capabilities,’ on you. No matter how many scenes you’re going through, Frank can get you to do more, even when you’re tired. He had me doing one scene, we had done like twenty takes, and I was crying each take and I was tired. He came over and said, ‘Michael, you are doing terrific.’ And right then I started to get all excited. He said, ‘We just need to get three or four more, and then we’re out of here.’ Now, whenever a director says three or four more, it means ten. We actually did at least five or six more. But each one, I wanted to do good for him, cause he makes you feel like you have it in you. You want to achieve for him.”
I ask whether he always wanted to act. He smiles broadly. “Always.” Then he pauses, “Well, I wanted to play football at first, but my mother told me know, and you know what? She knew best. I just wanted to get out there on that football field and run with the Redskins or something, play defensive end. I thought that would be cool, and she said, ‘No, I’m gonna make you do something a lot less easy. You’re pretty silly, so you’re gonna make it big in Hollywood.’”
Duncan says he’s only felt minimal restrictions in Hollywood, mostly owing to his unusual build. “I didn’t want to fall into a category where I was limited to certain roles, okay?” He stretches out on the sofa. “I’m 6’5”, 315 pounds. There’s not a lot of roles out there. Almost all the roles I had previously were almost all the same. They were bouncer, security, bodyguard, gangster, hitman, all sort of the same thing, kind of physical. So when you have something like The Green Mile come along, it changes the mold a littler bit, breaks you out.”
He maintains, “I never looked at the race issue. A lot of people have asked me that, what do you think about this or this connotation in the movie, about John Coffey being like a slave type? But, here I was, I was working with the top! I guess my mind just didn’t go there. I just thought, man, my bills are gonna be paid, I am out of debt. I got nice credit cards, and people want to give me more credit. Really,” he says at last, “The film is about this: you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that’s the main thing that people do with John Coffey. And me too.”
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