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Find Someone Closer, For a Model

I want balance


Orlando Jones is a bit of a surprise. If you’ve seen him — as you most likely have — in those “Make 7-Up Yours” commercials rotating all over television, you might imagine that he’s energetic or nutty, even a little full of himself. In person, he’s certainly energetic and funny, tall and lean, well-dressed in very cool slacks and boots. But he’s also a generous interview and conscientious about his art and career. With experience writing and performing in commercials (through a company he started as a teenager, Homeboy’s Production & Advertising), as a writer for A Different World, The Sinbad Show, and Roc Live, as a writer-performer on Mad TV, and actor in numerous films, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, and now, Howard Deutch’s The Replacements, Jones has a lot to talk about.


Just back from an early morning radio interview in DC, he’s also hungry. So before we start, he orders room service, vegan — whole wheat pancakes and fruit juice. This guy is almost too healthy to be in this business. Together, we survey the posh layout of his Four Seasons Hotel room.



Cynthia Fuchs:

So, you’re a movie star.



Orlando Jones:

Yeah, creepy isn’t it? Over time I’ve come to understand how it works.



CF:

How did you put together Homeboy’s Production & Advertising?



OJ:

To be honest, I just didn’t want to say “Thank you,” “Please,” and “Come again” for the rest of my life. I felt like if I wanted to do this — films and TV — I didn’t have the expectation that someone else would write for me. So I started writing for myself. And for the most part, I lied. I went to every ad agency I could find in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, no appointment. I had a rough reel of commercials and other stuff I had done, and said, “I want to do your comedy commercials, just give me a shot.” Finally somebody did. That’s how I found myself in the advertising world, with my partner. I was trying to get a tape of me doing something that I thought was funny.



CF:

You always knew you wanted to do comedy?



OJ:

I knew that [comedy] was what people seemed to respond to. Drama wasn’t really a road I considered going down. I did do some plays — Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Samm-Art Williams play called Home, and Museum. But even if someone would say, “Oh, you were great!”, doing Othello never gave anyone an indication that I could do a contemporary lead. Still, the irony that Amos and Andy were Shakespearean trained actors wasn’t lost on me. Comedy just seemed like the way in. Someone I met years ago explained to me the difference between a personality and an actor, a personality being Eddie Murphy or Roseanne Barr, and an actor being Morgan Freeman and Alfre Woodard or Marlon Brando. And in the shrinking world of sound bites, the internet, and other mass media, there were going to be fewer actors and more personalities. When he said that to me when I was 20 years old, and I don’t think I fully understood what he meant. But I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and understand it more and more.



CF:

It’s not an unusual route. I think of Charles Stone’s “whassup” commercial, getting him all kinds of notice, and now he’s directing a feature.



OJ:

Right, and ironically, that commercial was originally a short film, True. Now the transition from the commercial world to the directing world seems like a cleaner transition than I previously knew. There are so many guys who started in commercials and get a shot at features. But you have to be careful there too. If he does a feature and it’s not successful, he’ll be struggling to get another gig. In this world, you need to do something that’s artistically interesting and commercially viable.



CF:

That sounds like the lesson of Hype Williams, who’s so obviously brilliant, but Belly — which I actually liked — did so poorly.



OJ:

Belly was not a bad movie. It was visually very interesting. And I’m a fan of Hype’s, I want to work with him. But he needed a strong producer. People can forget what an incredibly important part the business plays in [relation to] the creative side. You can’t pretend that the business is something you can’t be bothered with. They kind of threw Hype to the wolves. I think he was done a disservice. And that situation is something I’m extremely aware of.



CF:

It sounds like you are. And, not to dis The Replacements right off the bat, but… it is what it is. It seems like part of a business plan.



OJ:

I’ll be honest with you, I think the movie came out well. People like it. But, after four and half years of writing and producing television shows, two years on Mad TV, then a series of small and independent films — Sour Grapes, Waterproof, The Hangman’s Daughter, New Jersey Turnpike, Office Space, Liberty Heights, Magnolia, Chain of Fools — now, The Replacements, and I’m an overnight success. The other ten movies before I got to this one are not at all lost on me. And stranger still, in the middle of all that, 7-Up, something I really didn’t want to do at all. I walked in thinking, “I have ten movies under my belt and now they want me to go back to making commercials?” I said, if I do that, I want it to be funny. Quite honestly, I didn’t think the deal was going to make, because I wanted part of the creative control. I was impressed that they were making an offer to a non-athlete young black male to be a spokesperson for two and a half years. To their credit, they said, absolutely yes, they never questioned anything I wanted to do. It was a blessed experience for me.



CF:

So how do you see The Replacements?



OJ:

That was a chance to work Gene Hackman and Keanu, in his next movie after The Matrix. I didn’t know what kind of impact the 7-Up campaign was going to have. And really, with The Replacements, I was not making just a feel-good movie. I did not want to be the Funny Black Dude, and I was very vocal about that. You need to buy that I’m Clifford Franklin. You need to believe that I’m this black kid who just got into the NFL and is completely enamored with it. I was very concerned about being too broad, and that “I Will Survive” thing. No one in the cast wanted to do that. We all thought, “We’re football players: why are we in jail singing a Gloria Gaynor song?” I understood that resistance but I also understood that it was the bonding scene. I thought the only that could work is if I was willing to lampoon myself and then people join into the ridiculousness of the moment. In the end, I love the movie, and I appreciate that there are five black men in a movie who don’t kill anybody. This is something for my nine- and ten-year-old nieces to see.



CF:

How did your television experience shape your perspective on the business?



OJ:

I was the guy who had to deal with some nightmare situations, where people’s perspectives were twisted. I had to realize, “This has nothing to do with you.” It also became clear to me that no matter if the toilet in my bathroom was broken, or if I had the flu the day before, I had to get the job done. At the end of the day, I was supposed to be funny in a comedic role. People aren’t going to say, “Oh, he was probably sick.” They’re going to say, “He ain’t funny.” And that’s what they should say, because they pay money to see me. I also learned how to pick scripts. I have the long term in mind. I want to have a Bob Hope 75th Anniversary Special, and I don’t know a lot of black guys who do that. Bill Cosby may be the first. For me, this is a career. I’m not trying to do this for two or three or seven or eight years.



CF:

Why do you think it’s so hard for some performers to move between comedy and drama?



OJ:

Comedy is acting. If Eddie Murphy wanted to work with Martin Scorsese, they could put that together. It may not be in Eddie’s interest to do it, but something like that would be in my interest. What we’re ultimately doing is telling stories, be they comedic or dramatic. My grandfather was telling me stories about his life growing up, and I was fascinated. But I’d also be cracking up at the stories of him and his buddies. To tell a great story, that’s really what I want to do. That’s why I’m not a stand-up, more a comedic actor. I don’t know what Jim Carrey and those other guys are thinking, but…



CF:

I don’t want to know.



OJ:

(Laughs)



CF:

Going back to TV for a minute, what do you make of the attention that the NAACP has brought to the racism in its production and portrayals, its lack of role models, etc.?



OJ:

I’m of two minds about the NAACP, I’ll be brutally honest. When I was writing for Sinbad and Roc Live, I remember the pilot for Martin coming on, and a year later, the NAACP giving him an Image Award. a few years later, Martin was under fire for being “coonish” or whatever the word was people were using. And I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. You give the guy an Image Award three years in a row and then turn on him like that? If that’s the role they want to fulfill, they need to send a clearer message. I want balance. I want to see as many black professionals as possible. I don’t care if a guy plays a wild, broad, completely downtrodden character, but I also want to see an average joe; the middle class has been completely unrepresented. And it’s not just about minorities. What about balance in representing women? Where’s the girl who looks average, or the not so funny girl? Asians, Latinos, whoever: people are just looking for images of themselves. I’m from South Carolina, and it was always preached to me, there ain’t nothing wrong with being a car mechanic. People need them. I think the role model message is lost on deaf ears. Find someone in your community who is accessible to you. There’s only one Eddie Murphy, only one Michael Jordan. So unless you’re poised to be that other one, there’s not a lot of advice he can give you. A multimillionaire superstar is not a useful role model for someone who wants to be a chef. Look up to him, but find someone closer for a model.



CF:

There’s so much pressure, for anyone who’s not a straight white guy, to represent.



OJ:

We’re damn near in 2001, and it’s one of the more subtle racist things that persists. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell are not in any way, shape, or form my leaders. They speak for themselves. We are not a monolithic culture. Black leadership exists in the home, in a nuclear family or in your mom. I know on some level, I’m still going to have to be responsible for it, but I know what it is, I knew the price of the ticket when I got in.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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