Actor Morris Chestnut: From 'Urban' to Action

Actor Morris Chestnut, who first hit the big screen with a role in Boyz n the Hood in 1991, talks about going from "urban" films to big-budget Hollywood action movies. His latest film is The Cave.

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ED GORDON, host:

Morris Chestnut has starred in a long succession of Hollywood action movies. In his latest, "The Cave," he plays an explorer who discovers an underground cave system with some mysterious inhabitants. Chestnut made his big screen debut more than a decade ago in John Singleton's groundbreaking film "Boyz n the Hood." He played Ricky, a high school running back who wants to escape the violent surroundings of South Central Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of "Boyz n the Hood")

Mr. MORRIS CHESTNUT: (As Ricky) Listen, I've got a little boy to think about, OK. I don't want to be like my brother, man, hanging out and not doing (censored). End up doing Caine, just like him. Listen, I want to do something with my life, all right. I want to be somebody.

GORDON: I spoke recently with Morris Chestnut, and he described how "Boyz n the Hood" impacted his then budding film career.

Mr. CHESTNUT: At that point, you know, when I was shooting that movie, I was just so green in the industry, and I was just happy to be on the movie set, happy to be--you know, I was an aspiring actor, happy to be making a movie. I had no idea the magnitude that film would have, even to this day. So it was just a blessing.

GORDON: When you look at that film, I particularly am interested in when you first saw it. I remember the effect it had on so many people who went to see it, and how did it affect you once you saw the completed work?

Mr. CHESTNUT: Well, it actually takes--you know, for me, being an actor in a movie, it takes--I have to see the movie a couple of times to take myself out of it, because, you know, while we're shooting, you know, there are things, like going through the mental preparation, you know, when you're preparing for a character and preparing for a scene. So when I first see a movie, it takes me back to that scene. It's like, OK, I was thinking about this at this time...

GORDON: Right.

Mr. CHESTNUT: ...you know what I'm saying? Did I come off? Did I convey this? Did I convey that? So I have to say, though, even the first time I saw the movie, when I saw myself laying there in that white shirt with all that blood, it was still kind of hard for me to look at, you know, and I was sitting at the premiere with my mother and my sister, and they both were crying, you know, and they just--you know, they were trying to hold me because they just hated seeing me that way, so it did have an effect on me.

GORDON: How much do you go after crossover roles or will you be content to be the guy who made a lot of, quote--and I don't like this title, but we use it--"urban films"?

Mr. CHESTNUT: Urban films, yeah. You know what? I'm always searching for crossover roles. You know, I mean, there have been roles that--because this is what happened. Sometimes when the studio decides to make a movie, most of the studio films are not written for black people, you know. Even the roles that Will Smith takes, you know, they offered the script to Tom Cruise and Will Smith. You know, it's not like they offered the role to Will Smith, then Jamie, then L.L. It doesn't really work like that. There have been times when the studios say, `OK, you know, we may open this role up to an ethnic character, even though the role is still written white,' and I have, you know, pursued those opportunities, but very rarely do they keep the role ethnic.

GORDON: But as urban films go, if we're going to keep that, again, title going, when I think of your career, I think of, you know, the seminal "Boyz n the Hood," but another movie...

Mr. CHESTNUT: Yes.

GORDON: ...that really is so endearing to the African-Americans community, "The Best Man," was another one of your films.

(Soundbite of "The Best Man")

Mr. CHESTNUT: Look here, man, I know you got your girl, right, and I know you all are doing that relationship thing, and that's cool, but, Harper, you're my boy, right, my man, my ace. Doing is fine, dog. So for once in your life, go ahead and be a dog, dog.

I cannot complain, you know, to be an actor and have an opportunity to work and, you know, try to get better at what I do and still have people come out and support, you know, the things that I do, you know, I can't complain. There was a time to where they would think of the, quote, unquote, "urban movies" as blaxploitation, you know, and there weren't that many of these types of films. So just to have an opportunity and to still have the opportunity to get the crossover movie from that and get some recognition from these types of films, going back to your question, you know, if my career consists of that, I'm OK with that as well.

GORDON: All right. Let's talk about the new project, and that's "The Cave." Talk to me--A, give me a thumbnail of what the movie is and what your role is.

Mr. CHESTNUT: OK. "The Cave" is about a group of cave divers who go on this expedition 300 miles beneath the surface and into these underwater caves. And then we come across some alienlike creatures. Then it's a race to get back to the surface and stay alive.

(Soundbite of "The Cave")

Unidentified Character #1: Hey, Tyler.

TYLER: Yeah.

Unidentified Character #1: You mind backing up, bud?

Unidentified Character #2: Distract it.

Unidentified Character #3: Distract it.

GORDON: Talk to me, if you will, about what you had to go through in preparing for this film, diving--deep-sea diving or particularly cave diving can be dangerous. What did you do to prepare?

Mr. CHESTNUT: We had to learn some accelerated versions of scuba-diving using a rebreather, which is another form of scuba-diving, and I had to do some rock climbing, and we had to learn about caves.

GORDON: And that's no joke down there.

Mr. CHESTNUT: No, it's no joke. It's very dangerous, very dangerous, because when you're exploring these caves, you're going through very cramped and confined spaces. Sometimes you even have to take off your scuba equipment and your rebreather, slip it through the space, and then come through after it. Sometimes you get stuck and, you know, sometimes people really don't make it out. And you're literally, you know, hundreds of feet beneath the surface.

GORDON: All right. Now before we leave, you know the age-old joke, the brother never makes it to the end of the movie.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Right, right.

GORDON: We going to see you at the end of the movie, man?

Mr. CHESTNUT: Well, you know what? I will say this. I do live past the first 10 minutes and past the first three scenes. And, you know, as a matter of fact, when we shot the movie, I made it to the end of the movie, but, you know, they always, you know, flip the script on us sometimes, and...

GORDON: Right.

Mr. CHESTNUT: ...I may go to the movie and see myself killed in the first two minutes. You never know.

GORDON: Got to go see it to see if Morris makes it all the way to the end.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Exactly.

GORDON: Morris Chestnut, good to have you with us, man.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Hey, thanks for having me.

GORDON: Morris Chestnut's new movie, "The Cave," opens in theaters today.

(Credits)

GORDON: To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

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