The name Kasi (pronounced Casey) Lemmons sounds familiar, it certainly should. Her body of work as both an actress and director is solid, to say the least. I remember first spotting her as Jodie Foster's roommate in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and soon after she showed up in THE FIVE HEARTBEATS, CANDYMAN, and John Woo's HARD TARGET, as well as in smaller roles in her husband actor-director Vondie Curtis-Hall's GRIDLOCK'D and last year's WAIST DEEP. In recent years, Lemmons has focused on becoming a solid and reliable director, coming out of the gate strong with EVE'S BAYOU and following that with the under-appreciated and tricky THE CAVEMAN'S VALENTINE (both starring Samuel L. Jackson). After these two strong art film's, Lemmons has turned her attention to what could be her breakthrough mainstream work, TALK TO ME, featuring one of the most complete and awe-inspiring performances I've ever seen from Don Cheadle, playing legendary D.C. ex-con/disc jockey/activist/comic Petey Greene. Outside of D.C. (where I grew up and clearly remember watching his television talk show), the impact of Greene's work is not well know, but TALK TO ME will change all that. With a supporting cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Sheen, Mike Epps, HUSTLE AND FLOW's Taraji P. Henson, and Curtis-Hall, Lemmons has captured the turbulent times (the 1960s through the early 1980s) during which Greene not only became famous; he became necessary. But forget all that; go see TALK TO ME because Cheadle is mind blowing in it, and because the film establishes that Lemmons is a talent to be reckoned with. She is also the first African-American woman to have directed three feature films, a fact that we discuss. One last note: I did this interview jointly with Michelle Bryant, founder of www.IndieIN.com, which focuses primarily on independent films. So the questions I don't specifically label as mine are hers. That's the entire prologue; enjoy Kasi Lemmons.
Capone: Forgive me for asking my most awkward question right off the bat, but I heard from a reader that you had an unbelievably ridiculous question asked of you recently after a screening of TALK TO ME. Do you know the question I'm referring to?
Kasi Lemmons: Ah, yes. I had an interesting experience, where a woman in the audience five rows back said, "So, I just have to ask you: what was it like directing this movie as a white woman?" So I took a step closer to her and said, "Excuse me." And she said, louder, "What was it like as a white woman directing this movie?" [laughs] And I said, "Well, I can't speak on that, because I'm not a white woman, but I will tell you what it was like as a woman."
C: Did the audience laugh at her?
KL: I think for a second they were confused, like "Damn, I never knew she was white." It was a dark room, so I assume she just couldn't see me and had never seen me before. I think it was perfectly innocent; I was not insulted at all, but I did think about hitting a tanning bed. [laughs]
Question: You talked about being a woman [directing this], I heard that you were the first black woman to direct three films that have gone on to actually play.
KL: I believe that that is true.
Q: How does that feel?
KL: It feels great, but it's bittersweet, because why? Why is that? It's great, I'm glad to be able to do it. There are women right behind me, so I won't be statistically alone for long. But it's a little bit sad. It's funny, because it's the type of thing I never, ever think about or mention, but I remember saying it to Don [Cheadle] once, and he said, "You told me that before." [laughs] How embarrassing.
C: At the time the film takes place, radio was a boys club, so the question about being a woman directing this decidedly "man's world" story is a fair one.
KL: It's easy. You put a bunch of men in it. It is a masculine piece of work, and so I'm just going to marry it. I'm not going to tiny and soft; I'm going to be particularly bold and dynamic because that's what the material call for. Actually, after the first meeting, in which I was hyper aware of [being a woman], because I had to get on the list of directors to be interviewed for TALK TO ME. After that, I never thought about it again. I was just a director and this is my new film. I didn't spend time thinking, as a woman, how do I deal with this? I didn't ever come up. I was thinking about it a lot when I was thinking about the first meeting.
Q: What attracted you to the story that made you want to do it?
KL: I fell in love with it gradually and than all at once. I'd read several different drafts of it. Usually I just read a script and I'm not really thinking of directing it. I'm saying, do I really like the material. And the fall into several categories: either I'm not interested; I'm interested but I want to be an audience member, I don't want to direct it; or I have to direct it to live. And I only direct films if I must direct them. And at some point, I went from, oh I would like to watch this to I have to direct this to live. I think it had to do with thinking about all the possibilities, the possibility of the drama itself and the relationship between these two characters [Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes, played by Ejiofor], and also getting to re-create his "Tonight Show" appearance, the D.C. riots, the James Brown concert. The context of it is so interesting, getting to pick all the music. It seemed like a challenging and delightful prospect. But at a certain point, that, if it were done right, you would have a movie that was hilarious and tragic and musical and raunchy, outspoken and militant. And I thought wow, when do you get to do that?
C: You actually just named a couple of my favorite moments in the movie. What was the atmosphere like on the set leading up to filming the assassination of Martin Luther King and D.C. riots? The anticipation and tension must have been high. It's certainly the turning point of the movie.
KL: We certainly talked about it a great deal, and one thing that struck me…I told everybody about this experience I'd had with my mother where I'd heard her screaming--and any child who hears their mother screaming, especially a young child, it completely shattering experience , terrifying because this is a woman who is dignified and always cool and full of laughter--and the sound that came out of her terrified me, absolutely shook me to my core. And I remember that from a child's point of view going and saying, "What is it?" And I thought she said, "The king is dead." And I'm thinking the king of a country. I didn't really relate, and I don't know what knowledge I had of who Martin Luther King was. But one thing, when you read about the reactions that people had at the time, people dropped dead on the spot, had heart attacks and brain aneurysms. People fell to their knees everywhere screaming, "Lord, why wasn't it me?" Over and over and over, you read about it. It was absolutely devastating, like the world was ending. That's something, in reading those historical records, that we really tried to re-create. That this psychically devastating event, particularly for this community but for the world really. We talked about it a lot, and we were careful to talk about it because no all of my actors were African American. We have British-Nigerian, African-Canadian. It was something we definitely tried to have a cohesion about, the importance of that moment.
Q: Even Martin Sheen really brought that scene together, kind of showing another side, and I'd read him say that that was one of the reasons he wanted to do the film.
KL: Absolutely. It was something we discussed in our very first conversation. He had a personal experience with Martin King, where they were in the same room together. And the hairs stand up... His perspective was really, really important to me, and he was great.
C: There are always so many challenges in doing a biography film, getting it right, the structure, when to begin and where to end in a person's life. How do you determine where to start and where to stop? You could have gone back to Petey's childhood or to the first time he went to prison, but instead you begin with him as a season convict in prison.
KL: It was never in the script. That was never what we were going for. This was the story of Dewey discovering Petey Greene, and the beginning of what became Radio One, WOL. I look at it like a lens focusing. If you focus, it's easier to see the big picture without seeing the big picture. Sometimes you see a biopic that is cradle to grave, it becomes unfocused. Whereas if you sharply focus on just these years or just this period of time…my favorite example is GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, which is so focused, and WALK THE LINE, which was so artful of them to end the movie when he proposes to her. There are a couple of scenes with him as a child, but it's not a cradle-to-grave Johnny Cash story. So many things happened to Petey that we don't deal with, but if it had been the Petey Greene story as a biopic, I'm not sure I would been the right director for it. I think you could make a whole other movie about that, but I don't think I would have been the right director for it. I am interested in character drama, so for me it's the story, the platonic love story between the two characters that I was interested in.
Q: You obviously had Dewey to consult with, and his son wrote the original script, but he seems so lonely in the film. He had a family at that times. Why did you choose not to show that?
KL: You know, Michael Genet pretty much always had it written that the central drama was between Dewey and Petey. And, boy, if I really got into everybody's love affairs and wives, it would have been much messier. Again, it's about focus.
C: I actually grew up in D.C., but I'm too young and too white to remember his radio show, but I do remember the TV show on Channel 20. Where do you see today, evidence of Petey influence and the doors that he opened to political commentary and humor?
KL: Certainly in a variety of comedians, but also Howard Stern, I think.
C: We were talking about that earlier, how Howard specifically mentioned that Petey was an influence on him when Howard was just starting out in D.C. radio.
KL: And then there are a lot of DJs who, I'm sure, were very influenced by Petey. I can't name them all, because so many DJs are local to this environment. That's why nobody knows the Petey Greene story; it's a D.C. story. When I was in D.C. shooting, I did a press day, and people would say, "My daddy knew Petey, so you better get this right." In D.C., everybody had a Petey Greene story. My driver, everybody.
Q: I didn't know Petey Greene before this, but I recognize him as I was listening. Everybody copied him, even his style of comedy.
KL: Right, his style of comedy has been a really big influence on a lot of people.
Q: I was really interested in watching the subtleness of the evolution of Petey and Dewey separately, of how they became the men that they were. It was done subtly with his dress and his afro got a little bigger…
KL: The mutton chops [laughs].
Q: That type of thing. Were those choices from the story or was that from the costume…
KL: The decision that we made was that we didn't want to put the year under every third scene [laughs], that that would be in-elegant, and that we needed an elegant way of passing time. So we made several decisions, there are many different ways that we did it, but two of my favorite are the easiest to talk about: the hair and the wardrobe, particularly Vernell's [Taraji P. Henson] wigs. So we have a whole timeline of Vernell's wigs, and how that tells you what year you're in. And also the Johnny Carson show, "The Tonight Show." When you first see Dewey watching it in '66, it's early. Johnny's a young man, it's a black-and-white show, and that progression. Because Johnny Carson is so familiar, to watch him get older was a lovely way of showing time move.
C: In terms of your research, how much material did you or Don have to watch? Have you seen Petey's "Tonight Show" footage? Or heard any of his radio shows?
KL: No, I had a great deal of…well, not a great deal…I had two "Petey Greene's Washington" shows, a biography that had both Dewey and Petey in it, which was lovely, and I had a whole comedy album of Petey's, where he tells the guy on the tower in prison story. That became very important to us. There are few things that Don did exactly rhythmically the way Petey does them, that we could actually listen to and say, okay this is way he said it. But there's not a plethora of stuff out there, because they taped over old shows. It's just not there. We'd heard rumors of people who had collections, but we never got our hands on one.
C: There's at least one of his TV shows on YouTube, I know that.
KL: That's the only one, and the interesting this is that as funny as "How to Eat a Watermelon" is, it's only one particular slice of Petey. So it's frustrating because he did have more to say than just that. I wish there were more of it available.
Q: How did Don become involved? I'd heard there were other actors who had been cast to play him.
KL: Each director came on and talked about different people. At one time I heard, Martin Lawrence was attached. When I came in, I wanted Don Cheadle.
Q: He's great. And it was so different, he's so funny.
KL: He's hilarious. I knew that about him, I knew he was funny. But I think the unrestrained, unleashed Cheadle is really interesting. It was such a delight to watch him do it and to be a part of it. I wanted to say one more thing about the passing of time with the characters, he made the decision not to do it with makeup, and I loved it because they acted it. They had their body language that they use, and if you look at all three of them as time changes, they're body language changes. It's very subtle, but it's very beautiful, and all three of them did it really, really well.
C: I did not know that Dewey was such as big part of the film. I knew that he was part of Petey's life. But he almost makes more of a change in the arc of the story than Petey does. They seem like they're on screen about the same amount of time as well. And I've really grown to love Chiwetel Ejiofor as an actor, and he ultimately makes the biggest changes here.
KL: I would say that's kind of what it's about. Besides Chiwetel being a movie star that is about to happen…
C: I think he's there.
KL: Oh, he's going to be a huge star. It's happening.
C: I just saw the AMERICAN GANGSTER trailer yesterday. My god, does he look good in that.
KL: Oh really. I can't wait to see it. You know, the guy's 29, he gorgeous, he's completely utterly kissable. I won't comment on that [laughs]. Everybody loved Chiwetel, he's delightful and he's versatile, and he's going to be a huge star. But beside that, the structure of the movie was a classic structure: you have a character living his life and somebody outrageous comes into it and changes him. That was really the archetype of the movies. And that's what it's about. Petey stays the same, what you see is what you get. "I'm real." He's authentic. He's who he is, and he's unashamedly, unabashedly who he is. And that's what it's about. Dewey makes the transformation.
Q: It was interesting to see him living his dream through Petey, and I was wondering if that Dewey knew at the time, he knew that he was pushing him into these things [that he wanted to do]?
KL: Honestly, when I would take to Dewey, I was very informed by the things he said without sometimes us hitting directly on it. My guess is that it didn't occur to him until later. My guess is that, like it occurs to the character in the movie, you don't really know how hard you're pushing until the person doesn't want to be pushed. I think it's very painful for him to talk about it; you can see it. I'm observing him as he's talking about it, and the words that he's using and what's in his eyes. Petey could have been huge, but did Petey want to go that route? No.
C: I'm sure you've been asked this question since EVE'S BAYOU, but do you find that actors tend to trust you more as a director having come out of acting, because you speak their language and know the process?
KL: I've heard yes. But I have to hear it from them. The first time I heard it I was watching and EPK [electronic press kit] interview of some of my actors, but it doesn't occur to me. I did have the advantage of being on other directors' movie sets. Most directors haven't been on other directors' movie sets, but because I'd been an actor, I'd been on a lot of movie sets. And the caliber of the directors that I'd gotten to work with--John Wood, Spike Lee [in SCHOOL DAZE], Jonathan Demme--I've worked with some pretty great directors. So I knew what worked, and it was very interesting to me as an actor, I didn't really think about it, but when I started directing, I realize that it was an intimate conversation that in some ways you're having in public. But you keep it very intimate and focused. After a take, if you have something to say to one actor, you go over and have a private conversation that you're having in public. It's a very intimate relationship between the director and actor, as opposed to calling across set, "Hey!"
Q: Even though this takes place in the '60s, it felt very relevant. Sometimes I forgot that it was something that happened 40 years ago. I was wondering if you made a direct choice to sometimes blur the lines?
KL: Yeah, I wanted to make it as relevant as possible. That being said, we were in the '60s. When I would walk out into real life, it would be bizarre to me. What's going on? Why isn't everybody dressed right? We were totally immersed in that environment. When Don Cheadle didn't have wig on, I didn't recognize him. But it had to be immediate. When you make a period film and you have an immediacy to it, then it's going to feel like you're there, and that's the best thing when you forget. That way, you can experience something that happened before you were born, which is great. It's great for me to.
C: The only real question that matters is, when is the soundtrack album coming out? It has to be multiple volumes.
KL: I have to find that out. It has to coming out really soon. We had to make a choice what songs made it on the soundtrack unfortunately, so it's not every song that's in there. But it's chock full of songs.
C: You mentioned how you showed the passage of time, and I was able to keep track because of the music.
KL: The music, of course. I forgot the music! You can't forget the music.