Michael Jai White is one of the most dynamic actors in show business. His breakthrough role came when he portrayed boxing legend Mike Tyson in a 1995 HBO biopic. In the years to follow, White has tackled roles ranging from superhero to super soldier with everything in between. Now in 2009, donning a leisure suit, an afro wig, a mustache that would make both Rudy Ray Moore and Richard Roundtree proud, White is thrilling fans worldwide with his latest creation, ‘Black Dynamite’. The title character is a former CIA operative, war veteran and all around badass. Set in 1970s Los Angeles, Black Dynamite is the lone hero brave enough to take back the blood-soaked city streets after “The Man” murders his brother, pumps heroin into local orphanages, and floods the ghetto with malt liquor. The film serves as a loving homage to blaxploitation cinema and serves up a heaping helping of thrilling, first rate action!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Michael Jai White as he was doing press for the film’s highly anticipated premiere in New York City. In the interview, the two discuss White’s career, the birth and challenges of making ‘Black Dynamite’, his latest on-screen outings and what the future holds for the rising star.
Let’s get started with some basic questions: Where did you grow up and what got you started on journey in the entertainment industry?
I was born in Brooklyn and I left there when I was a teenager. I grew up, the rest of my time, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Originally, I didn’t know that I wanted to be an entertainer. There were some warning signs, but I didn’t pay attention to them. I was always shooting my own little Super 8 movies and as a kid I did puppet shows when I was in grammar school. When I got out of high school and went to college, I would dabble in acting classes but I never took it seriously. I became a school teacher and I would try to go out for auditions for television and commercials in my off time. Eventually, I decided that I needed to see if this could work, so I took a leave of absence from teaching and that has lasted up until now.
Well it seems like it is working out for you so far!
[laughs] Yeah! Yeah, I think I might stay away from teaching.
I want to touch on your latest exciting project, ‘Black Dynamite’. How did you first get involved with director Scott Sanders and what can you tell us about the film?
Scott and I met ten years ago on ‘Thick As Thieves’. The idea for the film is something I came up with one day while listening to a James Brown song. I was a fan of Blaxploitation movies when I was a kid. I thought that they were funny, cool, campy and all of that. I would periodically have a Blaxploitation Night at my house. Everyone really appreciated the films from my kids to people that had never even seen one before. They have such a style and brashness, that you just never saw anywhere else. I eventually decided to shoot my own film that would have all of those qualities. I wanted to give the viewer the experience that they saw a genuine blaxploitation film.
What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
The biggest challenge was getting it all done in twenty days. That was definitely a challenge.
How hard was it to achieve that authentic look and genuine feel that you were going for?
It had it’s own set of difficulties. We shot on a film stock which is rarely used. With the stock, we just, you don’t have any movement with the film, meaning that you can’t really alter it after you shoot it. Whatever you shoot, you are stuck with. It’s not like most films where you can change things in post production. That made it a bit interesting. Your lighting had to be just right.
You have been traveling around quite a bit to promote the film. How have audiences been reacting and what has the whole experience been like for you?
It has been overwhelming. It has been such an education! We learned so much because this film is being very well received overseas. We are selling it to territories, so for example, there were packed houses in Germany and France. We had a standing ovation in the Czech Republic. There were 1,200 people in the theater and they let 100 more in, just to pack the aisles afterwards.
They erupted! It was a standing ovation. It has been really heralded in Brazil and Australia. It has been an unprecedented thing, where a small movie with black folks is being this well received around the world. We never thought that it would be this big around the world. It just goes to show that you don’t have to grow up knowing about Blaxploitation movies to enjoy the film. It is just a fun action movie that people are really enjoying.
Bringing the idea full circle from that first spark to the completed picture. What is your fondest memory of the experience on ‘Black Dynamite’?
I think one of my fondest memories was the day that we shot this pimp scene. I had these great actors that came out to lend their talents to the movie, to myself and just to have fun. I was really proud of that day. Aresnio Hall, John Salley, Bokeem Woodbine, Brian McKnight and all of these really great actors came out to have fun and it meant a lot to me.
With the tremendous buzz and fan reaction to the film, is there any chance we will see you revisit the Black Dynamite character anytime in the near future?
Absolutely. There is a very strong chance for that. Hopefully people will come out for the movie and that would really dictate it.
Another interesting project you have recently appeared in is ‘Blood and Bone’. What can you tell us about that?
‘Blood and Bone’ is kind of a straight forward action film. It is gritty in the tradition of the old Charles Bronson type of films, but it has a bit of a twist with that MMA type technique and martial arts in it, along with a pretty gripping story.
You mentioned MMA. In ‘Blood and Bone’ you have two of the sports biggest names, Kimbo Slice and Gina Carano in the film with you. What was it like working alongside them in the film?
It was great. They are really good fighters. You know, Kimbo is still having his ups and downs. Bob Sapp is still fighting. We had some cameos too, like Maurice Smith, who is the only United States K-1 Champion in Japan. He also graced the film. It was great working with all of them. Gina Carano is a sweetheart. People fall in love with her because they can see how sweet of a person she is. Kimbo is a really good guy as well. He is another kind of American success story, kinda in the way that Mike Tyson was. He just got people to really root for him and he is a great personality.
You are very involved with martial arts and that plays a big part in many of your roles. I imagine that you play a large role in the fight choreography.
Completely. It is hard for someone to choreograph for me. I pretty much have to do the things that are natural for my character. That is one thing, I would not fight the same in two movies. I would fight as the character. So, it is really about that. Unless someone understands choreographing for the character, I tend to shun that away. I pretty much know that it is my responsibility to know the character, so I would be the logical person to dictate how the character fights.
That is interesting, as you have played so many varied characters from Black Dynamite to Spawn and so on. I am curious, is there a certain type of role that you haven’t yet taken on that you would like to take a stab at in the future?
Oh yeah, I think that some of my greatest roles, I haven’t even done yet. I would love to play an athletic, football type of role and even a “real” soldier. I haven’t played any “real” soldiers in a drama or even a cop. I was literally studying to become a police officer for years. Over the past few years, I have been getting myself ready to become a reserve cop. Police work is in my blood. It is something that my family is very close to and that I am very close to, so I know when I get a chance to play an officer on film, there is a lot of “me” that I can put into the role. I have also never played a teacher, which I am. I think that there are a number of dramatic roles that I would love to play. I would love to do my take on a ‘Lean On Me’ type of movie, where someone like me goes into the school systems and works with the youth, because that is what I do.
With that being said, what is the best advice that you have for anyone who would like to get involved in the entertainment industry?
I would say that this thing is called “show business” for a reason. You need to learn the business part of it. To often people just think from the artist standpoint and they have such a myopic view, their hearts are on their sleeves. They tend to take things personally. You hear people say often that they were rejected, which really to me is untrue because you aren’t rejected. It may be the character that you are playing was rejected but they don’t know you to reject you. I would tell people to look at it as if you were a private contractor and you are bringing your bid and if they don’t take your bid, it’s fine. It’s nothing personal. So again, I say learn the business end of it.
What do you have in the works and what can we look for you, in next?
The next thing that you will probably see me in is Tyler Perry’s ‘Why Did I Get Married Too?’ I also have some really interesting action projects that are on the horizon.
Sounds very cool. I know you have been rumored to joining the cast of ‘Predators’, is there any confirmation on that?
Nothing to really report on that right now but I tend to only claim things once they have begun.
Is there anything that you want to say to your fans before I let you go?
I want to encourage people to come out, forget your troubles and see ‘Black Dynamite’ and come in for a ride!
It looks like quite a ride! Thanks for talking with us and we really appreciate your time.
I appreciate you!
For all the latest information on ‘Black Dynamite’, visit the official site for the film at www.blackdynamitemovie.com. Be sure to check out the official trailer for the film below.