Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Not a lot of actors are lucky enough to find their first role as easily as Mekhi Phifer, who dropped by a casting call for Spike Lee’s Clockers and ended up with a career that’s about to hit the two-decade mark. Since getting that big break right out of the gate, Phifer has continued with film work, but his most long-term small-screen success came as a result of securing the role of Dr. Gregory Pratt on NBC’s ER. More recently, however, he returned to big screen as part of the cast of Divergent, now on home video.
Mekhi Phifer: Max is the leader of the Dauntless faction. You think of a hard-nosed general in the Army or the Marines or something. You know, he’s sort of a no-nonsense taskmaster. He doesn’t play around. They’re still developing the character in the films, though, and seeing who he is. But he’s a guy who takes no nonsense and wants to lead the troops. He’s very much by the book in certain respects.
The A.V. Club: How much did you know about Veronica Roth’s novels—Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant—before signing onto the film?
MP: Well, to be quite honest, I didn’t know anything about them. My oldest son knew about them, because he’s 14 going on 15, but I didn’t know anything about them until [Divergent] came up, and my agent said, “They’re interested in you coming in to meet and read for Max.” Which I did, and then I got the role. I did my research after that. [Laughs.]
AVC: After doing your research, you must have at least been pleased to learn that your character makes it out of the first book alive.
MP: [Laughs.] Right, that’s a good thing. That’s always a good thing, when you’re part of a film trilogy and you don’t die in the first one. So I’m excited, and I’m looking forward to see where they go with the character. We’re shooting Insurgent right now, as you probably know, and it’d be great for me to not die in this one, too! Because I am having a great time. It’s fun, and not only is it my first time being a part of a trilogy, but it’s my first time being a part of something of this magnitude. Of all the things I’ve done in my career, this is definitely one of the biggest.
AVC: The big question, though, is if you became cool in the eyes of your 14-year-old from doing it.
MP: Oh, yeah. absolutely. [Laughs.] My kids think I’m pretty cool already, but this kind of proved that you can always get cooler.
AVC: I usually try to ask everyone about their first on-camera appearance, but there’s one on your IMDB page that seems questionable: did you really play a model in an episode of Models, Inc.?
MP: No, my first time on camera came after I went to an open casting call for a film that Spike Lee directed called Clockers. I definitely wasn’t no model. I didn’t even know anything about modeling! [Laughs.] I just went to that opening call—with my cousin, actually—and secured me a lead role in that. And that sort of started my career.
AVC: Had you had an eye on acting as a career before that, or did it just kind of fall into place as a result of that?
MP: No, actually, I was planning on being an electrical engineer. [Laughs.] So I was going to college for electrical engineering before that casting call.
AVC: Presumably you felt at least a little bit of pressure, being an untested actor in a leading role in “a Spike Lee joint.”
MP: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And working with all those great actors—being part of something of that magnitude and not knowing the business and what the business entailed or any of that. I was so wet behind the ears, I didn’t know anything. So it was definitely an eye-opener for me, and something that my whole family was excited about. And just being with those great people was really the thing. It’s, like, you’re watching movies, and then here you are in front of those people and working with them. It was pretty interesting.
AVC: Was there anyone in particular who was an acting mentor to you on the film, since it was your first time out?
MP: I think everybody was, inadvertently! [Laughs.] It’s not like I went to somebody and said, “Hey, pull me to the side and show me the ropes.” I was just very observant. I watched and learned, and I took it all in. And then I became an avid movie watcher, and that’s how I learned. Because I’ve never been to formal acting school at all. So when I got into the business, I started watching actors, and then I started watching myself, learning what works and what didn’t work. I’ve always wanted to be the type where… I like to make sure that I’m believable. If I don’t believe me, then there’s a lot of people that don’t believe me, but if I can believe that I’m doing it, then I know the audience will, too.
MP: O was a lot of fun and a great experience. Not only doing an adaptation of Shakespeare, which is a very incredible thing—but to sort of modernize it and make someone who’s a layman to Shakespeare and his writing be moved by it. Because, you know, Shakespeare is definitely something that’s hard to grasp if you’re a layman when it comes to his language, so to be able to deliver it in a modernized way—that was a very cool, special thing for me. And, you know, at that point, I still hadn’t done a lot of movies, so it was nice to be able to keep going with the prestige of it all.
AVC: You also did a bit of modernization when you worked on Carmen.
MP: Yes! Absolutely. That was another sort of classic adaptation, except rather than it being an opera, it was a hip-hopera. [Laughs.] So I got to sort of hone in on some hip-hop skills and work with the likes of Beyoncé, Mos Def, Joy Bryant, and all the other great people. All these music people. I was one the only actors who was in it who didn’t do music!
AVC: When you did O and Carmen, how familiar were you with the original source material, or did you not concern yourself with studying it beforehand?
MP: Well, you know, a lot of times what I’ll do is, I try not to lock into what was done before. I know that Harry Belafonte and those guys did an excellent job [on Carmen Jones], but when I saw the movie—I mean, I just go forward from off the script I’m working with. People ask me, “Did you read the book before Divergent?” I’m, like, “Nah, when I’m finished with my stint on it, then I’ll sit down and read the books. I just go from what the script has to tell me, and then I move accordingly.” With Carmen, I didn’t see Carmen Jones until—I think we were either in the middle of shooting or maybe toward the end of shooting.
MP: I loved that show. I loved the character, too, and—just the wonderment of it all. The possibilities were endless in what we could do with it. I ended season one with me becoming immortal, and I was hoping that we would come back, because I wanted to—how I’d be able to play being immortal. You know, getting killed, coming back to life, and all that crazy stuff. But playing him was a pleasure. And that whole cast was just so nice, man. I’m proud to call them friends for life, you know? John Barrowman and Eve [Myles] and all of those guys were just wonderful. So I had a great time playing on that show.
AVC: Has there been any talk of bringing it back for another season?
MP: Not that I’ve heard, and believe me, I’d be very excited about that if there had been. [Laughs.] I really enjoyed that show.
MP: Ha! Wow, you’re taking it back on that one. But, you know, to this day—and that was one of my earliest works, in the mid-’90s—people still come up to me about that, about Junior Bunk and his character arc. I think I did, what, three or four episodes? But about his character arc, and about me ultimately ending the season by shooting up the precinct, shooting a couple of the main characters, and getting shot myself. So that was a lot of fun, you know? It was great being in Baltimore. I had a great time there. And it was a great show. One of the first shows that I really saw where they did a lot of steady-cam and that sort of thing. Besides ER, of course. [Laughs.] But it was fun playing Junior Bunk. It was fun having that character arc that took him from being timid and scared to this maniac kind of guy who just didn’t care.
AVC: That was also more or less the first time you’d even had a character arc on TV.
MP: Yeah, exactly! You’re absolutely right about that.
AVC: Did that give more you a taste for doing series television?
MP: Yeah, but at that point, listen, I was still such a… Not a novice, but I was still so new that it was, like, everything that came up, everything I did, was still new, and nothing was run of the mill. So doing a show, doing a movie, everything I did at the time—and, really, everything I do now, to some extent—gave me the opportunity to do a different array of characters and a different array of projects. Back then, it was just, like, “Bring it on! Whatever you guys got for me!” [Laughs.] I just kind of looked at it like that. It wasn’t like I made any sort of conscious effort to say, “I think I might want to do series television now.” It was more just a progressive thing.
MP: [Laughs.] Well, that was fun, because that was the first time I’d ever done improv in that fashion as an actor. Because there’s no script—it’s all improvisation—and then you’re working with the great Larry David and all of those guys. It was just a lot of fun. You didn’t know what to expect. I mean, they give you a sentence or two, kind of what the log line is, but then after that you have to just bring it, add your own words, and that kind of thing. So that was fun, but I also just thought it was funny being the Muslim private investigator taking on a Jewish client, and someone as neurotic as Larry David at that.
AVC: So how does someone with no improv background find his way into Curb? Did they come looking for you?
MP: Well, I was at a poker game with Jeff [Garlin] in Vegas—it was a celebrity poker game—and we were sitting next to each other, so we just started talking and everything, and he liked my work, and I liked his work. And I said, “Man, I’m loving that damned Curb Your Enthusiasm. If anything ever comes up, give me a call!” And it just so happened that in the next few weeks, something came up. They had this character, this Muslim guy or whatever. The thing with that show is that it doesn’t matter who you are, you have to come in and read with Larry, or read with whoever you’re going to be dealing with, because they need to see how you’re going to be as far as improv goes, because everybody can’t do it, you know? I mean, you might be a great actor, but you’re getting those lines fed to you. To come up with it on your own is a trick in itself. So I went in there, and most of my scenes were with Larry, so I just came in and read with him, and it was fun and it was funny, and then they told me I got it. So I ran with that. [Laughs.] I was very happy to do—what was it, four episodes on that? Yeah, that was great.
AVC: You worked with Don Cheadle on the most recent season of House Of Lies, but you’d actually worked with him long before that, on A Lesson Before Dying.
MP: Absolutely! And House Of Lies was actually my third time working with Don, because Don did—I think it was a four-episode character arc on ER, where he played a doctor who had Parkinson’s. But, yeah, we had a great time on A Lesson Before Dying, and that was where we first met and wound up having respect for each other. I knew Don’s work a lot more than he knew mine. [Laughs.] Because he had been doing it since Colors, you know? But it was great on A Lesson Before Dying. It was an emotional piece of work, and I got to work with Cicely Tyson and all those guys.
But House Of Lies was just great. When I got the call to do that—well, what was great about that, too, was that I didn’t have to audition or anything. He said, “Look, I got this role, and I need you.” So I came in, and we just did our thing, you know? That was a fun show. I was a fan of the show anyway, but to be able to be on it and to have that integral a part on the show, that was great. The only thing is—it’s not that I didn’t like the experience, but I hated that it was only half an hour! [Laughs.] The only time I watched an episode, I wanted to see more. But, yeah, that was a lot of fun.
AVC: Is there any chance of seeing Dre pop up next season?
MP: Well, they left it kind of open and ambiguous. At the end of season three, I guess it was, Don’s in a little trouble with the law, and I kind of just walk away, warning him, and then he also talks to my wife, and my wife warns him. So we’ll see if DollaHyde is still one of the clients. But I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with that, because I’d definitely come back in a heartbeat.
MP: One of my greatest experiences was being on ER. I had a lot of fun. I remember being there on the first day, with my doctor coat and everything, and I walked onto the stage. I hadn’t seen the set before my first day of shooting, and I just remember saying to myself, “Oh, man, I don’t know if I can pull this off.” [Laughs.] Because it was just so intimidating. And the actors on there are so sharp and so good. I had done a lot of independent films, where you had to be on and you had to improv and do certain things. But now I’m a doctor, and I’d never been on that side of the desk, you know? I’d been a patient before, but now I’m a doctor.
But that cast was second to none. We were a family. We hung out together, we took RVs and would drive up to Lake Tahoe, we went to each other’s houses, we went to Hawaii together. We did so many things together. So many different things. They were like family, and to this day I love all of them. Every single person. It was just the most pleasurable experience. And I was on it for five or six seasons! That’s a long time to be around people, but it was just wonderful the whole time. Never any arguments, never any disagreements, and everybody was just so good and came so prepared. And, you know, I can’t lie: it was just fun playing a doctor.
AVC: So when Dr. Pratt departed from the show, which was worse for you: the fact that he died, or the knowledge that, if he hadn’t died, he would’ve been the new chief of the ER?
MP: [Laughs.] I know, right? The thing is, what I loved about that was that I knew that season 15 was going to be the last season, so I was in the first episode of the season, but I’d rather him go out with a bang, you know? So I sat down with Chris Chulack, our executive producer, and John Wells, and they and David Zabel came up with this dramatic ending. And that’s another one where, still to this day, people come up to me or say on Twitter or whatever, “I’m watching ER and just crying because Greg Pratt just died!” So it was sort of a great arc for the character, which I thought was. I mean, sometimes it’s just good to leave while the iron’s still hot, rather than just fading out. But I did love that show.
MP: High School High. Oh, my God! Jon Lovitz, the Zucker Brothers, and Hart Bochner are nuts. I’ve never laughed so much than I did on that movie. And that was, like, my second movie. I did Clockers, and—oh, then I did Tuskegee Airmen with [Laurence] Fishburne and those guys, and then I did High School High. So I was still really wet behind the ears. It was my first time shooting in California—this was in ’95—and I didn’t even have a driver’s license when I signed on to that movie. It was in my deal that I could get a car, but I didn’t have a license. So I got my license in California. After a couple of attempts. [Laughs.] But I got it!
That was a lot of fun. Those guys had me laughing. There’s no one particular anecdote I can talk about from making it, but I can tell you that every day was fun and creative. And it was my first time doing a slapstick comedy. I was a big fan of the Naked Gun movies, Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux, and all of that kind of stuff. So to be a part of something like that was another blessing. I couldn’t believe it: Here was my chance to do funny stuff and say funny lines. I got to learn a lot on that. I was saying earlier about how I didn’t go to formal acting school, but just working was my school. Just having the blessing of being able to work gave me my acting class. And not a lot of actors can say that was the case. Most of the people I run across went to Juilliard or to some formal arts and entertainment school, that kind of thing. It was a blessing to have that much work and to get all of these different kinds of roles and scenes that you’d do in a typical class in an acting school.
MP: Aw, man, that was one of the most fun movies I did as well. [Laughs.] The thing was, we rehearsed for about a month before we started shooting, because this was Eminem’s first time really carrying this kind of thing, and Curtis Hanson—who’s a wonderful director—wanted to get everybody dialed in. So by the time we started shooting, I knew the whole script. And it was a very young cast, with Eminem at part of the height of his career, and in Detroit—we kind of had the keys to the city. And I was in my mid-20s and single. I mean, it was a ball. We had so much fun, hanging out with Em and hanging out on our own. It was a very pleasurable, fun experience. It was, like, “Ya’ll are really paying me to do this, huh? I’d do this anyway!” It was a fun time. It was a really fun time. And the cast was awesome.
AVC: It had to be nice for you to not be the new kid on the block for a change. Compared to Eminem, you were an old hand at acting.
MP: Absolutely! [Laughs.] And that’s the role that I took on during the rehearsal process and everything else. I brought my level of understanding about rehearsals and things that we needed to do to make the characters authentic and all of that kind of stuff. I brought that to the table. But it was a pleasure, and I think that’s what most people should do. A lot of times you’ll hear horror stories about actors being incredibly selfish and only wanting themselves to shine, but for me, it’s not about just one person. It’s about the whole team. That’s the way I look at it. That’s the way I look at everything I do.
AVC: To close, do you feel like you got robbed at the 2004 Teen Choice Awards for not winning Choice Movie Liplock for Honey?
MP: [Cackles.] Nah, I didn’t take it personal. But that was a nice kiss, though! That was a very nice kiss.
AVC: I don’t suppose you had to work out nearly as much choreography on that film as your co-star.
MP: Well, you know, what’s funny is that at one point while we were shooting—toward the end, where the kids are onstage dancing and everything—the director said, “Hey, why don’t you go up there and dance a little bit?” I was, like, “Are you crazy? I’m not going up there and dancing. I’ll go up there. And I’ll give you a mean two-step, and I’ll clap and be jovial. But I’m not going to break into a routine or anything like that.” [Laughs.] I mean, that’s just not my style, you know?