Interview: Mekhi Phifer – The Divergent Series: Allegiant

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Mekhi Pfifer burst on the scene in 1995 starring in Spike Lee’s Clockers. Since then, Mekhi has worked consistently on shows like ER, Torchwood, and House of Lies. He’s even starred in iconic movies such as 8 Mile, Dawn of the Dead, and Paid in Full. Now he’s in his first ever franchise, The Divergent Series. Mekhi sat down to talk about his character Max in the Divergent Series, almost turning down 8 Mile, and being name dropped in hip hop songs.

Your character Max is a bad guy. Make a case for why people shouldn’t think he’s a bad guy.

Mekhi Phifer:  What people have to realize, in this dystopian world, there are people that have to make the hard choices. I don’t think [Max] feels he’s a bad guy. If you go into something saying, “I’m the bad guy”,  you do yourself a disservice as an actor. It’s always about trying to find the humanity in a character. Max make’s particular choices and he feels he’s made these choices to insure the longevity of the human race. He feels like there’s a certain amount law and order necessary to have a thriving society. Without his necessary evil, for lack of a better term, society could lose its grip and people would feel unsafe. Max is willing to put himself out there, step up to the plate, and be a part of making this a better world. Then there are things, unbeknownst to him, going on outside of the wall. There are other people actually pulling the strings. I wouldn’t describe Max as a bad guy, that’s a choice the audience can make, given their life experience, of who’s good or bad. If I’m a general in an Army and I have to make tough choices in Iraq, I might be able to identify with Max. Rather than a peacenik person who is saying, “Bring out soldiers home.” I can see how both sides could view the other as good or bad.

You’ve been acting for a long time, how do you get involved in a project like this?

MP: My agents usually get a breakdown of all the projects that are out there. When I got Divergent, they hadn’t finished the script. They knew they wanted the leader of the Dauntless to have a certain demeanor and energy. They had me read a short monologue and I got the part.  There’s a lot that I turn down because it doesn’t coincide with my brand or what I want to have in my body of work. To me, this fit right in. It’s fun to do something like this. It’s a sci-fi movie, and my first time being part of a franchise. This is right up my alley.

Is there a role you regret turning down?

MP: I almost turned down 8 Mile. I was due to start ER, and I learned they really wanted me to be in 8 Mile. I didn’t know Eminem, I just knew he was a rapper and saw what everyone else saw in the media. I thought they were just trying to capitalize on his popularity. I hadn’t read the script or anything. I said, “Nah, I’m good on that. This is going to be a joke.”  I didn’t know [Eminem] as an actor, and when I did see him he was always dressing in weird clothes or talking crazy. Let me just go and play this doctor, that’s going to be what I want to do. So I read the script and met with the director. Then I flew to Detroit and met with Eminem. The script was excellent and Curtis Hanson was such a great director. I really trusted his vision for it. Then when I met with Eminem, we hit it off and became instant friends. ER was gracious enough to wait and let me do the movie. Who knew it was going to be one of the most iconic hip hop movies of all time. I have lifelong friends from 8 Mile, so I’m really glad I did that.

You’ve played a lot different characters over the years, is there one you think could survive in this Divergent world?

MP: Hmmmm, a lot of characters I’ve played have a certain amount of strength, pride, and leadership. There are a few characters I’ve played that could fit into that world. When I was Dr. Pratt on ER, he was his own man. It took him a while to get ingratiated into that world. Because of what’s going on in society, Max has to be that way and uncompromising in his approach to things.

I really can’t believe that nobody in the studio caught that. It’s an honest mistake and I have love for Kanye.

You bring that strength, leadership, and confidence to whatever character you play. How much of that is you or roles that are written around who people think you are?

MP: I think any actor brings a part of themselves into anything. A lot of those things are a part of me. I wouldn’t be able to be successful in this business and held my head for the 22 years without going crazy or being caught up in a scandal without being focused and steadfast on what the goal is. And the goal isn’t a destination. All of this is about the journey – the journey that it takes me on, and the experiences that I get from it. It’s a pleasure to keep going on that journey. I don’t know what’s next, that’s what so great about this.

What have you learned on this 22 year journey?

MP: I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that people are people. White, black or whatever, people are people. I’ve learned to have a very worldly view on things and a very objective view. I’ve learned to get past stereotypes, prejudice, and false pretenses. I remember when I did Clockers, coming from Uptown Harlem, New York,  it was a very strong African-American and Latino world. When I got into the film industry, I was able to meet people from all over the country an all over the world. I’ve met some wonderful people from all walks of life. A lot of time when you see racism, whether it’s police profiling or other things, it’s because most people don’t get that experience. They don’t get a chance to get past what their community taught them. You’re not born with hatred or racism, you’re taught that. I’ve learned to get past those fears and judge a person by their character more than anything else.

Kanye West once said in a rap, “I’m in too deep like Mekhi Pfife.” Did you every say, “Hey that was Omar Epps.”?

MP: [laughs] Omar is a very good friend of mine and we joke about that all the time. It’s easy; all you have to do is Google a brotha. I really can’t believe that nobody in the studio caught that. It’s an honest mistake and I have love for Kanye. He’s obviously a musical genius in his own right. It’s nice to be mentioned.

You get mentioned a lot.

MP: Even with Puff naming his album Money Making Mitch

And Cam’ron…

MP: Cam’ron too.

He did say he killed you in the verse.

MP: That’s my man. What he’s saying is his first movie ever he got to kill this guy whose renown for doing really good work. To be on somebody’s brain isn’t a bad thing.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant opens nationwide March 18th.

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