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Interview: Chatting with RZA About Paul Walker, Martial Arts, Gentrification and More in Action Drama 'Brick Mansions' (Opens Friday)

Interviews
by Jai Tiggett
April 21, 2014 10:09 AM
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Coming to theaters on April 25, Brick Mansions is set inside a walled-in maze of housing projects in a dystopian Detroit, where an undercover cop (Paul Walker) and an ex-convict (David Belle) team up to defeat a deadly drug kingpin’s (RZA) plans to devastate the city. 

The action drama is based on the French films District B-13 and District 13: Ultimatum which feature Parkour, a kind of stunt popularized by Belle, who co-founded the style of movement.

Actor, director, composer, and member of the Wu-Tang Clan RZA made time to talk with S&A about his role in the film as crime lord Tremaine Alexander, from his interest in Parkour to his experience working with co-star Paul Walker.  

JT: Brick Mansions was one of Paul Walker's last films before he passed away. How was it working with him?

RZA: Paul was a good dude, a loss to us. Two out of ten people you meet in this business you may like, as people you want to see again. He was a man I was looking forward to seeing again and someone I was looking forward to working with again. It's sad that he's not here to enjoy the work that he brought to the world.

The only good part about a situation like this is that he's been captured on film. I have a daughter who loves him. She's just a big fan of his and when she heard I was going to do a movie with him she was all geeked out. So she can still go to the movies and enjoy her crush. I remember being a kid and I'd watch a TV show like Lucy or even Dick Van Dyke, which was still on in the 80s, and Mary Tyler Moore was pretty to me. She was already a 60-year-old woman at the time. Thelma from Good Times; to this day I still put it on. So this is the magic of film and TV. That's the blessing of our job.

JT: You had seen the original French films that Brick Mansions is based on. What did you like about those films and what attracted you to this project?

RZA: It was Parkour. I'm a hip-hop artist so I traveled around the world for years and I remember when they first were doing it. So to see it become a movie was cool. I think it was after Ong-Bak, another great action film that came out of Thailand. Every once in a while there's a new action film that comes and changes things, such as Ong-Bak, Chocolate, The Protector, and those moves become the moves of our superheroes. If you watch the original movie District 13 you'll see that Parkour made it to James Bond and the Incredible Hulk sequence. But it started as a small art form.

There's a movie called The Raid: Redemption. There's two parts to it, and now they're doing an American version. That has a new martial art called Silat, out of Indonesia. Now you're going to see it done by American actors and the American public will be exposed to it, but for the people that are into that world it's four years old already. So what attracted me to this movie was a chance to bring Parkour to America. Whether I was involved in the movie or not, I would've gone to the movies to watch this.

JT: Talking to you about all this is like taking a class on martial arts history.

RZA: I'm into it, and I've been blessed to work inside what I love. On TV I'll be playing a cop this season on Gang Related. I'm not into that, I'm not a cop, but at the same time I understand the mentality of a cop in their situation. So I'm trying as an actor to work at what I love as well as find that push in myself. Tremaine Alexander was a push for me. I'm not that guy, anymore. So I just wanted to express that energy.

'Brick Mansions'

JT: Tremaine has layers. He's a drug lord, but considers himself a leader of the community and is opinionated about what goes on there. What did you think of him as a character when you read the script?

RZA: When Luc Besson wrote this character I always wondered where he got that energy from. But when I started becoming the character, I started figuring it out. Environment makes us how we are. And there's a scene where he comes up to the girl (Catalina Denis) and gives her a soda, and in the script it says he's impressed with what she does. For me as an actor, that’s where I figured him out. So giving her the soda, that's not in the script.

JT: You improvised that?

RZA: Yeah, as an actor you've gotta find that. So I said, give me a couple of ginger beers. Because of course he'd be drinking ginger beer, he's got that Jamaican in him. And the line that I said is, what makes him different than his boys is that he has knowledge. He's not the biggest, he's not the ugliest, he's not the typical monster. Why is he the leader? This n****'s got to be the smartest. When I went into that scene, that's when I became him.

JT: Was it difficult getting out of character?

RZA: It was hard to pull out of character that quick. During the production of this movie we had a Wu-Tang concert come up and they let me go to it. It's on YouTube, people ask me about it. They say, "RZA was bugging." I say, "No, I was Tremaine." It was fun being him. My publicist was there. He was like, "Bobby, Bobby, save it for the screen."

JT: Part of the movie's plot is about the struggle between poor people trying to hold onto land and wealthy people coming in to try to develop it. The gentrification debate is pretty similar to what's being talked about now in the news.

RZA: It's happening right here in Echo Park. [Gentrification] is a two-way street. I grew up in Brownsville, but before the blacks were in Brownsville it was a Jewish community. So that's just the natural process of America. Sometimes it's negative, sometimes it's positive. In the case of the Jewish people it was positive because they got to move out of the projects and buy homes. I can look at my own family and see that a lot of us have left the projects and are in brownstones renting. Very few of us can buy. So this is a process that just continues.

JT: So it's unavoidable, in your view?

RZA: It's part of the system. And we should actually embrace it and learn how to utilize it. The only way to do that, to me, is to get back into community. With this generation, you don't even know your neighbors.

JT: You've got this film and Gang Related coming up. You're acting, directing, composing. What do you want to do more of, or what do you want to do next?

RZA: I think I'm doing good in film and I want to continue to grow here. I think this is a perfect outlet for my creative abilities, especially as a director because that encompasses all mediums. It means you can write, you can control and set things up, you can get involved with music. Film is a medium that fulfills all my creative juices.

Relativity Media releases Brick Mansions in theaters on April 25.

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