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Interview: Mekhi Phifer Tells S&A About Suspense and Racial Tension in Indie Thriller 'The Suspect'

Interviews
by Jai Tiggett
April 25, 2014 10:15 AM
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Mekhi Phifer in 'The Suspect'

In the new thriller The Suspect, Mekhi Phifer stars as one of a pair of social scientists who pose as bank robbers in an effort to understand the racial dynamics of small-town law enforcement. As police attempt to work through the case, the experiment takes an unexpected and deadly turn.

Phifer, who's also an executive producer of The Suspect, spoke with Shadow And Act about making the film as it comes to DVD and Blu Ray this week.

JAI TIGGETT: With the racial dynamics in the film, the tone seems similar to In The Heat of the Night.

MEKHI PHIFER: Yes! I was just thinking that. That film's one of my favorites of all time.

JT: Is that one of the things that attracted you to the project?

MP: To be honest, a lot of times you get locked into maybe about six different themes that Hollywood portrays. And so when I read it, it was just something so different. It's a small, independent film, but you get to portray what's really going on in the world. It spoke to so many different themes, different walks of life, and so much about human character that it just felt good. It felt different.

JT: You've done both, independent films and larger studio projects. What keeps you going back to smaller films like this one?

MP: As an artist it's almost like doing Broadway, to be able to pour your heart out on the screen in a very unassuming situation. It's challenging, there's not a lot of money that you get, so the reward is the work and being able to have the freedom of working on something that's totally different than most of the stuff that's going to come down your pipeline.

JT: The movie deals with some of the preconceived notions based on race. And it's a white writer-director, Stuart Connelly, who's raising these issues.

MP: I think in any artist's mind, you can't just be into yourself. You have to look at the world in an objective view. And I think Stuart has a very keen insight into how people innately see other people. There's a stereotype - whether it's with African-Americans or with Arabs getting profiled when they want to board a plane - there's this innate fear of not knowing. And I think the unknown is what causes this fear.

I think that Stuart is very astute in his thinking when it comes to these things, and he's open to discovering. That's what I loved about the script. In the beginning you kind of get thrown for a loop as to who these people are. But then you see it's much more intricate, and that helps to dispel some stereotypes I think.

JT: With the film taking place in a small town, it seems a lot like stepping back in time. Being from a big city yourself, what was your experience like as an actor going into that environment?

MP: I'm a big road trip guy. I'm the guy who gets in the RV and drives across country. And when you do that, you really get to see small-town America. Being from New York, living in LA, being in Chicago, you kind of get more of the big city melting pot sort of thing. But when you drive through the country there's so many small pockets of people that don't experience people of different backgrounds. So what they've seen on television is their baseline. They don't know.

When we were shooting The Suspect, Sterling K. Brown - who is a very accomplished actor, makes money, has been on television, all that stuff - when we were shooting at a store, he just went to sit outside and got harassed by the store owner. He was there to shoot the movie and the guy asked him for ID, it was a whole thing. So this is a real prevalent thing that is still going on. It's still a real issue that we have to deal with, all of us. Not just black, but white, everybody. We all have our preconceived notions of who people are.

JT: The film has screened at a few different film festivals at this point. What kind of response has it gotten?

MP: The different times it went to film festivals I was working, so it was hard for me to attend, but I corresponded with Stuart and Sterling. The reaction was always that it really evokes dialogue. When you leave the film you have things to talk about, and that's what I miss about modern film. I miss walking out of the film and talking about the real issues that were portrayed in it, whether it be racial, socioeconomic, political. I've heard from a lot of people that it evokes conversation, which is good.

JT: For those who haven't seen The Suspect, what do you want them to know about it going in?

MP: I just want people to have a good time. I think it's entertaining in its own way, but it's not a popcorn movie where you just sit down and already know what's going to happen. It reminds me of In The Heat of the Night mixed with The Usual Suspects. You have to watch it all the way to the end to really know what's going on. You've got to sit down and think, and really hear the dialogue. It doesn't rely on explosions and all of that stuff.

JT: You're an EP of this film, and you've produced other projects as well. When Salli Richardson-Whitfield spoke with us recently, she mentioned directing a project that you produced.

MP: Salli's great. This was a pilot presentation that myself and a business partner got the money together and had Salli direct. It's kind of like a Friday Night Lights, but dealing with basketball.

JT: So you're juggling acting and producing. You've done film, TV, and stage. Are there any particular projects that stick out in your mind as having shaped your career?

MP: Of course it started out with Clockers. I get asked that sometimes and I think each project sort of propelled me to the next one. Work begets work, but doing good work begets more good work. And I always try to pick and choose projects that will be impactful to someone. From films like Clockers to playing a doctor on ER, to doing 8 Mile where I'm in charge of the hip-hop battles, I think it affects all kinds of different audiences. And I just try to keep that in mind, to keep people entertained.

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The Suspect is out on DVD and Blu Ray now.

Mekhi Phifer can also currently be seen in Lifetime's A Day Late and a Dollar Short and Showtime's House of Lies, and will next appear in the Divergent sequel, Insurgent. 

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