In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post, director Kenny Leon talks about casting Angela Bassett as Halle Berry's replacement and the motivations behind his latest directorial effort in Broadway's The Mountaintop. He also delves into the African American remake of Steel Magnolias in the works for Lifetime TV, and why he doesn't listen to the "haters" when it comes to The Mountaintop's depiction of MLK Jr., and the negative reactions to the remake news. Here are a few interesting bits of the interview below.
On Katori Hall's The Mountaintop:
Initially, I didn’t know what the play was about. When I heard it was about Dr. King and a sexy housekeeper, I said, “Oh man, I don’t want to do anything that has anything to do with destroying the iconic nature of Dr. King. But if it’s a reimagined look at him or if it’s a fictious account of what happened, then that may be the way to go.” So I read it and of course I loved it. I said, “Wow, this is so amazing.”
What made me really love it was that it wasn’t about Dr. King, but it used Dr. King as a centerpiece to sort of remind us about the beauty of the imperfected man and that we all have flaws and we all make mistakes. But by the grace of God’s beauty, love, and humor, it allows us to move forward in a beautiful way. So I felt like the universal message about the play was that all of us are human and all of us make mistakes, but all of us can’t do great things. And that was the message that was left on my heart that I was hoping to leave on the hearts of many patrons.
On selecting Angela Bassett as Halle Berry's replacement:
It’s always a director's choice about casting, but I always say that plays cast themselves. And by that I mean, Angela just walked into the room and she claimed it, it was hers. The logic prevailed and it’s her role and I almost can't imagine anyone else doing that role now that she claimed it, she’s doing it, and she put her footprint on it. So things only work out the way that they’re supposed to work out. I’m sure I will work with Halle in the future on another project, but I think this was destined to be Angela’s spot and I’m glad Angela did it and she really made the best of it.
On the Steel Magnolias remake with an all black cast:
Well actually, the producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron came to me with the idea. They also were the producing team behind “A Raisin in the Sun,” the one that I did with Diddy, Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and Sanaa Lathan for ABC. So it’s the same players. Craig and Neil asked me, “What could make that exciting?” And the only thing that could make it exciting -- because the original was done so well, it was just an amazing classic -- was to reimagine it as an African-American story that gives us the opportunity to get our major African-American talent and put these beautiful words in their mouths and create a cinematic event. With African-American talent I think it’s great. It just gives us a chance to do something with a quality piece of classic material. I couldn’t be more excited, I’m just ready to get the casting done and ready to start shooting. So hopefully we’ll start shooting right after the first of the year.
On the negative reaction regarding the remake and The Mountaintop:
I can’t pay attention to the haters. Most of the feedback I’ve gotten is people excited and wanting to do it. Everything is about variety; I think there’s room for everything. There’s room for Spike Lee’s movies, there’s room for Tyler Perry’s movies, there’s room for classics with an all black cast. There’s room for all of it as long as we don’t try to make any one piece define us as a race. So I think the reasons to do it is because it’s a classical piece of material and it should be approached by anyone who wants to do it. It’s funny and it will be uplifting and it also going to give people jobs, so I don’t really listen to a lot of haters. If I listened to haters I would not be doing “The Mountaintop” on Broadway now. People said, “Why do that? It’s a bad idea to portray King in that way” or whatever. And then you find out that one-hundred percent of the audiences embracing this whole idea of being reintroduced to Dr. King and what he was about. So if I listened to the haters I wouldn’t be doing any work.
On his wish list for Steel Magnolias cast:
I can’t do that. All I can say is that there’s a lot of excitement in the acting community about the possibility of what we’re going to be doing. It’s going to be a difficult process. There’s so many wonderful women that could be in this and who could make it great. There’s more than five great black actresses in this country, and the truth of the matter is I’m going to cast this movie [and] then there’s going to be some other women that clearly could have been in it. So I’m going to think through it carefully and hopefully make some exciting decisions. There are a lot of people who I would love to collaborate with so we’ll just see how many we can collaborate with on this.
There you have it. I'm just glad someone else rather than the usual suspects is getting some attention in the industry, especially when it comes to projects with all back casts.
The Mountaintop is currently on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. Although the play has been received with mixed reviews by critics, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett have picked up plenty of accolades for their acting.