Mekhi Phifer Talks Broadway, Alicia Keys and Single Fatherhood
The actor is making his Broadway debut in Alicia Key's "Stick Fly"
Over the past sixteen years Mekhi Phifer has been one of the busiest African-American actors, starring on television for six seasons as Dr. Gregory Pratt in ER and appearing in numerous films including “Soul Food,” “8 Mile,” and Spike’s Lee’s “Clockers.” He is currently featured in the British sci-fi TV series Torchwood as CIA agent Rex Matheson, and earlier this month made his Broadway debut in a play produced by Alicia Keys, “Stick Fly.”
Mekhi, who celebrates his 37th birthday this week, recently sat down with Loop 21 to discuss why he wanted to appear on the Greay White Way, how difficult it is raising two sons as a single parent, and how he’s providing opportunities for filmmakers locked out of the Hollywood system.
Loop 21: You are making your Broadway debut in “Stick Fly” about an upper class African-American family vacationing at their summer home in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Why Broadway?
Mehki Phifer: This is my first time doing a play and I am having a ball. As far as I know we only have one life to live so live it to the fullest. It’s good to accept a challenge, something that is not familiar, not easy. When you accomplish it, you are living life. Plus I am bringing something to the community. It’s nice to be ingratiated into the Broadway world. You know there are Broadway snobs who say you’re not an actor until you have done Broadway. We have a great cast with Dule Hill, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tracie Thoms, Rosie Benton, and. Condola Rashad who is Phylicia Rashad’s daughter. We have fun every night. Dule plays my brother and I’ve known him for thirteen years. I make a guest appearance in his TV series “Psych” in an episode airing in February. We love to hang out together after the shows like real brothers.
Loop 21: How involved is Alicia Keys who is making her debut as a Broadway producer?
Phifer: First of all she is wonderful, a lovely person and her involvement in bringing this play to Broadway is very inspiring. Unfortunately I have not worked with her closely on this project because her main emphasis was composing the great music which I enjoy every night. So most of her work was done in advance of the play creating the music.
Loop 21: What is the key to making a realistic portrayal of a character?
Phifer: Actors look at life in a different way. When I meet people I know that one day I may portray that person or someone like them. It may be a cop or a homeless guy. It helps you to pay more attention to people. Everyone I meet I retain something from them, something from their personality. It helps me to portray realism in my work.
Loop 21: What do you look for in your roles?
Phifer: I look for realism. It does not matter what it is, comedy, urban drama, whatever. I want it to feel real. I don’t want To feel like I’m acting.
Loop 21: In “Stick Fly” your family vacations in Martha’s Vineyard where President Obama enjoys his summer vacation.
Phifer: Ironically I have never been to Martha’s Vineyard but now I have to go. Through the play I’ve met several people who have homes there and have invited me. My character Flip is a successful plastic surgeon living in Atlanta. He is arrogant, unapologetic, and self assured. A socialite who feels good about himself. He has money and women. The play has some race issues but it is really about family and any family from any race can relate to it. We’re like the Cosbys but much more edgy. It is about family, whether you are Black, white, Asian or Latino. I would love for the play to extend into a TV version.
Loop 21: You play a rare role for an African-American—a plastic surgeon.
Phifer: It is a pleasure to play a non-stereotypical role, someone who is totally different from what you're used to seeing.
Loop 21: You have an extensive film and television resume but this is your first time doing live theater. What is your greatest challenge making your Broadway debut?
Phifer: The biggest challenge is keeping it fresh every night. You put yourself out there every night for people to judge your performance so you have to be professional and maintain a high energy level.
Loop 21: Starring on Broadway has allowed you to come back home and spend time in New York City where you grew up.
Phifer: I grew up in Harlem and lived in New York until I moved to LA in 1998. Regardless of where I live or where I go, I am always a New Yorker at heart. If I am in Africa, I am still a New Yorker. I love walking around New York City, something you don’t do very much in LA. I see Harlem has gone through its gentrification which has its good and bad aspects. I identify with the old Harlem. I used to buy everything, all my clothes, on the streets on 125th Street. Not in the stores, from the street vendors. I miss those days.
Loop 21: We saw you rap in “8 Mile” with Eminem” and in the movie “Carmen: A Hip Hopera” co-starring Beyonce. You were originally signed to Warner Brothers Records as a rapper. What made you decide to become an actor instead of a rapper?
Phifer: I grew up in a single parent home. My mother was a school teacher, dancer and choreographer. She was a strong supporter of the arts. I learned from her. She got me involved in the Frederick Douglass Community Center and I participated in several talent shows. I urge all parents to get their children involved in extra curricular activities. Sports or music or take them to a museum or a science lab on the weekend. Positive things that keep them off the streets. I was not an angel as a kid. I strayed into the street life but I knew that is not what I wanted to do. The foundation established by my mother directed me back to the guided path. I studied electrical engineering in college but acting chose me. I went to an audition with my cousin and ended up getting the part
Loop 21: Spike Lee attended the première of “Stick Fly.” You began your acting career in his film “Clockers” in 1995. Isaiah Washington portrayed your brother and both of you went on to star as doctors in high profile TV series, you in “ER,” Isaiah in “Grey’s Anatomy.” What do you remember about auditioning at the age of 21 with over one thousand people for the starring role in “Clockers?”
Phifer: I had never acted before. When I was told I needed head shots, I went to a store and took a passport photo. I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember I auditioned with Isaiah. He had been acting for a few years including appearing in Spike’s film “Crooklyn” so I learned from him. Spike made us do a lot of improvisation so I had to create on the spot and he selected both of us. What a feeling to begin my career as the star of a Spike Lee movie with Isaiah playing my brother.
Loop 21: Why did you decide to launch your website www.thirdreel.com last January?
Phifer: I love film. I am a fan of film. I watch films constantly. Thirdreel.com is an alternative to NetFlix. I launched it because one night I woke up at 3 am turned on the TV and there was nothing to watch despite the fact that I had Direct TV with 300 channels. I was bored. Thirdreel.com is a place for original content for filmmakers whose films have been labeled by Hollywood as “unmarketable.” We provide the marketplace for those who don’t have other outlets. We are not limited to African-American films. We have all genres and a wide variety of films including independent films and student films. It is also a place where casting directors, agents and other industry professionals can identify talent. It is free and there is also some pay for view content. We are selective. We are looking for good content. I ask filmmakers to submit their projects to us at http://www.thirdreel.com. We provide worldwide distribution that would otherwise not be available to these filmmakers.
Loop 21: You have also been an entrepreneur owning six Athlete’s Foot stores in California until you recently sold them.
Phifer: Magic Johnson influenced me to buy them. He planned to be a partner but pulled out at the last second. For now, Thirdreel.com is my only business venture. I know many entertainers get into the restaurant business but not me. My only interest in restaurants is eating. I have friends in the business who tell me don’t invest in restaurants.
Loop 21: You are a single parent with two sons.
Phifer: Yes and they look like future athletes. My youngest son Mekhi Jr. is four years old and Omikaye is twelve years old. They love sports. My four year old is into basketball and soccer. My twelve year old loves tennis.
Loop 21: What are your goals for 2012?
Phifer: To continue in “Stick Fly” and for the play to be successful. After moving from New York City to LA thirteen years ago, working in New York is wonderful. I can celebrate the holidays and bring in the new year with my family and friends. I love it. I also want to take Thirdreel.com to the next level. Also continue my role as a CIA agent in the TV series “Torchwood.”
Loop 21: You turn 37 on December 29th. Will you celebrate?
Phifer: I have to work that night but that is a blessing because I will be doing what I love on my birthday.