By Guest Contributor Filmi Girl
I was beyond thrilled when I got word that the first African-American actor to have a major role in a Bollywood film, Jonnie Louis Brown, was willing to speak to me for this interview series. However, when I mentioned to some friends that I was going to be interviewing Jonnie, the responses I got were all some variation of, “He’s so scary!” In the United States, Jonnie is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic Officer Eddie Walker on HBO’s The Wire, a standout performance on a show packed with talented actors. Bollywood fans will know Jonnie from Apne, in which he played the toughest, fiercest boxer in the world.
Jonnie laughs when I tell him of my friends’ reactions. “You want to hear something funny?” Filmi Girl always wants to hear something funny. “What’s funny about all those roles is that I almost did not land any of them because the directors and writers thought I was so nice that I could not do it!” The good-natured man on the other end of the line certainly doesn’t sound as if he would steal money from kids, as Officer Walker did on The Wire. “It was just completely ridiculous, they were like, ‘He’s too nice, too clean looking! How can he… I don’t believe it.’ And then when they see me perform it’s like, ‘OH MY GOD!’”
Bollywood audiences also cried “Hai Bhagwaan!” when they saw Jonnie in Apne. For those of you who missed the 2007 Deol family film, Apne is, naturally, the story of a father and his two sons. Dharmenda plays an ex-boxing champ trying to repair his family ties by training up his son, played by Sunny Deol, to become a boxing champ. Jonnie plays the World Champion Sunny must defeat to gain closure. A Bollywood hero is only as tough as the villain he defeats and Jonnie’s performance in the ring allowed Sunny Deol to give the audience a victory that meant something.
“My first impression of Bollywood films was that I didn’t have one,” begins Jonnie. “I didn’t know quite what to make of the films; I had to really sit down and absorb and concentrate on what I was seeing, on what my senses were actually feeling.” But unlike some of the less enlightened film critics who enjoy mocking the filmi style of Bollywood, Jonnie’s years of acting experience allowed him to see past the cultural differences. “I came to realize right away how good the actors and actresses were in Bollywood. They are so good at what they do and they are so centered in the fundamentals of acting that it almost goes unnoticed because the creativity in their films is so high and their dance numbers and sequences are so large that their acting often gets overshadowed by that.”
It’s an astute observation from an actor who is used to thinking outside of the box. When I ask Jonnie why he decided to audition for a Bollywood film, he explains, “Being an African-American male in the United States, the work is very sparse, very difficult. Most of the writers and screenplay writers in the United States are Caucasian and they’re also male, so African-American males are mostly thought of, when it comes to screenplay writing, like an afterthought. The roles for us are sidekick or best friend until you reach that status of, say, a Denzel Washington or a Will Smith. The new opportunities are not necessarily there for us like there are for other ethnicities, unfortunately. So the chances for me playing Superman out of the blue will not happen. It’s one of those things where that’s just how it is.” He laughs. “What’s funny is that I hear my Caucasian actor friends say that there are so many more of them and that the competition is so fierce. But what I tell them is that there are more jobs for you, too. The experience for us [African-American actors] is a little bit different and because of that experience, that’s when you start considering things outside the box.”
This is an observation I’ve heard echoed by minority actors in Hollywood. And thinking outside the box can lead actors to voice-over work, genre films, or, increasingly, to other film industries. This is how Jonnie ended up auditioning for Apne – the role called for an actor with boxing experience.
“I had that background. I had a great experience in boxing and martial arts [12 and 15 years, respectively – FG] and I felt so confident as an actor at that time, that I felt like I could go there and see what happens. And I did. They offered me the role and… I turned it down three times.” The absurdity of the situation is not lost on Jonnie. “After saying all of that, I turned it down three times. It was one of those things where the deeper I got into it with the re-reads and everything, the more that I realized that the role they wanted me to play, in Western terms, was really a million dollar role. If you’re an actor, you’ll understand exactly what I mean by that. The type of work and dedication needed to actually perform a role like that, you need to be compensated for it.”
“It’s a huge sacrifice,” Jonnie explains, and it’s not just filming away from home. “You need to be inoculated. You have to take out crazy insurance because you’re doing some hyper-physical activity that you don’t even know if you’re body’s going to last by the time they’re done shooting this thing. It just started to add up. In my mind, I just had to say to myself, ‘The role is awesome, I know my skills, I know what tools I bring to this table.’ For the money that they were offering me and the contract they had on the table, I had to decline it for principle. It was just too much of a sacrifice for me to go and do a film like that for peanuts.”
The extremely physical nature of the role of Luca is very unique for an American actor in a Bollywood film and it had never occurred to me before speaking with Jonnie that the cost of the associated risk is probably why. Of course, unlike the meaty role of Luca, most of the physical roles that non-Indian actors are asked to do usually don’t usually require acting ability – just standing and looking threatening. “I just felt like if they really needed somebody, they could go find somebody else. There’s got to be some other guy out there who has been boxing and who is dying to act in a movie and that was my whole stance on it. Over time, they looked. They searched. They went everywhere. They turned every rock over and they couldn’t get away from me! It wasn’t a tactic by me – I just knew what the role entailed and I could not risk going over there and failing for no compensation. I couldn’t do it. And so, after we worked that out, they agreed and they set me up so good and we went over there the rest is history.”
Getting the role (and the compensation for it) was only the beginning of an intense filming process. Training for the role was done in Mumbai. “It was extremely hot – probably 112 degrees – it was intense. I went over there, I was probably 215 pounds, by the time I left India after the first week of training, I was 200. And the by the time we started shooting, I was 195! Everybody was like, ‘What is going on?!’ They kept trying to feed me!”
Jonnie was not the only Western talent brought to Bollywood for Apne, the producers also hired the team who worked with Russell Crowe on Cinderella Man (Amanda Buchanan and Chris Anderson) and boxer Sam Soliman to ensure that the boxing scenes were as authentic as possible. “Filming boxing is a very difficult thing,” Jonnie explains. “You have actors who really don’t want to get hit. They’re scared. You have techniques and camera setups that if a person is not seasoned in using those techniques, they can just show to much or come across as looking not authentic enough. I was, luckily, schooled well enough to be able to take on the technical issues that a role like Luca would possess. I actually came up with a way where I took my hands, and took them out of the gloves so that my hand was actually in the sleeve of the glove and not at the top of the glove. And that allows us to connect. That allowed us to hit. So that when we actually moved our heads with the hits, it just looked so ferocious!”
One of the (many) interesting tidbits Jonnie spills about the making of Apne is that he actually collaborated with the writers to help flesh out the character of Luca, including writing all his own dialogues. “The shot sequence at the end where Sunny Deol’s character breaks Luca’s rib, that was my idea,” says Jonnie. And despite the growing technical similarities between Hollywood and Bollywood, Bollywood remains a place where telling a good story takes precedence over a set-in-stone script. For Jonnie, this meant he could write his own lines in English, lines that would come naturally to a native speaker. “They were smart enough to ask, ‘Jonnie, how do you think we should say this?’ or ‘How do you think we can show this?’ And we collaborated a great deal on Apne.”
But with collaboration comes responsibility and pressure. Both of which weighed heavily on Jonnie’s shoulders. Being the narrative counterbalance to the three Deol men is not something to be taken lightly. When I ask Jonnie about working with Dharmendra, I can almost hear the smile over the phone. “Dharmendra is incredible. He took me under his wing and he actually called me his third son. [Awwww! – FG] He taught me a lot; he saw how hard I was working and saw all the weight that was on my shoulders at the time. He could tell that I came from a blue-collar family. He could tell. He was like, ‘Your father must have worked in a yard or did something’ and he was right! He [Jonnie’s father] was a railroad master! [Dharmendra] kind of saw that fire in me and he really kind of took me under his wing. And we had a great relationship.”
“And being privileged as [Dharmenra] is, it was an interesting perspective because his sons grew up privileged.” Those sons, Sunny and Bobby, were mostly absent from Jonnie’s recollections. When I asked him about this he explains, “Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to train with Sunny; I did train with Bobby. Because our schedules were so all over the place with the film, they had me isolated to the point where they were training me to death. Because I was playing the World Champion and Sunny and Bobby,” Jonnie hesitates, “the pressure on them to look so authentic didn’t have to be there because they had to just show up and just be Sunny Deol.” And it makes sense in an odd way, the audience knows Sunny can just beat people up no matter what he looks like. “Right,” agrees Jonnie. “He just had to come and kind of do his usual thing. But with me there was just that pressure of being that real boxer and unfortunately because of that, we didn’t get a chance to necessarily train together like we wanted to.”
So, how did pleasant, good-natured Jonnie handle playing a role so different from himself? “I have the ability to completely zone out, to just completely block myself out, which is a technique that I learned from one of my greatest acting coaches, George DiCenzo. To [become] somebody you’re not, you have to get rid of yourself and that is essentially what’s going on. And I do have that ability to sort of do that. One of the actors from Apne gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever heard. We were in the middle of the ring and we were in between shots and he was kind of looking at me and by that time I was used to it because everybody’s kind of looking at you with the robe on and everything – and he looked at me and he was like, ‘You’re the worst kind of actor to work with.’ And I looked at him and I was like, ‘Why?’ And he’s like, ‘Because you actually believe this shit!’ I was like, ‘Aw man!’ He caught me zoning out.”
“Part of it is the acting ability, the tools that you bring to the table. I am able to zone out and sort of embody these characters. The other part of it is, they do tend to give me a headache.” Jonnie uses one his most famous scenes from The Wire as an example. “When I played Officer Walker and I did that scene with the kid’s fingers… that was a crazy scene, specifically, because before we shot that scene, I told the kid, I said, ‘Listen – this is your moment, I’m just going to be here but you are going to be the one screaming, crying, carrying on – this is really your scene.’ And he did such a great job, it was amazing!” Even with Jonnie’s presence of mind, it can be hard to leave the violence behind on set. “When we were done shooting that, it did give me a headache because it kind of broke my heart. None of the writers actually told me why I was doing any of this stuff. They didn’t want us to know and so everyday I would show up to work like, ‘[in a resigned voice] Alright, what am I doing today?’”
When I ask if he has closed the Bollywood chapter of his life, Jonnie doesn’t give the answer I expect. One of the things that has emerged out of all the interviews I’ve done – which you will be reading later – is a profound respect for the Hindi language film industry. Jonnie is no exception. Instead of dismissing Apne as a lark, Jonnie answers seriously.“I wouldn’t say that I’d completely closed the chapter on that part… I still am in contact with [Apne director] Anil Sharma. We still send e-mails every now and then. I haven’t entertained the Bollywood films like I did a few years ago. Once the recession hit here in the United States and all the film actors started losing their jobs and then they started taking all of our television jobs and then folks like me started getting hit back down the ladder, I think I started to concentrate more on what’s going on here as opposed to looking abroad. And I think my focus has been lost a little bit when it comes to looking abroad.”
He may not have any Bollywood films on his plate at the moment, but people who would like to see more Jonnie Louis Brown can find him on FX’s Lights Out and in Whit Stillman’s upcoming Damsels in Distress.
I want to thank Jonnie for taking the time to speak with me for my interview series. He was a real pleasure to talk to and I have a new appreciation for Luca Gracia knowing all the hard work that went into making him not just a cardboard cutout but a World Champion.