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.” Continue reading