Interview: Mekhi Phifer
A veteran actor who has found fame and success with independent fare, Mekhi Phifer is still learning, and still amazed.
“The beautiful thing about acting is it’s not really about the destination, it’s about the journey, that’s what life is about anyway,” said the 40-year-old actor while in Toronto. The 8 Mile and ER alum is among an impressive list of actors in Insurgent, the second installment in the young adult thriller, led by actress Shailene Woodley and based upon the series of books by Veronica Roth.
“The way I’ve designed my career, I pick and choice things that aren’t stereotypical, that aren’t typecasting,” continued Phifer, who the night prior was joined by costar Jai Courtney to walk the red carpet and showcase the film to a lucky audience ahead of its release. “I choose characters that are interesting but different. I love being challenged. There is no on direction to go. I love doing what I do. By doing so I’ve been blessed being able to feed my family, travel, and meet great people, and delve into characters and the psych of characters that I wouldn’t normally do.”
The character in question with Insurgent is Max, a loyal general in a totalitarian regime lead by Kate Winslet’s Jeanine. Alongside the more maniacal Eric (Courtney), Max is tasked with hunting down Tris (Woodley), her partner Four (Theo James) and the rest of the young rebels. Returning as Max for the second film, and looking to continue beyond (depending whether his character lives or dies), is a new experience for Phifer.
“It’s my first time being part of a film series,” he explained. “I never really had to wait for a script to know where a character is going; usually it’s on in the script from beginning to end and you act accordingly. I take from this to trust your instincts, go on this ride. When I get each script, I adjust my character according to what’s on the page.”
Working on a major studio production with a large cast is a different animal for Phifer, as people are flying in and out for their scenes across months and not necessarily always spending a ton of time together. It’s a major machine with lots of moving pieces, lots of action and special effects, and for Phifer, a particular tight suit that had to be iced down before use shooting in the hot Atlanta summer sun. While Phifer may have been baking, Courtney on the other hand has admitted tearing his pants on numerous occasions running through the forest.
“Everyone I bumped into and worked with on set is great,” said Phifer of the large cast. “It was great at to be able to work with Ashley Judd and Octavia [Spencer]; all three of us did a movie together three years ago called Flypaper. The camaraderie on set was great, and to bump into them again was fun.”
For this film Max doesn’t encounter Tris all that often, but Phifer sees great things for the 23-year-old Woodley.
“From what I can see, she is taking everything in stride,” he said. “She is handling it very well, really just a consummate professional. That’s a great testament to her focus in this business, and the appreciation she has for being where else is. I only can really see her going up, I don’t see her declining.”
Phifer is adamant about not reading the books – just yet. The future of his character is a surprise to him, but he knows once finished he will pick up the source material and envision himself as Max, he says. As for the next film, Phifer admits, “I have no idea what’s in store.”