People don’t always completely know or understand the full depths of a controversial social issue unless they’re fully committed to the process of trying to initiate essential change in society. They often form biases on subjects they truly know nothing about, after being influenced by their families and neighbors, until a radical movement that question their beliefs is set in motion. This is certainly the case with the drastic measures actor Mekhi Phifer’s character initiates in the new thriller, ‘The Suspect,’ which is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD. The social experiment his character helps set into motion showcases that bias still does exist in America, particularly since people often readily believe what others around them say about different races and ethnicities.
‘The Suspect’ follows two African American college professors (Phifer and Sterling K. Brown), who impersonate bank robbers in an effort to understand the racial dynamics of small-town law enforcement. But as their plot unfolds, their supposed social experiment takes an unexpected, deadly turn where nothing is what it seems.
The two professors commit an armed bank robbery at Carolina Credit and Trust Bank, located in the small, all white town of Midland. When one of the professors, Freeman (Phifer), was spotted walking along an isolated road, he immediately became a person of interest in the case. He’s soon arrested and interrogated by the racist Sheriff Dixon (William Sadler) and Deputy Riley (Derek Roche). In their exchanges, the title character deliberately encourages a line of questioning from the officers that would substantiate the professors’ hypothesis that bias exists.
Phifer generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘The Suspect’ over the phone. Among other things, the actor discussed how ‘The Suspect’ was one of the hardest projects he’s ever completed, as they had a short shooting schedule, but he’s always open to that type of challenge on sets, because it helps bring his best effort to the table; how people aren’t born with racist ideas, and are instead taught prejudice by the people around them; and how he and his co-stars didn’t have a real rehearsal period together, but made their characters believable, as the actors were all dedicated to their roles.
Question (Q): You star as Freeman, the title character, in the new thriller, ‘The Suspect.’ What was it about the character and the script that drew you to the project?
Mekhi Phifer (MP): Well, one of the things that attracted me was that it’s a different project from what you normally see in theaters and on DVD. To me, it felt like a really good independent film. I think if you’re really a fan of films, this is the type of movie you’ll want to see. I’m a film buff, so when I first read the script, it felt different, fun and interesting. It gives audiences something to talk about.
Q: Like you mentioned, ‘The Suspect’ was filmed independently. How does making a film independently compare and contrast to working on bigger budget films that you have worked on, including ‘Divergent?’
MP: When you do independent films, you have a very limited budget. You also usually have a limited amount of time. It’s like with performing a play-since you’re shooting six days a week, it forces you to stay in the process. It was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever completed, because we had to shoot so much in a short time. We would shoot 12 pages a day of dialogue driven scenes, but I’m always open to that type of challenge.
With independent movies, you’re there every day, and I like that. It requires a strong work ethic to remember all those lines and really stay in character, and bring your best effort to the table. I like those types of projects. It’s different from big budget films, like when I shot ‘Divergent’ in Chicago, and I had a month off.
Q: Besides starring as Freeman, you also executive produced the movie. Did your jobs as an actor and producer on the set influence each other at all?
MP: I always try to bring my best to the table. I don’t care if I’m producing or not. In order to have a career and make films that people will hopefully be interested in, you have to be consistent in being good. So whether or not I’m a producer doesn’t make a difference in my acting.
Q: How did you become attached to this project? Did the film’s director, Stuart Connelly, approach you with the role?
MP: Stuart had spoken to me about the film. I forgot how my whole involvement came about, but he did approach me, and I spoke to him on the phone. We talked about his vision, and then I signed on. It was a passion project for me. You also try to find things as an artist that appeal to you, and takes you to the next level.
Q: Stuart made his feature film directorial debut with ‘The Suspect,’ and this is also the first script he has written that has been produced. What was the process of working with him as both a helmer and scribe?
MP: He was great. Stuart had a lot on his plate and a lot to do, so we all picked up the slack where he couldn’t.
Since everyone was under pressure, we weren’t able to have a real rehearsal process, but we really should have for this type of film. But as actors, we were all dedicated to our roles. But he did have us run lines and talk about what we were doing with the characters.
We only had read-throughs together, and would have our own rehearsals. We would meet in our hotel rooms the night before and rehearse. We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, and on this type of film, we really should have.
Q: Did you do any preparation or research on your own before you began filming to get into Freeman’s mindset?
MP: I didn’t do that much research, since I’ve been black all my life. The research I did was more for the backdrop of what our characters were doing. Since we shot so much every day, I really had to go to the set prepared, which I always am.
Q: The film tells the story of what happens when the obvious suspect is apprehended not far from the scene of a bank robbery, but the police couldn’t be more wrong about the crime. Why is it important to show the injustices of society and the legal system in films like ‘The Suspect?’
MP: Well, the thing is, we’re not innocent! We did rob the banks, and gave them back counterfeit money. We did what the story shows about the prejudices people would have towards us about what we did as professors, particularly manipulating them into letting them go. But we did rob the banks and steal the money.
Q: Stuart has written that he feels every conversation about race, no matter how painful it is, is a stepping-stone toward a better understanding of racial division. Do you agree that ‘The Suspect’ is an example of shrinking the divide between races? What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
MP: I don’t think the film is going to strengthen or divide the races. People grow up the way they grow up. You’re not born racist or prejudice; you’re taught that. I traveled throughout the country, to small-town America, and all the experiences they have with racial division comes from TV, and how people are portrayed on series. Their opinions are also formed by the people around them, even if their ideas aren’t true.
I don’t think there’s one particular message people will take away from the film that they won’t experience in life. We’re not Freedom Fighters who are fighting for people to understand who we really are. Overall, I think this is just a very interesting independent film that’s entertaining.
Q: Besides being available on Blu-ray and DVD, ‘The Suspect’ is also available On Demand on Amazon Instant Video. Why is VOD an important platform for independent films like this one?
MP: Yes, the film is out there on these different outlets, and they are good and helpful. When you make independent films, you don’t have a lot of money for marketing.
Q: You mentioned doing theater earlier, and you’ve also starred on television series. Are you interested in doing theater again in the future?
MP: I have only done play in my professional career, but I loved it; it was a great experience. It’s definitely something I’d love to do again. I’m actually in talks of doing another play right now. I’m interested in doing all areas of acting, whether in films, television or theater.
Q: Besides acting, you have also directed a film, the 2006 comedic crime movie, ‘Puff, Puff, Pass.’ Is directing something you’d be interested in doing again?
MP: Yes, if I was passionate about a particular project, I would definitely direct again. But it takes a lot of effort and time, but it’s something I’m definitely interested in doing again.
Q: Besides ‘The Suspect,’ do you have any upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
MP: I’m about to start shooting the next installment in the ‘Divergent’ series, ‘Insurgent,’ in early June. I just received the script, and I’m getting ready to really start reading it. It will be nice to show how Max became the leader of Dauntless, and what really drives him. I love the character, and acting with the rest of the cast.