NEW YORK – Mekhi Phifer is Odin James in the new movie O — as in Othello — making the 26-year-old the latest young actor to bring a complex Shakespearean character into modern times.
Phifer knew Othello because it was required reading in high school. At the time he of course had no idea he would play the lead, or that he'd even be an actor. Now he sees it as "a dream role — especially as an African-American actor being allowed to do a full range of emotions as a real person instead of a stereotypical 'black' character."
O, which also stars Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles, was directed by Tim Blake Nelson.
Phifer, a native New Yorker who lives in Los Angeles, wants to break stereotypes. Not being pigeonholed is what will ensure his longevity in Hollywood, he says.
He says he weighs carefully the characters he plays — including parts in the upcoming sci-fi action film Impostor, the remake of the 1971 James Caan-Billy Dee Williams made-for-TV movie Brian's Song and Paid in Full about Harlem gangsters — to make sure they show his range.
But the role Phifer clearly relishes is being single dad to his 2-year-old son, Omikaye.
"We have fun. I'm a grown man but I have my toys and I play with Omikaye. We have dune buggies — with seat belts — and we go through the park. We have fun in the pool. We go to Gymboree."
1. Since your first acting job in 1995's Clockers, you've worked nonstop. What's your long-term goal?
Phifer: I want to secure my future so the money is there so I can delve into family life and settle down. I want to have more kids — maybe five. A successful acting career will allow me to do things like go to parent-teacher conferences.
2. Is there one "dream part" out there for you?
Phifer: I love Marvin Gaye and I'd love to portray him.
3. O was finished in 1999 but the release was pushed back several times because of the teen violence. What do you think about the delays?
Phifer: It's actually a blessing in disguise because there is so much publicity and awareness for this small, indie movie. And I could understand that Miramax didn't want to seem as if it was capitalizing on others' misfortune after the Columbine (High School) and San Diego shootings. But, at the end of the day, this is the story of Othello. It's not a new story, if there's a gripe with the story, you've got to take it up with Shakespeare.
(Original distributor Miramax backed away from the movie. Lions Gate is now releasing it.)
4. Do you see Odin as a hero or a villain?
Phifer: I can't say he's a straight hero because he's a human being, a good person and great at basketball but he doesn't really do anything heroic.
5. Are you any good at basketball?
Phifer: I can play a little ball, but I haven't played in years and I can't watch it on TV because I can't sit still that long. But there was no stunt double in the movie, that's me. I'm five-11 — I think the same as Allen Iverson (of the Philadelphia 76ers).