For some time, we have definitely been following actor Rockmond Dunbar’s feature film directing debut, Pastor Brown, which premieres on the Lifetime Channel next month, Saturday Feb. 16, at 8PM (7PM Central).
It stars Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Nicole Ari Parker, Michael Beach, Tasha Smith, Keith David, Michael B. Jordan, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Ernie Hudson and Dunbar himself as Salli’s romantic interest.
The film deals with ex-stripper Jesse (played by Richardson) who finds herself is an unexpected situation when her ailing pastor father (David), names her his successor of his church to, of course, the consternation of church officials, for whom someone with Jesse’s past is definitely not suitable for the job. To make matters even more complicated are Jesse’s conflict with her bitter sister (Parker), and her awkward attempts to reconcile with her now teenage son (Jordan), who justly feels he has been abandoned most of his life.
But after a 20 year career acting in some 50 films and TV shows, as a regular on several series including Soul Food, Prison Break, The Game and Sons of Anarchy, Dunbar felt he was more than ready to meet the challenge of directing his first feature film.
I had a chance to talk to him today about those challenges, as well as tips he learned about directing, from other directors he’s worked with (which are valuable for any aspiring director), what he hopes to accomplish with Pastor Brown, and why he's not giving up acting either.
To start off, I couldn’t help myself and I had to start off asking him about something I read about him on a certain popular gossip website, earlier today…
SERGIO: First of all, let me congratulate you on your film; but also appearing today on Mediatakeout.com in that item about you kissing your fiancé, Maya Gilbert, on the red carpet at the NAACP Awards. What did it say? “Extreme kissing! We know you love her, bruh, but you gotta do all that in front of the cameras?”
DUNBAR: (laughs) You know it’s so funny, people who know me know that I joke around a lot and I love the hell out of my woman. So it’s really funny how a kiss can be taken in so many different ways. If you look at the pictures we’re joking a lot, we’re kidding, so I slipped her a little bit of tongue. (Laughs) I’m a man and that’s my woman. And if you have a problem with that, you know what, don’t comment. I’m a grown ass man and I don’t care.
The people who are so offended and so shocked, you know what, there are so many other different things to be offended by in this world that you really should focus your energy on instead of a man and a woman who are loving the hell out of each other at every moment. You don’t like it, fine, turn your head. You don’t have to click on the picture. But I think it exemplifies just how strong and wonderful and playful and intelligent black love is and that’s what I choose to celebrate. My woman is the best thing that has ever happened to me and I’m just going to love her until I just can’t anymore and that will be when I’m dead.
Good for you! Couldn’t have said it any better than that. I think you’ve just won legions of new female fans. But to shift gears, let’s talk about your Lifetime movie Pastor Brown, which I think people will be surprised by when they see it. Because of its premise and that it’s a faith based movie some will think it’s going to be some chitlin’ circuit, cartoonish, loud, lowbrow comedy with over the top performances. It’s just the opposite – a serious and thoughtful film about redemption.
Well you have to look at this for a second. Where is Rockmond Dunbar coming from? He’s coming from one of the longest running black TV dramas in history, Soul Food. The quality of Soul Food was incredible with a huge, huge fan base. So how could I essentially direct and come out with something less than that? That would be an embarrassment. And also I worked really really hard to give the film the quality that I think we deserve. Even in our lower budgeted independent films the quality should be there. So if you’re looking at what I put together for, way less than $2 million dollars, just think if I had $2.5 million, $5 million, $10 million. Just think what the quality would be in any genre, because I’m very very particular at what I do.
Which brings up this, why Pastor Brown? What was it about this project, this story, out of anything you could have done, which made you say to yourself: “This one I have to direct”?
Well there’s a twofold answer to that. First, the writing was incredible. Two, I wanted to do something that I was able to get the money for because people believed that I could make it happen. And that had to do with a lot of the projects that I have done in the past. So when I first came across the script and decided to read it, I flew through it in a matter of minutes because it flowed so well. And it was a story that not only touched my heart and something that I could relate to. I just think a lot of people can relate to it too. About someone pulling them by the collar and telling them that you better than what you’re showing me right now and I want you to be the best that you could possibly be. And that’s what this movie is all about. We’re all looking for a purpose in life. We’re all trying to find that thing that really resonates in our body and in our soul and wakes us up early in the morning and keeps us up late at night and is a positive thing.
So for Salli‘s character to be actually put in that position where her father is saying “I want you to be the best that you can be” and she takes that and uses that to move on I think it’s a wonderful wonderful story. And also the way that it ends. A lot of our independent films, the story is great, but the ending is horrible or the story is good, but the quality sucks. But I think we hit everything right on the head. The quality is great, the story is great, the ending is great and we’re actually in the position of turning it into a television series for Lifetime.
So this is breaking news right here folks. Pastor Brown will become a TV series?
Yeah! You know we got 18 offers for distribution for this project, but we had to go through some court proceedings to solidify and clear whatever we needed to do in order to get to this position. So it’s been a lot of hard work, but Lifetime is the perfect venue. So I’m asking everyone, please, even you think “I’ve heard this story before’” or “Why are they using that actor?” or “Why are they using this actress?” just let your guard down for one second and allow yourself to be entertained. Just allow yourself to be caught up in the moment of a really good story because this is not an opportunity for us who made the film, but for every person of color. You have the opportunity to turn this feature into a television series and there isn’t anything on television like it right now. So I’m challenging everyone, even those with those Nielsen rating boxes, tune in to this show and make it very clear to Lifetime that you would love to see more of it.
Something you did sort of allude to a moment ago was the cast. You got some names in this project like Salli Richardson, Nicole Ari Parker, Keith David, for example, who obviously weren’t getting rich off this project. Why did they agree to do it? Did they believe in the project, believe in you, or you called in some favors?
All three of those. I called in favors and people know how I am when it comes to my work ethic and they’re friends. My whole social family, we still talk, we still bend over to help anyone. Nicole committed to doing it without reading the script because she knows that type of person I am. She knows that I’m not going to bring her something that will lower her career status or her “star meter” if you will. Salli was at Nicole’s birthday party and when I saw her she just resonated the character. God just put it into me at that moment.
She had a heavy heart that night, she had a lot on her mind, but she exuded everything that that character needed. A woman who’s been through the fires, who’s had a long career, had worked with major stars and is still struggling to do the things that she really wants to do and she had never done like Jesse Brown before. So I approached her and through my conviction she understood that this was something that she really needed to read and she read it and called me back and said “Dude I’m in.”
Michael Beach I called him said “Brother I got this thing for you and I really need you to come out here and do it but I can only pay you a hot dog and some fries.” So he read the script and said “Rock I’m there.” hopped on a plane and came down.
So you’ve been acting now for some 20 years and have done a ton of work which means you’ve worked with some good directors and, of course not so good ones. What did you learn working with all these directors that you applied or not apply as the case may be, while working on Pastor Brown?
Two things, preparation is everything. I’ve seen directors come in and think they can just set up a shot and everything will be cool and it’s not. You have to be prepared. You have to know your shots, you have to know your characters, you have to know the script backwards and forwards and you have to know where the charterers are going. Directors like Greg Yaitanes (House M.D. Lost, Prison Break, Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy, Bones etc. – Trivia note: one of the original investors of Twitter) whom I could never ever pick what was his master shot. And that would be the game I would be playing with myself. I would be on the set learning with him and his master would always be masterful. It was always a beautiful shot. So as a result I always wanted to do something different, always keep the camera moving.
Oz Scott (CSI; N.Y., Soul Food, NCIS) always gave me the essentials. Those little cookie crumbs that you need. Those insets like a hand moving across a page, those little things that are not necessarily focused on the actor’s face.
Kevin Hooks (Prison Break, The Mentalists, Soul Food Bones, Last Resort) who is an amazing director. I learned from him was keeping your calm even in the most ridiculous moments. Because you are, as the director, the leader of the ship so jumping on top of ladders and screaming at the actors is not going to get you what you need.
And Salim Akil, who was directing on Soul Food and The Game, learning from him about always complimenting the actors to get them to do what you want them to do which is the best way to direct And knowing that you are their biggest cheerleader. You should be the biggest cheerleader on the set. There’s no “control freak” thing happening here. You have your actors out on the playing field and when they go out into the foul line you just gently bring them back in and say “O.K., let’s keep playing.” So I learned a heck of a lot from a heck of a lot of different directors and I just stored it in my mind until when I was able to use it.
Now that you’re a director has there been any point where you’ve said to yourself maybe this is what I what to do now instead of acting or you're still very much an actor and directing is just another form of artistic expression for yourself?
Yes, definitely the second one; it’s part of my artistic expression. Some people go into acting and realize they are directors, but I look at all of it as art. It’s a canvas, a different canvas. Acting is canvas, writing is a different canvas, directing is different canvas, so all of these canvases are just different. I don’t have a favorite. I just recently thrown this one TV pilot that I think is absolutely amazing. I’m not experienced enough in directing it in the way that I think it should be directed, but the acting portion really makes me drool. So I don’t have a favorite.
I don’t wake up in the morning and say “I think I’m just going to direct for the rest of my life.” Some days when I wake up I want to put on a blue shirt, some days I want to put on a green shirt and some days I want to put on a purple shirt. But that doesn’t mean that I like those colors better than white. It just means that on that day I wanted to wear a blue shirt. Period. I love options, so I don’t necessarily like favorites. If you pick a favorite than you’re stuck with that. I have passion in my heart to be an artist.