Marlon Wayans is ready for people to put some respect on his acting skills for his latest dramatic role in the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.
The youngest member of the Wayans clan has had his career rooted in comedy for decades, but his passionate portrayal of Franklin’s first husband, Ted White, in the upcoming film is enough for fans to recognize his growth and maturity as an actor. Though White, who allegedly had a violent and tumultuous relationship with Franklin during their years together, appeared to be only one extreme way to some, Wayans took a different approach to his character that best suited him and still accurately depicted who the troubled man was in real-life.
“I just thought to be able to play leading man and villain at the same time – romantic and dark, sexy and dangerous – [that’s] something no one would expect from me,” he tells Shadow and Act of what initially piqued his interest in the role in an exclusive interview. “I have never showcased [or had the ability] to showcase that in anything that I’ve done, but maturity falls upon us all. All the stuff I’ve done in my past leads me to this moment and the stars just aligned.”
Wayans looks seasoned in his 49 years of age, speaking with every bit of intention behind his ever-expanding career as a writer, actor and producer. His moves these days are calculated, including his decision to tweak White’s character in Respect to maintain the humanity Wayans needed to deliver in this role. Upon reading and falling in love with the script, he reveals that a few adjustments were made so that the actor didn’t have to portray White as “this abusive monster.” After sitting down with film director Liesl Tommy, they agreed the movie should paint a picture opposite of how Laurence Fishburne interpreted Ike Turner’s personality in What’s Love Got To Do With It to offer a different angle for what’s partially a romance tale.
“The first part [of Respect] is a love story so we wanted to make sure that we played the vulnerability [up] and you see two people fall in love,” Wayans says. “They’re successful and they make it, and then [White] takes her as far as he can but [then] she outgrows him. Now he’s losing control, now he’s spiraling back down to Earth, now he’s insecure and the only thing he can do is go back to his damaged [ways] to try and get control [back]. When you come from exploring a character from a vulnerable place, now you’re able to [empathize] because we’re dealing with emotions and that’s why I wanted to be sure that I focused on that.”
Unlike Jennifer Hudson, who got a chance to get to know Franklin personally before she passed, Wayans had to dig deep to find any sort of connection to someone who he says he’s nothing close to. For him, White’s “superman complex” is what resonated with his own traits and so he channeled that in his onscreen portrayal.
“I always feel like there’s something good in everybody. There’s a superstar and a legend in every person and I’ve always been one to try and dig it out [of them],” Wayans says. “I think [Ted White’s] intention as a husband and a manager was to nurture what he saw, [which was] the greatness in her. I connected with him seeing greatness in something that was already great, so that’s what I got to have fun with. I [also] think he needed vulnerability with him being misunderstood. I think if Ted White sees the movie he’ll be like, ‘yeah that’s exactly the way I was.'”
For Wayans, this isn’t his first attempt at foraying into drama. And while comedy will always be his foundation, it’s drama that allows him to be more free at this point in his career. “Both are extremely challenging, but for me drama is easier because in drama you have to be vulnerable with your emotions,” he reveals. “But with comedy, you have to not only be vulnerable with your emotions but choose when to be. [As comedians] we’re fools all the time, we’re desperate for that laugh, so we’re always high energy and thinking of what’s funnier than what’s on the page. There’s a certain energy you have to have when you’re trying to be funny, but drama you can just be.”
“Here’s how hard comedy is,” he adds. “There’s been a lot of comedic stars to go on and showcase great dramatic acting skills, but there hasn’t been that many great dramatic actors that crack you up in movies. I can’t really name any that are brilliantly hilarious in a movie because that’s a whole other skill set. It’s hard to make that transition, but I think comedians have an easier time making the transition into drama because [we’re able] to shut off part of our brain and just sit in the pocket, mope, cry and feel something. We’re so used to saying [we] don’t want to feel because we have to make people smile that we don’t get time to sit with ourselves.”
Despite most of his peers slowing down at this stage of their lives, Wayans says for him the best is yet to come. When asked if he’s reached his ceiling or if he can go higher, he confidently responded, “oh I can go higher, this is just a new beginning.” The actor still has many career milestones he wants to accomplish across a variety of genres and he’s not stopping until they all come to fruition. “I still haven’t played a superhero, haven’t really done a hardcore-action movie, haven’t done a serious horror movie,” he continues. “There are so many things I still haven’t done so, for me, I can’t wait to showcase all that I do because I have the ability to do it all. Hopefully, the town will stop trying to view me as playing this or that, but just understand that [I have] a skill set where [I] can be believable as anything. [If they say] ‘let’s let him do everything,’ [then believe that] my audience will follow. I got their trust.”
Around this time last year, Wayans was reeling from the loss of his mother and a year later it’s her impact that’s helping him push forward as he gears up for one of the biggest moments of his acting career. “That loss changed my life [and] for the rest of my life I have a hole in my heart,” he says. “I haven’t had a lot of pain in my life. I’ve always had a smile and a lightness because I got my mama, daddy and family that loves me, but to lose my mom, now I know pain. But I know that my career is shifting because I got my mama up there now making everything happen. All these magical things are happening [in my career] right now and I know it’s because I got my angel.”
In a year of legendary documentaries and biopics, Respect is a film to see because for Wayans he believes Franklin’s story and legacy is something for everyone to be familiar with. “Everything that she went through is still happening today and her music is forever classic,” he says. “When people see the movie I want them to walk out [of the theater] feeling empowered. I want them [to know] no matter what you go through in life, there’s always going to be obstacles and challenges but God is not trying to break you, he’s trying to make you. In terms of my performance, I want them to walk away saying, ‘damn that boy can do anything.’ I want them to give me my respect. I want them saying, ‘you know what I respect Marlon [because] I didn’t think he could act like that.'”
Respect is only in theaters August 13.