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Mario Van Peebles Interview: Famed Actor/Director Talks Syfy's "Superstition"

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Image attributed to Mario Van Peebles

Mario Van Peebles

Mario Van Peebles is an actor and director known for directing New Jack City (1991), a film where he also appeared in as “Stone.” He portrayed his filmmaker father, Melvin Van Peebles, in the 2003 biopic Baadasssss! that he also co-wrote and directed. Other films as an actor include Exterminator 2, The Cotton Club, Heartbreak Ridge, Last Resort, Jaws: The Revenge, Judgment Day, Ali, Red Sky and Submerged.

Television appearances include One Life to Live, The Cosby Show, 21 Jump Street, In Living Color, Law & Order, All My Children, Damages, Nashville and Bloodline. Van Peebles can currently be seen in the supernatural drama series Superstition that airs on Thursday nights on the Syfy channel. The series tells the story of the Hastings family, the owners of a funeral home and the cemetery in La Rochelle, a fictitious town on the outskirts of New Orleans. They provide additional services for the aftermath of dead people killed by demonic infernals. Van Peebles stars, writes and produces the episodes.

“I would say there are three lessons: Love what you do. Love and enjoy the folks you do it with. And try to say something you love with it. If you do that, you’re rich no matter what your check is.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mario, for those who haven’t seen Superstition, please tell me about the show.

Mario Van Peebles: Well, you know, America is such a melting pot. You take Italians, Irish, Brits, Jews, black folks and Asians, and you put them all in this melting pot called America, and you can get some great art and great music. You get great folklore, and through great folklore, you get great superstitions. So we thought it would be interesting to do a show called Superstition where, each week, we experience different superstitions. One that I’d never heard of before was the one where you can read a little bit about the future by looking at the coffee grounds in a cup. I didn’t know that.

We liked positioning the show in the South because it’s so rich, even in the way the house is built. You always say, “If these walls could talk.” Literally, our set designer took floors and walls from old buildings and put them in there and made our house have this rich texture. The show is about a family, the Hastings family. They deal in the funeral business, so they have to take care of the dead in a respectful way, and they’ve also got to deal with the undead in a very careful way (laughs). It’s a science fiction, horror show, but with a family you love, a family that hopefully you’ll enjoy and want to spend time with. I think that would be it. That’s what Superstition is.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Since Superstition is a series launch from your own production company, was the show your concept?

Mario Van Peebles: It’s a collective. What happened was that some of the fellows at Syfy came to my partner Barry Gordon and myself, and we went and got writers Joel (Anderson Thompson) and Larry (Andries) and just collectively did it. Then it just started coming together very quickly, and we thought this would be a very interesting time to do a show like this. One of the things that happens in the show is you start to realize that the infernals, which typically would be evil, are coming through partly because, unfortunately, mankind is starting to wreak a little havoc on the planet, and more and more they’re coming through to put us in check with the whole notion of, “Who’s really a good guy and who’s really a bad guy?”

That’s something you have to look at and go, “Wait a minute! What do we have to do in this one, and how do we make that better?” So it’s entertaining and fun and can be a little scary, but it’s also a show that makes you think, and that’s fun. I like shows that make you think.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your daughter, Morgana, plays your granddaughter in the show.

Mario Van Peebles: Right (laughs). How did that happen? (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did that happen, and what was it like working together?

Mario Van Peebles: First, it has been “bring your daughter to work week” for the last several months for me. She’s funny, bright, feisty, and it’s fun when your kids turn out to be people you like. That doesn’t always happen for everybody. She turned out to be someone that I get a kick out of. When she wanted to audition for the show, I said, “Come in like everybody else and audition.” She did, and there were some great people up for the role, but we finally decided she was the best person to do it.

I said, “Listen, Morgana. You’ve got enough money to get your own place if you want.” She said, “No, dad. I want to live with you.” She’s a vegan (laughs). I’m not. I’m a vegan between meals. But we live together and started cooking, and she’s gotten me to eating healthier. In Superstition, she plays my granddaughter because in Hollywood, most actors don’t want to play older, right? But I play a little older in this. For the first time, I’m playing a guy who’s 778 years old and that’s why she’s my granddaughter. It’s a blast. When I direct Morgana, she knows it’s coming from a good place. She said that it’s coming from a place of love, and she wants to do her best.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your father, Melvin Van Peebles, turned 85 this past August. How is he?

Mario Van Peebles: Isn’t that something? I’m older than him in the show though (laughs). My dad is good. It’s interesting how when you look at your parents, you sort of wind up being a version of them yourself, and you don’t know which way that’s going to go. My dad is a pleasant, mellow version of himself. He’s always been a runner. He said, “Well, I still run fast. It’s just that stuff goes by slower.” (laughs) He’s fun. He gets the joke of life. He’s an interesting, smart guy. He went to France, learned French and became a filmmaker over there. I got to see him do everything.

Dad is the one that said to both me and Morgana that there are three kinds of people, the people that complain about things that happen, the people that watch things happen and the people that make things happen. He said that we should try not to complain, just get out there and change it, and if you don’t like the way something looks or don’t like the way it’s going down, figure out a way to do it better.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): At 14, when you appeared in your dad’s film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), did you want to pursue acting as a career?

Mario Van Peebles: I had started acting professionally when I did a play at eleven years old, so I knew early on. But I have brothers and sisters who are not in the business. I think one of the things in our family is that we try not to confuse people we love with people who will be good at what they think they love. What do I mean by that? My mother loves to act, but she’s not that good. I wouldn’t hire her, but I love her (laughs). She knows it.

My dad’s pretty good. He’s good within certain roles, although he did do a damn good Hamlet, I have to say, which surprised me. So I wanted to act, and I went on to do it, but just because you love something doesn’t mean you’ll monetize it. I may love basketball, but I’m not playing for the Lakers anytime soon, so loving something and being able to make a career out of it are two different things.

When I worked with Clint Eastwood on Heartbreak Ridge, he pointed that out to me. He said, “Man, no one gets to be the flavor of the month for 30 years.” He was right. So I needed to see how I could be a part of directing, producing, writing and acting. Therefore, each one of those could be different careers for me, and Superstition is the first TV series where I’ve employed all of them that have helped me briefly be the flavor of the month for 30 years. That’s a long time, and I’ve had a blast! I would say there are three lessons: Love what you do. Love and enjoy the folks you do it with. And try to say something you love with it. If you do that, you’re rich no matter what your check is.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s your favorite film role?

Mario Van Peebles: As an actor, I really enjoyed Baadasssss! where I played my dad, and Michael Mann produced it. He directed me in Ali, and Muhammad Ali challenged me to make a movie about my dad, and I thought that was a challenge I’d like to take on. Michael agreed to come on and produce it. I also just enjoyed playing Malcolm X in Ali. I really enjoyed Heartbreak Ridge and Clint Eastwood.

I’ve had a lucky life as an actor/director because not a lot of directors get to be directed by other great directors, and I have. It allows you to say, “This is what I want as an actor, so let me give that to my actors.” Also keep in mind the actors are no different than you. When you’re directing Glenn Close, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be different when you’re directing Bill Hurt or when you’re directing a new actor like Chris Rock in New Jack City. Each case is different, but I think being an actor/director has helped me immensely on both sides.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a preference to act or to direct?

Mario Van Peebles: That’s kind of like saying that I like my left hand over my right hand. I think why it’s hard for me to answer that is I really like them both. I’m the nicest actor. I sit in my trailer and wait for someone to bring me my Fiji Water (laughs). But I like both acting and directing. When you grow up on a family farm, I think you learn to plow the field, feed the chickens, take care of the horses. It’s all a part of farming, right? Later on, you learn all of those are different jobs.

When you grow up in an independent filmmaking family like the Van Peebles family, you learn about carrying cables, writing, directing and acting. Then later on you realize those are all very different and specific jobs. But they’re all a part of the microcosm of the Zen of filmmaking. I like to just act in something and not direct. It depends on what it is.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think your first job on TV was One Life to Live, but I remember you also doing several episodes of All My Children. What did you think about the fast-paced daytime genre?

Mario Van Peebles: It was very fast, and it was interesting because at the time I did that, Obama was running, and I thought it was an interesting time to play someone on a daytime show in the political realm. Susan Lucci was very skilled and great to work with. But each discipline has its own idiosyncrasies, and television is more of a writer/producer medium. Theatre is more of an actor medium, and film is more of a director’s medium. Each one is different.

Daytime taught me to be very quick. They’re very disciplined. Even doing Superstition, it’s like you’re playing the same character through a series of different events, and that’s really a challenge, but it’s also fun because you get to grow with your character.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve got Armed hitting theaters in February.

Mario Van Peebles: As they say, “Nothing stops a bad guy with a gun like a good guy with a gun.” In Armed, I play a good guy with a gun. He’s got many guns. It’s a thriller. It’s one of those thrillers that you have to watch closely because it will catch you off guard kind of the way some people say that Fight Club or The Sixth Sense does. It’s myself and Bill Fichtner and Ryan Guzman.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What else is coming up?

Mario Van Peebles: Right now, I’m just finishing up the rest of Superstition. We finish the 12 shows, and then we’ll see where that goes. It has been a joy. Superstition comes on Thursdays now at 11:00. So just finishing up Superstition and enjoying Morgana.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Other than acting and directing, what are you passionate about?

Mario Van Peebles: I’m lucky in that my job leads me to live. I love to travel, so we have lived in Costa Rica for a year, we went to China, and we trekked to Nepal. Some people in life like to own things. I like to do things. So I find the more I explore and live and travel, the more life I have to put in my art.

I learn through people. Some people learn through books. I love to read, but I love to hear people’s stories and see what brings us together. My family’s mixed with everything. We have white and black and straight and gay, and you’ve got to love everybody if you’re in my family. Have you done the 23andMe at ancestry.com yet?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I have not.

Mario Van Peebles: Well, when you do it, you’ll see you’re really related to a lot of people you didn’t know you’re related to (laughs). It’s exciting. When I directed Roots, we all did it. It’s really exciting, so I love to do art, and that brings people together. It makes people in a collective, so I love to travel.

I travel when I can, and I learn with my kids, with my dad and mom. It’s never really the same. A while ago, my son talked me into skydiving. I didn’t want to do that, but we did it. Now, we’ll go trekking, as I said. We just do family adventures. There’s no one thing that we do. We play a lot of music and read quite a bit and laugh quite a bit. I just continue to find more things that excite me.

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