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Robert Townsend Interview: "We Gave These Kids Hope and Put Their City in a Movie"

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Image attributed to Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend

Acclaimed filmmaker Robert Townsend stars, directs, produces and co-wrote the script with Michelle Amor and Cheryl L. West for the UP premiere movie Playin for Love, a romantic comedy about life on and off the basketball court. The film also stars Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Jenifer Lewis, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Esai Morales and premieres exclusively on UP on Sunday, July 12, 2015, at 7:00 p.m. eastern.

The journey behind making Playin’ for Love is as uplifting as the film itself. The movie was shot on location in Overtown, one of Miami’s roughest neighborhoods, and Townsend went in and taught twenty kids how to make a movie … and then made one. They also appear in the film. Currently, filmmaker Wills J. Felin is working to finish a documentary called Believe about the entire behind-the-scenes journey of Townsend and the kids making Playin’ for Love in the hood.

“I’ve been working with the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for about nineteen years now. I do workshops. The Film Festival was in South Beach a few years ago, and I was approached by one of the commissioners down there. Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones approached me and said, ‘Hey Robert, all these kids are dying ten minutes from here in Overtown. There are gangs and violence. If you could teach them about making movies, or if you could help them learn, it would give them hope.'”

Townsend’s film credits as an actor, director and/or writer include Cooley High, A Soldier’s Story, American Flyers, Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heartbeats, The Meteor Man, The Parent ‘Hood, 10,000 Black Men Named George, Black Listed, Of Boys and Men, In the Hive and Scooby-Doo! Music of the Vampire.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Robert, was Playin’ for Love originally your idea?

Robert Townsend: Yes. I love basketball, and one of my favorite movies growing up was Claudine that starred James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll. She was nominated for an Academy Award, and the film is about a single mother who falls in love with a garbage man. I always loved that movie and wanted to pay homage to it. I love basketball, and I wanted to do a love story. So I came up with the initial concept, and then I worked with Michelle Amor and Cheryl L. West to write the screenplay.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you film in Miami?

Robert Townsend: I’ve been working with the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for about nineteen years now. I do workshops. The Film Festival was in South Beach a few years ago, and I was approached by one of the commissioners down there. Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones approached me and said, “Hey Robert, all these kids are dying ten minutes from here in Overtown. There are gangs and violence. If you could teach them about making movies, or if you could help them learn, it would give them hope.”

Then I opened my big mouth and said, “I’ll teach ‘em, and we’ll make a movie together!” (laughs) I interviewed about two hundred kids. I selected twenty kids to be in the program, kids that came from really rough backgrounds and are struggling. I went to the University of Miami and got another thirty students. I taught everybody how to make movies from writing to directing and producing. Then I said, “Let’s make a movie!” We put together a shoestring budget and proceeded to make Playin’ for Love. I called on my Hollywood friends, but it was for the kids. We gave these kids hope and put their city in a movie.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did any of the kids decide on filmmaking as a career choice?

Robert Townsend: Oh, there are a couple of filmmakers. As a matter of fact, one of the kids was doing small films then, but now he’s doing even bigger stuff. He just went all the way to the White House to meet the president because of his talent as a young and upcoming filmmaker. He was in the program.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?

Robert Townsend: Totally. I come from Chicago and grew up in a really rough neighborhood. There were people that mentored me and cared about me. I just feel it’s important to give back.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand you also got the NBA involved in the making of Playin’ for Love?

Robert Townsend: Yes. I love the Miami Heat to this day. We reached out to the Miami Heat organization and said, “We’re doing a movie about basketball. Robert’s got a crazy idea. Can he have the tryouts on the Miami Heat’s floor?” (laughs) I talked to everybody. They said, “Yes.” So they gave us the AmericanAirlines Arena to have basketball tryouts. We had close to five thousand kids come out.

The executive producer on the project with me is retired NBA superstar Isiah Thomas, and he took the kids through basketball drills. We had these kids on the floor. Everybody wanted to help out. Jamba Juice reached out and gave away free smoothies to everyone throughout the whole filming. It was just a wonderful thing, but for an NBA team to step up that way was incredible.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I thought it was great near the end of the film where a wise little child sort of put things in perspective for your character, Coach Niven Banks.

Robert Townsend: Kids tell you what they see and how they feel and what they don’t like. I say this because I have four kids. There’s a certain kind of authentic truth kids have, so when we wrote that scene, we wanted it to have an impact. It’s one of my favorite scenes, too.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you finished with the documentary about the making of the film?

Robert Townsend: I was finishing the film, but the local filmmaker, Wills J. Felin, is doing the documentary and putting together the funds. Right now he’s putting together a campaign to finish the documentary that he started about the entire behind-the-scenes journey of making the film.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned your childhood in Chicago. How did you resist the temptations of going into a life of crime?

Robert Townsend: You know what it was for me? It was basketball. When you played basketball, people gave you a different path. My nickname as a kid was “Left” because I had a sweet left-handed jump shot. The boys and I are still friends to this day. I just saw them recently in Chicago for the 40th anniversary of my first movie, Cooley High. They came to the screening.

But it was basketball. That’s why this movie was important, too. I understand how basketball is an escape for kids out of the hood. I also wanted to incorporate in the film the thing of getting a good education. I know a lot of cats that had dreams of being in the NBA and didn’t make it because they couldn’t read. So it’s all connected to my childhood.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What inspired you to be an actor?

Robert Townsend: Because I grew up in a really rough neighborhood, I used to have to run home from school. My mother told me to go straight in the house. When I went in the house, all I did was watch TV. I watched so much TV that they nicknamed me “TV Guide.” I was a human TiVo. I could do any character I saw on television because that was a time when TV went off at night. I could impersonate sixty characters and had an extensive recall of programs. When I was little, I could do every show on television. I taught myself to become a performer by imitating the actors.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So you had the interest at an early age?

Robert Townsend: Well, it’s so funny. There was one teacher that had us read a scene of Shakespeare in the fifth grade. His name was James Reed, and he was a white teacher in the hood. He said, “I want to see if you inner city kids can read and like Shakespeare.” He had us read a scene of about three pages. I just remember that I didn’t like reading, so I went to the library and stole all the Shakespeare records (laughs). I went home and listened to them. I listened to King Lear, Othello and Richard III, and I kind of understood it. I was a little kid, but I kind of understood it.

I got discovered because I had to read out loud in the class. The teacher gave parts to Debra, another kid and me. Debra read like a kid would normally read in the hood. I had been listening to the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I read it like the British with passion. That teacher asked, “Townsend, where did you learn that?” I was like, “From the Shakespeare records. I was going to bring them back.” He said, “You listened to all those records?” He just couldn’t believe it. He bought my lunch and entered me into a speech festival. That’s kind of how I got discovered.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The groundbreaking satirical film about the racial stereotypes of African Americans in the entertainment industry, Hollywood Shuffle, literally brought you into the limelight in the 80s. Are roles for black actors and directors less stereotypical today?

Robert Townsend: I think things have gotten a little better, but they could be much better. Right now you have Shonda Rhimes who is one of the most prolific showrunners in history with Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. You’ve got black networks now from BET to Centric to TV One, so there are different opportunities there. Do we still need more help behind the camera? Yeah. Has it gotten better? Yeah. But there is still work to be done.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your feelings about the Confederate flag controversy?

Robert Townsend: The thing for me is that there are images throughout history that are negative. Sometimes we go, “Hey, that’s kind of cool,” or “Hey, that’s history.” It doesn’t matter. I think if someone is sensitive to it, let’s discuss it. Let’s see what’s at the core. For me, I think it should be taken down.

But let’s have a real conversation on the “whys,” so that everybody gets a real good history lesson because some people don’t know, and they say, “It’s just a flag.” No. What it represents is on a whole other level. I don’t like to make a split decision like, “Let’s do it real quick.” I would say, “Okay. Here are all the facts on this side, and here are all the facts on this side. Shouldn’t we take this down?” From my side, it’s a no brainer.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I saw a hilarious You Tube clip of a standup routine you did partially with a British accent in the 80s. Do you ever miss doing standup?

Robert Townsend: You know what? I have been working on a one-man show about my life. In January, I was working on it up in San Francisco. I’ve been working in class. I go to acting class with Ivana Chubbuck who is kind of like the acting guru of stars from Charlize Theron to Halle Berry. I’ve been in class just working on my one-man show. I have all these stories about my life. I first thought, “There’s nothing there.” But my life has been so unique, so I started writing down all these stories, and she has been helping me shape it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet your life would’ve turned out differently if you had gotten the gig with Saturday Night Live in 1980.

Robert Townsend: What’s so funny is I had no idea how close I was to getting it. I was a young actor in New York City. You know, an audition is another audition, and I went in and gave it my all. When I found out I didn’t get it, I was like, “Okay. I thought I was really good.” Then some book comes out and says, “There was a big debate over Robert Townsend at Saturday Night Live.” I was like, “Really? Nobody told me.” (laughs) They went with Eddie Murphy.

But here’s the thing. I look at life like, “It’s all beautiful.” I would’ve never become a filmmaker. If I had gotten on SNL, I would’ve just been a performer doing the sketches on the shows and being funny. I don’t think that filmmaker would’ve come out of me, and that was around the time that the filmmaker in me was born. I think everything happens for a reason because I like making movies and TV shows, and I like writing and producing, but I don’t think I would’ve been that guy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think satire is the funniest form of comedy?

Robert Townsend: I’m a student of comedy, so I like it all. I like physical comedy, visual comedy and satire. I love it all.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who are your comedy idols?

Robert Townsend: A lot of people don’t even know him, but one of my favorite comedians was a white dude named Dick Shawn. Dick Shawn was in the original Producers in the 60s. He was a brilliant comedian. He was one of the funniest cats. Then I would say Richard Pryor is right up there for me. I like Mel Brooks and Blazing Saddles was really funny to me. There are certain movies that just make me laugh, laugh, laugh.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are all of your children in show business?

Robert Townsend: No. My youngest daughter just hosted two specials for BET. She did the majority of the music for Playin’ for Love. That’s Skye Townsend. My daughter, Sierra, did all the wardrobe because the wardrobe stylist we had took another gig. Sierra was like, “Okay. I’ll think it over.” (laughs) She’s twenty-one and did the whole wardrobe design for the movie by herself. My daughter, Alexia, wants to be a director, so she’s working on her stuff. My son’s fifteen and into video games. We don’t know about him (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any upcoming projects, Robert?

Robert Townsend: I just finished a re-write of the script for my next one. I’m doing a remake of Brewster’s Millions. That will be my next film. In the next month and a half, there should be some news about that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Final thoughts on Playin’ for Love?

Robert Townsend: It’s a sweet movie, and I’m just happy the UP channel is showing it. It’s such an edgy time in history where a lot of the shows have to be heavier and what have you. But I’m really proud of this movie. I think it’s a sweet family film with morals and values. So I’m happy.

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