Interview: Teyonah Parris and Spike Lee on “Chi-Raq”

Posted on December 3, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Copyright Amazon 2015
Copyright Amazon 2015

“Chi-Raq” is one of the best films of the year and one of the most important films of many years. It is a searing wail of love, grief, and fury inspired by “Lysistrata,” a play written in 411 BC. A small group of reporters spoke to star Teyonah Parris and co-writer/director Spike Lee.

Parris told us that she actually performed in the original Lysistrata when she attended Juilliard. “I did not get to play Lysistrata but I have always studied Shakespeare and Greek plays and Chekhov and I love working on that sort of text. There is so much to mine from it. And so when I got this script for ‘Chi-Raq’ and I realized this was a modern retelling of that story I was all in. And then to hear Spike talk about what he was doing with the movie — the first thing he said is, ‘I’m trying to save lives. We have to save lives,’ and I was all in, there was no question about it. Spike certainly has an out of the box approach to his work but I think that’s why people gravitate towards him. He gives us another way to look at things. It is a bit more unconventional but I certainly think that it will resonate with our current generation because it’s Spike. It’s hard to put your finger on what it is he does that makes it hit right here but I think that people will watch this movie and certainly understand what we’re seeing and what the message is.” She acknowledged that the film is bound to be controversial. “The title has gotten a lot of flak but the no one has actually seen it and heard the message and seen what we’re trying to say but I know that Spike’s intentions and mine and everyone that is a part of this film, our intentions are pure and were trying to make a difference and get this conversation started so that people can actively make some changes. The issue that we’re dealing with in the film with our young brothers killing each other — to talk about that I don’t think eliminates the conversation which has been on everyone’s minds and hearts with the police brutality against particularly young black men and women. I think that those conversations can be had simultaneously. There is a lot more at play and we talk about it in the movie, the fact that there are no jobs in these places. People are trying to feed their families who are given no other way out.”

The character she plays in the film is confident, forthright, and very capable of weaponizing her sexuality. She is a long way from the more realistic characters she played in “Mad Men” and “Dear White People,” and the distinction is clear in her physicality as well as her dialog and responses to other characters. She spoke about the costume designer and movement coach who helped her create the character. “I call the costume designer Master Ruth Carter. I remember being in those fittings saying ‘Ruth, don’t you want to add a little bit more fabric, a little more here and there?” but I loved it. I thought it certainly was a physical representation of who this woman was and the confidence that she has and how she moves about the world and finding her physicality. It felt very theatrical which is no surprise because it’s from a play. So finding who this woman was and how she walks into a room or walks down the street, I certainly had lots of assistance from a wonderful woman name Maija Garcia who was our movement director, and we worked on just finding her strength and, how does she stand and how does she command a room simply by being there without walking around or whatever. It took some work. I didn’t just show up to set; I had to explore it before getting there and I definitely had the assistance of Maija Garcia. We just did little exercises, exploring what does it feel like to walk in 6 inch heels and how that changes you.”

Parris was excited to work with Lee and to play the central role. “She’s the hero. She comes in and she sees the issue. There has to be a strength and a determination not only for her to carry on her mission but for me also the actress to figure out what she’s trying to do and how she has to do it and in such a very short time. We shot this in five weeks, the entire thing. And I had to use every bit of my artistic being in this film from the dancing to just finding my center and my strength and how do I affect people and how to effectively lead people. Yes, I think those are some of the things that made it a challenge for me but they are a welcome challenge.”

Lee emphasized that this movie is not for any particular demographic. “The film talks strongly about guns and that affects everybody, all Americans.” But it was not easy for him to get it into production, in part because it is so unusual to have an entire screenplay in verse. “I’ve never done this before so it was a challenge to get this made. I think that one of the reasons why everybody said no in the process is because of the verse, because it’s hard to read, and that’s why before Amazon said yes we had two readings. They wanted to hear it, they want their ears to hear it, and I don’t blame them because even when I write my own scripts reading it and hearing the actors say the lines is two different universes. And that doesn’t even happen till you hear bits and parts during casting. I do a lot of rewriting during that period because I hear it for the first time.”

The training Parris got at Juilliard helped prepare her for speaking in verse as though it was natural conversation. “Essentially the idea is that the structure is different but your intentions are still the same. You are trying to affect something. You are trying to get something out of someone. So what are you doing? And you have to continuously remember and remind yourself that you don’t get lost in the sing-song or the verse of it. Nick Cannon] and I frequently had conversations about that, just reminding ourselves and each other what is the scene about, like what are we trying to do so that we don’t get lost in the sound of it, so to speak.”

Like Lee’s earlier film, “School Daze,” this film ends with someone calling on us in the audience to “wake up.” Lee said, “We’ve been using those two words, that’s the last two words of ‘School Daze:’ wake up, from Laurence Fishburne. ‘Do The Right Thing’ begins with Samuel Jackson saying ‘wake up’ and closes with him saying ‘wake up’ as Mister Senor Love Daddy because consciousness is not something that is at use all the time.”

Parris added, “I agree with what Spike said. I think our role as artists is to show, to be a reflection of our community and the world in a way that even though it may not be comfortable to watch or to receive its truthful and makes you think about the state of our community.”

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