'Green Mile''s giant has taken massive strides
December 10, 1999
By Jamie Allen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Past the middle-aged Southern belles exiting a formal luncheon and speaking in drawls as they wait for their valet-parked cars, through the Ritz-Carlton's lobby distinguished by oil paintings on mahogany paneling and populated with tired white businessmen dressed in dark suits, up the elevator to the 19th floor, in a small suite of this hotel in Atlanta's ritzy Buckhead neighborhood, a 6-foot-5-inch, 315-pound black man is sitting in a chair, crying.
Michael Clarke Duncan's tree-trunk fingers are pushing into his closed eyes, but it's like trying to hold back rain. The tears are flowing around the actor's fingers, down his molasses cheeks, in crystalline rivulets.
Reporters witnessing the scene are getting a little misty, too.
It's all very familiar. The day before, a similar scene played out at a press screening of the new Frank Darabont movie "The Green Mile": Flickering on the white screen, there Duncan was, playing a 7-foot-tall death-row inmate named John Coffey who has angelic healing powers. He and Tom Hanks' character were trading tears over the evil mysteries that taint this world. And the media were all sitting there, watching Duncan, as they're watching him now, and wiping their eyes.
But in this case, at the Ritz-Carlton, Duncan's tears are not an act, and they're the best kind. He has just learned, in a brilliant display of end-of-the-interview timing by his manager, that he has been nominated for a NAACP Image Award for his "Green Mile" performance. It's the first time the 36-year-old actor has been acknowledged for his work, and it could be an omen. Duncan has drawn alongside two-time Academy Award-winner Hanks in the category of Oscar buzz.
But more than that -- as everyone in the hotel suite knows -- this moment is a universe away from the days when Duncan was digging ditches for a living in Chicago, when Hollywood was merely a storyline of the daydreams that got him through each shift of hard labor.
Duncan lifts his massive form and walks to the suite's bathroom to gather himself. When he comes back, he's slightly embarrassed by his emotional display.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I apologize for that. Oh, man."
Cynics who hear about Duncan's tears might presume that they are contrived. Actors must live with this suspicion their entire lives: They cry, we wonder if they're trying to promote their Oscar chances.
But there's something about Duncan that makes you think otherwise. Maybe it's the fact that he's a friendly guy who finally took his destiny by the shirt collar and demanded more. Or maybe it's the greeting, the way his grizzly-like hand wraps around yours and he looks you in the eye, making you forget that he could crush your hand to powder.
Of course, you can often judge a man by the way he talks about his mother, or mothers. Duncan says he has two of them. His second mother is his manager, Dolores Robinson, the one who told him about the Image nomination, and then gave him a warm hug.
"She takes care of me," Duncan says later.
Duncan's first mother, Jean, now lives in Indianapolis. She raised Duncan and his older sister in Chicago without help from their father, who left the family "at an early age," Duncan says.
"It was just me, my mother and my sister and we found a way to put things together," he says. "I guess that's where my tenacity came from, and that's how I made it in Hollywood -- keep trying your best, and that's what my mother instilled in me."
She also gave him her soft heart.
"My mother's the emotional one," Jean's baby says. "I think she's been crying ever since I made it to Hollywood. She's been the greatest inspiration in my career. She's the one."
'Bruce Willis wants to talk to you'
She's the one, in fact, who used to pull little Michael aside when he was just a boy and tell him, "You're going be a big star when you grow up."
Duncan shrugged off the prediction. As he grew, he used his immense size to fill lanes on the basketball courts in high school, and then at college at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. He majored in communications, but he didn't take things seriously then. He was the big athlete in the back of the class, cracking jokes. Duncan didn't graduate.
In his 20s, back in Chicago, he found work at Peoples Gas Company, taking a shovel to the ground for most of the day, then moonlighting as a bouncer at night. His co-workers at the gas company called him "Hollywood" because he'd watch television, remember what his mother told him about being a star, and say to anyone willing to listen, "Man, I can do that. I can act."
His co-workers weren't exactly supportive.
"I'd be digging a ditch and they'd say, 'Hey man, Bruce Willis wants to talk to you about a movie.' And they'd just crack up laughing," he says. Those co-workers had no way of knowing how that joke would turn on them.
'I found John Coffey'
Nine years ago, Duncan decided to stop listening to the laughter and live up to his nickname. He moved to Los Angeles to be a star. Of course, it never works out that way. You've heard this part of the story: struggling actor, down to his last buck, is ready to give up and move home. But he decides to go to one more audition.
For Duncan, his audition was for a beer commercial. He won the role as a drill sergeant.
Roles -- stereotypically mindless ones, but paying roles -- in television and movies eventually followed. He was a guard in "Back in Business" (1997), a bouncer in "A Night at the Roxbury" (1998), a bouncer for 2 Live Crew in "The Players Club" (1998), and a bouncer at a bar in the Warren Beatty film "Bulworth" (1998).
Then fate, in the form of a certain blockbuster movie hero, burst through the door. Duncan won a role opposite Bruce Willis in the box-office smash "Armageddon." His role as Jayotis Bear Kurleenbear matched the depth of the movie.
But Willis and Duncan became fast friends. The pair has since filmed two other movies together, including "The Whole Nine Yards," set for a spring release.
Willis, to his credit, saw the actor beneath Duncan's offensive lineman exterior during the filming of "Armageddon." When Willis heard about "The Green Mile" and how they were casting for it, he told Duncan, "You have to audition for that movie as soon as we're done with this film."
Then Willis called "Green Mile" director Frank Darabont and said, "I found John Coffey."
Meeting with a King
"The Green Mile" is based on the serialized novel by Stephen King. Darabont wrote the screenplay and directed it, like he did with King's "The Shawshank Redemption," the 1994 film nominated for seven Oscars.
Set in a deep South penitentiary in 1935, "The Green Mile" delves into issues as daunting as the death penalty, racism, cancer. Hanks plays the head guard of a cell block known as "The Green Mile," its clinically green floors marking the final walk for inmates sentenced to die in the electric chair.
James Cromwell plays the warden, whose wife is terminally ill; Michael Jeter warms hearts as a repentant Cajun inmate; Doug Hutchinson seethes as the sadistic nephew of the governor; Sam Rockwell gets comically dark as "Wild Bill," a walking nightmare.
And Duncan plays John Coffey, the giant black man convicted in the rapes and murders of two white girls. But Hanks' character knows there's something different about Coffey, and we soon learn that Coffey's hands, contrary to the murder charges, own the power to heal, even bring back the dead. A microcosm of faith, Coffey is a messenger of hope and lost hope (it's not lost on most film critics that Coffey's initials have a heavenly symbolism).
During the filming of "The Green Mile," the actors and crew threw a birthday party for King. Duncan calls King a "genius," and says he was working up the nerve to ask the author a few questions about John Coffey. King moved first.
"He turned around and he looked at me and he said, 'You are exactly what I pictured in my mind that John Coffey looked like,'" Duncan says. "All my questions went away."
'Exhausted. Spent. Depleted.'
The days spent on the set were a physical challenge, even for a guy used to digging ditches in eight-hour shifts, even for a guy who inherited the emotional gene from his mother. While some scenes breathed light air, including a few with a mouse named Mr. Jingles, the majority of Duncan's screen time is heavy. Many of the scenes directed under Darabont required several takes.
"Tired isn't even a good word" to describe what he felt at the end of each shooting day, Duncan says in his muddy baritone. "Exhausted. Spent. Depleted. Those are words you should use. You have to bring up this emotion, and you have to keep it up. It's like me asking you to cry this whole session, where everybody else talks, and he takes pictures. You're not supposed to concentrate on that. What you're supposed to concentrate on is crying, then I'll tell you to stop after 25 minutes.
"And that's being nice," he continues. "We actually went longer than that, because Frank Darabont is such a perfectionist and he has to have it just right. Everything has got to be perfect. So when you're crying, you may think, 'Oh, I'm doing a real good job.' He'll come over to you and say, 'I need just a little bit more.' You're like, 'Man, what do you want?'"
Darabont says casting an actor with Duncan's experience was a gamble, but the chips are still pouring from the slot machine.
"I should thank God or somebody for inventing Michael Clarke Duncan," Darabont recently said, "because he not only rose to the occasion, he exceeded my hopes. It was uncanny. He would become this person.
"I think Michael really brings the heart and the soul to this thing," Darabont says. "The character of Coffey has to be perfection. If that role isn't perfection, if it's not played to perfection by an actor who can be vulnerable and expose his heart, I think the movie fails."
'A moment I will never forget'
Duncan says Hanks was a tremendous help. During times when most stars are lounging with M&Ms in their trailer -- not needed because their part is being read off-screen -- Hanks was there for Duncan.
"Without him I would not have been able to bring that emotion up," Duncan says, "because when the camera's on me, he's on the other side of the camera and he's crying like a baby also. He's not the type of person that's going to feed you the lines. He's in his moment, too. When you look up and you see this great two-time Academy Award winner, and you're on the other end, man, you bring it up automatically and both of you guys are going at it. You're trying to keep each other going.
"We did one of those scenes where I take his hand and show him some things," Duncan says, "and I remember Frank saying, 'Cut,' and everybody was just silent for a couple of minutes. Everybody was kind of crying. Tom was still crying. I was still crying. Frank didn't even know what to say. That was a moment I will never forget."
Another moment Duncan would never forget, should it happen: winning the Oscar for best supporting actor. A recent article by the Associated Press deemed him one of the contenders for Academy consideration (official nominations won't come until February). The article also said Ving Rhames might earn an Oscar nod for his supporting role in the Martin Scorsese flick "Bringing out the Dead." The irony here is that Duncan, until now, has often been confused for the imposing, and bald, Rhames. That means those who are still confused about Duncan's identity could be seeing double on Oscar night.
Duncan says he's still not used to the talk about Academy honors. But he does have a pretty good line on that subject:
"I've never slept with a man before in my life," he says, "but if I win an Oscar, me and Oscar are sleeping together that night."
As with any film starring Hanks, there's been a good deal of attention given to "The Green Mile," and Duncan is enjoying the perks. He recently spent time with the tabloid show "Access Hollywood" as its reporters drove him around his hometown of Chicago in a limo. It was all set up just right. Duncan says his limo pulled up to his old employer, the gas company, just as his former co-workers were punching out for the day.
When they saw Duncan stepping out of the stretch, those old jokes about Bruce Willis came flying in their face.
"Hollywood!" they shouted, and their sarcasm had been replaced by sincerity.
Here's another way to judge a guy: find out how willing he is to either take revenge on someone -- say "I told you so" -- or turn the other cheek.
"We started hugging each other, taking pictures," says Duncan of his old work buddies. "It couldn't have been better."
'If you feel something in your heart ...'
"I have advice for people, period," Duncan says.
He's sitting up in his chair at the Ritz-Carlton. A reporter has asked him what counsel he could give young people, and Duncan is embracing the question. It turns out, like John Coffey, he has a message that he's bringing to the masses.
"If you feel something in your heart," he says, "and you really, truly believe in it, there is nothing on Earth that should make you quit. And I mean nothing. I mean family, friends, people in general -- if you really believe it, man ..."
Duncan pauses, takes a deep breath. This guy feels what he's saying. His eyes are turning red, tears just starting to form. But he doesn't hold back.
"Let me tell you something: Had I not believed in myself and what I was doing, I wouldn't be talking to you guys right now. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I tell kids that. I say, 'Believe in something. Don't let people tell you, "Oh man, you can't be a writer, you can't be a doctor or lawyer." Who are they to tell you what you can do with your life? Why are you going to listen to somebody else to tell you what you can do?'
"People told me, 'Man, you ain't never going to be an actor. Act for me.' I said, 'Well, I don't know how.' They said, 'Well, you ain't no damn actor then.' I thought about it and said, 'Well maybe I'm not.' I listened to them. Don't ever give up. If you truly, honestly believe, please don't quit. If I had, I wouldn't be at this Ritz-Carlton. I'd be back in Chicago in them ditches."
"The Green Mile" is a production of CNN Interactive sister company Castle Rock Entertainment, a Time Warner property.
Review: 'The Green Mile' covers powerful territory
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