A Chat with Chestnut
Born in Cerritos, California on New Year’s Day in 1969, Morris Chestnut was a student-athlete in high school but focused on finance and drama at California State University. Although he made his big screen debut in 1991 opposite Ice Cube in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, he really found his breakout role eight years later as the groom-to-be in Malcolm Lee’s The Best Man.
Since then, the handsome hunk has been a staple of romance-themed, urban-oriented fare, appearing in such hits as The Brothers, Two Can Play That Game, Breakin’ All the Rules and The Perfect Holiday. Chestnut has also displayed his versatility by successfully crossing over into mainstream flicks, appearing in everything from Half Past Dead to Like Mike to Confidence to Ladder 94 to The Game Plan.
A very private family man, Morris keeps a low profile in suburban L.A., where he lives with his wife, Pam, and their son and daughter. Here, he talks about both producing and performing in Not Easily Broken, a romance drama based on a novel by Bishop T.D. Jakes. The modern morality play which co-stars Oscar-nominee Taraji Henson is just being released on DVD after opening in theaters back in January.
MC: Hey, what’s up Kam?
KW: Thanks for the time, Morris.
MC: No problem, man.
KW: How did you like my review of Not Easily Broken? I gave it four stars.
MC: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
KW: What interested you in making this movie?
MC: It was a couple of things. First of all, I’ve been married thirteen years now, so, I related to my character, Dave. I saw it as a great opportunity to have a platform, at this time in our society when a lot of people have money and marital problems, to make a statement that everything worth having takes some work. When people are courting, many of them think that when they get married, that’s it, and everything will be on Easy Street. But you really have to work even harder once you’re married, because the challenges are that much greater. Another part of my interest was the opportunity to step behind the camera to executive produce.
KW: Well, you made an excellent choice in terms of material, an adaptation of a morality play by Bishop T.D. Jakes which is both entertaining and has several worthwhile messages to deliver.
MC: That’s what we wanted, and Jakes would concur with everything I’m about to say about the picture. We wanted it to be entertaining, because if you’re not entertained, you won’t be engaged, and then you’ll miss the subtle messages. Jakes didn’t want folks watching it to feel like they were being preached to as if they were just getting a sermon. He wanted people to be entertained, and if they also get the messages, then the movie will have fully served its purpose.
KW: I thought it was innovative for this genre of film that the other woman [played by Maeve Quinlan] was white.
MC: Quite frankly, I have white, Asian and Hispanic friends in real life. And in the movie, we didn’t make it a big deal that she was white, just like it wasn’t a big deal that my best friend [played by Eddie Cibrian] was white, either. We tried to make it as seamless as possible.
KW: Yes, the colorblind casting was handled very well, in a way which I think reflects changes in the culture.
MC: The culture definitely has shifted.
KW: How was it working opposite Taraji Henson as your wife? This has certainly been a big year for her with the Oscar nomination for Benjamin Button.
MC: We were so excited for her when she got the nomination. But back when we cast her for this movie, we didn’t know what quality role she had in Brad Pitt’s movie. And that wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. We already knew that she was a very talented actress who just hadn’t been given the opportunity to play those roles yet. We knew that she could play a professional woman, although she had previously played mostly street-type characters. That was part of what was exciting about giving her the opportunity to play Clarice. And she ripped it.
KW: How about the rest of the cast?
MC: Once we had Taraji, we thought teaming her with Jenifer Lewis to play her mother would definitely enable the audience to empathize with what my character would be feeling. As far as casting Kevin Hart, I just called him. Kevin’s a friend of mine, and we’ve done a couple of things together in the past. The deal with Kevin is, you know you’re going to get something funny, you just don’t know what he’s going to pull out of his big bag of tricks. I actually also called Wood Harris on the phone, and asked him, “Hey man, can you come do this?” It was tough to get him, but we were glad we did, because he delivered a standout performance. Same with Eddie Cibrian. I called him and asked, “Can you do this with me?” It was challenging putting it all together and getting it done, but we feel very fortunate about the outcome.
KW: When I interview actresses, I ask them what actor they’d like to act opposite as a romantic lead, and your name comes up more than anybody’s.
MC: Oh really? That’s something. [Chuckles]
KW: Who has been your favorite leading lady from your movies?
MC: Wow! Man, I can’t answer that. [Laughs] I couldn’t pick just one favorite. What I will say is this. Every leading that I’ve worked with has, for the most part, been professional. They came to work on time, knowing their lines, etcetera. Obviously, when you’re working with fine actresses, you’re going to have a few diva moments in there, but all of the women have come to work ready to go, so I’ve been fortunate to have had positive experiences across the board, pretty much.
KW: So, what actresses that you haven’t worked with before would you like to have play your leading lady in the future?
MC: Wow, there are so many great actresses out there. I would love to do something with Angela Bassett. She’s so strong. Or Viola Davis. Her scene in Doubt was phenomenal.
KW: You seem to be cast as an athlete in a lot of your movies. How do you keep in such great shape for that?
MC: You know what? I’m a weekend warrior. I try to come out and play sports and keep as active as I can.
KW: When did you first develop your interest in acting?
MC: It goes back to high school. I wanted to win a scholarship to play football in college. But when that didn’t pan out, I figured I needed to find something else to do. I went to see a friend of mine in junior college who was in a play, and I thought that might be something I could get interested in. From there, I just started pursuing it.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
MC: That’s a good question. I’m kind of a private person, and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get me to talk. I actually have to get myself up for these types of situations. So, no, there’s probably not one particular thing that I want people to know that I’m not being asked about.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
MC: Am I happy in life? I think overall, yes, but I’m not satisfied. Obviously, I can’t complain. 99% of the people in the world would say there’s something that they’d like to change about their lives, because nothing’s perfect, and nobody’s perfect. I suppose I could look at the glass half-empty instead of as half-full. Would I like to do bigger budgeted movies, and have more diverse casts? The answer is yes. But by the same token, I have to feel grateful when I look at people who haven’t been as fortunate as I have been. So, there are always things I’d like to improve on, but at the end of the day, I can’t complain.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
MC: [LOL] Yeah! Of course. Look at the economic situation right now, people have worked their entire lives to amass a nest egg, expecting to retire, only to have someone like Madoff swindle them out of their money, and suddenly they’ve lost it all and have to start over again. That let’s you know that anything can happen in life. So, yeah, I do get afraid.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
MC: I’m not an avid reader, but the last book I read was How to Play Omaha Poker. I like to play poker, maybe a little too much, but I definitely enjoy it.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to nowadays?
MC: That depends. I’m an R&B and Hip-Hop type guy. When I work out, which I do at least four or five times a week, I love to get the latest Hip-Hop because it really pumps me up and inspires me to get that workout on.
KW: What was the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
MC: Ooh, my shyness. That’s something I have to overcome every time I audition for a job or even do an interview. I’m not really an outgoing type person. My friends are always telling me I have to get out of the house more. Just doing an interview with you takes a lot out of me.
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
MC: My parents, Shirley and Morris Chestnut, Sr. As a child, I couldn’t really appreciate all the struggles and trials they had to go through in life, and the sacrifices they had to make while raising me. But now, as an adult and parent myself, I do. They’re at the top of my list, because they are the reason I am where I’m at today. I’m a product of their efforts.
KW: Where in L.A. did you grow up?
MC: I was raised in Orange County, which is about 40 miles outside of Los Angeles.
KW: “Realtor to the Stars” Jimmy Bayan wants to know, where in L.A. you live now?
MC: I live in The Valley, which is about 20 miles away.
KW: Teri Emerson would like to know when was the last time you had a good belly laugh?
MC: [Laughs] Last time I had a good belly laugh? When I was on the phone with my boys. Me and my friends have these conference calls at least three times a week where we talk mostly about sports and tease each other when your team loses. A lot of my buddies are a lot more creative than I am, and they come up with some very funny jokes.
KW: Who do you like in the NCAAs?
MC: Well, I’m a USC fan, but we were one and done. There are still some storylines I’m looking forward to. These rules violations by Connecticut are making it a little more interesting. I’ve always liked North Carolina because of their colors, that powder blue and white.
KW: The Laz Alonso question: Is there anything your fans can do to help you?
MC: They can help me by continuing to support me. If I’m in a restaurant, and you see me eating and you want to come up, that’s cool. I get it, I understand, because I have fans who don’t miss a movie and can quote some of my characters’ lines. I appreciate that.
KW: Thanks again for the interview, Morris, and best of luck with all your endeavors.
MC: Thank you.
To see a trailer for Not Easily Broken,