The Mexican born, American raised actor/director is best know for his 1991 film, New Jack City. He is part of a true film family being the son of actor/director Melvin Van Peebles. Within his career he has acted and starred in the tv series Sonny Spoon, directed episodes of 21 Jump Street, and directed feature films Posse, Panther and Love Kills. Recently he guest starred as an agent on the FX series Damages and the series Nashville as well as directing episodes of Lost, Sons of Anarchy, NCIS, Nashville, Once Upon a Time, and Roots.
Now, he acts and stars in a new SyFy series, Superstition. Here is the second part of an interview about his latest work:
Q: Hey, I’ve been thinking about this concept that a kid grows up in a family business, goes away for a long time, then comes back to the family business and his dad is hesitant about bringing him back. And it kind of seems like the story of your life in little ways. In some ways that’s pretty fun.
Mario Van Peebles: Yes, that’s great. That’s an acute observation in that some ways, yes. You know, Mark Twain has a great forward where he says all my life my father was an idiot and at 21 he was a genius. And when I wanted to go off and get into film and do all that, I went to sit down with my dad and my dad sort of said, okay, so we’re going to make you a star. And I said, well, yes, actually. He said good. He drew a little star on a piece of paper and he handed it to me. And then he said, here’s my free advice. Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise and that was it. And so I went off and, you know, I wasn’t happy with that. But I went off and I got into theater. I did a lot of plays in New York. And then I got a break in a film called Cotton Club directed by Coppola. And people I would later work with were in the film, including Nicolas Cage. And slowly, you know, got out to LA and started to work my way up. And then I got my own TV show called Sonny Spoon. And Heartbreak Ridge and started directing New Jack City, et cetera, et cetera. And I looked back later on and was really glad that my dad had, you know, sort of that thing of do it yourself, man. Do it yourself and because you can’t – everyone loves to, you know, every kid has an innate understanding of playing make believe. And we all love to, you know, play make believe. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a living as an actor or filmmaker. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to monetize it. I think if everyone could do what they love, you would have a lot more food tasters and porn stars. But we’re not all cut out for that. So as much as I would love to, you know, do those, you know, that’s not what everybody’s cut out to do. So it was really good to have to fight my way up a little bit. Having the last name Van Peebles didn’t hurt. Oh, sometimes it did. But most times it didn’t. And so in a way, yes, then I circled back. I was in the family business, circled back. My dad sort of said do it yourself. But by the time I really started rocking and rolling, I was able to connect with him. And we were on a movie called Panther about the Black Panthers. And New Jack City, which was, you know, the biggest winner hit of that year. And then I did Posse. And then I went off to do a movie on the Black Panther party, which is a tricky movie politically to get done. And my dad wrote it. We produced it together. And he looked at me said, son. He said, I am so amazed that we get to work together in this lifetime and that you’re courageous. And you have the heart to do films that are not always easy to do, but films that really say something. And whether people like them or not, they’ll remember them when they see them. And that became part of what I wanted to do. I wanted to do films and television that have something to say. That entertain you, yes, but hopefully have a little nutritional value. So there are parallels to that and I suppose that to some degree in Superstition I am now playing the dad. But secretly, I want my son back. I want to work with him. This is a dream come true.
Q: Okay. So what were you looking for when you were casting for the roles of the show?
Mario Van Peebles: Yes. What I wanted was a cast that I felt – that felt smart. That felt like people that you’d want to have a drink with and that at the core felt like people that you would laugh and hug and that are in essence positive and happy to be who they are. So what do I mean by that? There are certain people that you feel from them that they enjoy being themselves. And I wanted a family that one, you believed was a family that could overcome issues that families often face. But at the core of the show it’s like life for me. I wanted the family to feel like they were multicultural. That within the dynamic of our American family, you know, you could feel that, you know, at times my wife could be, you know, more the Michelle Obama mode. But at night, you know when she’s got to get into her full set of, you know, mystic side, other things come out and other sides come out. So I wanted people who had a duality. People who were multicultural. People who could speak other languages. People who could laugh at self. And people who were bilingual. And I don’t just mean bilingual in terms of language, but even bilingual in terms of socio-economic divide. That they could talk to the brother or sister in the street or the brother and sister in the trailer park. But they could also talk to someone at the White House, kind of like that Kipling poem. You know, talk with the crowds nor lose your virtue. Walk with the kings nor lose the common touch. If neither loving friends nor foes can hurt you, and if all men count with you but none too much, if you can feel the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run, yours is the world and everything in it, which is more, you’ll be a man, my son, or a woman. And I wanted folks who kind of got the joke of life. I felt like if we’re going to do this in the long haul, I want the (funnest), best, smartest, you know, family that I can get. And that’s what we went after. And we found them. And it’s been a ride. And as we go on, it just becomes more and more that way. Not to mention the fact that some of them are legitimately my family. It’s been great.
Q: Yes. I saw that your daughter has a part of the show as Garvey. I was, like, oh, my gosh. That’s so awesome.
Mario Van Peebles: Oh, I’m glad. I’m glad. I’m glad. Yes, she’s a smart cookie. She’s at Columbia. She’s taking a semester off to do the show. And, you know, she’s old enough to get her own place. And I said, honey, you’ve got money. You don’t have to live with dad. And she said, nope, I want to live with you dad. And so we’ve been playing house. And she’s vegan. And she’s trying to keep me healthy. So we have our little vegetarian meals and we work out together at the gym. And it’s been fun. It’s been bring your daughter to work week for a couple of months and it’s great.
Q: So I would like to know, are the Hastings just ordinary people that belong to a family whose lineage comes with the responsibility to protect the town from infernals or does each member of the family have a special skill or ability that makes them more suited than anyone else to perform this duty of protection?
Mario Van Peebles: Oh, man. How can I tell you that? That’s the question you’re supposed to ask. That’s why you watch the next one.
I think you find out over time that we’re all individually suited but collectively the sum of our parts. The sum of the family, the family together is greater than the sum of our parts. And, you know, as we link up and really work together more, it’s not just that the four of us are four. It becomes, there’s a power in our unity. And that’s also something that I wanted to show here that I think there’s a power in unity and family. And let me just go through this real quick. I’ll just take you through this. This has to do a little bit with soul maturity. And this is something that I feel I wanted Isaac to have, the character I play. If you have a baby, it cries when it’s wet. It cries when it’s hungry. And it’s aware of its own physicality. Okay? Because now it’s suddenly out in the world and it gets cold and hungry and wet, okay? So it cries when those things arise. Now as the baby gets older, it becomes more aware of, oh, I’ve got brothers and sisters. I’ve got mom and dad. Now it realizes, gee, if dad is unemployed, if mom is sick, it can’t be happy because now it’s affected by the family. So that’s the next circle, right? So it realizes, I can’t really be solid if I’ve got no home, if we got, you know, no job and no means. And so now the baby said, oh, I’ve got to care about the family. And now the baby realizes, wait a minute. But now but say my people, okay, so in other words if the socioeconomic or racial group I’m born into is downtrodden and unemployed and getting kicked across the border, then we’re all in trouble again and we’re getting arrested by the police. Or whatever it is, whatever we’re dealing with, I can’t be healthy without understanding it. It’s not just me. It’s not just my family. It’s all people. It’s all my people. And then he goes, okay, now he matures a little more and says now I’ve got kids. But I’m sending my kid to school with that Asian kid and that Black kid and that Jewish kid and that Chinese kid. I’m sending them to school so I’ve got to worry about the whole human family. And then it goes bigger than that and say, well, what are we eating? Are we eating polluted food? Are we eating chemicals? I got to worry about the mineral kingdom and the plant kingdom. And the more you grow as a soul, unless you get stopped along the way, the more you realize we’re all interconnected and that it’s not just about the web of your own biological family. And I did Roots. And one of the things on Roots was we got our racial makeup done. So, you know, the 23andMe or ancestry, whatever those are. And my pie chart, like everyone’s pie chart, is really mixed. I’ve got, you know, I’ve got African blood from West Africa. I’ve got a lot of European blood, English, British, French, and I’ve got some Native American blood. And as you understand the story of the Hastings, we are really all Americans. And so as you’ll find out with Isaac — and I can tell you this — he’s got some heavyweight European blood and African blood. And so the human family is part of his family. And that’s the bigger understanding. So Dr. King would say, we either need to learn as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools. I add to that, we learn to live together as brothers and sisters in harmony now with nature, not just with each other, or we perish together as fools. And so in future episodes, one infernal comes through and says, God’s not listening to you all anymore because you all are messed up. That’s why we’re sending you this crazy weather. So there’s things in here that make you go, wow, it’s not just about Black and white and poor and rich getting along. We’ve got to get right with Mother Nature. You know, there’s certain laws. The law of gravity, the law of climate change that say you’ve got – it doesn’t matter if you deny them or not. If you deny gravity, it don’t care. If you step off a building, your ass will fall down. And so some of the things we deal with in Superstition deal with a common denominator of the human family, not just the Hastings family. And that’s, I think, when it gets exciting and really broadens us out. That’s my hope.
Q: When you sit in the director’s chair, such as in New Jack City and Baadasssss, how does that experience help you direct the pilot for Superstition?
Mario Van Peebles: Oh, good question. Well, you know, I’ve had the honor and the – I’ve directed a lot and I’ve often done it with my own money. And I think when you do things with the family dough and suddenly your dad’s going, hey you better not go over, you know, I’m shot. So then okay. It gives you a different set of consciousness about the whole thing because, you know, as my dad would say when I was growing up, he said, look son, some dads might teach you to play ball. Hopefully, I can teach you how to own the team, how to understand the business side of show business. And so I went to Columbia. And he pushed me to get a degree in economics which I did. And later on realized that speaking the language of finance freed me up as an artist. So now I realized, oh, well, if I can make this in this many days and save this money over here, then I can use it for the ending and not be sort of – not be reactive artistically without understanding the business part of the show. And so I think that experience, the experience I’ve had early on directing film, but also theater and also TV and I started out doing – my first directing job was my own show, Sonny Spoon, back when Brandon Tartikoff was over at NBC and I was working with Stephen Cannell. And so I directed that show. And then I directed Jump Street with Johnny Depp and Wiseguy with Ken Wahl. And then I directed New Jack City. So I got a lot of experience. But one of the things that I also think is very helpful is to keep pushing the envelope. So when I’m not directing film – I just did a new film coming out called Armed. It’s a thriller that takes place, you know, with a guy that’s dangerously armed in a kind of world of the climate of lax gun control or lax gun sense. And so that comes out February 2. And I produced it and wrote it and directed it. And Bill Fichtner’s in it and Ryan Guzman is in it and a bunch of folks. But part of what I do is I put projects together a lot. So it allows me to cast people from film and television, to take great techniques I’ve learned in television and move them over to film. I directed a bunch of Bloodlines and acted in those. So it all mixes up and it gets very natural. So people, you know, you say, left hand, right hand, which do you like more? I sort of find that they worked really well together. And again, like I said earlier, it allows me to get in there with the actors and really have a dialogue with them as one of them. And that’s super helpful when you want to get that great performance.